Is Singapore facing a leadership crisis?

Some commentators seem to think so, but they surely must be unaware of how the world looks like.

After Heng Swee Keat's decision to resign as the PM-in-waiting "experts" started crawling out of the woodwork decrying the decision and alleged unpreparedness of the ruling party to react to it.


Let's be clear about something - no country, no government and no party is as well-prepared for passing the baton to the next generation of political leaders as Singapore's PAP. It's not just my sympathy being voiced here - it's a fact.

Compare, if you will, Singapore's situation to that faced by the seemingly "developed" countries in the West. USA has just put a cadaver in charge of the country. A near octogenarian who spent half a century being a rather unproductive talking head in the Senate and his vice-presidency covering up for his disgraceful son.

His predecessor was a brash playboy billionaire (for all my sympathy for Trump, in a well-run country he wouldn’t/shouldn’t run for political office) who succeeded an apathetic lawyer who never held an executive position and spent 8 years making lovely speeches while failing at nearly every aspect of domestic and foreign policy.

Before Obama you had Bush Jr., womanizing Clinton, bland Bush Sr. and Reagan - who was an actor (somehow the best presidents in the US are typically not career politicians - goes to show how bad their system is). Another talking do-gooder Carter failed to turn the country around, having replaced Ford who was put in charge only because Nixon was caught spying on political opponents.

(I could go on...)

In Europe you have a modicum of decent leadership in Germany, Johnson’s Britain and, occasionally, even Macron wants to do something - but each government has suffered major setbacks and has shown considerable weakness as well - and the rest of the continent is largely doing worse than they are. Elsewhere, Israel has just gone through the fourth election in 2 years and may go into fifth in a few months. In typically authoritarian nations of Russia and China, their already ageing leaders have just guaranteed themselves tenures into their 80s (or, basically, until they die). And need I bring up neighboring Malaysia?

🔴 Everywhere you turn there's a permanent crisis of leadership - with corruption, governmental overreach, incompetence or outright stupidity.

But not in Singapore.

In Singapore you have a long-time prime ministerial candidate deciding to step aside 2-3 years before he would ultimately take over, leaving plenty of time for calm, organized rearrangements within a highly competent leadership team, whose members all have had long careers in various positions of responsibility in public institutions.

So, what crisis are we talking about?

If the PAP is facing one issue, it’s the progressing infantilization of political competition, not a crisis of competences.

In the age of mass digital media, coupled with enormous wealth and excellent living standards enjoyed in the city-state, the focus is shifting away from factual results and skills as political rivalry is becoming a popularity contest akin to a reality TV show.

If you look at last year’s electoral campaign, the biggest media darlings of the opposition were a 20-something whose chief experience is running a charity bankrolled by her rich family and an academic economist who never held any managerial position and keeps talking theory not practice. Both of them representing a party whose leaders are going through lengthy court battles, combating allegations of mismanagement of tens of millions of their town council’s funds (and have just been exposed to have kept only manual records to the tune of S$60 million in expenses).

If elections were decided on competences, then every single one should be a 100% walkover for the ruling party, simply because for all its promises, the local opposition does not attract and field any executive/managerial talent in its ranks.

Alas, since politics isn’t all about real skills but - and increasingly so - about appearances, feel-good slogans, personal appeal and presentation, PAP may be facing a challenge picking a sufficiently charismatic and likeable candidate to lead the party through not one but several future elections, in a likely more and more irrational (and emotional) competition.

So, the problem, if any, isn’t that the party doesn’t have the right people, but that (for all their skills) whoever gets picked to be the next PM will still largely be judged not by his brains but by his celebrity appeal.


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