By Seah Chiang Nee
For the first time in years, Singapore's opposition is seeing a little light in a dark tunnel, at least in recruiting the highly-educated.
An impressive number of top scholars and professionals, including a dozen with Masters and Doctorates (PhD), will likely emerge to challenge the People's Action Party (PAP) in the elections expected in May.
It is something Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew had long predicted would happen after his political retirement.
He is, of course, still around, but not in the best of health. His prediction of better-quality opposition representatives is slowly coming true.
The PAP has begun to introduce its 24 new candidates who as usual would likely come with high academic or professional records.
This has stood the party in good stead so far, but the opposition may be narrowing the gap.
Not all agree. One opposition politician admitted the going would be tough, "like fighting a tank with bows and arrows".
In the previous election as quoted in the Straits Times, the opposition said 70 percent of its candidates were professionals and graduates.
This time the percentage would almost certainly increase, it said.
A sprinkling of these opposition academic high-fliers comparative to the ruling party's, will be fielded in the coming election.
They are leaders of two parties: Dr Chee Soon Juan (Singapore Democratic Party) who has a PhD in neuro-psychology and Kenneth Jeyaretnam (Reform Party) with a double first in Economics from Cambridge University.
Among other candidates who will stand in the elections are:
* Dr Vincent Wijeysingha (Reform Party), the son of the respected long-standing principal of Raffles Institution, who has a PhD in Sociological Studies from University of Sheffield, England.
* Dr John Yam (Workers Party) who holds a PhD (Australia) and Masters in Business Administration (Scotland) and Electrical Engineering degree (Singapore).
* Husband-and-wife team of government scholars and civil service high-flyers Tony Tan (engineering) and Hazel Poa (maths), who obtained first-class honours from Cambridge University.
* Wong Wee Nam, 63 with a PhD from Imperial College who last stood as a Workers Party candidate in 2006.
Singaporeans are now waiting anxiously to see whether another prominent scholar, Chen Show Mao, will stand as a Workers Party candidate.
Chen, an ex-Rhodes Scholar, has a doctorate in law from America's Stanford University.
Likewise, the ruling party still has tons of achievers joining its ranks, which will take a book to fill.
Is a candidate's degree still important to the 21st Century voter?
The answer is yes probably more so than in most countries. This sacred cow may be around for quite awhile even after MM Lee's departure.
Forty years ago, when I first started reporting elections, the profile of candidates often ranged from bicycle shop owners to factory supervisors — not very highly educated -- like the electorate.
As time passed by, academic levels of both steadily rose to a level when voters would shun candidates without a degree.
For many elderly citizens, the higher the degree the better!
Less enamoured are younger citizens who are blaming their country's ills in the past five years on scholars who planned and carried out policies.
The whole thing was introduced by Lee in the early days. His views on this have not changed.
His government created a scholarship system to not only feed talent to run the political and civil service leaderships but also as recruitment feeder for the PAP.
Its success lies in its ability to reward scholars who join it by offering top jobs with the best pay, with the result that few found it attractive to join the opposition.
Lee had shaped the scholarship system along China's imperial exams for the Emperor to select the best scholars who would be sent far and wide to serve as magistrates and administrators to represent him in governing the large country.
In his latest book, Lee said he believed that, in future, China's leaders would have PhDs and MBAs from American universities.
Several years ago, Lee explained that one reason he had chosen Suzhou to site a joint industrial park was because of its talents.
"Look at China. The bright ones came from everywhere. You can be the son of a farmer or worker.
"If you pass the Imperial Examinations ... you're a xiu cai (county scholar) or a jun shi (military strategist), or a zhuang yuan (top imperial scholar).
"If you are the highest scorer in the examination, chances are the Emperor will want you to marry his daughter.
"When these scholars retire, they go to a place with a milder climate along the Yangtze river." said Lee.
"That was Suzhou, which became a popular place for ex-Imperials to live with their multiple wives and children.
"That's why we chose Suzhou. It succeeded. We were dealing with extremely smart and bright people, brighter than the people we sent.
"Our people have the knowledge; they didn't but they had a fine IQ." Lee added.
That was a tacit admission that Singapore's breed of scholars may not fare well in a changing world against natural intelligence.
Two months ago in a moment of candour, Lee predicted that the PAP's rule in Singapore would one day come to an end.
"There will come a time when the public would eventually say: 'Look, let's try the other side either because the PAP has declined in quality or the opposition has put up a team which is equal to the PAP's and they'll say, let's try the other side'," Lee wrote.
A former Reuters correspondent and newspaper editor, the writer is now a freelance columnist writing on general trends in Singapore. This post first appeared on his blog, www.littlespeck.co,m on 26 March 2011.