Yesterday's swearing-in of Singapore's political leadership marks the continuation of a journey that began six decades ago with Mr Lee Kuan Yew and other founding fathers. This bears mentioning as their demanding conception of leadership performance, particularly its ethical component, remains a touchstone for current leaders. In recent years, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has held up a philosophy of servant leadership that "begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve", as put by leadership guru Robert K. Greenleaf who is associated with the idea. Singaporeans who are grateful that political leadership here has been thus institutionalised would expect the fourth generation of leaders to emulate their predecessors and, at the same time, offer something of their own that is apt for the changing times.
Given these high expectations, the induction of untested political leaders might raise some eyebrows, even though those identified for high office have a strong track record in the civil service, the armed forces or the professions. As they have all been thrust into challenging roles before and have learnt how to learn fast on the job, there's a good chance they will rise to the challenge. Unlike selection methods elsewhere which depend on the free-for-all of the electoral process to throw up winners and survivors, in Singapore, credentials and character are scrutinised well before a baptism of fire, and mentorship and reviews are not neglected. Critics might consider the process elitist but it has evolved over the years and it is generally accepted that the people's touch is an indispensable quality of top leaders.
Crucial aspects of change in Singapore which fourth-generation leaders ought to keep in mind are social fragmentation and the stratification of interests. Gone forever are the days when a single set of policies, notably in public housing, could be applied across the board. Now, policies will have to be nuanced, applying a range of disciplines; and trade-offs will have to be transparently negotiated when ambitions exceed the resources that can be made available.
Next, they must be prepared for the emergence of a more educated and demanding electorate whose most vocal fringes include dissenters and sceptics. Whereas politics was often administration by other means in an earlier era, now leaders can expect people, especially millennials, to ask why and how a decision was made. And unlike the past when leaders could maintain a certain distance, and even an air of mystique, they will now find that a personal touch can lend much to the way they communicate and connect with people. Importantly, the next prime minister and his core team should never forget that all social endeavour is ultimately based on the vitality of the economy, so as to deliver on the quest for happiness, prosperity and progress for the nation.
This article was first published on October 2, 2015.
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