I’ve been thinking a lot about power recently.
Here in Singapore, I watched the government and its ruling party, the PAP (People’s Action Party) hold elections last Saturday. It was the most nervous I’d ever seen the PAP in my 25 years reporting in the region, and the first time its leader, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, apologized for any possible shortcomings of the government.
It’s ironic because Singapore’s government runs like clockwork. They do ten year plans which are implemented and fine-tuned by the incoming government (cutting down possibilities of patronage and corruption). More than 80% of Singaporeans live in government-subsidized housing, the highest in the world. It has virtually no homeless and ranks among the least corrupt nations in the world.
A small nation (when I first started reporting, it had a little more than 2.3 million people – now its population is 5.1 million), it plans ahead and often is the first to identify problems. For example, most people think the United States spearheaded an environmental program. Not true. The first was Singapore. It makes sense. What started out as a 581 sq km island (smaller than the Philippines’ Siquijor) has reclaimed land from the sea, adding nearly 200 sq km over the years. Since it’s so small, the leaders decided to save 23% of its land for forests and natural preserves. They wanted it clean and green – importing more than 800 varieties of palms and thousands of other plant species to this island-state. If they didn’t plan, chances are this would have become a concrete jungle, swamped by racial tension and (as its history has shown) racial violence. That is not Singapore today, and it is largely because of the vision of Lee Kuan Yew and the PAP.
No matter how well you’ve done, it’s harder to hold on to power than it is to challenge it. We inevitably always favor the underdog, and those in power get no extra points. Power exercised responsibly leads to boring! Leadership and the responsibility that comes with it makes an incumbent seem more cautious and less transparent, while the challenger can let the arrows zing.
These elections were also Singapore’s freest because of the internet and social media. Of course, the PAP still won, but at 60.6%, it’s the lowest margin since independence.
Why should it matter to non-Singaporeans? Because it teaches us about human nature and the price of success. The best example is Singapore’s Foreign Minister George Yeo. A Harvard MBA, he was a young man who symbolized change and rejuvenation when I first met him in the late 80′s/early 90′s. We developed a near adversarial relationship during the caning of 18 year old American Michael Fay in the early 90′s when he was the Minister of Information, Communication and Arts. I watched him move through different portfolios – including Health and Trade & Industry. The last interview I did with him was in his post today as Foreign Affairs.
His district, Aljunied, became a national battleground, and his team lost to the opposition Workers’ Party. Yesterday, he gave this speech, saying he would “ensure a smooth handover” and leave politics. It is not as emotional as his concession speech Sunday, but he shows the most gracious meaning of the word “politician.”
Human beings are not logical. Studies show that as much as 80% of how we make our choices is determined by our emotions. The emotion in Singapore today – like in much of the rest of the world – embraces change. It’s still more circumspect, more pragmatic, but the lessons from last week’s elections show the days of a patrician, Father Knows Best leadership is over.
It is the age of social media and Facebook – a cacophony of voices and opinions that may not know much – but which impact and now shape the world.