Friday, April 8, 2011

Not enough talent for two A teams

Apr 7, 2011

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong gave a speech and engaged in a dialogue with students at the National University of Singapore Students' Political Association on Tuesday night. Below is an excerpt of his speech, on why Singapore cannot afford a two-party system.

NO SYSTEM lasts forever, as Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew himself acknowledges in the book Hard Truths To Keep Singapore Going.

We do not assume that the PAP will remain dominant indefinitely, so we have to ask ourselves a question: What is the alternative? It could be another party just as dominant or it could be some other configuration.

Now, what other configuration could there be? A lot of people say: Can we have a two-party system? That's the ideal, that's how many developed countries work, that's what you should aim for - change of government...the first party to the second and then from the second to (the first) - and then you are considered to have matriculated. But how could this happen in Singapore - that we have two parties? I can imagine several scenarios.

First, society splits based on race or religion: you have one party representing one race or religion, another party representing another race or religion. That's the worst possible scenario for Singapore and we've done our best to make sure that it never comes about. If you're split on race, on religion, you're not just going to have political quarrels, you're going to divide society and that's the end for Singapore.

The second possibility is that you divide on class lines. We don't get our economic policies right or maybe just the world trends are such: the rich get richer, the poor don't make progress. After a while, the poor lose hope in the system, the rich lose interest in the rest of society.

So one side says: Tax me less, let me keep my wealth. The other side says: Give me more, transfer more welfare, more goodies, more benefits. And you have two parties forming: one representing one group, the other representing the other group - rich and poor.

That's highly over-simplified, but that's how things roughly work in many countries, like Britain where you have the Conservatives and the Labour Party. And now the Lib Dems (Liberal Democrats), somewhere in the middle. Or in the US where you've got the Democrats who represent more of the working class and the Republicans who represent more of the well-off people.

But I don't think that's a good outcome either. We're working hard to prevent this because I think we should try to - to the maximum extent that we can - align all the interests of Singaporeans and make sure that one party can represent you, whether you're the CEO or whether you're the taxi-driver.

The third possibility is that we split on policy grounds. You argue that this set of policies will be best for Singapore to grow - promoting MNCs. They argue no, I don't want MNCs, sending them all away and depending on Singaporeans and Singapore companies as a way to grow. And we can't reconcile them, we split and we argue over the policies and fight it out at the polls.

I think that could happen but it's not so likely because the PAP is a pragmatic party and we're ready to take in good ideas. And if you look at it at the high level, frankly the range of feasible options for Singapore is not that wide. So it's possible it could happen but it would mean that something has gone wrong too.

But the most important reason why a two-party system is not workable is because we don't have enough talent in Singapore to form two A teams, to form two really first-class teams to govern Singapore really well. More than any other country, Singapore needs exceptionally able leadership to tackle challenges and to minimise the risks for our country.

We're small, we're vulnerable. With a mediocre government, other countries may muddle through and have to muddle through, but Singapore will fail. The most effective way to get a two-party system if you really want to do it is to split the PAP in two, because the talent is there, it's gathered.

We'll have two persons. I choose one, you choose one. I choose one, you choose one. Okay, now we have two teams. Now we play, toss the coin.

We seriously considered making the PAP two parties - not that way but in principle. But we didn't do it because we couldn't solve one problem: How can you make two teams, each one as good as the original one team that we had, which took really what would have been the best players from both teams. Or to put it in very hard and direct, tangible terms, where can you find two finance ministers and two defence ministers?

I have one finance minister and one defence minister. If you have a spare one somewhere, please let me know. Why do I choose these two? Because these are two of the most difficult jobs in the Cabinet to fill. In finance, you have to make judgments on taxes affecting all Singaporeans, on expenditures affecting all ministries, on the budget - you're talking about $50 billion of expenditure every year; as well as on our reserves - GIC, Temasek, MAS and others (Government of Singapore Investment Corporation, Temasek Holdings and the Monetary Authority of Singapore) - adding up to more than US$100 billion (S$126 billion). To find one finance minister is not easy. To find two of them you must really tiok beh peow (win the lottery).

It's the same with defence in a curiously opposite way - finance is about money and it's very difficult, and defence is very difficult because it's not about money. The bottom line is intangible: security, risks, threats, judgment. What is worth spending on? What is worth investing on? Which is the right aeroplane to buy? How many ships do you need? Which colonels to make general? How to shape the SAF (Singapore Armed Forces)? Which threats are getting serious? When do I recommend to mobilise the SAF? When do I decide I must deploy and defend?

Can you easily find anybody off the street to do that sort of job? Very, very difficult.

So therefore I think one team, get the best people together, fill each job with the best men. If we split into two teams, then whichever one is in charge, if the Government is going to be weaker, the chances of something going wrong will go up. Definitely, even if things don't go wrong, standards will go down. And that's why I and all my predecessors have gone out of our way to scour the land for talent to join the team.

Every election we have 20-odd candidates becoming new MPs. And out of these, on average - I did a count over the last five or six elections - about three make it to become minister. But we have 14 ministries to fill. And then on top of that you need some supervising ministers - some deputy prime ministers, some senior ministers - because you need some additional experience and oversight of the system.

So just say 14 ministries to fill and I get three new ministers each term - you do the maths: 14 divided by three means on average each minister has to serve at least four terms. So over the weekend Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong expressed his personal view that perhaps in future ministers should serve only two terms. I think that's not possible simply because of the numbers. We're not able to generate the talent in order to produce those numbers of people who are able to do the job competently to the satisfaction of Singaporeans at that rate.

The opposition parties pitch themselves as offering Singapore a fallback should the PAP fail. It sounds plausible but if you think about it, what does it depend on? Most critically it comes back to talent again.

If the PAP can't assemble a second team, I don't think the opposition will find it easier. You look at it from the micro view: consider a capable person weighing his options. He wants to serve the nation. He's trying to decide how to do it, which way he should go. And he has two choices.

First, join the opposition, oversee the PAP, but really spend his life - and it can be quite a long time - waiting and watching just in case the PAP screws up, then he will be ready to take over. The other alternative is join the Government, help it to make better decisions, implement good policies and avoid making mistakes and screwing up. Now, which makes more sense for him and for Singapore?

So for all these reasons, I think the best thing for us to do is to concentrate our resources and form one really strong Singapore team. Some people will want to join the opposition. Yes, they will want to propound alternative policies or they will want to be a check on the Government. That's valid. By all means join the opposition - especially if the Government is wrong or incompetent.

But so long as the Government is competent and doing a good job, I hope you will make common cause with it and help us ensure things stay right.

What we can do and must do to assure Singapore's future is to develop the strongest possible A team with depth and resilience: people with expertise in different ministries, plus depth; younger ones learning the job so that as the situation changes, we can always find the right person for the right job. And if one person doesn't work out, I can do a replacement. I can call a time-out, change my team member, and the game goes on.

Actually that's how soccer is played. If you watch World Cup soccer, every country only has one team. No country fields two teams. You have one national soccer team. You have reserve players, you have coaches. You can change players and if need be you can even change the coach. But you concentrate all your talent, make one team and give it your best shot.

I think that's what we should do. We're not so successful in soccer but we're not doing badly in government. And I think that we should keep up our winning streak and stay in the championship league in the international contest of nations.

We're now putting together the next A team for Singapore. And the PAP candidates in this round will form key members of this team and in the next couple of rounds. They need voters' full support not just to get elected but to deliver results for you, because this is the way to safeguard our common future: Not to weaken the A team in the hope of buying insurance but to strengthen the A team, to give it the best chance of succeeding.

We have to press hard on leadership renewal now, so that in 2020, 10 years' time, we'll have a younger team ready not just to maintain our present high standards but to take this as a foundation to fly even higher and do even better.

Edited excerpts of the question-and-answer session with students

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