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Posted by theonlinecitizen on April 4, 2008


Kind Hearts Are More Than Coronets

The 1949 film “Kind Hearts and Coronets” is perhaps best remembered for the late Sir Alec Guinness’ portrayal of the dysfunctional D’Ascoyne family.

All eight different family members, with ages spanning six-decades and including both genders, were played by the remarkable Sir Alec, who employed delicate variations in mannerism, posture and makeup to create some distinctly memorable characters. Nevertheless, what underpinned each character was the same measured, studied and professional performance from a Sir Alec at the height of his powers.

The same impression comes to mind when one surveys Singapore‘s Cabinet line-up, where the ruling cabal’s emphasis on the communalism finds its most distinct manifestation.

Almost four years after the ascension of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, the Cabinet still comes across as a blend of amalgamated anonymity, its characters and policies driven by one source – the extraordinarily outsized personality of elder statesman Lee Kuan Yew.

The elder Mr Lee’s pronouncements, whether on casinos, foreign policy or even the recent escape of a suspected terrorist, have – despite his claims to the contrary – inevitably had a heavy bearing on the tone and direction of government policy. There were times when it almost seems as if Ministers were content to stand back and leave policy direction somewhat in limbo until the elder Mr Lee had given the green light.

The younger Mr Lee’s Cabinet reshuffle (announced on 29th March 2008) does little to dispel such notions. The Cabinet retained both Mr Lee’s father and his predecessor as Prime Minister, Mr Goh Chok Tong. Mr Goh’s visibility has been much lower than the elder Mr Lee’s – which is unsurprising given the latter’s stature – and his role appears restricted to keeping up diplomatic contacts with world leaders. It certainly begs the question of what is the precise role of these two former Prime Ministers in the Cabinet, besides the oft-stated reason that they are there to share their advice and experience with their younger colleagues, because they do not seem to be overseeing any portfolio in particular.

Perhaps their presence is a testament to the present generation of Ministers’ lack of conviction in running the country on their own; conversely, it could be an indication that these senior leaders are having difficulty letting go. That does not bode well for Singapore either way. Indeed the new line-up shows up what the present generation of Singaporean leaders lack: actual political experience. With few exceptions, most of the Cabinet was parachuted into safe wards and advanced to their present positions without much in the way of a political contest.

The result is Singapore‘s version of Plato’s class of guardians – a technocrat-heavy Cabinet dominated by professionals and ex-civil servants – but the shortage of political experience has revealed itself in missteps over the past years that have cemented an image of an elite leadership out of touch with ordinary folk. The presence of the old guards like the Mr Lee senior and Mr Goh was probably meant to help correct that, but the latest Cabinet reshuffle shows that there is precious little political talent to draw on to balance the technocrats.

And simple faith than Norman blood

It is unsurprising that news coverage of the Cabinet reshuffle avoided discussion on the continued presence of the former Prime Ministers as well as the increasingly apolitical nature of the Cabinet, as these have been unquestioningly taken as systemic truths. Speculation has instead focused on the issue of succession to the younger Mr Lee. Judging by the continued lack of a clear successor, it seems that this is a problem that will obsess the younger Mr Lee and the rest of the ruling cabal for some time to come.

Reading the tea leaves about Singapore‘s ruling cabal is a skill worthy of the lost art of Kremlinology. In the bad old days of the Cold war, Western spies used to pore over any available photographs of Soviet leaders at public functions, to try to assess who was up and who was down. (For example, does Bulganin being seated next to Khrushchev at the May Day parade rather than Brezhnev, mean that he would soon supercede the latter?) It is similarly difficult to tell the dynamics within Singapore‘s ruling cabal from the recent Cabinet reshuffle, but some tentative observations can be made.

Dr Ng Eng Hen now occupies the high-profiled Education ministry after a somewhat undistinguished stint at the Manpower ministry as his first ministerial portfolio. Previous heavyweights who have gone on to greater things after being Education Minister include former Deputy Prime Minister Tony Tan, Defence Minister Teo Chee Hean and the present Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam. Mr Shanmugaratnam made way for Dr Ng after a short but relatively productive stint, during which he saw through policies with the intention of widening access to education, increasing the emphasis on the needs of individual students (rather than only focusing on the needs of groups) and moving tentatively away from rote-based learning.

It is a pity that Mr Shanmugaratnam will not be sticking around to see whether these policies work. This could be an unintended side-effect of the ruling cabal’s obsession with succession planning. Young Ministers are given portfolios and a short time to prove themselves in, to see whether they are good enough to be promoted to more high-profile jobs. This might encourage Ministers to push through a hodgepodge of policies in haste, leaving their successors having to clean up after them.

The rise of prominent local lawyer K Shanmugam to Law Minister and Second Minister for Home Affairs is also unprecedented, as he skipped the usual practice of being appointed as Minister of State to understudy his predecessor at the ministries. Mr Shanmugam’s rapid elevation over Senior Minister of State for Law and Home Affairs Ho Peng Kee could be an indication of his potential as perceived by the ruling cabal as well as the lack of legal talent in a Cabinet dominated by engineers, scientists and doctors. Given his legal credentials, he is probably slated to take over from the aging Deputy Prime Minister S Jayakumar in the rest of the latter’s portfolios as well.

Another twist was Dr Vivian Balakrishnan relinquishing his secondary portfolio as Second Minister for Information, Communications and the Arts. This is possibly to allow him to concentrate on helming the Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports, which has come under fire over welfare-related issues. Dr Balakrishnan has come to (perhaps unfairly) personify the image of an uncaring government and one that is unwilling to moderate that image, as some people would remember Dr Balakrishnan as an activist advocating change who had been co-opted by the ruling cabal for precisely that purpose.

Perhaps that is the recurring problem with the Cabinet and with the ruling cabal’s succession planning: it is replacing like for like rather than seeking true renewal of political talent. Coming through the ranks is RAdm (NS) Lui Tuck Yew, who has rapidly been made a Senior Minister of State at both the Education and Information ministries following his election in 2006 and is probably due to be a Minister in a few short years, but whose CV reads like that of the current Prime Minister or most of the other senior figures in the Cabinet. Even co-opted activists like Dr Balakrishnan or Mr Raymond Lim have adapted to the anonymity of being a Cabinet Minister after taking office rather than continuing in their original trajectories of pursuing reform.

In time, this is likely to strengthen perceptions of the widening disparity between the ruling party and the electorate, not to mention throwing up technocratic leaders obsessed with numbers rather than governing on more intangible principles. This does not augur well for a ruling cabal that might soon find itself unsupported by its one true heavyweight – the elder Mr Lee – given the latter’s advancing age. It should give more consideration to the Tennyson verses that frame the headings in this week’s column.

Farquhar features every Friday on TOC.



13 Responses to “Farquhar”

  1. Dr Syed Alwi said

    Has it ever ocurred to the PAP leadership that many capable Singaporeans do not want to join politics simply because they totally disagree with the PAP political philosophy and ideology ? Maybe they prefer Liberal Democracy and that is why many have migrated to the West !

  2. […] Cabinet Musical Chairs – The Online Citizen: Kind Hearts Are More Than Coronets […]

  3. opaque said

    There seems to be almost a sense of apathy among the government leaders. Nobody wants to be seen as saying or doing something which may rock the boat. Just like the general population ……

  4. Gary Teoh said

    Sg politics are very very dull, they monopolise everything,we can’t speak our mind !!!Tak boleh tahan

  5. fredhschong said

    Isn’t one greater than Confucius is found in the person of Lee Kuan Yew ? Hasn’t his rule affected the good, bad, ugly, the smart Alecs and the “Sarquhars” over three generations of Singaporeans ? Isn’t he entitled to the positions of SM and MM for his national service as prime minister ? Perhaps, the next position would be IM !

  6. patriot said

    May I say that Singaporeans have a lot of preconceived ideas, first, they mistakenly think that all political leaders must be wise, good, clean and utmost loyal. Next, that a political party accepts anyone into their folds. Third, that all the people are rational, law abiding and loyal.

    As reality has proven beyond the shadow of doubt; political leaders at their individual levels are no different from us, if any, it must be that they have more power to wield. What is the common aim in life? To be rich, powerful and famous is the common objectives, be it ah beng, ahmad, aru and anyone else. Loyalty(patriotism) is another badly misunderstood word as far as its’ meaning in spirit is concerned. Many a corrupted leaders left the Countries they ruled to live in opulence oversea when charged for corruptions and other crimes. WILL A PATRIOT LEAVES HIS OWN COUNTRY AND TAKES ALONG HIS FORTUNES TO LIVE IN FOREIGN LANDS? ONE WHO ONCE RULED HIS HOMELAND?

    Are the Lay population in a country alway rational? If they are indeed rational, they would not have allowed absolute power to anyone, organization and political party, for almost everyone seems to know absolute power corrupts absolutely. While the People in Singapore are liked sheep to the Leadership, the Juniors in the Leadership are beholden to their Selectors who brought them into the Fold. And the Whole Lot is fearful of their Mentor(Minister).

    However, we, the LEADERSHIP and the people share one common objective; that is to be rich and famous. The only difference is that the Former has the power to make the Latter actualize the Wish. So, slog on folks.


  7. Pathetic Singaporean said

    Three cheers for LKY!
    Three cheers for PAP!
    You have succeeded in your great deeds!

    I, your pathetic peasant shall continue to vote you into power
    as long as I have my three meals and a roof over our heads.

    I, your boneless peasant shall continue to hold you high and
    almighty as long as I behave like a lost sheep.

    I, the 3rd class citizen of a 1st World Nation shall continue to
    believe in whatever you decreed as long as I slumber in my ignorance and resolve.

    I, your ignorant citizen shall rejoice in your extreme success and
    be very foolishly proud of your concept of “One People, One Nation, One Party, One Leader” and nothing else.

    For Thine is the Kingdom and Glory forever and ever. Amen.

    It has been a wonderful dream as long as it lasted.
    So help me God!

    A Pathetic Singaporean.

  8. funny said

    interesting isn’t it? SM goh says fees will be fixed, and next minute, more ERP, and inflating medishield costs. Is it all ok in cabinet????

  9. Gerald said

    The problem is that our less-than-holy trinity – the father, the son and the holy Goh – do not practice what they preach when it comes to succession planning. They tell their Cabinet colleagues to step down and make way for new blood. Then they boast that they have stepped down to give way to a successor. But they remain in Cabinet like old wine in new wineskins, continuing to be paid their multimillion dollar salaries just to hobnob with world leaders, and make uncalled for comments on other countries. And as Farquhar says, set the tone for public policies.

    In fact, the F1 was another example. For years Singapore never wanted to have the F1, but the moment the voice from heaven says we should have it, suddenly all the scholars’ policy papers sing a different tune.

  10. funny said

    yeah – funny how all is quiet on Mas Selaamt until MM Lee spoke on it today (Sat). I think those holy trinity should resign and save our taxpayers money – just keep MM Lee. Absolutely no respect on LHL at all, and yes, MHA screw up and the whole singapore population is complacent. and our DPM Wong kan seng says staff at MHA morale should remain high – what shit!

  11. Clarity said

    It is very clear now that there is only ONE conductor in this
    orchestra. The other two are just playing second fiddlers.
    The man who has the real power is still THE MAN!
    We have been taken for a very long ride!
    Yes, we have been very complacent. Who is to blame?
    We are to be blamed.

  12. Fever Guy said

    You know what happen to our lord Jesus? he was crucified. I think The unholy trinity….the son will be crucified in the GE2011 and Father and holy goh will desert the son (full of sins or craps got to stay away). Haha! TOC is my favourite blog…if u read ST today about comments make by the Father you will be amazed that we singaporeans are complacent and we are to ones who are at fault for demanding a standard from this multi million sucker gov. btw isnt it the gurkhas guarding the limping terrorist and not even a singaporean. I pity our police force doing so much shit and covering our WCantSing ‘s back.

    If am a policeman i quit now.

  13. qui tacet said

    >>This could be an unintended side-effect of the ruling cabal’s obsession with succession planning. Young Ministers are given portfolios and a short time to prove themselves in, to see whether they are good enough to be promoted to more high-profile jobs. This might encourage Ministers to push through a hodgepodge of policies in haste, leaving their successors having to clean up after them.>>

    It may not necessarily be for ‘succession planning’ or proof of ability. This policy can also be interpreted as an ‘anticorruption’ measure to reduce the possibility of developing close ties to particular ministries or departments. This reduces the possibility of a ‘bureaucratic coup’ of elite faction rivalry taking place, which like all closed political systems (such as the Kremlin you correctly identify as analogous) is the main threat to the regime.

    This would reduce the incentives to advocate longer-term policies IF these technocrats were elected officials in a real democracy, as voters generally have poor memories and short time horizons, but the review process here is performed by a (supposedly) more rational decision-making group. But of course nobody other than the principals involved knows how that really happens.

    Our sprawling bureaucracy has its own strange internal logic, but it is logic nonetheless.

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