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Singapore's cadre system

By Murray Hunter - posted Tuesday, 13 August 2013


The 'modern father' of Singapore Lew Kuan Yew, who is also the father of the current prime minister Lee Hsien Loong, launched his latest book "One Man's View of the World" recently. In this forthright and frank book Lee gave his views on major powers and regions of the world, often with scathing remarks about Singapore's neighbors and past Chinese leaders. What more, this book has been endorsed by former US Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and George Schultz.

The book is full of interviews made by Lee's editorial team. They were defensive of his past actions and policies, yet very critical of others, not even sparing the daughter of former prime minister Goh Chok Tong who migrated to Bradford UK with her English husband. What was even more valuable for future historians was his candidness about the afterlife and total pragmatism behind what actions he took during his tenure of influence over the island nation.

However Lee's book is totally silent on the mechanism that maintained his tenure and influence over Singapore, an issue that is much alive in the local blogs, the Peoples' Action Party cadre system, something that political commentators domiciled within Singapore are very hesitant to discuss. Very much part of Lee Kuan Yew's pragmatic approach to solving problems.

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The People's Action Party (PAP) was conceptualized out of friendships between Lee Kuan Yew, Goh Keng Swee, and Toh Chin Chye during their education in Britain. In 1954, with the help of trade unions that represented the Chinese educated majority, a left leaning nationalist party the PAP was formed. With the help of Lim Chin Siong and Fong Swee Suan the party would appeal to the Chinese educated working class and create a broad base of support. The PAP started out as a mass mobilization party based upon a Leninist model. Much of this model is still intact within the party today.

The PAP is well disciplined and cohesive, with extremely powerful machinery on the ground. Leadership is very much 'top down' through an instituted cadre system. This has been partly kept to prevent any future hostile takeover attempts. A potential cadre must be recommended by a member of parliament, and then the candidate is interviewed a number of times by a committee appointed by the Central Executive Committee (CEC), which will include 4 to 5 ministers and members of parliament. There may be up to 1,000 cadres in the party today, however this exact number is kept a secret. A cadre has the right to attend the party conference and vote for the leadership every two years.

Consequently, political power is centered in the Central Executive Committee, headed by the Secretary-General, the head of the party, who is usually also the Prime Minister. There is a very strong overlap between CEC members and cabinet ministers. Twelve members are elected by the cadre and six are appointed. Any outgoing CEC member must recommend a list of potential candidates to fill his/her position for the CEC. The CEC looks after the Young PAP, Women's Wing, selects cadres, and parliamentary candidates.

Ordinary party members are screened before they can join the PAP. Potential members must demonstrate some involvement in community before memberships are approved. Lee Kuan Yew did not want a mass party with populist demands, and also wanted to avoid the problems of 'quanxi' within the party. Party members are basically unpaid volunteers, serving their MPs on branch sub-committees, and help mobilize support during elections.

By international political party standards the PAP is very small, maybe 15,000 members, with a small central administrative machinery. There is a small HQ executive committee that oversees the daily administration of the party, i.e., maintaining party accounts, memberships, overseeing committees work, publications, and branch coordination.

Like Lee, the major ideology of the PAP is pragmatism, meritocracy, multiculturalism, and communitarianism. The PAP is pro-economic intervention through fiscal policy and government enterprise involvement, within a generally free market backdrop. The party strongly rejects the concepts of Western liberal democracy, citing a philosophy based upon 'Asian values' as the guiding principles of social development. Perhaps one of the greatest concerns of the PAP, reflected in the way it is structured and leadership is institutionalized, is the issue of succession, where it is believed that succession is the root of stability. Formal and informal rules and norms, and procedures guide who can and who cannot stand for party and public office.

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Singapore's cadre system is partly responsible for the countries success story, but at the same time is an albatross around the Government's neck, arguably responsible for the 'groupthink' culture many local blogs are critical of in contemporary Singapore society today.

Since 1963 the Singapore Government has turned the island from a sleepy backwater into one of the world's most vibrant economies. Although nobody can fault the ruling party which has governed Singapore for more than 50 years of abandoning its responsibilities, many wish that it would tackle these responsibilities with some heart and connect emotionally with the people.

Times are rapidly changing in the island republic. There is genuine disenchantment with rising prices, the influx of foreign workers, competition for jobs, crowded public places, rising home prices, rising cost of education, and the widening income gap in Singapore. There is even some feeling among Singaporeans with the migration of foreign professionals, they may descend to becoming second class citizens within their own country. Migration will be expected to continue as the local Singapore population is aging. Today it is not uncommon to see the old and infirm waiting on restaurant tables, clearing rubbish in the streets, or even scavenging into rubbish bin. Singapore's GINI index has declined from 0.433 in 2000 to 0.465 in 2010 and is similar to many African and South American countries. Social ills like erosion of trust, crime, obesity, teen pregnancy, mental health and drug addiction, is more closely associated with income inequality rater than low average per-capita income. Consequently the electoral landscape is quickly beginning to change, where the PAP will not in the future be returned to power uncontested on nomination day due to the failure of opposition candidates to nominate for election.

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About the Author

Murray Hunter is an associate professor at the University Malaysia Perlis.

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