Smooth operators

Anver Versi

Singapore’s People’s Action Party has ruled the island state continuously since independence 50 years ago, despite free and fair elections. But the government has had to respond to dissatisfaction from the electorate on several fronts after losing seats in the last election

Among the gifts that visiting delegations to Singapore often receive are two national icons: one is a beautifully mounted and gold plated orchid – Singapore’s national flower – and the other is a hard-backed copy of Lee Kuan Yew’s autobiography, From Third World to First. It has been described as ‘Singapore’s political bible’ and is essential reading for anyone trying to make sense of this often baffling island state.

The book, written in a racy, homespun style, recounts how Lee Kuan Yew and his “team of good people” prevented the tiny, impoverished former British settlement at the tip of the Malaysian peninsula from being swallowed by its giant neighbours. Yew converted it, over just half a century, into one of the world’s wealthiest and most dynamic nations.

“To survive, let alone to thrive,” he writes in his autobiography, “we knew we had to be the best at whatever we were doing and we had to be different.” He says that while they scoured the world to learn from others, there were no models for them to follow. They had to create their own model. “We are a special case.”

This is what baffles many academics and journalists who try to pigeonhole the state into neat ideological categories, but find it a very slippery customer. Is it a one-party state? No, although the People’s Action Party (PAP) has won every election since independence in 1960. Is it authoritarian? Partially, but not entirely. Is it elitist? Unashamedly so, as it sets great store on meritocracy, but it is also responsive to public sentiment. Is it democratic? Yes – voting is compulsory and there has so far been no instance or even hint of electoral fraud. Is there freedom of speech? By and large there is freedom of expression and criticism of the government, but inflammatory speech, racial or religious abuse is not tolerated.

“Singapore’s political and economic models have evolved as a result of our needs and priorities,” says Ho Meng Kit, the CEO of the Singapore Business Federation (SBF). “They are based on practicality, not ideology and they work for Singapore”.

Lee Kuan Yew had little doubt that the government always knew what was best for the state. He concerned himself with getting the right people in the right positions – “good people make good government” and he thought that ‘character’ was far more important than academic qualifications. He stepped down in 1990 and was succeeded by Goh Chok Tong, who in turn handed over the baton to the current premier, Lee Kuan Yew’s eldest son, Lee Hsien Loong in 2004.

Singapore operates a single chamber parliament with 87 seats, with parliamentary and presidential elections held every five years. The president, whose function is mostly ceremonial, appoints the prime minister from the ruling party and also, in consultation with the PM, the ministers. Most of the members are elected on Group Representation Constituency (GRC) slates of five or six candidates. This is to ensure that minorities among the country’s multiracial composition are represented, but is a disadvantage for the opposition who tend to stand on single member tickets.

The dominance of the PAP – which has won by landslides – and its majority in parliament has allowed the country to make long-term plans and to implement policy, without the fear that a new administration of a different political colour may alter the course. This has undoubtedly been one of the country’s strongest suits and prevented the sort of political fractiousness that has paralysed progress in many developing nations.

But the danger is that such dominance could lead to an ossification of ideas – something that could prove fatal to a society that owes its position in the world to its originality of thought and swiftness in adapting to changing circumstances. It can also create a bubble around the government, cutting it off from the concerns of the people and, perhaps, inducing an arrogant attitude within the ruling circle.

These concerns came to the surface in the lead up to the 2011 elections. A younger, more restive and better-connected electorate complained about rising prices (especially for housing), the level of immigration (a third of Singapore’s 5.3 million population is composed of foreigners), lower wages and the astronomical salaries paid to ministers and top civil servants.

Although PAP won 81 of the 87 seats, the result came as a shock and was seen as a humiliation of the ruling party, as it was the smallest margin of victory since the 1960s. The message was clear: while the electorate did not want a change of government, it wanted the government to change its style.

The warning was accepted with very good grace by Loong, who called for serious ‘soul searching’ by his party and initiated a ‘national conversation’ to regain contact with the people. He had already tabled several reforms during his first term, for example legislating paid maternity leave and bigger allowances for larger families in a bid to increase the nation’s fertility rate, which remains one of the lowest in the world.

He addressed popular concerns about immigration by increasing the foreign-workers levy, paid by employers, from S$250 a month to S$330 and reducing the ratio of foreign workers to local citizens. While this has stemmed the inflow of foreigners, it has created other problems (see also Trading up, pages 56-57). He also set up an independent committee to review salaries of ministers and, following their recommendations, accepted a 36 per cent cut in his annual salary of S$3.4m. The president’s salary was halved and ministers had a pay cut of around 40 per cent. Special pension privileges for politicians have also been scrapped.

Despite this, Singapore’s politicians are the highest paid in the world. They justify this by saying high salaries ensure that the country remains one of the world’s least corrupt places to do business and helps to attract some of the best talent around.

There is no doubt that Singapore is not only one of the most efficiently run countries in the world, it is also one of the most pleasant to live in. It takes a great deal of talent to achieve this and if the country can afford to pay for outstanding talent, who can argue otherwise?

About the author:

Anver Versi is the editor of London-based African Business and African Banker magazines


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