Elder Statesmen Making Statements

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MUCH has been made of the well-publicised lunch sessions between Dr Tan Cheng Bock and Lee Hsien Yang.

Social media lights up at the opportunity to talk about the run of Dr Tan in local politics. The former People’s Action Party Member of Parliament plans to register his own party, the Progress Singapore Party.

While sections of society embrace anyone with the guts and willingness to stand for opposition politics, returning elder statesmen should be viewed in the proper context.

While their return may serve to heal rifts in society, right wrongs or address societal needs, you have to ask questions beyond the moment. A society questioning its existence will always want change. And that explains why societies will see change in leadership even when the incumbent is doing well.


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But when someone who has had his spell in the sun moves to make a return in a different shirt, the questions are inevitable.

How long do they have left in terms of energy, stamina and ideas to make a relevant difference in today’s changing world?

While initial enthusiasm about having someone familiar switch camps and stand up for the public may be cavalier and romantic, what is the plan for the longer run?

What does an old mind bring to a new environment? Experience many would insist, and while that is admirable, is that sufficient? Experience should be matched by knowledge of the present and the needs of a changing society.

How long is the runway for this person? What happens when they run out of road?

Who is with them on this second wind? Are they contemporaries and well wishers? Hopefully, there are people across all walks of life and ages and occupations.

And even if they come on strong as an independent, they will always be up against the system. 

The Institution As Guardian

Dr Kirpal Singh, who has spent his years as an academic in the company of politicians and members of the ruling and opposing parties points out that nothing is permanent, and nothing outlasts the institution.


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Dr Kirpal Singh and Training Vision Institute CEO David Kwee (right).

“We all reach a point where we get tired, or really old, or we are not well-heeled, or we no longer have influence and power.

“You keep trying to push your agenda against the institution. Sooner or later, someone will say shut up, or else you just get out because you are getting nowhere.

“The next person will also try and then give up,” observes Dr Kirpal, who helms the Centre for Education Leadership at Training Vision Institute.

“Institutions have a way of outlasting the person,” Dr Kirpal notes. “The power of an institution lies in the system that has been perfected by the British — bureaucracy.

“Bureaucracy in Singapore is so good. They write beautiful letters, they convene meetings to set up committees, and it can sometimes take years to discuss a point,” the poet and author points out.


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Money And Power

“It’s only when a certain political leader feels convinced about a cause that change takes place quicker,” adds Dr Kirpal.

He notes that using high salaries and positions of power ensure a preferred status quo is maintained. “If a super professor makes a wrong decision, his promotions stop and the increments along with it. So, if you lose $100,000 a year, do you really want to fight?

“Money and power go together. Mammon sways people.”

But, having travelled throughout his career, Dr Kirpal adds that Singapore is not a bad place, “if you have some money and you don’t make a nuisance of yourself”.

“And if some older politicians want to come back and share their wisdom and effect some change for the better, why not. The key is they must also know when to let go.”

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