In a Democracy Even Rock Stars Like Jacinda Ardern Fall to Earth But Our 71 Year Old Teflon PM Goes On and On (and Probably Even After He Retires)
On Wednesday Jacinda Ardern, who was lauded by many, including a large number of liberal and vocal (at least until it came to criticising their own government) Singaporeans, for her decision to shut New Zealand off from the rest of the world during the early stages of the pandemic and thus almost reduce Covid-19 deaths to zero for a while, would be stepping down as New Zealand PM on 7 February.
In her time in office she had become what the New York Times calls the “global face of progressivism”, appearing to weather the pandemic successfully, though illness and death inevitably spiked upwards after New Zealand started to remove the draconian restrictions on contacts with the outside world, and also winning plaudits for the way she handled the mass killing of 51 Muslims at a mosque in 2019.
Many were surprised by her announcement given her rock star status among liberals worldwide. However her party was in trouble and lagging well behind the centre-right National Party in the opinion polls with an election due by October. She had become unpopular among voters because of issues like inflation, the high cost of living and housing affordability. In her resignation announcement she said
“I believe that leading a country is the most privileged job anyone could ever have, but also one of the more challenging,You cannot and should not do it unless you have a full tank plus a bit in reserve for those unexpected challenges.”
Ms Ardern’s resignation after five and a half years illustrates a fundamental truth about leaders in democracies. However adoring your fan base may have been initially, you and your party are only as good as the last set of economic numbers or the last crisis and voters are generally unsentimental about punishing you and voting you out if you are perceived to have slipped up. It does not matter if, as happens frequently, you have put in place plans to address the issue if those plans take too long to transform the numbers. Some commentators give Ms Ardern high marks for putting in place policies to tackle the housing shortage that will take some time come to fruition. Voters do not care.and punish failure, whether real or perceived, ruthlessly. Just as a competitive economy should lead to lower prices and greater innovation, competition between parties in a democracy should lead to better government and policies and ultimately to higher living standards for all sections of society.
By contrast LHL (and his wife) have been in power for 20 years and of course his dynasty has been in power since 1959. I do not count Goh Chok Tong’s 14 year interregnum as he was clearly answering to the Lees father and son as shown by his decision not to refer them to the CPIB over the Hotel Properties corruption scandal. In the PAP’s narrative of course they have won election after election because of their economic success in lifting Singapore from third world to first as LKY’s book was modestly entitled.
Despite the universal adulation of foreign sycophants based on dubious or manipulated statistics and their love of the fast decision making and lack of gridlock that comes with dictatorship. the PAP’s economic record is mixed at best and poor when it comes to raising the living standards of those on median incomes and below. I have shown that per hour Singaporeans on median incomes earn much less than their equivalents in the UK and the US, markedly so if their incomes are compared with those living in major cities such as London and New York, while the prices of basic foodstuffs and other items are much higher in Singapore, where the ruling party has a large share of the grocery market through PAP-controlled NTUC Fairprice.
I have also questioned the GDP statistics and the claims of the PAP to have created plentiful jobs for Singaporeans by showing that the labour force participation rate for citizens is not much higher than 50% (lower than in many high income countries including the US and the UK). It is no wonder that the Government quietly pressured UBS to drop Singapore from their survey of global cities after a survey of purchasing power as far back as 2011 found that Singaporeans’ real incomes were on a par with workers in Kuala Lumpur and Moscow.
Despite all the evidence of failure to raise living standards and high inflation and eroding real incomes, LHL has so far been the Teflon PM. At 71 he may not be a rock star but together with his dad he has outlasted many African dictators and been in power almost as long as the Kim dynasty. The Chinese leader, Xi Jin Peng, must be envious as until his rule leaders in China were still replaced regularly even if the Communist Party has a monopoly of power. It helps of course when you. corruptly have a monopoly over the media and you control what is written about you and ensure that your opponents, if given any publicity at all, are portrayed as weak, incompetent or stupid and always fighting among themselves. It also helps if you are able to crush your opponents and intimidate your electorate through your control of every institution of government including the judiciary, the AG, the SPF, the CPIB and so on as well as your control over 90% of the land and people’s savings and housing and probably over 50% of the economy. Control of the machinery of elections and the ability to gerrymander and group constituencies also helps. Until 2011 the PAP were returned to power at every election on Nomination Day unopposed and today still no party is willing to directly challenge the PAP by fielding enough candidates to form a government.
Jacinda Ardern’s resignation illustrates what should happen if you have a democracy. In Singapore we have a PM who lingers on to maintain his family’s grip on power and who, even if he steps down after the next election in favour of his mediocre puppet, Lawrence Wong, will be pulling the strings long after his sham departure from the stage. LHL’s wife and son may be waiting in the wings to pick up the reins of power despite Hong Yi’s protestations not to be interested in politics. Singaporeans need to shed their deference and over politeness towards their leader and start considering whether this meek obeisance has indeed served them well.