Sunday, 21 April 2013

Conviction politicians

Have politicians in the mould of Mr Lee Kuan Yew and Lady Margaret Thatcher become an unaffordable luxury?
By Lydia Lim, The Straits Times, 20 Apr 2013

THE death of former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher earlier this month has stirred among some nostalgia for the conviction politics of old, which she embodied.

A speech she gave at the Istana back in April 1985 made the rounds online among Singaporeans keen on politics, who marvelled at her wit and clarity. Today's speeches pale in comparison because, as one friend pointed out, they seem "focus-grouped to death" in a bid to be sensitive to voters' feelings.

Mrs Thatcher was a polarising figure.

At the helm from 1979 to 1990, she pushed through painful economic reforms that at one stage caused Britain's unemployment to soar past two million. But when members of her own Conservative Party urged her to make a U-turn, she dismissed them thus: "U turn if you want to, the lady's not for turning."

She also famously declared: "I am not a consensus politician; I am a conviction politician."

She was both friend and fan of Singapore's own conviction politician without equal - Mr Lee Kuan Yew.

As leaders, they evinced the same sort of certainty about where their countries needed to go.

They were unafraid of tough decisions and cared little for opinion polls - sure that whatever the popular view at a particular point in time, it was their view that would prevail in the end, as voters came round to see the wisdom of their policies.

Does the world still have room for leaders like them, who governed according to deeply held beliefs that they were loath to change?

Or has a conviction politician in the mould of Mr Lee become "an unaffordable luxury, an anomaly and an anachronism", as writer Catherine Lim wrote in 2011?

She cited three reasons for her view that he will likely be Singapore's last such leader.

First, the revolutionary Singapore from which he emerged has passed into history.

Second, the respect and goodwill he enjoyed due to the scale and brilliance of his achievements is unlikely to be repeated.

Third, in a globalised world where leaders face unexpected, daunting challenges, they need team consensus to project an image of unity and strength.

To be sure, since the watershed General Election of May 2011, Singapore's political leadership has made public engagement a priority, with the goal of forging a consensus on a way forward for the country.

Yes, voters want and need to be heard, and politicians need to consult and to listen.

But perhaps the pendulum has swung too far too fast in the direction of consensus, leaving in its wake worries about creeping populism and a lack of a clear sense of direction.

The Government's backtracking on its Population White Paper is one recent high-profile example.

I am not advocating a return to Mr Lee's style of politics. I agree its time is past.

It no longer makes sense to take a "my way or the highway" approach to political leadership, which one could get away with when one was fighting pitched battles, as Mrs Thatcher did against communism and in her struggle to revive the sick man of Europe which Britain had become, and as Mr Lee did as he wrested a newly independent Singapore from the threat of extinction.

Today's issues are no longer so clear-cut. Growing complexity means the Government often needs the rest of society to pitch in to help find solutions, hence the new emphasis on consultation and collaboration.

Also, the strident, non-conciliatory approach to policymaking of conviction politicians exacted a heavy price on individual citizens, as in the case of those detained without trial under Singapore's Internal Security Act. These personal losses were justified on the basis of the greater good for the larger number.

So is the longing for the stronger, surer politics of old just a matter of nostalgia, of focusing on the good and forgetting the bad of what has gone before?

Such nostalgia is to be expected during any major transition, such as the one the Singapore polity is now going through.

I think, though, that there is more at stake. Mrs Thatcher's death reminds us of some unchangeables in the bond between leaders and those they govern, and the first of these is that people want to know where a leader stands.

They want to know the beliefs he holds deep in his heart, and the ends he has in his sights. They want in their leader a man or a woman they can rely on, who does not sway with the wind but can hold firm in the face of shifting popular opinion.

The risk today is that in seeking to be responsive to voters, politicians fall off the edge and plummet into populism, sacrificing long-term good for short-term gains at the ballot box.

The Economist magazine declined to support US presidential candidate Mitt Romney last year for this very reason, highlighting his flip-flopping on matters such as abortion, gun control, climate change and health insurance.

"Competence is worthless without direction and, frankly, character," it said, taking issue with how Mr Romney "appeared as a fawning PR man, apparently willing to do or say just about anything to get elected".

Here in Singapore, ministers are aware of the danger of populism, as competitive politics makes a return after decades of dormancy.

In walking the fine line between being responsive to the electorate and being led by it, they need to remember that even consensus politicians need to demonstrate character, consistency and clarity.

A leader needs to know what he is about, and be clear about where he wants to go.

Only then, can others follow him.

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