Ancient Greek Olympics

By Augustine Low
Ancient Greek OlympicsThere is talk that, for the first time, there is uncertainty about the next Prime Minister of Singapore.
This may not be such a bad thing.
When you know many years ahead that you already have the top job in the bag (like Lee Hsien Loong), you stop having to compete.
And there’s nothing like competition to hone the mind and spirit. The Greeks, who invented the Olympic Games, have the word for it – aretas, which means attaining excellence through competition.
To compete requires that we embrace uncertainty, especially in politics where the human spirit is constantly tested. Competition has always been at the cornerstone of political theory; key advocates include Sun Tzu and Machiavelli.
Go for it
It would be refreshing to see ministers clamour for the top job, and not make bland statements like it doesn’t really matter who gets it, we are here to serve, we stand by the one who is chosen.
Without competitive fire, without aretas, how would Singaporeans know that YOU really want the job and are up for it?
We are not looking for acrimony (although that is sometimes part of competition), but the spirit to fight fair, with honour and mutual respect.
Over the years, I believe the competitive fire of politicians from Singapore’s ruling party has waned considerably.
Over the years, I believe the competitive fire of politicians from Singapore’s ruling party has waned considerably.
The turning point was the introduction of the GRC in 1988.
Where is the fire?
When you can get elected as part of a group, when you can hang on to the coattails of Ministers and stronger colleagues, when you come in on a walkover, when you do not even have to make a speech to capture hearts and minds . . . . you simply do not experience winning through competition, you cannot have aretas.
By all indications, Chan Chun Sing, elevated to full Minister just two years and four months after coming into political office, is among the frontrunners to be the next PM.  Mind you, he was parachuted into office on a walkover, elected in GE 2011 as part of the five-member Tanjong Pagar GRC team.
In fact, the PAP has had a walkover in Tanjong Pagar GRC in every contest since the GRC was created. A total of five walkovers over five GEs, making it the surest route to Parliament.
It would be a shame if Chan takes the top job eventually without even having to fight an election in his own constituency.
Heat of battle
There is no substitute for the authentic experience of the heat of battle, of competing to represent constituents in Parliament. How else is the ex-army general going to hone his instincts and skills, and boost his legitimacy for the massive challenges of running a country?
Without competitive fire, would JB Jeyaretnam have taken Anson?
Would Chiam See Tong have swept Potong Pasir and hung on to it gallantly all those years?
Would Low Thia Khiang have evoked the Spirit of Hougang?
No, it was because they were fired up to embrace uncertainty, to defy the odds, to compete with tenacity to win.
The ruling party could do with some intense competition for the leadership and most certainly with competition to win votes.
So some uncertainty in succession planning within the PAP is not necessarily a bad thing.
If you are earmarked too early for the job, it could be cruel rather than kind.
GRCs, while making it tougher for the Opposition, have also weakened the PAP in paving the way for political softies who have not earned their stripes and therefore carry little clout or legitimacy.
There’s simply nothing like the high stakes of intense competition to challenge politicians to become the best they can be.
Augustine Low is a communications strategist.

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