Workers’ Party (WP) politician Yee Jenn Jong has asked whether Singapore is fishing for political talent in a small pool of private-sector candidates and whether this means Singapore is treated like a large company that must be run commercially.
Mr Yee was responding to Emeritus Senior Minister (ESM) recent remarks that getting good people into politics is not just a People’s Action Party (PAP) problem but a national problem.
Addressing a crowd of about 950 people at the Marine Parade National Day Dinner on Saturday (17 Aug), the former Prime Minister said that it is getting more difficult to convince dedicated, able and honest individuals to join politics. He asserted:
“People think this is the PAP’s problem. It is not. It is a national problem. If the PAP cannot persuade honest, dedicated and capable people to serve Singaporeans, and neither can the opposition, it will have grave consequences for everyone.
“If people who lack honesty, dedication and competence run the government, the sun must surely set on Singapore.”
ESM Goh said that Singapore needs to attract good, dedicated leaders but added that this task is increasingly difficult:
“Governing is an onerous and underappreciated task. Many able people who have been approached are not prepared to give up their stable and successful careers for an uncertain and unglamorous political future.”
While acknowledging that joining politics would result in a loss of privacy for individuals and their families, especially given the rise of social media, ESM Goh urged Singaporeans who are asked to serve to consider the invitation as a call of duty:
“Regard it as a call to do more national service for the country. Singapore has shaped you to become who you are. Pay it forward for your children and country, even if it means making personal sacrifices.”
Responding to ESM Goh’s remarks on Facebook, Mr Yee said that Mr Goh’s comment made him recall his own speech in Parliament during the debate on ministerial salaries in 2012. Mr Yee asked:
“Are we fishing for talent in a limited small pond? Are we defining people by their earnings in previous jobs and those earning half a million or less are automatically ‘mediocre’? Are we treating Singapore as a large company to be run commercially?”
Back in 2012, Mr Yee – who was a Non-Constituency Member of Parliament – had expressed concern over the way a minister’s pay is pegged to the top 1,000 Singaporean earners.
Noting that this approach is taken under the assumption that political talent must be synonymous with career success, Mr Yee said that it is “elitist” to assume that “only those who are top in their professional careers can make it to hold political office.” Mr Yee said:
“Running a company well is different from being able to run a country. Perhaps the government has treated running this country too much like running a business that we have often been referred to as Singapore Inc. So we also tie political work to that of running a very big company. I believe this is a flawed model.
“In constantly drumming this message since 1994, we have created an expectation amongst potential political office holders that political office is a career progression for them, and that reaching a minister’s position is like reaching the pinnacle of one’s career.
“It also creates an expectation amongst identified potential office holders that they need a safe route to parachute into parliament or they would not risk their career. This has made Singapore politics uniquely Singapore. It is a model of politics that despite years of attempts to justify and fine-tune, many have yet to accept. I for one, do not accept this model of politics.
“I feel we have over commercialised the nature of running this country. We need to constantly remind ourselves that we have been elected by the people into this House. It is totally different from being headhunted to become a hired top management of a company. We should never forget it is a noble calling to serve the public.”
Mr Yee asked: “I like to ask, what aspires a person to take the difficult route of politics?…I wonder what would aspire our next generation to become future ministers and the future Prime Minister. I certainly hope it will not be for career progression.”
He added that he disagrees with the notion that Singapore does not have enough talent for two political teams and reiterated his earlier call that a sense of public service and political awareness must be instilled in youths “to create aspiring future politicians who will strongly believe in the importance of leading the nation, and that they wish to play a part in it.”
Mr Yee also opined that the lack of interest in political careers could be perpetuated by the constant search for political talent “from amongst a narrow pool of top career performers”. He added: “I believe we have been talent ponding for too long, searching from a small pond for people that fit as career elites. We should instead talent flood with people from all walks of life.”
Noting that the salary review committee considers the pay cut private-sector earners might have to take if they join politics as a sacrifice, Mr Yee said:
“Being a politician should be an aspiration and an honour. It is the nature of politics all over the world that there will be public scrutiny; there will be challenges balancing family and work; and there will be set-backs such as electoral loss. The reluctant will deem these as sacrifice. Those who aspire to lead will welcome these as challenges to be overcome.”
Read Mr Yee’s speech in full HERE.