Paternalistic Authoritarianism II: A reformed activist and gilded prodigal son, is optimistic

Ho Kwon Ping, once a newspaper man and government critic who was jailed for his writings and actions, also a scion of a rather large family chemicals business and fortune, who returned to the fold and ‘straightened’ up to become a leading entrepreneur and player in the hotels and leisure business.

HKP wrote this op-ed published in the national newspaper on Wednesday, espousing his optimistic view of the coming general election and ending with a warm, fuzzy, all-embracing cheer to all sides.

While some skeptics may whisper that Mr. Ho had long been ‘co-opted’ into the establishment and is far from being the young fiery activist he once was, the very fact that his views were published in the national newspaper 3 days before the election, speaks volumes on just how much things have changed.

Where once I thought it would take ‘generations’ for real change, transparency and accountability to be effected, I now share some of Mr. Ho’s optimism:
“…the evolutionary process may take just another two or three elections over the next two decades.
If all goes well, the winner in this watershed election may well be Singapore’s future.”

Ho Kwon Ping’s op-ed in The Straits Times, May 4th:

Towards a First World electorate

A NEW generation will decide Singapore’s future in a few days. One of the ruling People’s Action Party’s (PAP) concerns is to find a future prime minister from this generation. The opposition must also fill its ranks with voices from the future, not the past. And as a nation, the baton that was successfully passed from the founding generation to its custodians, the baby boomers of my generation, is now being handed to Gen Y.

Across the entire world, Gen Y – those in their mid 20s to 30s – is coming of political age. They have already made their mark in the Arab Spring, though arguably their inchoate, even naive democratic ideals may not translate altogether successfully from the street to the halls of government. In China, Gen Y is still more concerned about economic self-improvement than the future of the Chinese Communist Party, though they too are demanding more accountability from their government.

How should governments that have enjoyed more than a half-century of uninterrupted and unopposed rule respond to the winds of change with a firm yet enlightened touch? Political science textbooks provide no answer. Established liberal democracies with routinely rotating ruling parties have no such dilemma at all. Current events have not been inspiring. Arab leaders have no qualms about quashing youthful dissent with bloodshed in order to perpetuate their rule. Halfway across the world, China’s response is to simply clam up, with arrests of dissidents representing more a lack of imagination about how to deal with the imperative for change than a clearly thought through policy of repression. Besieged Arab governments and stubbornly recalcitrant Chinese leaders are certainly more reactionary than proactive.

The history of former colonies in the Third World trying to achieve First World economic and socio-political maturity is replete with failures. To achieve consistent economic growth with broad-based gains for entire populations has hitherto been a rarely scaled hurdle. To maintain exemplary, transparent governance with an entrenched ethos of incorruptibility is even harder. The Singapore that the PAP built has already risen to the top of the list of successful newly independent states with these two accomplishments. Can it remain in power with a clean sweep of all the seats on Saturday, denying the opposition the role of a “co -driver” ?

If history is anything to go by, this task will be daunting. History has not been very encouraging – whether it be Israel’s founding Labor party, India’s Congress, Taiwan’s Kuomintang or Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party. Ruling parties have generally foundered after about a half-century, then lost their original visionary leadership and mandate to rule.

Some have been voted – usually temporarily – from power, others have splintered. The only ruling parties with zero challenges to their authority, even after a half-century of rule, are those that do not subject themselves to elections at all. If the PAP can buck the trends of history, it will have set a new paradigm. And it is by no means impossible that the PAP will do precisely that, but possibly with greater difficulty than it took in achieving its earlier goals. The PAP may have to amend its aims and accept – if not in this general election, then in the next – that a robust multi-party system with a single dominant ruling party but several responsible opposition parties in Parliament may be a more sustainable and stable prospect.

With the PAP possibly holding the world record for the longest, uninterrupted stint as a governing party, the Singapore story may provide an example of how other countries can make a successful transition from what has been called “developmental authoritarianism” to a robust, sustainable multi-party system. But everyone in the game must cooperate to make this happen: an enlightened ruling party less obsessed about its own dominance than the survival of the system it helped to create; opposition parties peopled by pragmatic, capable idealists; and most of all, a demographically young yet emotionally mature electorate.

Whether the PAP should continue to rule without its efficiency being hamstrung by a “co-driver” – or whether the car can bear the weight and lower speed in exchange for the extra safety and insurance that a co-driver will bring – is what Singaporeans are essentially going to choose on Saturday. Despite the importance of issues such as housing, transport and cost of living, the drama and the significance of this general election is the prospect of Singapore moving towards a First World electorate – in an evolutionary process that may take another two or three elections over the next two decades.


Whatever happens, three myths have been debunked by this election. The first is that because the PAP has exhaustively searched the country high and low and its candidates are the best in the land, there is a dearth of talent outside the ruling party. Therefore, a robust multi-party political system is not sustainable and even dangerous because there simply are not enough capable men and women to make this work. In this election, the number of qualified opposition candidates has rendered this myth difficult to maintain. The opposition parties have fielded many candidates who are clearly not the disgruntled, self-interested and virulently anti-PAP “bicycle thieves” of the past. Some share the same backgrounds as the PAP’S “star” candidates: government scholarship holders and senior civil servants, blue-chip professionals from the establishment and university-educated professionals from the HDB heartland, all of whom have openly praised the PAP and seek the same kind of role as the elected presidency does on another front – to serve as a check on the government of the day.
[Interesting that the classmates and people from my cohort viewed most likely to be invited to tea sessions and enter politics on the government slate, remain incognito. Must be the age; at our age, they are still too preoccupied with climbing the civil service Superscale Grades or making rank in the various armed forces. Why enter politics now when as the top government scholars, you are fast-tracked in your civil service career and just a few years from making Director in some govt agency, leapfrogging over the other elite Administrative Officers in the PMO, or just about to chalk up enough tenure as a Colonel to make the coveted BG star…

On the other hand, its quite funny to see a former classmate who was the class clown and dour-faced funny-man, join in the opposition lineup and make incendiary speeches against his government, scholarship-giver and former employer.
Power to him.


The third myth is that young Singaporeans are generally apathetic and concerned only about their narrow interests. Although the huge buzz in online forums about the election may represent only a fraction of yopth at large, although the large turnout in rallies by young people may only be for their entertainment, although the many young PAP and opposition candidates may just be flashes in the pan – the myth of apathy that older Singaporeans may have held about Gen Y is clearly no longer viable. As the baby boomers pass into retirement, it is very encouraging to see young people coming out and making their voices heard. Unless we have a freak election with unexpected results, Singaporeans can be proud both of the ruling as well as opposition parties. And of themselves too as an electorate whose demands are increasingly shaping the responses of both players. Singapore may be moving deliberately yet irrevocably towards a First World electorate – in an evolutionary process that may take another two or three elections over the next two decades – but one that embraces common values so that the electorate, not the political parties, demand civility, intellectual rigour and competence of all their politicians, whatever their affiliation.

If all goes well, the winner in this watershed election may well be Singapore’s future.

One thought on “Paternalistic Authoritarianism II: A reformed activist and gilded prodigal son, is optimistic

  1. Heh heh…
    Gen X, Gen Y… same old, same old.

    Funny, but very true.

    Same old, same old Gen:

    [May 12, 2011
    Bertha Henson mulls over the similarities across Gen X and Gen Y.]

    I WONDER about the fuss over the so called Gen Y. I wonder why everyone seems to be bending over backwards to listen to what they have to say. To respond to them. To cater to their needs and wants.

    The reason is: They don’t seem to be so different from the Gen X of old, those who were in their 20s and 30s more than 10 years ago. Except that now, the Gen Y views are amplified by technology, spread through the Internet. In the not-so-old days, the Gen X had to rely on the Feedback Unit (predecessor of Reach), letters to newspapers and the occasional televised forums with youth.

    Gen X, which I suppose includes me, had similar aspirations as Gen Y. We wanted to be heard, we felt the Establishment was against us, that everything was out of reach. Which is a reason I guess the People’s Action Party (PAP) ledby Goh Chok Tong in the 1990s spoke of a “kinder, gentler nation”. It is not so different from the PAP Government now saying that it would be more responsive and inclusive.

    I remember the “L” label that was attached to Gen X – we were so-called liberals, who had no clue from whence we came, no idea of the value of hard work and thrift and worse, we did not want to have children. The phrase that was attached to us: We had rising (read: unreasonable) expectations.

    At a forum by a Cost Review Committee led by Mr Lim Boon Heng (yes, cost of living was also a big deal then) I remember ranting about how I wished I had belonged to my parents’ generation. With housing prices so high and land so scarce, how could I afford private property or a car? And who is anyone to tell me to temper my expectations, which I prefer to call aspirations?

    Much like housing statistics that were produced to justify the affordability of new HDB flats, the numerous statistics thrown at the population then showed that the cost of living wasn’t so bad. But it didn’t seem to gel with what we saw day-to-day. The chorus of complaint then, as now: The PAP Government was out of touch.

    Ten years after my rant, I am now a private property owner and I have a car. And while much of it is through my own efforts, I credit the government for policies that have enabled me to progress as far as I have. I look at the rants of Gen Y and I ask myself if they will still be so angry 10 years later.

    This leads me to the horrifying question of whether this particular member of Gen X has “matured”, been “subdued”, or worse, been “co-opted” into the Establishment. What is clear is that I am not the angry young person of the past, although several members of my generation might well have retained the old angst.

    Or maybe, the disease of “ageism” has caught up with me. We always think the next generation is never as good as our own – they complain too much, don’t work as hard and should be grateful for what they already have. This accounts, perhaps, for Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew’s constant lament about young people. He has said similar things about my generation too.

    When I read the Page 2 column in Thursday’s ST by Rachel Chang on Gen Y voters stepping up to the plate, one phrase resonated with me. She said: “We are the generation of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.” I had written something similar in the past, that “Goh Chok Tong was a member of my generation”. I‘ll wager that 10 years later, another Generation Z journalist will write something similar, and merely substitute the name of the prime minister.

    You know what, however different the time, some things always remain the same.

    Heh, even the name, Bertha Henson, is a flash from the past…

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