Lee Kuan Yew’s Method of Government

Mr Lee Kuan Yew, the founding leader of Singapore, passed away in the early morning of 23 March 2015; this is a review of his governing ideas.

Chungkwong Yuen

retired professor of computer science, national university of singapore

added Feb 2018

a few weeks ago GCT initiated an active public discussion of the succession issue by urging that the future PM candidate be identified in 2018, and the party responded by identifying a group of 16 younger ministers as the electoral college that will make the choice; LHL subsequently shot down the 6-9 months discussion period suggested by GCT; ST reporter Elgin Toh added further ingredient to the process by throwing the ideas of LHL continuing into his 70s and having one of the DPMs teo chee hian or tharman as an interim one-term PM; I assume someone is carefully watching the ST forum and other media to see how each of the ideas is being received

I am of the view that LHL would not simply fade away,  also that he would not follow his father’s course of remaining in cabinet as senior minister; my own guess is he would leave cabinet/parliament, but remain PAP secretary general; in this capacity, he maintains charge of  major party affairs, such as admission of cadre members, timing and agenda of meetings, election of central executive committee, and selection of party parliamentary election candidates; with him in the background managing the party, the government could have several one-term PMs before settling into a new era of unified power

I remain convinced that another constitutional change will be necessary on the elected presidency, and have already suggested the possibility of a proportionally elected second chamber i.e. senate whose president is ex-officio head of state

added May 2016

the stroke suffered by Heng Swee Keat has generated a feeling of crisis, which is about the next next PM: if as originally anticipated, Heng takes over soon after the 2020 election, he would be around for three elections, and would have time to groom his own successor team; now it looks likely that thaman or teo chee hian would take over for an interim period, with one of the fourth generation ministers then taking over for another interim period, before giving way to the fifth generation; the scenario is much less reassuring, unless an obvious fifth generation heir quickly emerges; this would need to be a already familiar figure with clear credentials; I will leave it to everyone to speculate who this person might be

Singapore Inc

posted on another part of the wordpress May 2015

Lee Kuan Yew sees the state of Singapore as a corporate entity: the citizens are its shareholders and the cabinet its board of directors; the former expect the latter to make money, but grumble about not being paid enough dividend and not being consulted about policy. The police and army are seen as corporate security departments, and the local press the public relations organ. Schools and universities are expected to train manpower useful for the economy, including R&D at advanced levels. Community organizations, including neighbourhood clubs operated by People’s Association, a government funded organization, are expected to provide healthy social and recreational outlets, and so on. They are all supposed to support national goals.

Much of Singapore’s economy is state owned – Temasek, the sovereign wealth fund, has majority control of most of the large companies listed on the Singapore Stock Exchange, with considerable additional assets controlled directly by government departments like Monetary Authority and Port Authority(another fund, Government Investment Corporation, operates mainly in overseas markets). Major private local corporations like banks and real estate companies, and multinationals undertaking investment and manufacturing operations locally and even regionally, operate under strict government regulations. In land use and technological development, one can even see elements of central planning, and attribute the origin of such “state capitalism” to People’s Action Party’s initial coalition of western educated activists like LKY himself, and communists/chinese chauvinists working together, despite differences, for the short term goal of anti colonialism.

However, one can also find a more charitable explanation for wanting to have Singapore as a monolithic corporate entity: a small country existing within an ethnically different region need to somehow punch above its weight category, and having the nation as a whole competing commercially on the international market gives it at least a fighting chance against the multinationals, many of which are larger than most countries of the world and throw their weight about on all continents.

The broad span of the government’s control over the economy creates valuable career opportunities: civil servants, even army officers, are regularly transferred to government linked corporations, and sometimes, move on to local private companies or multinationals. While such opening doors depend on your academic qualifications and work experiences, it also depends on the level of trust you have earned. This issue of trust has certain unique Singapore characteristics which I will discuss below.

Various opposition figures and foreign journalists like to say that Singapore is not truly democratic; what do they mean by this? If the definition of democracy is that elections are regularly held and the party with majority support (measured according to some well defined procedure which does not necessarily mean “most votes”, e.g., Al Gore had slightly more votes than George Bush in 2000, but a well defined legal process eventually had the Supreme Court making the final decision that allowed Bush to take office) wins control of government, then of course Singapore is a democracy.

When critics say “Singapore is not a ‘real” democracy” and it does not have “real elections”, they meant that the opposition have no “real” chance of winning the next election. I wont go into the issue of whose “fault” this is as it lies deeply into the social structure (those interested can read this long article https://yuenchungkwong.wordpress.com below); instead I wish to address the question “if elections do not ‘choose’ the next government, what purpose do they serve?” The answer is they allow the people to give the government a “mark”, i.e., the vote counts indicate how satisfied people are with the government generally, and with individual or groups of parliamentarians. A drop in the vote would cause re-evaluation of policies and candidates, and allow changes to be made during the next term.

This might be somewhat different from political science textbook definitions, but it is a logical and practicable concept. It has various consequences: the group that maintains long term control will have to continually demonstrate its superiority over the opposition. Since the opposition has never been in government, you cannot really compare the past performances of two groups of people and decide which to support, so this demonstration has to be based on other criteria, such as educational qualifications and past experience before going into politics. which explains the process of parliamentary candidate selection being like headhunting

The tight control emanating from a small leadership group is sometimes described as Leninist: Lenin invented the practical organizational tactics that allowed a group of Marxists to successfully take over a nation. In this scheme, a tightly knit and highly disciplined party structure is first established, to which members are required to devote their total loyalty – personal loyalties and loyalties to common humanity are not only secondary, but indeed suspect and dangerous. The party organization is superimposed onto the government bureaucracy, military command, legislative bodies, trade unions and other community organizations, so that those in control of the party achieve control of all aspects of society.

Singapore’s ruling party is however a very different entity; it is virtually ideology-free, unless you want to call pragmatism an ideology. It is also not a political career, in the sense that people are not usually selected to run for electoral office based on long term party work; instead, the leaders interview people who have made successful careers in other spheres and put them up as party candidates in the next election, Singapore Inc selecting new members of the executive from its operational staff. Politics is just an extension of normal business careers.

In short, power and money go together, and political control is not intended to limit economic freedom, but to protect it, to encourage people to work “within the system”. To paraphrase John Wayne, if you have them by their wallets, their hearts and minds will follow.

Hearts, Minds and Wallets

In late 1994 the PAP government, then under prime minister Goh Chok Tong, adopted a policy of giving cabinet ministers, parliament members, senior civil servants and other public sector employees (e.g., at the time university professors were included, but they were subsequently decoupled from civil service salary scales.) higher levels of pay, on the twin grounds that salaries competitive to those prevailing in the business and professional sectors are necessary to attract managerial and other talent into politics, and better paid public employees are less likely to engage in corruption.

The need to match political salaries with business levels reflects a basic feature of the Singapore “system”, namely the inter-twining of public and commercial sector careers. The assumption underlying the system is that the Singapore government’s main task is to manage the economy, so that parliament members and cabinet ministers need to have the relevant experiences, which are best judged by their previous educational background and management related performance. One could say that the cabinet, being the board of directors of Singapore Inc working on behalf of its citizen shareholders, and the parliament acting as a kind of “nominating committee”, since you need to get its majority support to gain power, politics is just the process by which the “system” selects economic managers, a means one puts up with in order to achieve the more important end, almost regarded as a distraction. (Recall the somewhat innocent remark PM Lee made in the 2006 election campaign, that if too many opposition members are in parliament, he would be too busy dealing with them to fully focus on management.) Underlying it all is the premise that Singaporeans would agree to a “deal”: to accept the PAP way of doing things as long as the government delivers economic benefits.

Comparing the current situation with 1983 when I moved to Singapore, the people now enjoy more housing space, car ownership, overseas travel, recreational facilities, etc. But the new generation is also deeper in household debt and faces more competitive situations in the job market; part of this change is due to global trends, part is related to government policies like immigration. Feelings about the political “deal” would seem to be mixed.

Another unique feature of the Singapore political system is relevant: for over 50 years PAP has been in power, sometimes with no opposition representation in parliament at all. The opposition parties have no track record of running the country, and there is no historical comparison which voters can make to judge “which party will govern more competently?” Few opposition party members have high level managerial experience either. Thus, PAP has made a point to campaign on the premise that its people are “better qualified” to be in government, with prestigious university degrees, extensive administrative experience, and (usually not explicitly stated) better paid jobs before entering politics. Surely these people would need to be well paid to justify their new endeavours.

Like other conventional wisdoms, the high salary justifications are difficult to fault in theory but are also hard to confirm in practice. For analogy we might take for example the theory “Politicians must behave carefully; bad publicity is negative for their careers”, and then look at the extracurricular activities of Bill Clinton and Anthony Weiner, it is easy to see that logic could fail to match reality. The recent cases of two senior civil servants (plus one professor) being charged for corruptly receiving sexual favours, and one for embezzling money to gamble at the Marina Bay casino, also shows that people can succumb to other kinds of temptations, however well paid they might be.

A curious result of the high political salaries was that attractive parliamentary income has become a plus factor in opposition parties’ recruitment of parliamentary candidates, because the potential benefit relative to effort required is more favorable than on the other side: PAP has high qualification requirements and a complex process of assessing new candidates; even after one passes the hurdles, an ordinary MP has rather limited opportunities to move from the backbench into the cabinet. Becoming an opposition candidate is far easier. While for the kind of candidates PAP recruits the monthly allowance of MPs is a relatively modest sum, the situation is different for people on the other side. Further, since the introduction in the late 80s of the practice of putting MPs in charge of municipal business through town councils, successful opposition candidates control significant budgets, including procurement and service contracts that can be awarded to companies they favour.

Another curious result was a form of critical complacency: someone would rant about various government doings, get challenged to come up with constructive suggestions, and contentedly reply: “Our ministers are paid all that money to find solutions; I dont have to help them”. In other words, people can now use this issue as a free pass to justify emotionalism and failure of constructiveness. In fact, one could just as easily say “Our ministers are paid all that money to understand the situation; I dont have to”. It is difficult to have a process of “engagement” and ‘national conversation” if such a mentality prevails.

added on 7/8/2018 – recently Goh Chok Tong stirred the issue up again saying how important that ministers must be well paid, even that they are currently underpaid; public reaction was not very good; while I have no wish to discuss whether he is right or wrong, I propose a scheme whereby “salary” is reduced while housing and car are provided to compensate in whole or in part – the government rents the residence and vehicle an official owns and let him/her use them free of charge; so if an official previously had a high pay private sector job, he/she would have an expensive residence/vehicle, and the rental the government pays him/her would be high, and he/she suffers no loss in standard of living joining public sector

Earning Trust

In most east asian countries, personal connections play a very important role in all social activities including politics; while formal party structures put forward a public face, the real decisions are often made through behind-the-scene manoeuvres. For example, while a committee is supposed to make collective decisions taking into consideration the views of all members, it is common for everyone to know who is the most important member (not always the chairman), and shape their views according to their guess of what he/she wants so that they end up with a one-person “collective decision”.

In such behind-the-scene decision making, personal connections make it much easier to reach consensus, both because of frequency of contact in social settings and the existence of a level of trust, making more frank exchanges possible.

Personal connections arise in many ways, but family relatives, school classmates, national service team members, and past work or business associates are most likely to develop long lasting connections that will operate across different settings including politics. The top echelon of a society can over time build up a very large network of trust through direct and indirect personal connections radiating out from the inner core, and place trusted people in all spheres of the society in much the same way as the Leninist party system. Such a structure may be loosely described as Confucian.

In building up modern organizations and corporations, including political parties and government bodies, Asians have certainly taken Confucius’s talent promotion maxim to heart. Li Ka Shing, for example, has carefully laid out plans to divide his business empire between his two sons. While he also established sizable charity operations, he did not put his major assets into these in the way Warren Buffett and Bill Gates handled their fortunes. Despite long histories of public listing and shareholder participation, many important Asian business corporations remain family companies in essence.

Americans do use family connections too. While Buffett and Gates do not plan to hand over their fortunes to their children – among other considerations, this would attract huge inheritance or gift tax obligations, which are avoided if the assets are donated for charity – they do involve family members in their charity operations, and George W Bush obviously benefited from his father’s political status in helping him to attract the attention of voters, journalists, donors and prospective campaign organizers from the start. Americans merely have different experiences about what would work well and look good in their own society.

By using personal networking to identify work associates, maybe successors, the modernized Confucian system has frequently led to suspicions of nepotism, an emotionally charged word that reeks corruption and immorality in view of its Italian history. To some extent, the great emphasis on paper qualifications and examinations results, which are supposed to have unambiguous correct/incorrect answers rather than reflecting free thinking ability, is frequently a way to counter this, for the system to be seen as open and fair. Academic brand names are particularly important, (a practice now also increasingly adopted in USA and other western countries) and seen as more dependable. MIT and Stanford graduates fill the top positions in governments and corporations all over Asia, and Berkeley is over 40% Asian with many ambitious foreigners from East Asian countries among them. If you want to pass your company to your son, at least make sure he already has an Ivy League degree, so that people do not doubt he has brains and would be more inclined to agree that he is not getting the position purely because of the connection.

Confucian political philosophy hypothesizes that if leaders exercise moderation and follow procedures, they will be able to make decisions that compromise among various conflicting needs; by setting good examples of behaviour, they earn the respect of their subjects, who will generally behave themselves without constant resort to coercion and punishment. This is rather idealistic, and is criticized and ridiculed by the Legalist school, which believes in governing by specifying rules regulating all the significant activities of a society, and the use of generous rewards and severe penalties to keep people performing well and observing rules.

However, the main problem of the Legalist system is the tendency for rewards and punishments to escalate: if officials making mistakes are severely punished and also stand to lose their rewards, then office holding is a risky proposition, so that only ever more generous rewards can attract people to come on board; further, people who make minor mistakes would try to cover up and avoid the severe punishment, thus committing additional infractions that ultimately lead to even more severe penalties. When China was unified for the first time by Qin Dynasty adopting such a philosophy, its rule very quickly crashed under the weight of of its own harshness. The softer compromise system devised by the Han rulers brought back many of the ideas of Confucius, adding to it a layer of Taoist soft talk, resulting in a political amalgam that managed to hold sway in China for over two millennia until the arrival of western capitalism.

Today’s governments need to deal with complex economic issues, and it is a common experience that when a very large part of the economy is under government control, bloated bureaucracy, rampant corruption and gross inefficiency result. However, a computerized society makes it possible to implement a neo-Legalist system: Get a group of people you trust and give them a simple set of rules that cover all situations; however sophisticated and complex the situations might be, and whatever expertise that might be involved, one can always codify the knowledge into a set of rules that even relatively junior officials can apply, with just occasional high level reviews to modify rules to cover new situations and remedy shortcomings.

So the system is, like Mencius’s prescription of “those working with their minds rule; those working with their bodies are ruled”, made up of those who write the rule book and those who follow it. Such a scheme produces many benefits. The management system is simple, room for corruption is limited, and most of the work can be done by persons with just some limited training: check that conditions X, Y and Z are met, and grant the request. At various levels, the operational structures shuffle papers, move money and grant approvals in simple steps, allowing the country as a whole to tick along.

It is also relatively easy to assess the performance of the officials: the good officials know how to collect the wanted information for a case quickly to allow the relevant rules to be looked up, provide clear and courteous replies and explanations to petitioners, and give superiors the right amount of feedback so that they know what is going on without getting distracted with details.

But to move up, an official need to be more than just a good paper shuffler; he need to demonstrate capabilities and potential for the higher levels. So in addition to the operational networks, one also needs to be plugged into a network of trust: to have the chance to show oneself before higher officials and demonstrate capabilities, receive unofficial information useful for one’s work, and to provide informal feedback. Such networks are important everywhere, but particularly so in a society with wide spans of public control over the economy.

To paraphrase another familiar saying, “old ideas never die; they just stay behind another way”. Leninism, Confucianism and Legalism are staying with us and we have to embrace them, though not necessarily with affection.


george orwell was wrong about england, but several major PAP blunders started in 1984 during the election campaign of that year

1. elected president: LKY had already reached 60 by that year, and this was then the public sector retirement age; so he had to face the question whether he was stepping down; the thinking at the time was to move to the presidency – under the then constitution, parliament would decide; he being who he is, the position would not be merely ceremonial, but it must be his legal background that made him uncomfortable, and a decision was made to enhance the position; the resulting controversy led to his undertaking not to be the first elected president, Goh Chok Tong’s decision to invent the post of Senior Minister to keep LKY in the cabinet, the elected president Ong Teng Chong’s conflict with cabinet, regular embarrassment about a 3-men committee rejecting candidates causing a no contest, etc

LKY could have just retired in 1990, started a newspaper column (modern idea would be blog), a charity/research foundation, a senate, and he would have remained the most influential person in the country, taking into consideration his son and his 2nd cousin were both in cabinet; it was quite unnecessary for him to feel insecure about his own place in singapore society even if he held no elected office; if he had been a blogger posting articles daily, every important person in singapore, the cabinet ministers especially, would have eagerly read them as soon as they were posted

2. HDB asset enhancement: during the campaign LKY got annoyed by opposition claiming “your HDB apartmen is on 99-year lease; you dont really own it”, and announced “HDB will stop building in opposition districts”; at the time I actually did not understand why that should cause anyone to worry; but the Northeast MRT line provided part of the explanation – no population increase, no new infrastructure; the Mathias Yao–Chee Soon Juan Straits Times Forum series of letters provided some more – poor infrastructure, lower HDB value; with HDB apartments traded on the open market (previous owners are allowed to go back and buy a new apartment from HDB after 5 years).. Soon Permanent Residents, who are not entitled to buy from HDB, buying on the open market caused the HDB asset values to rise beyond affordability

3. CPF: with people living longer, the idea of delaying CPF money return was raised in 1984 and initial reaction was negative; again LKY was annoyed; soon the idea of minimum sum was adopted, later compulsory annuity, which would have been workable if most people can still get a substantial part out in cash at 55; with the weak salary increases in the past decade or so (partly because of foreign labour, e.g., IT used to have highest paid new graduates, before the industry bought in PRCs and Indians) and low interest rate, more and more people found themselves not meeting the minimum sum requirement, and every increase in minimum sum value makes more people angry


much of PAP’s recent electoral adversity was self inflicted; the major examples I recall

1. James Gomez case 2006: LKY, Wong Kan Seng and George Yeo spent far too much time talking about a minor issue (LHL and GCT both kept quiet – they could afford to); the Aljunied voters punished George Yeo, and WP identified the electorate as vulnerable, put effort into the ground work and won it decisively in 2011

2. Tin Pei Lin case 2011: it was sound strategy to find some younger, especially female, faces, but the party should have made the effort to find someone with a track record as a political operator in her own right, not just a polished presenter with management consultancy experience recommended by a personal connection; I also believe if they introduced her at the end, after people have grown bored with all those familiar CVs of civil servants, generals, professionals, executives, etc, she might have enjoyed a better reception, so they botched the presentation in addition to selection

3. Joo Chiat case 2011: it was also sound strategy to replace old by young, but Charles Chong is older than Chen Soo Sen so the change could not be justified on that ground; Chen also enjoyed certain personal support which did not readily transfer via party loyalty; Workers Party ended with nearly 50%

4. Hougang case 2012: Teo Chee Hean dwelt far too long on Yaw Shin Leong’s personal and business failings, which Yaw’s former supporters preferred not to be reminded of, whereas upbeat talks about the wonderful things PAP would do for Hougang if elected, might have more fully exploited the unexpected opportunity; after the Hougang moralizing, the Palmer case was a particularly hard blow – PAP candidates are like anyone else

whether the party would learn from these mistakes, and whether it would make new ones in 2016, is of course to be seen; given the resources available; it certainly has the potential of doing much better

About yuenchungkwong

email:yuenchungkwong@yahoo.com http://yuenco.com http://hongshanren.com http://penglairen.org
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