Singapore’s cadre system
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Singapore’s cadre system

One man’s view built the Island Republic, writes Asia Sentinel’s Murray Hunter

The modern father of Singapore Lew Kuan Yew, the father of the current prime minister Lee Hsien Loong, launched his latest book “One Man’s View of the World” recently. Lee gives his views on major powers and regions of the world, often with scathing remarks about Singapore’s neighbors and past Chinese leaders. What’s more, the book has been endorsed by former US Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and George Schultz.

“One Man’s View” is full of interviews made by Lee’s editorial team. They are defensive of his past actions and policies, yet very critical of others, not even sparing the daughter of former prime minister Goh Chok Tong, who migrated to Bradford in the UK with her English husband. What is even more valuable for future historians was his candidness about the afterlife and total pragmatism behind what actions he took during his tenure of influence over the island nation.

However Lee’s book is totally silent on the mechanism that maintained his tenure and influence over Singapore, an issue that is much alive in the local blogs, the Peoples’ Action Party cadre system, something that political commentators domiciled within Singapore are very hesitant to discuss although it is very much part of Lee Kuan Yew’s pragmatic approach to solving problems.

The People’s Action Party (PAP) was conceptualized out of friendships between Lee Kuan Yew, Goh Keng Swee and Toh Chin Chye during their education in Britain. In 1954, with the help of trade unions that represented the Chinese-educated majority, a left-leaning nationalist party, the PAP, was formed. With the help of Lim Chin Siong and Fong Swee Suan, the party would appeal to the Chinese-educated working class and create a broad base of support. The PAP started out as a mass mobilization party based on a Leninist model. Much of this model is still intact within the party today.

The PAP is well disciplined and cohesive, with extremely powerful machinery on the ground. Leadership is very much top-down through an instituted cadre system. This has been partly to prevent any future hostile takeover attempts. A potential cadre must be recommended by a member of parliament, and then the candidate is interviewed a number of times by a committee appointed by the Central Executive Committee (CEC), which will include four to five 5 ministers and members of parliament. There may be up to 1,000 cadres in the party today, although the exact number is secret. A cadre has the right to attend the party conference and vote for the leadership every two years.

Consequently, political power is centered in the Central Executive Committee, headed by the Secretary-General, the head of the party, who is usually also the prime minister. There is a very strong overlap between CEC members and cabinet ministers. Twelve members are elected by the cadres and six are appointed. Any outgoing CEC member must recommend a list of potential candidates to fill his/her position for the CEC. The CEC looks after the Young PAP, Women’s Wing, selects cadres, and parliamentary candidates.

Ordinary party members are screened before they can join the PAP. Potential members must demonstrate some involvement in the community before memberships are approved. Lee Kuan Yew did not want a mass party with populist demands, and also wanted to avoid the problems of ‘guanxi’ within the party. Party members are basically unpaid volunteers, serving their MPs on branch sub-committees, and help mobilize support during elections.

By international political party standards the PAP is very small, maybe 15,000 members, with a small central administrative machinery. There is a small HQ executive committee that oversees the daily administration of the party, i.e., maintaining party accounts, memberships, overseeing committees work, publications, and branch coordination.

Like Lee, the major ideology of the PAP is pragmatism, meritocracy, multiculturalism and communitarianism. The PAP is pro-economic intervention through fiscal policy and government enterprise involvement, within a generally free market backdrop. The party strongly rejects the concepts of Western liberal democracy, citing a philosophy based upon “Asian values” as the guiding principles of social development.

Perhaps one of the greatest concerns of the PAP, reflected in the way it is structured and leadership is institutionalized, is the issue of succession, where it is believed that succession is the root of stability. Formal and informal rules and norms, and procedures guide who can and who cannot stand for party and public office.

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