Barack Obama has been referred to as the biggest celebrity in the world by his competitor for the White House, John McCain. The usually positive label was meant as a criticism of course, of Obama’s style and sleekness masquerading as a lack of competence. As an outsider, I have no wish to comment about the political affairs of another country. What I do want to talk about however is the growing trend of “cool” political leaders in my country Singapore.
Of course it would be inaccurate to call Obama’s, or any politician’s, celebrity status a new trend in politics. Ronald Reagan was already an actor when he ran for office, and John F Kennedy will always be remembered –besides his assassination- for his charm and suaveness arguably more so than his interventions in Vietnam and Cuba. In fact, being popular, or being “cool” enough, is a must-have if you want to want a career in politics in many countries.
But that has never been so in Singapore, until recently. Lee Kuan Yew, the country’s Minister Mentor who many attribute the affectionate title “Father of modern Singapore” to, may have been an excellent orator in his youth, but he certainly lacked the qualities of a superstar. He was a revolutionary against the British colonialists, and outsmarted the communists of the day to erect a political machine, the People’s Action Party (PAP), so formidable it’s still the only ruling party after 43 years.
This was an average looking man who disallowed F1 racing and casinos in Singapore until the 21th century, and calls the younger generation the “MTV generation.” I can assure you it’s no compliment when it comes from him. In today’s terms, he’s anything but cool.
But today’s new batch of leaders in my country is of a different breed. Our Foreign Minister, George Yeo, has a blog and a facebook account which he faithfully maintains. He is not alone; at least eight other politicians are part of this online community. The Media Development Authority in Singapore released earlier this year a rap performed by its senior management. The cringe-worthy video is on youtube and has garnered over a hundred thousand hits. The PAP held its 50th anniversary at a local nightclub, complete with the booze and music. We celebrated our Independence Day recently, and a rock concert was part of the festivities. A member of parliament, Eunice Olsen, who is also a local celebrity, emceed the event and a former speaker of parliament performed the Beatles’ hit Obladi Oblada.
I’m not saying that celebrities can’t be politicians and vice versa. Reagan was instrumental to bringing about the end of the Cold War. But there are real dangers that cannot be ignored when public leaders are superstars.
For one, charm and charisma make an excellent cover for a myriad of flaws. Look at Joseph Estrada, 13th President of the Philippines. An actor, he ran for office campaigned as the poor people’s champion, leveraging on his image built up over the years in his movies. Good public relations should not be equated for good governance; Estrada’s womanizing ways and his gambling and drinking addictions were overlooked, to the detriment of the people. Those vices translated to massive corruption in office, and he was later peacefully overthrown.
Estrada is an extreme case that most definitely doesn’t apply to either Obama or my nation’s leaders. Estrada was a college dropout and gangster and the demographics comprised largely the uneducated poor. Candidates and voters in my country and America are a more educated lot no doubt, but are they more discerning?
It’s easier to assess that than what one may think. Pick any young Singaporean on the street and ask them who Vivian Balakrishnan –a popular and up-and-rising political star in Singapore- is. They’d easily tell you he’s the young, good-looking Minister for Community, Development, Youth and Sports. A good start, until you ask them about what he does. Few know that he was also the chairman of “Remaking Singapore”, the initiative to restructure Singapore economically and socially. Same with the aforementioned George Yeo; many know who his appointment and that he keeps a blog, yet few Singaporeans know much about Singapore’s foreign policy, except that we’re very ‘pro-USA’. Newspaper surveys have consistently concluded that Singaporeans cannot put a name to the faces of many of our leaders – some can’t even differentiate our Prime Minister from President.
This apathy comes from an overachieving government, staffed with competent leaders who fought for Singapore’s independence. But those leaders are retiring, and in their place are younger leaders. These leaders are savvier and connect better with the youth. In return, we know them by their facebook accounts and their appearances in social event. But beyond knowing that they are likeable, we don’t know what they stand for.
Which is what truly matters, and what worries me the most. While politicians in Singapore and around the world strive to retain relevance in the people’s lives and win their trust, it should not be their focus. Neither should it be ours.
We are empowering politicians to make our decisions for us, so shouldn’t we be at least more concerned about what they say and if they can deliver their promises, rather how well they can tickle our ears and how “cool” they are? After all, after politicians are elected into office they become public servants. And as we all know, superstars are used to being served rather than the hard labour that is often required of a government leader.