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【堅離地報聯盟:The Diplomat🇸🇬】深度分析新加坡接班人問題反映的深層次矛盾

【按:新加坡執政人民行動黨終於出現接班人,財長黃循財獲黨內大老推選為「第四代領導核心」,取代年前突然下馬的王瑞杰,但背後依然反映了新加坡政壇的深層次矛盾。本月《堅離地報聯盟》選擇了《The Diplomat》這篇付費文章,作者Michael D. Barr是著有多本新加坡專著的澳洲國際關係學者,文章會詳細講述這次人選的象徵意義:】Singapore's Succession Headcount / By Michael D. BarrAs Singapore approaches its sixth year of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s long and public slide into retirement, we have to ask what is going on at the highest levels of the People’s Action Party (PAP) government. The process of choosing Lee’s successor as prime minister began very publicly in 2016, when a field of six candidates – all ethnic Chinese men with similar educational, social, and professional backgrounds – was floated for public consumption in the mainstream media. This exercise was followed by a two-year process whereby Lee winnowed the field down through carefully calibrated mechanisms, such as the appointment of one candidate as speaker of Parliament in September 2017. Thus, contenders were removed one by one until, in November 2018, Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat was the last man standing.The rationale for his ultimate selection was just as opaque as the earlier eliminations. After his election as first assistant secretary general of the PAP, unidentified “party sources” belatedly told the press that this outcome had been the final step in the process of selecting the next prime minister.Here We Go AgainSo far so good, but Heng then engaged in a series of very public blunders, culminating in a spectacularly embarrassing performance during the General Election campaign of 2020, attracting both domestic and international ridicule. The cumulative effect of these episodes was to publicly render Heng unviable as a prime ministerial successor. In April 2021 he stepped aside. But this unprecedented move left the process of leadership renewal in limbo, with nothing but embarrassment to show for more than five years’ careful work and hype. The leadership selection went back to the drawing board, and that is where it remained at the opening of 2022.From reading the tea leaves, Singaporeans are aware that there are now three or four possible contenders within the Cabinet, and among those four there seem to be two favorites. These are the two men heading the Singapore government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic: Finance Minister Lawrence Wong and Health Minister Ong Ye Kung. Beyond these slivers of speculation, however, it is all something of a mystery because the process of selection is still opaque to everyone outside the innermost circles of the country’s ruling elite. Meanwhile Lee, who turned 70 last month, keeps postponing his retirement, but is visibly tired and conspicuously disengaged from the hard work of policy and administrative leadership.Messy leadership transitions and lingering “lame duck” leaders are traditionally and routinely associated with Western democracies; this situation is unprecedented in Singapore. In fact, the contrast between the unpredictability and flawed outcomes of democracies on the one hand and the usual smoothness and effectiveness of Singapore’s system of leadership selection on the other has long been presented to international business, to the world at large, and to Singaporeans at home as one of the country’s bedrock strengths.According to the government’s image of itself, it operates a technocratic and meritocratic system of government and leadership selection, and this is what gives Singapore an outsized international stature, beyond that suggested by its tiny population (5.5 million, including nearly 2 million non-citizens) and geographical size (729 square kilometers, roughly the same size as Bahrain). According to official mythologies that were prevalent as early as the 1980s, Singapore’s government is staffed by professionals of the highest order and its leadership is chosen by a process based strictly on meritocratic selection. Its contenders for Cabinet and for the prime ministership are also apparently unique among human beings (let alone politicians) in being completely free of all self-interest: Each claims to have placed himself (and it is overwhelmingly himself) at the service of society, and to be willing to work in whatever capacity is deemed appropriate by a team of likeminded and comparably talented colleagues.A Twice-Broken RecordThis official leadership narrative reads like a fairy tale, and was never to be taken at face value. Yet even those who are most skeptical about the Singapore elite’s claims of virtue and professionalism must acknowledge that Singapore’s system of leadership recruitment and selection has managed to produce two solidly professional, technocratic prime ministers – Goh Chok Tong in 1990 and Lee Hsien Loong in 2004 – without revealing rifts in the Cabinet or much discomfort in the general populace. Beyond the prime ministership, the system also has a decades-long record of smooth and efficient selection of (mostly) high-quality Cabinet ministers, all through Byzantine machinations conducted entirely at the elite level.Now, however, that record of achievement has been broken on two counts. First, the mystique of hyper-professionalism among Singapore’s Cabinet ministers took a beating in May 2011, when Lee found himself apologizing publicly for his government’s record of policy and administrative mistakes, which was followed by the removal of three accident-prone and under-performing ministers. (Former Prime Minister Goh had earlier defended the record of a fourth member of Cabinet by arguing that he was not nearly as incompetent as the three removed.)Second, the current soap opera over the choosing of Lee’s successor – complete with the unforced error of settling on a candidate who was very obviously inadequate – has undermined any basis for trusting the Cabinet’s political judgment or its processes of self-renewal.The question is, does this decade of disorder mean the system of government is broken, or do the problems go no deeper than that of having mistakenly recruited and appointed some substandard personnel? It is tempting to settle blame on the personnel in place – especially in the case of Lee’s designated successor, who would have been a lampoonist’s dream in any country with a free press.Such a line of analysis, however, is inadequate on at least two grounds. First, it avoids the question of how substandard candidates were able to come out on top in the first place, often ahead of other candidates who were or are demonstrably more competent. Second, it fails to explain the extraordinary delay in settling on Heng Swee Keat’s replacement after he stepped aside nearly a year ago. We do not even know what process has been employed to choose his replacement, beyond the firm knowledge that it has been pursued entirely within the Cabinet, supposedly by consensus.Vacancy at the CenterIf we shift our gaze to seek systemic problems in the selection of personnel, the decade of disorder is relatively easily explained – but not so easily solved. The most important point to note is the shifting reality that sits behind the façade of meritocracy and technocracy. At the highest levels of government, including the civil service and the military, the exercise of power is heavily dependent on personal connections. We might call this phenomenon “patronage.”And for the entirety of Singapore’s life as an independent republic, the most important source of patronage has been the Lee family: first “founding father” Lee Kuan Yew, and since 1990, his eldest son, Lee Hsien Loong. Even during the 14 years in which Goh Chok Tong was prime minister, he was hedged in the Cabinet and the Prime Minister’s Office by Lee Kuan Yew as senior minister and Lee Hsien Loong as an exceptionally powerful and active deputy prime minister.Yet after 17 years with Lee Hsien Loong as prime minister, the hegemony of the Lee family is not what it was. Lee is still the country’s most powerful politician, and undoubtedly retains the capacity to arbitrate between contenders if he so chooses, but it is no longer clear that he has the energy, will, or interest to actively promote any candidate. If this is the case, then for the first time since independence in 1965, an elite power struggle is being conducted without the exercise of centralized top-down management and without any fixed procedures for making a final decision.This would perhaps not be such a problem if there were a candidate who was extraordinarily competent and met with both general and elite approval, but unfortunately the candidate with the most impressive record of administrative competence – the former army chief, Chan Chun Sing – has a public manner that has made him a polarizing and unpopular figure, both with the public and in the PAP. (He was the second-to-last man standing in the previous selection process.)The other three likely contenders – Ong Ye Kung, Lawrence Wong, and the much younger Minister for National Development Desmond Lee – have never carried Chan’s burden of unpopularity, but neither is there much to separate them from each other in terms of their records of achievement or their public personas. Wong and Ong have arguably been using their year jointly running the COVID-19 response to establish a competitive advantage over their rivals, but this still leaves the two of them as peas in a pod, with no very obvious way for one of them to gain an advantage over the other, or even to keep other contenders at bay.A Choice of BlancmangeThis brings us to the problem in the Singapore system as it has operated during Lee Hsien Loong’s long goodbye. With a decline in the role of patronage as the key to power, how is the succession to be settled? There have never been written rules, and now the unwritten rules don’t seem to be working so well either.To make matters worse, every contender for top leadership was gifted his political career through the acceptance of patronage. They were each invited into the Parliament and the Cabinet following afternoon “tea” with a selection panel, and a barrage of psychological tests and security checks. Joining the PAP routinely followed the invitation to join the Cabinet. Hence, none has a political power base of his own, or any ideas or policy positions that distinguish him from any of his colleagues.These contenders would not have even been considered for selection if they hadn’t gone to the right schools, won the right scholarships, lived in the right middle-class suburbs/estates, held leadership positions with the right employers, known the right people, and been ethnic Chinese – and male.True, they have all had the best education and training, but they have all had similar education and training, received mostly in the same small selection of elite schools, followed by socialization in the military, the civil service, or a government-linked employer. In some cases, they even held the same jobs before entering politics; both the front runners have done stints as Lee’s principal private secretary.This common background, together with the historical role of patronage, certainly helps explain the homogeneity of Singapore’s elite and why any friction within the Cabinet is able to be contained so easily. The multi-million-dollar salaries earned by Cabinet ministers help too.Yet it also points to an explanation of what is going wrong at the moment. In 2003 a senior civil servant told me that Singapore’s most pressing problem at the elite level was “groupthink” – his words, not mine. It seems that, despite serious efforts to confront this issue, little has changed since 2003. Independent thinking is more likely to be punished than rewarded and the aspects of government policy in which the government has displayed the most energy (apart, perhaps, from managing COVID-19) are those connected with harassing the parliamentary opposition, stifling free speech and academic freedom, and controlling the internet.New Ideas vs. Ancien RégimeA new generation of Singaporeans is becoming increasingly insistent on policy reforms in areas as diverse as race relations, housing, inequality, the role of foreign workers, and the social cost of economic prosperity, but the government is still beginning its search for new ideas with the policy settings put in place in the 1960s and 1970s. And they don’t see this as a problem.Worse than that, none of the contenders for leadership (either in the current round or the previous one) has ever given the slightest public indication that he disagrees with the fundamentals of these ancient policy settings. On such matters, all the contenders are in furious agreement.One of those contenders will presumably be announced as the next prime minister at some stage. We can assume that this time he will be up to the job, but this will not end Singapore’s leadership vacancy, since the next prime minister will both belong to and be beholden to the ancien régime and have a vested interest in its perpetuation. Competence is good, but in the 2020s, it is unlikely to be sufficient.New ideas, proper leadership, and some fierce policy debates are needed for Singapore’s medium-term and long-term wellbeing, but it is difficult to see from where they are likely to come in the near future.https://thediplomat.com/2022/03/singapores-succession-headache/...
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