Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Why the PAP is finding it difficult to attract candidates from the private sector

I had thought that more people would have commented on the story published in the Straits Times on 16 April, on how few high flying executives from the private sector are willing to join the PAP. But apparently not.

Someone did comment on it, but while I do agree with some of the ideas in that post, my opinion is a little different, and more nuanced.

Why is the PAP finding it difficult to attract candidates from the private sector?

To answer that question, we must first ask why people enter politics.

People enter politics for a number of reasons, but the most important (and noble) reason must be the idea of wanting to make a difference.

Many of the most celebrated politicians in history took on positions of leadership precisely at the point when they perceived the need for a change in direction for their country. Take FDR for example. He rose to the occasion to become POTUS at the height of the Great Depression. It is in times of crisis that we see great leaders arise. Our Minister Mentor is another example.

When you keep that fact in mind, and you consider the nature and character of the PAP as it is today, it is not a surprise that they have problems recruiting candidates from the private sector.

The PAP today is in the business of maintaining the status quo. And I do mean business. Our economic and other policies have been deemed successful by our political elite, and as such, they have signaled that no change is warranted.

With their electioneering tactics and iron-grip control of the civil service, the PAP has assured itself victory in every election. And even its greenest candidates need not fear being rejected by the electorate; they can just coast in on the coat-tails of a "heavy-weight" under the GRC system. If there were such a thing as a election guarantee in a democracy, this would be it.

In other words, the PAP of today is not a party of fiery orators, impassioned visionaries or trailblazing mavericks, full of piss and vinegar, to borrow that piquant phrase.

They don't have to be. The PAP today is a party of technocrats and functionaries, where an efficient party apparatus guarantees risk-free victory at elections, and continuity of policy after election. Policy which is set at the highest levels of the PAP food chain, if I might add, immune to criticism and disquiet even within the party itself.

Indeed, mavericks are probably personae non grata in the PAP. Some people accuse the PAP of recruiting only those that agree with their policy-making views. I would go further. In the environment of the PAP, they can ONLY recruit those who agree with their views, as a true dissenter would probably find the PAP a lonely and hostile place.

Oh, we hear of various fresh PAP faces saying that they don't agree with this or that PAP policy. Riiight. Just as our national newspaper is fond of printing both sides of an issue to give the appearance of "balance", but inevitably ends on one side of the argument: the PAP's.

Dissenters in the PAP either don't last long, are marginalized (think the late President Ong Teng Cheong when he refused the play the role of a straw puppet and actually had the temerity to request for information on the national reserves), are co-opted, or were never true dissenters to begin with.

In light of this, it is not hard to imagine why, with few exceptions, high flying corporate executives have little desire to join the PAP.

Put yourself in the shoes of a corporate high flyer who actually has aspirations to make a difference, to become a politician.

If you genuinely have issues with the PAP's policies, you are unlikely to want to join them. Trying to change the PAP from within is likely a fool's errand.

Even if you do agree with the PAP's policies, the PAP is unlikely to be a place that can satisfy your political aspirations. It's a monolithic top-down structure, where policy is decided at the top, your role is to support the status quo, and you have to toe the line. Because, after all, it's not like you enjoy an independent power base among your constituents, especially if you coasted in on the coat-tails of another politician. How independent can your opinion be when you owe your place in Parliament to another politician?

Worse, as a former corporate warrior, you would have given up your high salary, perks AND privacy. And for what? For this pale shadow of being a politician? More like a entry level political lackey.

Being a PAP Member of Parliament would be singularly unattractive in this case. It would be a corporate job without the corporate perks. In other words, it would be a step DOWN from being a corporate high flyer. Even a corporate high flyer who agrees he has benefited disproportionately from the PAP's policies and wants them to continue. No thanks, he might say, I just want a free ride on your policies.

Conversely, what kinds of people would view becoming a PAP Member of Parliament as a step up?

Simple. The people who are already in the public eye, think only glowingly of existing policy, and fall very naturally into the position of deferring to authority in the form of senior PAP politicians.

No surprise. The civil service. And the quasi-governmental organizations like the NTUC.

If you are a high-ranking civil servant, becoming a cabinet minister would represent the logical pinnacle of your civil service career progression.

Not so for a private sector corporate executive who has political aspirations. The calculus is far different.

I have a prediction here to make.

The trends are clear. The PAP is recruiting less and less from the private sector, while the converse is occurring for the opposition parties, particularly those with credibility, like the Workers Party.

Should the opposition parties actually make headway in this coming election by, say, winning a GRC, it would be a watershed moment. Being an opposition party member would demonstrably seem less risky, and more people who want to make a difference, who actually have some fire in their hearts, would join the opposition political parties from the private sector.

In contrast, because the PAP is recruiting increasingly from the public sector, it is going to be seen as more and more insular, and will find it ever harder to recruit from the private sector. No outsider wants to belong to an clubby old boys association where every former civil servant knows every other former civil servant. And over time, the PAP will become more homogeneous than it is already.


motochan said...

Spot on. The opportunity cost of a politician's life amongst yes-men would appear entirely unappealing to high-fliers in the private sector who are used to bulldozing their way through to turn ideas into reality.

I predict that an alternative A-team exists amidst our populace, and they will only stand up and be counted when strife (the degree to which is debatable) is truly upon us.

For now, status quo is indeed the logical answer. Cracks have begun forming though, and these cracks can only get larger at the next election.

Anonymous said...

I really like the way you think and write. Please continue to enlighten us!