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Lee family feud

Why Singapore will survive its latest political scandal

Chirag Agarwal says governance is regarded as serious business in the city state, with many Singaporeans taking a pragmatic view of politics, while high ministerial salaries and strict curbs on political lobbying keep the government clean

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 04 July, 2017, 4:57pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 06 July, 2017, 11:00pm

Don’t let the ongoing political saga in Singapore fool you. Running a government in the city state remains serious business.

A scan of the headlines in Singapore over the past month would suggest multiple political crises are brewing there.

First, former presidential candidate Dr Tan Cheng Bock filed an application in the High Court challenging the basis of the upcoming presidential election, where only a Malay candidate is allowed to stand, precluding him from running (he is Chinese).

Back in 2011, Dr Tan lost a heated four-way contest to current president and former deputy prime minister Tony Tan by a razor-thin margin of 0.35 per cent, or 7,382 votes.

The role of a president in Singapore is largely ceremonial, with an added responsibility of safeguarding the country’s accumulated reserves. As the head of state, the president is supposed to represent the people. Ensuring that, over time, there is one from every community in a multiracial country makes sense.

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Even Tan’s challenge in the High Court is not against the changes to the constitution that make that possible, which state that if there is no president from a particular racial community for five consecutive terms, the next term will be reserved for a president from that community. Tan has instead questioned the date from which the attorney general’s chambers has advised the government to start counting the five terms.

Then, several weeks ago, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, who has been in power for over a decade now, had to publicly cross swords with his siblings after they accused him of abusing his powers to preserve their late father and Singapore’s first prime minister Lee Kuan Yew’s house despite his will stating the contrary.

The prime minister was forced to bring the matter to Parliament and delivered a ministerial statement on Monday, followed by an open debate that allowed him to refute the claims and attempt to restore the public’s confidence in the government.

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But the general public has already made up their mind. They don’t really care.

Singaporeans take their government seriously, expecting it to address the country’s most difficult and vexed challenges. From the economy to national security, housing to health care, the government plays a significant role in every aspect of its citizens’ lives and it is held to a pretty high standard. Even a train breakdown is not taken lightly.

The government plays a significant role in every aspect of its citizens’ lives and it is held to a pretty high standard

Like any other country, Singapore has its political scandals too. But the ruthless efficiency with which they are nipped in the bud, allowing the country to get back to more serious issues, is admirable.

In the past five years alone, the speaker of Parliament, a ruling-party MP and an opposition MP all have had extramarital affairs, leading to their swift departure and by-elections to replace them.

Meanwhile, two senior government officials, chiefs of the Central Narcotics Bureau and the Singapore Civil Defence Force, were charged with engaging in sex-for-contract-style corruption, in two separate cases. They were disavowed and rebuked by the government immediately, despite their long service records.

Also, while public policy debates are fairly robust in Singapore, it may not seem so on the surface. This is because positions are not entrenched and ideas do not swing wildly from left to right; from liberalism to conservatism; from socialism to capitalism. Rather, they are very much grounded in the principles of pragmatism, meritocracy and fiscal prudence.

After all, politics should be about good, sound policy, not personality or ideology.

One party has ruled since independence. This has meant that successive governments have not come in and dismantled past government’s programmes and policies, wasting enormous amounts of time and money as well as the effort of talented civil servants who are left second-guessing their political masters, not to mention a confused populace.

Singapore has the same Westminster model of government that it inherited from the British and which is found in many countries. In fact, Singapore has fewer checks and balances in place than most Western democracies: it has no upper house or senate, no ombudsman, and its central bank and the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau report to the prime minister. While this is probably untenable in the long run, it has worked well so far. The government continues to enjoy the trust of the people.

What made it work?

It’s not so much the system but the people in the system and the incentives that drive them that have made the country so successful. There are probably a number of factors at play but I will lay out a couple.

First, top salaries attract top talent. Not only are Singapore government ministers the highest-paid politicians in the world, its members of Parliament, civil servants and the judiciary are all well paid, with their remuneration usually pegged to the private sector.

High pay across the public service automatically reduces corruption

Public service is a noble calling but to continuously get smart, dedicated people to accept the opportunity costs and give up their privacy, especially politicians, requires adequate compensation. High pay across the public service also automatically reduces corruption, which is always hard to regulate as it can manifest itself in so many ways, from abuse of authority to expense scandals.

Second, lobbying in Singapore is restricted through the strict regulation of both political donations and election expenditure as well as limited campaigning time.

This is to avoid what has happened in mature democracies like Australia, where the media recently exposed apparent attempts by China to influence Australian politicians through political donations, or the United States, where cooperations and unions can influence the political scene through their massive donations, following the defeat of Citizens United vs Federal Elections Commission in the Supreme Court.

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Most politicians, I believe, enter public life genuinely wanting to make a difference before getting consumed or swept aside by the whirlwind of politics. By keeping the system clean, transparent and simple, politicians in “Singapore Inc” are able to operate like a corporate management team focused on improving their bottom line – making life better for the average Singaporean.

The current political uncertainty facing Singapore will undoubtedly pass. Whether the upcoming presidential election remains “reserved” or Lee Kuan Yew’s house gets demolished, we can expect the government to deal with these issues and get back to governing the country.

Chirag Agarwal is a former Singaporean diplomat who frequently writes about socio-political issues in Singapore and is currently working as a public policy consultant in Australia