P-K4 Project Editorial
A trivia, P-K4 means Pawn to King Four, or e2e4, an opening move in the game of chess. Thus, we think it is fitting that we should publish this editorial
Politics is like Chess, you get better by playing a better opponent – P-K4 Project Editorial @ New Asia Republic
In our collective opinion, movies are value for money if we can extract gems of wisdom from them. During one of our inter-lull periods, our team got together to watch a 2005 movie Revolver written and directed by Guy Ritchie. It was about a confidence trickster, Jake Green, who was sentenced to 7 years of solitary confinement. Jake did time in a single cell, right in the middle flanked by two fellow inmates, an expert con man and a chess master. Realising that those two are at the top of their respective field, Jake began to take guidance from them and learnt what is known as the “Formula” that allows its wielder to win every game. After his release from prison, Jake used his new found skill to make a lot of money at casinos. However, what we felt which was a piece of gem was an opening quote at the beginning of the movie “You can only get smarter by playing a smarter opponent” by an un-named chess master, presumed to be Jake’s inmate.
One member of our team, let’s call him FW, happens to be a chess aficionado. He also acts as a chess ‘coach’ of some sort to his two nephews, both of whom are brothers. Both brothers started off being on par with each other. The elder one hated losing, which he usually did whenever he played FW. The losses made him so frustrated that he demanded that FW play at a handicap. That meant he had the full complement of chess pieces while his poor uncle began the game without a bishop, but he found he still couldn’t beat his uncle, the handicap increased till he started a game with one rook, one bishop and one knight, minus the queen, pawns and other pieces. Naturally, the charitable uncle lost. The younger brother was different. He was tolerant of losing, and he never insisted that the uncle played handicap. Gradually, over the course of one year, the uncle found that his younger nephew became harder and harder to beat. The difference between the two brothers became very obvious. The younger one was able to checkmate his brother in less than 30 moves in most of the games they played.
Politics is like chess – you get better when you play against a better opponent. With that in mind, former Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong made a revelation which most of us already know way (DUH) back in 2006 about the purpose of GRC. According to Goh, GRCs made it easier for the PAP to find “top talents”. He went on to add that without the GRCs, it takes away the assurance of a good chance of winning in a maiden election and that would deter many capable and young Singaporeans from risking their careers to join politics. This is precisely the route in which PAP got its debuting candidates into parliament – on the coat-tails of heavyweight ministers.
It is interesting though to see how PAP defines a “top political talent”. But anyhow, the political contest that the opposition play against the PAP is as lop-sided as the handicapped chess match that FW played against his elder nephew. With the People’s Association allegedly close to the PAP, and starved of the ability to organise events in their targeted wards, which includes opposition-held ones, in addition to upgrading carrots, shifting electoral boundaries and a media bias in favour of the PAP, it has always been an uphill battle, a rook, a knight, a bishop and a king against PAP’s full array of chess pieces.
There is one thing peculiar about the PAP – its losing incumbent candidates tend to call it quits after their defeats. Ng Pock Too, the former Chairman of the Government Parliamentary Committee for Defence and Foreign Affairs left politics after he was defeated by Singapore Democratic Party’s (SDP) Cheo Chai Chen. Dr Seet Ai Mee, a former acting minister for community development also quit politics after losing to SDP’s Ling How Doong. A more recent illustrious example is George Yeo and Lim Hwee Hwa. Yeo was formerly a Minister for Foreign Affairs while Lim was a minister in the Prime Minister’s Office and Second Minister for Finance and Transport respectively. Both Yeo and Lim were in the same Aljunied GRC team that lost to the Workers’ Party. They subsequently announced their retirement from politics after their defeat unsurprisingly.
Let’s examine closely the age profile of losing PAP incumbents. Ng was aged 47 when he lost, Seet, 48, Yeo, 56 and Lim, 52. In their late 40s and 50s, they were definitely not in the twilight of their political careers and surely have a long way ahead of them. Like chess, if they had stuck out and not quitted politics altogether, they would have come back as better candidates, as the chess master in Revolver 2005 said, one gets better if he plays a better opponent. In fact, the learning curve is steepest for the PAP Aljunied GRC team who faced a very strong “A” team as compared with the rest of their party colleagues. Thus, if we imagine the last General Elections as a chess tournament, Yeo and Lim together with their GRC team-mates faced a grandmaster whereas the other PAP candidates either played novices or their opponents were handicapped. When the opposition made a breakthrough in Aljunied, the un-defeatable GRC myth was shattered, and now even Lee Hsien Loong looks vulnerable to defeat if a strong A team is sent to contest his turf.
However, let’s turn our focus back to Goh’s reference to fielding “top talents” in GRCs in order to get them into Parliament. With due respect, Goh Sir, actually your words “top talents” do not mean anything. In sports, whether one is top or not is contingent on defeating the rest of the competitive field and under level playing conditions. Also, one doesn’t become a top chess player by demanding his opponents play a handicap match with a rook, a knight and a bishop only. Neither does riding on the coat-tails of a better chess player in a match makes him a top player. This is why “top talents” are empty words in the absence of a level playing contest , handicapped opponents and worst, a system where one can win on the coat-tail of a single strong player.
A more level playing field and a single ward contest will give PAP and the opposition the answer they seek on whether the candidates they field are really from the top drawer. Even if the candidate lost, the loser would become a better player. With such a competitive system in place, even the bad becomes so-so, so-so becomes better, good becomes best.
If PAP is currently facing a bottleneck in finding quality candidates, the chief culprit is an uneven playing field and the GRC contest. A level playing field would have separated the wheat from the chaff, and even the chaff would have the opportunity to become better players. And, another major source of PAP’s problems is the retirement of losing incumbents. Surely, there are enough years left in the likes of Ng Pock Too, Seet Ai Mee, George Yeo and Lim Hwee Hwa to continue as PAP candidates even though they lost as incumbents. As the current trend goes, it is not only the uneven field and GRCs that could lead to PAP’s downfall. It is also the early retirement of losing incumbents that poses another additional problem.
As it is, we reiterate again – “Politics is like Chess. You get better by playing against a better player.” It is a simple fact of life that even the PAP cannot escape. The reality is that the PAP is in decline. We did a Facebook poll among our readers comparing our current crop of ministers to the ministers of past era when we had single ward contests. The result is unanimous – readers perceive the previous crop of ministers during the older days as much better than the current one. Thus, even though GRC and an uneven playing field may prove advantageous to PAP early on, it will prove detrimental in the long run. This is exacerbated by the fact that its losing incumbents always retire from politics.
Photo courtesy of AndrewHavis, Flickr Commons