In a Parliament full of youthful faces, 3 veteran politicians made the most sense

Old is gold.

By Martino Tan | July 6, 2017

Last week, international newspaper Financial Times published a commentary on how every politician fears the moment their “shelf life” expires.

Its hypothesis?

“In reality, age matters less than shelf life. However old politicians are, the rule of thumb is that they have a maximum of a decade at the top — before they burn out, and voters tire of them.”

FT used UK Prime Ministers Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair as examples — all-conquering politicians who got hounded out by their own colleagues in roughly a decade.

FT also used this concept of “shelf life” to explain the electoral failure of Hillary Clinton. Clinton, who had been in the public eye for 24 years, lost to people who were fresh to political life — Barack Obama and Donald Trump.

In another example of how Singapore is different from the west, one cannot help but notice that politicians in Singapore, like wine, improve with age.

Leadership renewal is a topic that the political leaders in Singapore are obsessed with.

Prime Ministers from the late Lee Kuan Yew to Lee Hsien Loong have always been mentioning about succession planning and on how the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) can attract young, promising leaders to join the ranks.

In fact, the ruling PAP usually renews a quarter to a third of its slate to make way for new blood at every general election (GE).

Hence, it was ironic that one of the most important political debates in Parliament was dominated by three leaders who became parliamentarians in 1976, 1984 and 1991.

Come to think of it, Goh Chok Tong, Lee Hsien Loong and Low Thia Khiang are among the longest-serving MPs in Parliament (Minister K Shanmugam is the third longest-serving MP as he became an MP in 1988).

First, the man under the spotlight.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, PM for more than 12 years, has been in politics for 32 years.

PM Lee made good speeches that was typical of what we expected from him — clearly thought out and logical. He also handled Low Thia Khiang’s robust questions on Ho Ching well, before getting emotional in his closing speech.

In the end, the debate in Parliament has revealed no evidence of the Lee siblings’ allegations of abuse of power by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

But one cannot help but think that his case is also helped by his longevity in public service. As ESM Goh pointed out:

“I reaffirm my full confidence in the integrity of the Prime Minister. I have known and worked closely with him for more than 30 years. I brought him into politics in 1984, and I should add, it was not at Lee Kuan Yew’s behest. He was my Deputy Prime Minister for 14 years. He has been Prime Minister for some 13 years.”

This was also backed by DPM Teo’s assessment of PM Lee:

“The Hsien Loong I see now, today, is the same Hsien Loong I have known all these years (Teo revealed that he knew PM Lee “for over 40 years”) — an upright earnest person who stands by his principles, and does what is right.”

As PM Lee said so in his Ministerial Statement on July 3:

“Regarding the house, and how its continued existence enhances my aura as PM, if I needed such magic properties to bolster my authority even after being your PM for 13 years, I must be in a pretty sad state.”

Second, the skeptic who makes the most sense.

Low, Workers’ Party’s Chief for more than 16 years, has been in politics and Parliament for 35 years and 26 years respectively. He spoke on the first day of the debate and asked for the most clarifications on the second day of parliament sitting.

On the dispute between PM Lee and his siblings, Low said that “this is not Korean drama show”.

On the numerous Facebook posts by the Lee siblings and several Cabinet Ministers, he noted that the government should “maintain its dignity” and not get involved in “a Facebook brawl”.

Soundbite after soundbite, it was Low who asked the questions that most Singaporeans wish they could have posed.

On the second day of the debate, Low questioned whether Parliament was the most suitable platform for this sorry saga and wondered whether PM Lee made the right call in not settling the private dispute in the court.

Lastly, it was a septuagenarian, who did not “facebook brawl” as much as the current Ministers, who stood out.

As a second generation leader and a former PM, Goh is probably the only person in Parliament with the gravitas to personally vouch for both PM Lee and DPM Teo.

More importantly, he revealed the possible motive and intent of Lee Hsien Yang and Lee Wei Ling, which was to bring down PM Lee:

“The dispute over 38 Oxley Road is only a fig leaf for the deep cracks within the family, cracks which perhaps started decades ago. What then is the agenda of PM’s accusers?

Are they whistleblowing in a noble effort to save Singapore, or waging a personal vendetta without any care for the damage done to Singapore? I have kept my ears open. From what Lee Hsien Yang and his wife are freely telling many others, it is clear that their goal is to bring Lee Hsien Loong down as PM, regardless of the huge collateral damage suffered by the Government and Singaporeans.

It is now no more a cynical parlour game. If the Lee siblings choose to squander the good name and legacy of Lee Kuan Yew, and tear their relationship apart, it is tragic but a private family affair. But if in the process of their self-destruction, they destroy Singapore too, that is a public affair.”

This prompted a reaction from LHY, who blamed PM Lee for dragging the government into personal dispute:

A day later, the Lee siblings declared that they will stop posting evidence on social media, provided that their father’s wish was not “attacked or misrepresented”.

Goh’s allegations of LHY waging a personal vendetta without any care for the damage done to Singapore is a serious one but it looks like LHY will let it pass and not sue.

All in all, not bad for someone whom the late Lee Kuan Yew described as “wooden” and that he might have to see a psychiatrist about it.

It appears that Goh’s place in history — already secured as Singapore’s second PM — will be rewritten after his decisive intervention in parliament this week.

Top photos taken from Gov.sg YouTube. Photo collage by Guan Zhen.

About Martino Tan

Martino’s parents named him after an Italian priest, Vatican's 1st ambassador to S’pore. He's inspired by the lives of Robert Kennedy & D. Bonhoeffer, the words of G.Orwell & T.Sorensen, & the music of the Beatles.

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