REMEMBER HOW THE leadership in the erstwhile Soviet Union was passed from Leonid Brezhnev to Yuri Andropov to Konstantin Chernenko to Mikhail Gorbachev?
Each change of the leader was accompanied by much pomp and circumstance – and not little anticipation. Here's how the New York Times described one of the changeovers: “...when Brezhnev succeeded Nikita Khrushchev in 1964, people everywhere, not only in the Soviet Union, sensed the importance of the change.”
But change is a funny word because, in an autocracy like the Soviet Union, the passing of the baton from one leader to another ended with a system that was as immutable as the lifeless body of Lenin in the mausoleum. Different face, same farce.
And so it is with our nation. Now that Mr Lee Hsien Loong has signaled that he will soon hand the prime ministership to one of his younger colleagues, the anticipation is building up (much of it ginned up by the PAP itself).
Mr Chan Chun Sing, contender for the post of the next prime minister – front-runner, in fact, according to some observers – would have us believe that Singaporeans “can be the agents of change, rather than waiting for the system to change.”
Change? In autocratic Singapore?
If change is really in the offing, then Mr Chan is hardly its most propitious usher. The truth is that his utterances about the future of Singapore is but the latest iteration of the PAP's sacred teachings.
His recent speech at the SR Nathan Hard Seats Lecture, which many saw as PM-esque, is a spitting image of those made by Mr Lee Hsien Loong in the past. Here are three instances:
Chan: “Help Singaporeans understand what’s at stake and the trade-offs involved. Let them know how they’ll be affected directly.”
Lee: “As we venture into the next phase of our development, Singaporeans have to understand what is achievable, what the options are, and what trade-offs we have to make.”
On accountability and responsiveness
Chan: The government “must be accountable...and responsive to [the people's] needs.”
Lee: The government “must be responsive to the people and...be held to account”.
Chan: “Trust...needs to be earned and maintained by each generation of leaders.”
Lee: “We must...stay close to Singaporeans, and maintain their trust and confidence.”
The similarity extends to phrases like Singapore lacking a “hinterland” and, therefore, needing “exceptional leaders” to keep a “social compact” with the people in order to maintain a “cohesive society”.
(Read the speeches here, here and here.)
If Mr Chan is trying to parrot his boss, he's succeeding admirably.
Of course, he cannot be expected to say otherwise, can he? After all, these are buzzwords that appeal to voters. Whether they are true is another matter.
Take, for instance, accountability. When was the last time a PAP minister was held accountable for the slew of mishaps? From the Mas Selamat escape to the Little India riot, Hepatitis-C outbreak, SMRT breakdowns, Keppel Corp corruption and everything in between, it is always their subordinates who have been shafted.
What about the cringe-inducing boast that they are exceptional leaders? The thing is, exceptional leaders don't have to change the rules to reserve elections for their candidate or introduce the GRC system so that they don't have to call for by-elections or detain without trial their opponents or outlaw protests of even one person or control the media so that they are less free than even the ones in Ethiopia and Sudan.
As for the social compact the PAP struck with the people – it died long ago. The idea that the people give up their political rights in exchange for the good life is as real as the Easter bunny (or our exceptional PAP leadership).
With an overcrowded island, stressed out workers, rising cost of living, diminishing job market, increasing homelessness, and burgeoning debt, talk about achieving the Swiss standard of living (promised by Mr Goh Chok Tong) invariably draws a pained chuckle from the average Singaporean. It remains as wistful as our football team playing in the World Cup finals (also dreamed up by Mr Goh).
And to think we gave up all our rights for this.
I wrote about Mr Lee's largely wasted prime ministership (here) where he possessed neither the foresight nor fortitude to embrace the dire need for change in Singapore.
To be truly accountable to the public rather than their party, responsive to the people's needs rather than their salaries, and mindful of the country's future rather than their own power – in short, to be genuinely effective leaders – Mr Chan Chun Sing and his fellow PM contenders must have it in them – guts and all – to chart a distinctly different and democratic course for Singapore.
To follow in Mr Lee's footsteps is to walk blindfolded. In the night. On a cliff. Falling off the edge is only a question of when – and the one leading the pack will also be the one who will oversee a tragic national upheaval. Just ask Mikhail Gorbachev.