Populist Politics in Singapore and The Trickle Down Effect on Culture

From The Straits Times, and thanks to Mr Wang,

July 27, 2006

PAP wants ‘hip, happening’ image to click with the young

Party’s conservative style needs to be updated to get in sync with younger generation, says PM Lee

By Li Xueying

FROM ‘conservative’ and ‘staid’, to ‘hip and happening’: The People’s Action Party (PAP) wants to update its style to connect better with younger Singaporeans.

Party secretary-general Lee Hsien Loong wants the PAP to ‘get more in sync with the younger generations’ culture and be on their wavelength’.

In an editorial in the latest issue of the PAP party organ Petir, he spelt out the challenge for the 52-year-old party: ‘The party’s style is conservative, even retro. But the values, perspectives and lifestyles of our young have moved on from those of our older generations, and will continue to change rapidly.’


So while the young had shown strong support for the PAP, more needs to be done to keep pace with them, he added.

He cited as an example the ‘criticism’ from his children, in their teens and 20s, after they all attended a PAP election rally.

On the way home, they told their 54-year-old father what they thought of the experience: ‘Too staid, too logical, not ‘lively’ enough, not at all attractively presented to them’.

Said Mr Lee: ‘I have heard the same criticism from other young people. It is not just our rallies, but the party’s overall approach to putting our message out and involving our supporters in our activities.’

One ‘great success’ when the party connected with younger members was at the Young PAP’s 20th anniversary rally in April, complete with balloon clappers and cheerleaders.

‘But we need to do more,’ he said. ‘We have to build up more groups of active supporters who will contribute ideas and fight for our cause.’

Mr Lee has asked a team of new MPs, born after 1965 and called the P65 Team, to ‘recommend ways to better connect with the young and to make fresh proposals for a more hip and happening PAP’ ….


There’s something wrong here, not too long ago, I hear PAP doesn’t play populist politics and now they want to connect with the young by being hip, cool, having balloon clappers and cheerleaders?????

Maybe the next thing they will do is to book Zouk and MOS for their PAP Youth parties and have lotsa pple drunk. Ridiculous.

“Hip” and “Happening” are not tags that you slap on easily, especially on a self-respecting political party. Not over-reacting here because of the verbage used by the journalist but if the P65 Team is strategizing in order to build a new Young PAP based on the mantra of “hip and happening”, you are going to attract the wrong people. I think local youths just want you to listen more to the ground and not appear so high-handed when dishing out policies. Respect and build a more civic society, grant more funds and freedom to what we want to do with a light hand on guidelines, be more flexible. Promote more dialogue at the schools and with young professionals to encourage more pple to interact with you and debate on issues. Telling people you want to be hip gives many the wrong imagery.

Dun talk down as if you are the father and we are forever the child. In the same context, we don’t expect our metaphorical “dad” in Singapore’s paternalistic society to suddenly come out and hang out with us by trying to be hip and happening. Its puts people off.

But I see a light.

A symbolic willingness to change that may herald a shift in the culture of Singapore. Any Singaporean citizen or any expat who has lived here for more than 5 years will tell you Singapore is a very clean, efficient country where everything runs like clockwork because we are so systemized. That makes many who work in the public sector and many on the private sector feel stifled. The reason is a country that is led by the government which has had too strong a hand in dictating economic and social policies and taking leadership in almost every matter of national concern. This created a society that takes cues from the government and a strong trickle-down effect from government to the enterprise sectors, both public and private, especially with the public servants sitting on directorial boards of the large corporations in Singapore. Look, the government even had to initiate a policy shift in educational policy to focus on teaching creativity because it did too good a job in ensuring a compliant society in the first 40 years of our history.

In what might be an over-simplistic view of our society, I pose to you a two-tiered system of how Singapore works. A policy-determining executive class, forming a minority of Singapore’s population, and the majority middle-class Singaporeans who work mainly as middle managers in both public and private sectors. This theory applies more to the corporate world.
The middle class has no mind of their own, numbed into inaction by a national culture that focuses on compliance in its formative years and which is struggling to break free of this stereotype not practical in our borderless, information-saturated world today. The middle class has no independence, you see these people bound by a multitude of rules and regulations in their job scopes and powerless to do anything about it. You encounter these people in major corporations, the public sector offices who really want to help but are more worried about serving their bosses than serving their customers. If they are so compliant, you can forget about them trying to question the rules, hence no mention of innovation or creativity. If you come in, brimming with dynamism, idealism and youthful exuberance, thou shall be scorned, a corporate pariah that senior employees will ostracise in order to maintain the status quo and not rock the boat.

One word, drones.

But the executive class is different. Change is in the air. As Singapore matured over the years from being a developing to a developed nation, and with the influx of foreigners and a highly economically-oriented government in touch with the global economy and modern management techniques, the executive class understands it has to chop and change its conservative style of management. No one can fault Singapore’s ruling class for its many swift and receptive changes to our national IT infrastructure, our fast-tracked political renewal, many enterprise-friendly policies and many strategic investments taken at national level to boost our economy to the best shape possibly for tackling the future ahead in the fields of biotech, water resource management… We are not purely an authoritative and totally staid regime too with “Remaking Singapore” and numerous initiatives such as the daring or outright unorthodox architecture projects in the Supreme Court, Arts Theater/ Esplanade. I might be against the casinos on social and political ground of flip-flopping, but they signal an attitude towards liberalism and towards a more open, “messier” social fabric.

Point is, the direction is right, but the execution leaves much to be desired. The executive class, some even made up of foreigners in the corporate world, are very welcoming of change, innovation and dynamism. But the choke point is in the middle class, specifically the middle managers who fail to understand the change in management style philosophically and drag their feet along in executing reform agendas. That might explain the disconnect between how policies are strategized and how they are eventually implemented. Culture can’t be changed overnight, and especially in top-down managed Singapore, change takes time to filter down to the bottom levels and the entire society. It might take a generation, it might take more. But slowly and surely, I believe Singapore’s culture will change to become more open and liberal, more tolerant or welcoming towards creativity and unorthodoxy, the seeds of innovation and dynamism.

Hence, I think PAP’s new tack of becoming more “hip and happening”, though extreme, might be necessary, due to the slow progress in changing of mindsets of the society. Due to the ineffective execution of middle managers, we will never be totally hip and happening, but will settle somewhere in the middle of staid and fun.

Those used to top-down management style will take the cue and lessen their conservative management styles towards more consultative and “fun” corporate cultures. THe nature of being “hip and happening” also gives those already “hip and happening” a license to be more boisterous and thus highlighting their presence disproportionately in our society. All this bearing in mind that the “hip and happening” tag should not compromise the core functionalities and efficiency of corporate processes but is rather an “image makeover”.

I based my opinions on numerous interactions with individuals involved in corporate environments in Singapore, both public and private. A balanced comparison with my personal working experience both within Singapore and overseas is also taken into account. Hence, this is not a mere ranting, but a commentary based on a large sample of observations. And please, I am not an academic or writer too, hence pardon my rather unpolished writing style at times. THis is a blog, and I tend to ramble.


One thought on “Populist Politics in Singapore and The Trickle Down Effect on Culture

  1. It’s like a cranky old man putting on hip-hop gear and saying “Wassup dawg?” It’s still a cranky old man with no jive underneath.

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