LKY vs SIA pilots: What it means for Singapore

January 9, 2004
Singapore Democrats

This post is at least a year old. Some of the links in this post may no longer work correctly.

Singapore Democrats

“This is a very serious game of brinkmanship we are playing. We are prepared as a government to go the brink,” Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew inveighed as he confronted the SIA pilots union for a second time in the current dispute over the election of the organisations leaders.

Tough words indeed. But are they intelligent ones?

When you have the entire state machinery including the media pitted against a single union, there can be only one outcome. It’s like Mike Tyson fighting Mr Bean. What is of greater concern is the fact that Mr Lee seems to revel in days of yore when he uses violent imagery to describe his political contests: drawing swords in a cul-de-sac, being his own hatchet man, demolishing and annihilating his opponents and, more recently, “breaking heads and bones. (Of course, its much easier to be so gutsy when you have those ISD goons at your disposal).

Has it occurred to the Senior Minister, however, that maybe, just maybe, society has progressed to a point where people want to see disputes being resolved through debates and, where consensus cannot be reached, have the majority view prevail through a democratic vote?

As mentioned, with all the political levers at his disposal no one doubts that Mr Lees wishes will come true in his dealings with the Airlines Pilots’ Association or ALPA-S. The question is: At what cost? An Internet user, who is probably an SIA pilot or someone very close to one, gave an indication of the pilots frustrations when he wrote that SIA’s management, aka the Government, appears intent on destroying the very trust and dedication of the airlines staff (see the article “Facts about the SIA dispute” on this website).

Touche! Punitive words and actions do very well to inhibit behaviour and keep people in line but they do an incredibly lousy job at inspiring and motivating individuals. Is this what Singapore needs at this stage of its industrial development? So what if the Government gets its way in this altercation with ALPA-S? We may see a more profitable carrier in the immediate future. But the damage done to employer-employee relations cannot be mended as expeditiously. Company morale suffers which, in turn, affects the productivity of the staff. The Jack Welchs and Steve Jobs of the industrial world would cringe at such an unenlightened management style.

Mr Lee Kuan Yews actions are a symptom of a more serious problem. The more the government exerts its control, the more timid and unentrepreneurial society becomes. This is where Singaporeans need to understand the non-viability of the PAP-run economy: the Singapore Government thinks it can, and should, spearhead Singapores industrial development. Facts, however, tell a very different story: GLCs, and the scholar-cum-bureau-cum-techno-crats who run them, are at best doing a mediocre job in competing on the world stage, Singapore ranked third from the bottom in a survey of 21 countries on entrepreneurial activity, and our economy is one of the worst performing ones in Asia.

Perhaps the most damning indictment of the PAPs leadership style is the recent report that while more than 20,000 Taiwanese businesspeople have made the Suzhou Industrial Park their base, only 200 Singaporeans have done the same. Lest one forgets, this is the project owned, built and managed by the PAP Government. A political culture that breeds fear and apathy does nothing to encourage entrepreneurship and resilience in the business world.

Threatening citizen-employees is easy. What Singapore needs now, however, is a leader who has the courage and vision to inspire the people, the wisdom to see that a democratic government is not necessarily a weak one. Is our prime-minister-in-waiting that leader? Here is an indication: While Mr Lee Hsien Loong says that he wants greater openness and consultation he is also going to amend the law so that in future union leaders need not consult their members when negotiating deals with management.

The PAP can try to seduce the people with promises of change: a new PM, funky PAP uniforms, gyrating bodies on bar-tops, et cetera. But Singaporeans know that real change where citizens can participate meaningfully in the policy-making process, policies that affect our lives and our families, is not on the agenda. The SIA dispute and the Governments reaction to it have made this abundantly clear.

It is instructive that even as Mr Lee Hsien Loong prepares himself for the prime ministership, it is his father who continues to take the lead in dealing with substantive issues. This is the reality of Singapores politics. It is also a sad commentary on the Senior Minister’s unwillingness to bow out of the political scene graciously. Worse he continues to apply tactics, clearly past their use-by dates, to contemporary and more complex issues. The Singapore Democrats believe that it takes a clever man to gain and keep power, but it is a wise one who knows how to let go of it. Has there been any doubt that Mr Lee Kuan Yew has passed the clever-test?