Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Lessons from David Marshall: Choosing the PM

A few weeks ago, we spotted these books at the Botanic Gardens gift shop. That gave me the idea of borrowing them from our public libraries. I managed to obtain only three but the daughter found the full set in her school and took them home.

All our founding fathers have enough material to tell their stories colorfully. None of them were boring and each was a real interesting character. One chap struck me though and he was not part of the PAP but included here was our first Chief Minister David Marshall. His example has become an important input for evaluating non-PAP alternatives to run Singapore. It is a very risky business with no guarantee that we will get it right and hard to figure out how to right this if we ever land in a pickle.

Now let the book tell the story.

Marshall was a top rate lawyer, a man of absolute integrity with a deep love for the people and Singapore. On these attributes he probably put many PAP MPs in the shade. However his extraordinary skills in the law and realism did not translate into political governance where he was an unrealistic and uncompromising idealist. My point? Today if we have a candidate like Marshall standing for elections, he would be elected. He might even almost single handedly carry a GRC! Just check the red underline I put on page 16 of the book.

But Marshall would not work and may be a disaster for us today or any day. There is no way in the hustings and brilliant speech making you can tell if a person is good for the job he or she is campaigning for. In fact it is a terrible way to choose people as lawmakers and especially high political office. And a good lawyer should at least be a good lawmaker right? Apparently not necessarily so.

Above is taken from page 17 of the book. He did good for the people. Not here, but later in the book he was an excellent ambassador to France. I think Marshall could have made an excellent minister in some portfolios but definitely not as PM. I think when he is given a lot of power he cannot but succumb to the temptation of trying to make his ideals and visions work. Unfortunately these dreams are too ahead of their time.

Page 19. See how farseeing Marshall was but he could never get it make his best ideas see the light of day.

Governing Singapore is not just choosing between the PAP and alternatives. Of equal importance to the team is the party who has someone that can do the job of the PM well. His or her team is the lock and the PM the key. You need the complete set. In the next GE the PAP will still form the government and so our main preoccupation is who will eventually succeed LHL. As for the opposition we might have to cut them some slack because given the situation we are in at the moment an opposition MP on average is more useful to us than an PAP one. This would no longer be true if the PAP cease to overwhelmingly dominate parliament. At that point we ought to reverse our stance and cut the PAP some slack as they have a really tough job to do. Meanwhile the untested alternative jockeying to form the next government must judged on the highest standards we demand from the PAP today.

May be the way forward for us is actually preserving the status quo. We have a few decent opposition MPs and an active citizenry enabled by increasingly sophisticated technology that constantly watch and hold the government to account. This arrangement might be good for about ten years. By then another generation would have grown up and they can decide on the changes if any.

Update: July 15 4:55pm

Evidence to support my reason why many of us would cut the opposition some slack. See the underlined below. Would a PAP MP ask such a question? How much brains does it need to ask such a question? Meanwhile outside Parliament, folks like Bertha Henson is performing a civic role. I have found her very useful for time scarce folks like me.


  1. thanks for sharing this. interesting!

  2. So the setting up of HDB, PUB, the four languages are all founded by Marshall and yet another despot is claiming all the credit. Thanks for the information