Sunday, February 13, 2011

Conviction versus Consensus politicians

Feb 12, 2011

By Catherine Lim

PRIME Minister Lee Hsien Loong's reassurance of the Muslim community, upset by what they perceived to be disparaging remarks of them made by Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew, was exactly as expected. It was calm, reassuring and generous in its praise of the community's efforts in working with people of other races and religions to achieve an integrated and harmonious Singapore. There was nevertheless an almost surreal quality about the event, with a respectful, filial son having to dissociate his views from his father's.

Indeed, the surreality might have provoked some to speculate that the Prime Minister's statement was part of a shrewd strategy, in keeping with the People's Action Party's (PAP) hard-headed realism, to assign to MM Lee the task of delivering unpalatable but necessary truths.

But this is speculation that even the most determined conspiracy theorist will have to abandon. First, the Prime Minister's statement was in part a response to a blunt question posed by a Malay-Muslim professional organisation: Did MM's view that Muslims were the hardest community to integrate into society reflect the Government's view?

Second, anyone who understands MM Lee's personality would know that a man of such strong convictions, forthright style and unshakeable self-confidence would find subterfuge of any kind both unnecessary and contemptible.

Mr Lee Kuan Yew - in being able to freely speak his mind on a whole range of controversial issues that other ministers would handle with utmost care, in provoking strong reactions both at home and abroad that the other leaders later scramble to appease - plays a unique role in Singapore politics.

While the Prime Minister and his colleagues can afford to disregard the controversy created by MM's strong convictions on such issues as graduate mothers producing superior offspring or homosexuals holding public office, they cannot afford to ignore his statements about a sensitive subject like religion. Hence - especially with a general election looming - they had to undertake an exercise in damage control on this issue, and project a consensus that was as far removed from MM's view as was consistent with the high respect accorded him.

This special feature of the dynamics of politics in Singapore may be summarised in terms of the tension that can arise between the 'Conviction Politician' that MM is and the 'Consensus Politicians' that the rest of the PAP leaders have to be. The differences between these two kinds of politicians can be seen in the following areas:

# Style: MM does not feel any need to soften his style in deference to people's feelings, while the other PAP leaders have been making great efforts, over the years, to get rid of the old image of high-handedness, inflexibility and intolerance. They constantly speak of a people-oriented approach, of the 'light' touch in dealing with thorny issues.

# Attitude towards the opposition: MM has freely expressed his contempt of some members of the opposition, speaking of them in demeaning terms that the other PAP leaders would not risk using for fear of provoking a backlash, especially on the Internet.

# General election expectations: MM does not feel the need to adjust to the expectations of a changing electorate, being completely confident that Singaporeans will continue to vote in the PAP resoundingly. He believes the PAP will be voted out of power only if it became corrupt and incompetent - which it will not, so long as it follows the principles of honest and efficient leadership embodied in his model of governance.

The Prime Minister and his colleagues, on the other hand, are anxiously aware of the pitfalls of not meeting the expectations of a younger and more sophisticated electorate, energised with a growing confidence in its power to bring about change.

What does the present situation bode for a post-Lee Kuan Yew era? It is clear that once such a massive force is gone, the situation will be radically changed. MM Lee will probably be Singapore's last Conviction Politician for three reasons.

First, the conditions that allowed him to be a Conviction Politician in the first place - the revolutionary Singapore of more than half a century ago - have passed into history and can never be replicated.

Second, it is unlikely that any PAP leader after MM Lee will be able to match him in the scale and brilliance of his achievements. Hence no future leader will enjoy the degree of respect, goodwill and gratitude that he elicits, resulting in people readily overlooking whatever flaws of personality or style he might be perceived to have.

Third, as Singapore becomes more connected to an increasingly complex globalised world and its leaders face daunting, unexpected challenges, they will have no choice but to sacrifice individual convictions for team consensus, in order to project an image of unity, stability and strength, both to their own people and the rest of the world. The 'Conviction Politician' in the mould of Mr Lee Kuan Yew will become an unaffordable luxury, an anomaly and an anachronism.

There will be three camps of thought among Singaporeans in the post-MM era, each strongly differentiated from the other: Those who would welcome the departure of a political giant who had grown too powerful to allow Singapore politics to come into its own; those who would regret that his legacy was diminished insofar as he did not become the benign, inspirational, retired statesman like, say, Nelson Mandela; and those who would bemoan the passing of a unique man who, in showing conviction in the purest sense of the word, exemplified real leadership.

The writer is a Singaporean novelist.

[And then someone who doesn't understand the point, writes in... and the ST prints his silly letter:]

Feb 15, 2011


Not mutually exclusive

MS CATHERINE Lim has made what students of philosophy call a category mistake ("Conviction versus Consensus politicians"; last Saturday). Conviction and consensus are not mutually exclusive terms.

Conviction has to do with the reason for going into politics or, for want of a better term, the soul of politics, while consensus has to do with the strategy or even style.

[She's not talking about that.]

Baron R.A. Butler, the late British Cabinet minister and politician, defined politics as the art of the possible. A conviction politician may have to seek consensus to achieve half his objective if the full is not achievable.

In a democracy, and maybe more so in a parliamentary-type democracy, compromises are a fact of life, whether it is United States President Barack Obama watering down his health-care proposals or former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher retreating on the Maastricht Treaty. Few would argue that all are conviction politicians.

There is no doubt that Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew's accomplishments and moral stature allow him more leeway to say things that another politician will find quite untenable.

For him, the art of the possible has a greater margin.

But that says nothing of the conviction of another politician, whose margin may be much narrower.

I would go so far as to suggest that the People's Action Party's system of candidate selection makes it extremely difficult for opportunists and old-style career politicians to be chosen.

To suggest that the current Cabinet, or indeed the current opposition members, consists of non-conviction politicians is to do them a great injustice.

Eugene Tan 
[And you have shown your inability to understand higher concepts. Yes, "conviction" and "consensus" means what you say it means. But this is not Catherine Lim's point. She was not talking about "conviction" but "Conviction Politician". She was not talking about "consensus" but "Consensus Politician". The fact that she puts these two phrases in quotes indicates that she assigns special meaning to these two phrases which she goes on explain. So no, she does not imply that Consensus Politicians have no convictions. That's your Secondary One reading and comprehension skills at work. Or rather, not working.]

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