Singapore’s Political System

The Republic of Singapore is a parliamentary democracy, similar to UK; except that we do not split our parliament to higher and lower houses. Governing powers are mainly concentrated in one single parliament instead of the president, which is unlike the U.S. 

The One-Party Government

In the topic of partisanship, the People’s Action Party (PAP) secures the majority in the parliament since Singapore’s inception in 1965, or 1959 when we are already self-governing. Although this has brought about political stability, PAP’s decades of political dominance has elicited a great number of critiques.

Limited Press Freedom

Singapore may have free elections, but it has limited press freedom. Singapore’s “media is widely perceived to be controlled by the government and Singapore is ranked number 153 out of 180 by Reporters Without Borders in 2015 on the Press Freedom Index. Many human rights organizations criticize it. Freedom House ranks Singapore as “partially free.””(Mahbubani, 2015). The facts are laid out quite clearly that Singapore indeed has limited press freedom.

Detractors’ Viewpoint

The notion that having free press is an inherently good thing comes from an anti-authoritarianism sentiment captured in George Orwell’s 1984 novel. The underlying philosophy is that “whoever controls information – the past and the present- controls the future.” And because we cannot entrust such an immense power to a concentrated group of elites for fear of a Stalinist dictatorship, the general sentiment is that press freedom is an inalienable right. But should it really be that way? Although the premise of fear based on history and literature by the detractors is understandable, we also do need to consider the other side of the issue – the consequence of having free press.

Free Press is A Bane in Disguise

We must recognize that the press is psychologically and immensely powerful because it is the source of our information. Information forms the basis of our opinions, thus making media a potent social force. That means letting the wrong people having control over the media can have an Orwellian effect of information control – which is the detractors’ viewpoint.

However, this hardly means that having a “free press” is the solution anyway because what freedom of press means today is that the media is controlled by the private sector; it does not mean having no one to control it; despite what the term might suggests. And the private sector, although a necessary economic engine in our capitalist economy, is contaminated by self-interests. Corporations flood the media with advertisements to boost profits, and media corporations provide them the platforms in exchange for payment. In addition, the people running the media themselves often resort to sensationalism in order to generate viewership; and profit.

Take the U.S presidential election campaign this year for instance. One of the major reasons for Donald Trump’s victory is American media’s extensive coverage of him. Media’s arbiters of information, the journalists, did so because “the news is not about what’s ordinary or expected. It’s about what’s new and different, better yet when laced with conflict and outrage. Trump delivered that type of material by the cart load.”(Sutton, 2016). This extensive coverage was a form of publicity that gave Donald Trump a proper platform to channel the “the seedbed of public anger, misperceptions, and anxiety” generated by years of journalists’ anti-government messages (Sutton, 2016). And now, America has a morally dubious, politically-inexperienced, anti-trade and a climate-change-denying president that is now presiding over a “Disunited States of America”, as the Time magazine has aptly put it. And this is just one example of how an uncontrolled media can cause disaster in the fields of politics, and by extension; the social and economic realm in a country; and also the environmental effort on this planet.

Another example would be the Terrex incident for Singapore. For this case, the media that influenced public opinion is the Internet, which is largely liberal compared to the state media. What happened was that the 9 Singapore Armed Forces’ Terrex vehicles were seized in Hong Kong custom while en route back to Singapore from Taiwan (which was there in the first place because of joint military exercise). Internet commentators were generally quick to speculate on the cause. Even I almost fall into this group of commentators. My first thought was that U.S withdrawal from Asia in the light of Trump’s victory has emboldened China to assert its “One China Policy” more freely. Such speculations, when excessive in the realm of the Internet, are misinformations that can do more harm than good. There are three logical flaws in the speculations, which are pointed out in a StraitsTime article with the link here: 

http://www.straitstimes.com/opinion/the-terrex-fallacies

The article also pointed out how such misinformation can be politically damaging, stating that “When such events occur, unnecessary speculations by any party – including those on social media – can only exacerbate matters. On a broader level, this is symptomatic of the “fake news” problem, where facts, misinformation and speculation are weaved together and presented as truths. We have witnessed the dangers of the fake news phenomenon in other parts of the world, especially when it fuels domestic anger. More narrowly conceived, speculation could very well end up tying the hands of policymakers and diplomats. This could perhaps be glimpsed from the indirect and belated responses by the political leaders and officials from both sides, who had presumably wanted to keep the Terrex affair at a lower profile, rather than unnecessarily escalating it.” (hermes, 2016)

Both these examples have shown how a free press can be a bane rather than a boon. Donald Trump is an extreme example on one end of the spectrum because it can negatively affect all major realms of a country (political inadequacy, misguided economic policy to turn to protectionism, deep social divide along religious line) and even beyond the country itself (hampered US impetus contribution to the global environmental effort against climate change). The Terrex example brings the context back home and shows how our current degree of press freedom has already shown cracks and potential damages. Just imagine how damaging it would be if we have a free press like the U.S. Our society can potentially be torn along racial lines, our economic policies can become deeply flawed, and our government will soon be populist and gridlocked. We must not be complacent, and forget that Singapore is still prospering and surviving till today thanks to one of the greatest fortune that we happened to have since Singapore’s inception: exceptional leadership.

Exceptional Political Leadership in Singapore And Its Sustenance

I’ve mentioned in the economic post that one of the key and fortunate factor for Singapore’s economic success is our leaders’ foresight. This foresight that led to economic prosperity in Singapore, however, is merely a trait of exceptional leadership in Singapore. Some of the more well-known leaders are Mr Lee Kuan Yew, our late founding father; “Dr Goh Keng Swee, the architect of Singapore’s economic miracle, and Mr S. Rajaratnam, Singapore’s philosopher par excellence.”(Mahbubani, 2015). Together, they ran the country based on three principles: Meritocracy, Pragmatism and Honesty which allowed the government to be run by the best citizens, implement workable policies, and retain the trust of the people respectively. This guiding principles are the foundations laid out as a result of exceptional leadership that has worked to sustain good governance and leadership till this day.

The Inevitable Force That Threatens The Sustenance of Singapore’s Exceptional Leadership

I once took a taxi and got into a conversation with the taxi driver. He was presumably in his 40s, and the point of interest is that he expressed his dissatisfaction with the incumbent for having high salary (which is true, Singapore politician has the highest ministerial salary). Even though I was inclined to explain that the politicians ought to be given such salaries because of their exceptional performance along with the scale of responsibilities they bear (the livelihood of almost 6 million people), I did not. Instead, I encouraged him to elaborate in order to find out what exactly drove that sentiment. He said that they are leaders of the people, and if they need money to motivate them to serve the country; they don’t deserve his respect. From then I became more sympathetic to the sentiments of those who support the Worker’ Party and understood why the incumbent lost some parliamentary seats in the 2011 General Election. Nonetheless, I am still inclined towards PAP dominance, because PAP has an outstanding track record that guarantees the most competent government we can have. The AHPTC Town Council Controversy before the election in 2015 only served to prove that I was right back then. The controversy involves accounting lapses in the town councils run by the Worker’s Party. The argument is simple: If the Worker’s Party cannot even run the bureaucracy transparently on the town council level, how can we entrust the governing of the whole country to it? It is very similar to the situation in Game of Thrones when Daenerys decides to stay in Mereen rather than sailing over to conquer Westeros. As a result, her rule over Meeran was disastrous. It was fortunate that she had the foresight to ask herself that: If she cannot rule even a city properly, how is she to rule the Seven Kingdoms? The same question can be asked of the opposition forces in Singapore. Can they prove themselves to be a viable substitution of the incumbent without compromising good governance?

A few months later after the taxi encounter, our founding father, Mr Lee Kuan Yew, unfortunately passed away. Expectedly, many books about him flooded the Popular bookshelves. Curious about the insides of his prodigious mind, I bought the book “One Man’s View of The World”, which is authored by the prodigious statesman himself.

It is in this book that I’ve learnt a great deal about the political situation in Singapore. I’ve learnt that the one force that threatens the sustenance of Singapore’s exceptional leadership is populism. No government in the world is immune to populism and that’s what makes it such a powerful force; especially now as waves of populism are hitting the U.S and Europe.

A Two-Party System And Low Ministerial Pay

The Worker’s Party is the main populist force of this country, although a rather mild one. They are not as aggressive as those in U.S and Europe, making absurd promises that they cannot possibly hope to keep. Nonetheless, they are the embodiment of populism in this country; the loudest self-proclaimed voice of the people. The party often speaks of establishing a world-class parliament , in other words, a two-party system. What I observed is that the Worker’s Party arguments are often based on the US political system as the ideal system they want to work towards. A two-party system would draw parallel to the Republican-Democrat-dominant government in the US. They also recently proposed to create a Senate on the ground of checks and balances against the president; another feature of the US government. Funny though, they seem to think that America is doing so well in terms of governance that they have to emulate them. My argument is that America’s government is “dumb” most of the time. The founders of U.S constitution were fearful of authoritarianism in U.S. Hence, they created the most complex government system with 3 main bodies, attributing checks and balance functions into each of them. Their perspective is this: Never mind if the government is dysfunctional, thus minimal most of the time. Minimal government is better than risking a totalitarian government. Can we afford a “dumb” government in Singapore? I jumped the gun, I will explain why we cannot afford this below.

In any case, a two-party system is understandably part of the sentiment of the common population; especially the young because the biggest criticism against Singapore’s government is that it is a form of “dictatorship” with PAP dominance in the parliament. Affected by these criticisms, the ever-increasingly westernized Singapore population, especially the young, agreed with the western sentiment and hope for a full two-party system. It is therefore within the Worker’s Party populist agenda, and of course in the strive of expanding its political power; to use it as an election slogan.

Also, as I’ve explained through my encounter with the taxi driver; a reduced ministerial pay is also a populist agenda that Worker’s Party; being the voice of the people; put forth.

However, a two-party system and reduced ministerial pay will probably destroy Singapore’s ability to exist because it creates a “dumb” government. The reason why our pioneering leaders laid down meritocracy as one of the governing principles is because the country needs the best of the best citizens to run for the country. This country needs the best citizens to run the country because “the difference between Singapore and those countries (United States and UK; and of course many other reasonably sized countries) is that they will continue to do well despite an average government, but we will not. This is a small country with no natural resources and in the middle of a region that has been volatile historically. Special leadership is required here.”(Yew, 2013). That is why we cannot afford a “dumb” government.

A high pay also works to attract these talents into the dirty field of politics. Let’s face it, it makes sense: the governance of the country is the highest stake job in a country because it affects the livelihood on a national scale. Thus it makes sense to distribute the most competent ones to this job so that the best results can be achieved in our society. In order to do this, a high pay to incentivize these people to join politics makes economical sense.

Besides, like the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew had, while keeping the fact that Singapore was never a country that was meant to be in mind, pointed out that “If Singapore allows mediocre people to run the government, it will sink and become a mediocre city…if Singapore gets a dumb government, we are done for. This country will sink into nothingness.”(Yew, 2013). This is why getting the best people to run the country regardless of whatever means necessary is so important. If we do not, we get mediocre politicians, and that is the precursor to a dumb government; and to our demise.

Even though I sympathize with the taxi driver’s sentiment, we ought to ask ourselves the following questions first:

1) Are we willing to let mediocre politicians run the country and compromise our livelihood?

2) If no, do we think that the best of the best in this country will run for elections without a high pay?

The answer is obviously a no for the first question because as explained, Singapore needs special leadership; and no dumb government is allowed here.

The answer is probably also a no for the 2nd question. Put yourself in their shoes, will you join politics if you can earn 3 or 4 times more in the field of banking and finance? I would. I would because I care for this country but how many people do you think are willing to work tirelessly like Mr Lee Kuan Yew and his team to make sure that Singaporeans get the best livelihood possible? Not a lot, I say, because patriotism is not a big thing yet in this country. 9 out of 10 people I’ve met thus far want high income and a comfortable life rather than lifelong service to this country. You should be able to relate to what I’m saying. People avoid politics if they can. In other countries, the word politics have a negative connotation because it involves the nasty business of backstabbing and verbal attacks. In Singapore, it means devoting your entire life to the service of this country because the politicians here are held to a highest standard in the incumbent party.

Let’s look at some examples: “In Britain, if you look at the First Class Honours list of Oxford or Cambridge and trace their careers, you will find that these people end up not in politics, but in banking, finance and the professions. The frontbenchers in Parliament are often not from the top tier. They are not drawn from the best lawyers or surgeons. The same forces are at play in America. The chief executive of a Fortune 500 company has a much better life, and the post would naturally attract more able candidates than those vying to become the president of the United States.”(Yew, 2013)

Based on all these, we can justifiably say that the answer for the second question is a no as well.

On the issue of ministerial salary cut and two-party system, the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew wrote from first hand experience as the Minister Mentor that “already it is a Herculean task at each general election for us to convince the best and most committed to stand. Because the country is doing well, it will become very difficult to find people prepared to give up perfectly good careers outside politics. How much harder it would become if we turned into a two-party system! It would not just mean that our A team would be divided into two, or that we would have an A team in power half the time, and a B team in power the other half. No, it is much worse than either of those 2 scenarios. It is simply that the A team- and possibly also the B team – would be turned off from politics and would concentrate on other pursuits. You would have a C, D or E team in place.” (Yew, 2013)

So if we answer no for both questions and know that Singapore government will sink into mediocrity (as seen in the A team example by Mr Lee) and possibly nothingness (albeit a rather extreme prospect, but nonetheless a plausible one in the long term) as a result of both low ministerial pay and two-party system; is it not unwise of the Worker’s Party or Singaporeans to ask for such changes?

PAP’s Adaptation That Led To New Approach That Deviates From LKY Political Firmness

Nonetheless, the ministerial salary cut happened anyway because the government is ultimately weak against populism. It has to make some concessions because PAP is still competent and pragmatic enough to recognize that losing political dominance would mean that it can no longer do the right thing. Thus the mantra of “doing what is right rather than what is popular” as stated in the Social Studies textbook in our secondary school education can no longer be rigidly followed. I once asked our current Minister of Foreign Affair, Vivian Balakrishnan, in a dialogue session hosted by my school, Nanyang Junior College, if PAP is going to maintain its stand to do what is right instead of what is popular. He answered that PAP has to find the right balance. I believe that is indeed the case right now: PAP is trying to find a balance to remain in control while doing the right thing – a logical shift in approach.

This is especially an important shift and adaptation in the light of recent developments. Populism became a global trend and even before clear signals were set off such as the popularity of Donald Trump and Brexit; PAP was likely perceptive enough to recognize it locally. This led to the implementation of social programs such as the Pioneer Generation Package, which arguably gave PAP its landslide victory in the 2015 General Election; winning back many of the seats taken by the Worker’s Party in 2011. While this trend of populism remains to be strong, it is imperative for the incumbent to continue this approach; and adjust accordingly when the trend dies down. Also, the government must, and I believe will, continue to be cautious when giving out these freebies. This is because ultimately, excessive social spendings cannot be sustained – economy will not always be doing well and so it will eventually require the government to tap on the finite reserves during times of budget deficit; which can deplete it. And also, a privilege, once given, becomes a right. It would be politically damaging to attempt to repeal these programs, much like how Magaret Thatcher failed to repeal free healthcare in UK and suffered politically. The Pioneer Generation Package is an example of such a cautious approach in which I shall not elaborate how it is so because it leads to a morbid premise at the end of the logical reasoning. Think about it yourself, and don’t think too poorly of me when you come to the conclusion. I am not heartless, I am just strong enough to handle the truth and recognize the necessity of it.

Conclusion

Back in 1965, everybody understandably thought that Singapore cannot survive as country because of its lack of resources. However, against such a gloomy prospect, our founding father and his amazing team helped Singapore emerged as one of the most prosperous country in the world anyway. With one of the highest GDP per capita and the most globally mobile population, it would be an inspiring story if only Singapore is a living person. Many might disagree with the incumbent methods and its political dominance but it is precisely because of these methods and political situations, which are borne out of the unwavering pragmatism of our leaders, that we can continue to not only survive but also prosper as a country. Moreover, never forget that it is Singaporeans who constantly vote PAP back to power;  it is not a dictatorship by any means – the party is simply that good at governance. Moreover, the incumbent continues to adapt and remains firmly guided by pragmatism, a very good thing indeed.

This only inspires me further to become a politician. Nonetheless, the bests of the bests must serve as politicians; and in reality, passion alone is insufficient. Capacity must come into play; and the capacity required of this profession is the highest in this country. Nonetheless, I will do my best to realize my potential to see for myself if I truly do not have the capacity. If I am deemed incompatible, I must give it up to someone else more capable. Stubborn pursuit of this dream does not display perseverance, but rather it displays the selfish lack of respect for our country’s meritocracy. If I am to be deemed incompatible, it is fine. I can still serve in this area of political science as it is my main field of interest. I therefore aspire, more practically, to be a political scientist, a university political science professor or a policy analyst. That is the plan that I have for my profession.

Signing off,

Jackson

Bibliography

Yew, L.K. (2013) One man’s view of the world.

hermes (2016) The Terrex fallacies. Available at: http://www.straitstimes.com/opinion/the-terrex-fallacies (Accessed: 9 December 2016).

Mahbubani, K. (2015) Why Singapore is the world’s most successful society. Available at: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/kishore-mahbubani/singapore-world-successful-society_b_7934988.html?ncid=engmodushpmg00000004 (Accessed: 9 December 2016).

Sutton, K. (2016) Harvard study: General election media coverage “overwhelmingly negative” in tone. Available at: http://www.politico.com/blogs/on-media/2016/12/report-general-election-coverage-overwhelmingly-negative-in-tone-232307 (Accessed: 9 December 2016).

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