SINGAPORE — Veteran editor PN Balji seems to be vexed by one pressing issue in Singapore more than any other: the fourth-generation (4G) leaders and the challenges they will continue to face amid the longstanding “groupthink” approach of the government.
Known for his trenchant analysis of Singapore’s sociopolitical affairs, Balji addressed the 4G leadership issue extensively in a new book, “Transition: The Story of PN Balji”, which was released earlier this month.
Written by former media veteran Woon Tai Ho, “Transition” arose from his regular casual coffee meetings with Balji. From these meetings, the CEO of media consultancy Rights Asia asked Balji for his views on the key long-term challenges facing Singapore, and about his family life and career.
The ongoing pandemic has exposed the lack of decisive leaders in the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) government, as attested by the stop-start and inconsistent safe management measures to combat COVID-19, according to Balji, who was previously the top editor at TODAY and The New Paper.
“In my book, today’s leaders must be bold enough to throw the old playbook away and start afresh with new ideas and thinking. They must have a rebellious streak in them, like Lee Kuan Yew and, to a smaller extent, Goh Chok Tong,” said the media consultant.
He was unrelenting in his candid assessment of the 4G leaders, saying that they are “not up to the mark”. Unlike the previous generations of leaders, the current leaders dare not make difficult and hard decisions, according to Balji.
While Balji still gave a passing mark to the 4G leaders, when measured against the gold standards of their predecessors, he gave them a score of 6.5 out of 10. They have performed poorly while at the forefront of tackling what Balji considered as possibly the crisis of the century.
“The enemy is invisible, and it mutates. Leaders need to make hard decisions and have the ability to convince the public to follow. In the last two years, I have been very disappointed with these leaders.”
Shortcomings of COVID-19 taskforce
Balji also questioned the handing over of the portfolio of Health Minister from Gan Kim Yong to Ong Ye Kung last year while Singapore was still in the midst of the pandemic. He argued that even a capable politician needs time to be fully operational and called the move a “knee-jerk response”.
Similarly, Balji said the pandemic decision-making process revolving around a triumvirate of Ong, Gan, who is now Trade and Industry Minister, and Finance Minister Lawrence Wong reflects a “distinct lack of self-confidence” among the leaders and has led to public confusion over their messaging.
In a crisis, one person has to lead the charge to give clear directions, according to Balji. “When you don’t have that kind of leadership, and instead have three ministers fronting a crisis, and when tough questions are asked, they look at each other. It doesn’t give me confidence. In a crisis, responsibility cannot be shared.”
PAP has also not managed its succession planning well, Balji said. The author of "Reluctant Editor" cited the example of how former Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat, the original successor to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, fumbled on the political stage on two notable occasions.
He referred to the motion proposed by Heng to ask the Workers’ Party MPs Low Thia Khiang and Sylvia Lim to recuse themselves from financial matters relating to the Aljunied-Hougang Town Council, during which Heng stumbled badly and had to be assisted by Lee to argue his case. It was “painful” to watch Heng “so lost and unprepared”, he added.
The other occasion was when Heng bungled while making a speech on Nomination Day during the 2020 General Election. Heng’s gaffes highlighted how Singapore’s “political succession is still stuck in the mud”, Balji argued.
Groupthink is PAP's Achilles’ heel
PAP's shortcomings are largely due to its groupthink approach of running the country, according to Balji.
Despite the government’s arguments that it has drawn alternative ideas by recruiting former critics in the public service and that it pays highly competitive salaries, Balji is not convinced. “They rely on the same means of recruiting new members into their party, their groupthink is their Achilles’ heel.”
Balji mentioned, for instance, the significant role that the military plays in Singapore politics – an issue that the book says “many know but few want to highlight” – in which top military personnel retire and later get senior political and administrative positions.
Following the anointment of Wong as Singapore’s next PM, Balji was asked about his leadership potential.
Balji was somewhat impressed by Wong, saying that the 49-year-old Marsiling-Yew Tee MP “exudes confidence and communicates clearly” and is prepared to move away from the establishment’s conventional ways of running the country.
Nonetheless, he warned, “The 4G leadership knows that hardliners in Cabinet are waiting to pounce on them if they stray too far away from PAP’s ideology. It is this game they must win if Singapore is to enter a new era of governance and politics.”
“Transition” is priced at $28 before GST at all major bookstores (Kinokuniya, Times and Popular) and online shops (Amazon.sg).
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