Political sacrifice – Fishing for the unwilling

Personal sacrifice for politics is something we hear a lot of these days since the committee report on ministerial pay came up. The word was used many times in the parliament debate.

Dictionary.com gave several definitions of the word. Most relevant is “the surrender or destruction of something prized or desirable for the sake of something considered as having a higher or more pressing claim.”

I touched on it in my speech yesterday because I felt strongly about it. Prime Minister spoke about it, as did various PAP MPs, sharing of sacrifices political office holders must make. I do not doubt the office holders have had to make adjustments. In Singapore, career elites have choices. From their perspective, they surrendered something (a better career, privacy, etc) for the sake of something that has a higher claim, something more noble in the sense that it is serving the nation to keep things going.

But really, that’s what politics is about.  It is the nature of politics all over the world that there will be public scrutiny; there will be challenges balancing family and work; and there will be set-backs such as electoral loss. That’s what I shared in my speech. It is not unique to office holders. In fact, under the current GRC system, political set-backs have been rare (so far).

It was good to hear Mrs Lina Chiam shared about what Mr Chiam See Tong had to go through in his political career in her speech. Ridicule, drastic loss of income and more. There are many other local examples we can name for those on the opposing side. Life is definitely tougher on the other side. No one will say it is greener.

Our early political leaders from the ruling party have had to make lots of sacrifices, something I admire them for. Men like Goh Keng Swee, S. Rajaratnam, Lim Kim San, Hon Sui Sen and more perserved through tough times and difficult challenges. They left a legacy and we honour them for what they did. I wrote unashamedly to the newspaper forums when Goh Keng Swee and S. Rajaratnam died. Then, I had also shared with my staff by email circular about how we should emulate the spirit embodied by these men.

Times have changed and the ruling party cannot get ‘good’ people to come forth like what these early leaders did. But why is it so difficult now? Is there a lot of sacrifice now? What about the early days when pay was low and challenges were so much more?

Even with the reduced salaries proposed by the review committee or what the Workers’ Party has proposed, the sums are more than decent enough for any one to get by. For some, there may be a loss in income. For others, there will even be an increment.

Really, how much does a person need in life to provide for the family? We are not expecting politicians to scrimp and save and live a Spartan life. Ministers will still be easily within the top 2,000th income earners whichever method you use to compute. That’s 0.1% of the working population, not bad at all. The system has been very fair thus far with political office holders, even after retirement, at least in the past 2 decades. We can see there is market demand for them from government linked companies and in multinationals, and some make it back into government appointments. They get by comfortably.

I had said in my speech that the reluctant will deem issues faced by politicians as sacrifice. We will look back at things lost and view them as sacrifice. But those who aspire to lead will welcome these as challenges to be overcome. I shared about President Barrack Obama in my speech. I read his autobiography when he was still contesting for the Democrat nomination. When he was in Indonesia as a student (9 year-old, I think), he wrote in his essay that his ambition was to be the president of the United States of America. That was a real tough ambition to reach for given his family background and living half the globe away. He took a tough and long road into politics too. He could have been a well-paid lawyer, having graduated from an Ivy League university. He chose instead to work on the ground as a community organiser on a lowly paid salary. I admire his steadfast determination to reach his goal and applauded when he finally reached it. He had an aspiration, he perserved until he reached it.

The trouble is, there are too few in Singapore who aspire to lead. At least there’s too few amongst the type of career elites that the ruling party wish to attract. Why is this so?

I think there are two main reasons:

1. We do not create enough awareness in school about our nation, about our political system, about our leaders and about issues important to our country. We prefer to focus on academic subjects with definitive answers, those at the back of the book. We rather focus on areas that students can score better in. Subjects that require ability to handle ambiguity and debate are shunned.

Youths become disinterested in politics. They see it as something for the elite class. The elite class may feel they need to create more wealth for themselves since they are in a system that enables them to do so easily.

It is important to start them young. Start people thinking about what it takes to keep Singapore going. Whichever political party they may wish to eventually join is fine. The parties are here as part of a properly functioning democracy to keep each other in check. Whoever has the best package for the country will ultimately win.

2. We have created a political system that people feel they can do well in their career and then wait to be headhunted into politics, if at all they are interested. However when they have done well, they may no longer wish to move into the difficult world of politics.

I feel Singapore is being run like a very large company. In a company, we can hire top managers in (though in top private companies, top managers are easily fired too).  In politics, it is not appropriate to do so. Politicians need to be connected to the ground. It is best they work themselves through the system from ground up, win elections, prove they can connect with people and then move up the chain. Selling policies is very important. Hence, if one is connected well with the ground, he/she can sell even the hardest of policies. He/she will be savvy enough to figure how to work the policies subtly through.

In the commercial world, we can sometimes bulldoze things through. It is a free market where people can come and go. A country is different. Non-performing employees can be fired but not citizens. Citizens decide the fate of politicians in a properly functioning democracy. Hence, there can be a disconnect when inexperienced politicians parachuted into the system try to implement policies like they are running a company. They feel uncomfortable dealing with demanding citizens.

We see potential office holders being paraded before each General Elections like prized catches. It creates the perception that politics is for the headhunted elite. They then enter the system and perpetuate the same concept. Over time, people as a whole become disinterested in a political career. They do not think about politics as a career. Then they do well in their career and they are suddenly called into politics. They surely would have to think hard about the sacrifices they now have to make. If they were preparing themselves for or even thinking about a political career, they would have less to think about when the time comes.

We are fishing from a very small pond. We catch few fishes, because there are few in the first place in the pond we are fishing at. So we use more attractive baits to attract these few fishes out of their comfort zone. But these fishes are well fed in the pond they are in. There are lots of food there for them.

It is good to have some successful career people in cabinet. We need not restrict overselves to think that only those who are successful in their careers will make good ministers. We have seen enough examples of successful politicians all over the world who came from humble backgrounds and careers. We can start fishing in a bigger pond. We can cultivate the fishes from young so that there will be more interested fishes who want to come out of their comfort zone when they are ready. We like them to be ready as early as possible.

The debate is still ongoing. These are thoughts that come to me as I soak in the debates, both in and outside of the House. I hope for the good of Singapore, we will not have lack of good and willing fishes to catch in the future. Then we need not have to think so hard of the baits to use.


2 comments on “Political sacrifice – Fishing for the unwilling

  1. Parents in the process of bringing up their kids also sacrifice a lot. Using the government logic (or way of thinking), does this mean they should also ask to be heavily rewarded when their kids grown up ? For those kids who do well in life, it’s ok. But for those doing so so, this will be a big problem. What I’m saying if you trying to be too calculative and seeing everything in terms of dollars and cents, when is this going to end?

    Once a person has made a decision or choice to enter politics, he or she should know what will this lead to, and if after entering into this political arena, he or she still feels this is a sacrifice, this is very worrying, because for sure, this person feels that this is a burden and will not do the job well.

    No One Force You Into Politics, If You Think This Is A Sacrifice, You Should Go Back To Private Sector, Because In The Long Term, You Will Use Your Political Power To Hurt The Country!

  2. Hi Mr Yee, I think there is one more reason why politics in Singapore is as such. Its the brain washing for decades by the PAP that only when you successful in your career or education, then you are fit to be in politics. This shaped the mind of the people and it becomes a defacto standards in Singapore as a pre-requirement for entering politics. In the people’s mind its like good education = good politicians, its a fallacy that is hard to break. Therefore, I think Singaporean had developed a mentality that only those has PHD or good degree coming from a reputable university will be a good MP or minister. This mindset has limited Singapore in enlarging able people who are willing to serve in for politics. Frankly speaking, if your party did not fill candidates with good education background, you aren’t going to get many votes, this is a reality in Singapore…its so different in USA, where an actor becomes a president and rightly so, a very good president. For me, its not about the pay, its about how well this government can serve its people interest and give them a better lives. We saw how some scholarly ministers perform poorly, this is to say, being a scholar doesn’t make you a great politician by default…in this, I strongly agree with you that the PM must stop parachuting “good people” into ministers but instead let them work through the ground. Future leaders must rise up from the ground they serve.

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