SINGAPORE,. While there are “unnervingly close parallels” between Singapore and Malaysia, it would be a “foolish mistake” to share Malaysian Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s recent conclusion that Singaporeans — like the Malaysians — “must be tired of their government”, said Banyan Tree executive chairman Ho Kwon Ping yesterday.
Ho, who was speaking on “Singapore Politics and Business in an Age of Disruption” at an OCBC forum, said that a “huge and critical difference” between both countries is the “egregiously blatant” corruption of the previous Malaysian government, which resulted in the toppling of the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) party.
Weeks after the Pakatan Harapan (PH) alliance led by Dr Mahathir clinched a historic victory in Malaysia’s general election on May 9, he told the Financial Times that PH’s win would have a spillover effect on its neighbour.
“I think the people of Singapore, like the people in Malaysia, must be tired of having the same government, the same party since independence,” he said in the interview.
But Ho noted that the similarities between both nations, including the fact that Singapore’s ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) and Malaysia’s BN are founding parties in their countries, did not mean that the former would suffer the same fate.
Singapore and its people, he said, would be “drawing the wrong lessons if we look at Malaysia and think that the fall of the PAP is imminent for whatever reasons that are happening across the Causeway.”
“It is not the absence of full democratic institutions, it is not the absence of full human rights, or the putting down of dissent, nor the presence of paternalistic governance which brings down a government, or has brought down the Malaysian government,” said Ho at the OCBC Global Treasury Economic and Business Forum held at The Ritz-Carlton, Millenia.
“It is the unbridled, egregiously blatant and massively enormous corruption of the Najib (Malaysia’s former premier) government which brought him down.”
However, he warned of the possibility that the PAP might no longer be in power in the future, though this might only happen in the next 20 to 30 years.
Singapore is still helmed largely by its second generation of leaders, said Ho, with the memories of its founding fathers and principles of former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew, still “clearly remembered and largely perpetuated” by current leaders.
He noted that historically, there is a trend where the passion and integrity of post-independence founding parties persist for about three generations. Then, these parties would be in a rocky situation, as “hubris sets in and the rot begins”.
Contrary to Western beliefs, the desire for full democratic institutions will not cause the PAP’s downfall, he said. Instead, that may only happen if there is massive corruption among Singapore’s leaders.
“The Asian political culture has shown, that it is not the presence of democratic institutions, but it is the presence of good governance which is most critical,” said Ho, who was a journalist before becoming a hotelier.
“There’s a high degree of tolerance within Asian countries for even incompetence. But there is very little intolerance for totally selfish regimes which only perpetuate their own well-being.”
Singapore does not tolerate corruption, but that could change if the PAP allows nepotism and cronyism to set in, said Ho.
The PAP has to be careful not to create “quasi cronyism amongst cliques of elites” as it draws people from immediate circles of friends, the military or administrative service, he said.
He added: “There must be an inflow of totally fresh new blood into the political system if we are to avoid the futures that we do not wish to have.”
Complacency, such as the party applying the “same old formulas” to solve future problems, as well as the lack of internal competition within the party, could also be detrimental to the PAP, said Ho.
While he acknowledged that having factions within the party “is not necessarily bad” as it induces some competition, it should not reach a point where there is a huge split within the party as that could spell disaster — a fate suffered by Malaysia’s BN that resulted in its loss.
Singapore’s political leadership is aware that the “jibes made against us and our political system” by the Malaysians “may not be applicable in totality”, said Ho, but it knows there are still some lessons to be learnt.
Those are, he added, “the lessons about hubris, the lessons about keeping close touch with the population, the lessons about keeping scrupulously clean and avoiding any possibility of corruption to infect the political system”.