PM Lee on 2-Party System in Singapore

But no system lasts forever, as even MM himself acknowledges in his latest book called Hard Truths to Keep Singapore Going.  So we do not assume that the PAP will remain dominant indefinitely.  We have to ask ourselves a question – what is the alternative?  It could be another party, just as dominant, or it could be some other configuration.  Now what other configuration could that be? A lot of people say, “Can we have a two party system?” That is the ideal that is many developed countries work, that is what you should aim for, a change of government from the first party to the second, and from the second to come back, and then you are considered to have matriculated.

PM Lee agrees with his father MM Lee, that the PAP would one day NOT become the government of Singapore. I’d watched the video of new PAP candidate MG (NS) Chan Chun Sing, before reading PM Lee’s speech. In Chan’s speech, he mentioned the “Lanfang Republic” and “Sultanate of Demak”, using them as examples of why countries fail. I’ve never heard of these two states before, and I’m sure his audience has not too. But that’s probably his purpose, to illustrate how small countries do not last long, and that they pass unforgotten into the sands of history…

But Chan should also know one hard truth – just as small countries and city-states do not last long, so do ruling parties. I’m sure there are plenty of examples of ruling parties or regimes which are voted out or ousted. I think MM Lee and PM Lee understand this, that dominance is not forever, even if the ruling party was strong in the past and appears so in the present. But on the other hand, from the paragraph which I quoted, PM Lee seems to think for the case of Singapore, a historical aberration might just occur. He points out that a ‘two-party’ system is considered ideal for developed countries, yet he denies this would ever take root here.

But how could this happen in Singapore that we have two parties?  I can imagine several scenarios.  First, the society splits based on race or religion. You have one party representing one race or religion, another party representing another race or religion.

Is this happening in Singapore now? Are opposition parties split along ethnic or religious lines? Granted, PM Lee might be trying to peer into the future of how a two-party system is like in Singapore, but I think his analysis is inaccurate. Firstly, he is assuming that in a future Singapore, S’poreans vote along ethnic and religious lines. That would really be a bleak scenario, and a huge leap backward since Singapore was established as a secular state.

But are S’poreans voting along such lines NOW? No doubt that race and religion would be very emotional flags to swing votes in a tight election, but if we believe in surveys conducted by the media, economic issues like cost of living, employment etc are the perennial focus of S’poreans. Hence it makes little sense to predict that S’poreans would vote their same colour or same religious brethren, because economic issues affect anyone, regardless of race, language or religion.

The second possibility is that you divide on class lines.  We do not get our economic policies right or maybe it is just that the world trends are such, the rich get richer, the poor do not make progress.  After a while the poor lose hope in the system, the rich lose interest in the rest of society.  So one side says, “Tax me less, let me keep my wealth”.  The other side says, “Give me more transfers, more welfare, more goodies, more benefits”.  And you have two parties forming, one representing one group, the other one representing the other group, rich and poor.

This is a better prediction, albeit still pessimistic. The income gap in Singapore is growing, even though employment rate is at a record low. One might have a job, but his real wages are stagnant or falling. A two-party system might evolve this way…but I don’t really think. As much as we think of Singapore as a ‘country’, we are fundamentally a ‘city’. I’m referring to a geographical definition: urbanized, densely populated, communications node, commerce hub, a complex system of public services e.g. transport, sewage, finances.

And in our city-state, 90 percent of our population lives in public flats. There are no slums or concentrated areas of poverty, though all of us will agree there are concentrated areas of the very rich (think Holland V, Bukit Timah). But these are pockets within larger electoral wards i.e. the rich areas do not by themselves form a ward. I hope you’re getting my drift. Even if two parties, the Pro-Rich and Pro-Poor, are set up, neither would win sufficient seats in the first-past-the-post system to form the government, because Singapore’s geography is rather homogeneous.

Each ward is likely to represent the national average, and only a few have above-average proportions of rich, poor, Malays etc. To win the most number of seats, not least the majority, a party has to be national in the sense it appeals to all income groups. Pro-Rich or Pro-Poor parties might win some seats here and there, but unlikely to win the most, because their expected supporters can’t be found concentrated anywhere. In a wild card scenario, it is possible a coalition government can be formed by a Middle Ground Party with Pro-Rich or Pro-Poor Party. However, first-past-the-post system naturally produces a strong government with a clear majority. Hence I doubt such a two-party system based on class would evolve in Singapore.

The third possibility is that we split on policy grounds, you argue that this set of policies will be best for Singapore to grow, promoting MNCs.  They argue that no I do not want MNCs; sending them all away and depending on Singaporeans and Singapore companies is the way to grow.  And we cannot reconcile and we split and we argue over the policies and fight it out at the polls.  I think that could happen but it is not so likely because the PAP is a pragmatic party and we are ready to take in good ideas.  If you look at it at a higher level, frankly, the range of feasible options of Singapore is not that wide.  So it is possible it could happen, but it would mean that something has gone wrong too.

Since ‘it is not so likely’, why is PM Lee talking about it? Actually most of us know the options for Singapore are few. We can’t farm, obviously, so we’ve to MAKE or SERVE something. I don’t think it’s as simple as promote MNCs vs. grow Singapore companies. It’s as obvious to everyone BOTH are useful, it’s a matter of how much resources we’re allocating to wooing the MNCs or growing Singapore companies. Should we get Lucasfilm to start-up our digital animation industry, or pump money into hopeful firms? Should we create tax incentives for foreign film studios here, or provide grants for independent film-makers? Really, it depends on the context of each industry, each problem of society.

Both the PAP and SDP support the poor, yet both differ in their ways. The PAP way is through Workfare, while that of the SDP is through a Minimum Wage. Again, each proposal affects different groups of people, and again, it is impossible to find the very poor and aged squashed in one constituency, or the very rich towkays running the cleaning companies packed in the other. It’s the Middle Ground voters who would decide on Workfare or Minimum Wage, and that is why, as I mentioned, a two-party system in Singapore means the two parties have to be so wide-ranging to encompass all views, and not a few narrow ones. But PM Lee insists a two-party system is not workable, because…

But the most important reason, why a two party system is not workable is because we do not have enough talent in Singapore to form two A-teams, to form two really first class teams to govern Singapore really well.  More than any country, Singapore needs exceptionally able leadership to tackle challenges and to minimise the risks for our countries.  We are small, we are vulnerable.  With a mediocre government, other countries may muddle through, and have to muddle through, but Singa­pore will fail.  The most effective way to get a two party system, if you really want to do it, is to split the PAP in two.


1) Singapore is vulnerable, so needs strong leadership (of course!)

2) Strong leadership is provided by talented people (definitely)

3) Talented people are limited in numbers (obviously)

4) Hence one party (PAP, by virtue of being dominant) has many more talents than the other (agree)

5) So a two-party system will not work, because the other party is unable to run the government if given a chance (logical)

I’d create a flowchart if I’ve the time. But the core of the two-party system here, according to PM Lee, is the problem of talent, and the lack thereof. Vulnerable and strong leadership are easily understood and defined. But not so much as ‘talent’, because from the PAP’s view, talent comes from the military, the civil service and the trade unions (government-linked trade unions?). They are unable to draw talent from the private sector, the academia, the non-profit sector, the minorities (in terms of gender, ideology, dunno what you have), the arts etc. Or they are reluctant to recognize that talent would emerge from these arenas. And why should their candidates be exclusively ‘young’? The older are useless, unable to offer fresh ideas?

Ironically enough, the WP’s ‘star catch’ Chen Show Mao can easily fit in as a PAP candidate. This challenges Point 4, that the PAP has a monopoly of talent.

The opposition parties pitch themselves as offering Singapore a fallback should the PAP fail. It sounds plausible, but if you think about it, what does it depend on?  Most critically, it comes back to talent again.  If the PAP cannot assemble a second team, I do not think the Opposition will find it easier to do that.

Well, each opposition party has its fair of talent and cannot-make-its. But it’s obvious which party has the lead among them to have more talent than CMIs…

In this “Question Time with PM Lee“, there was a very funny question:

Yang Junwei [Media Freelancer]:

Would the government abolish General Election instead?

Lee Hsien Loong [Prime Minister]:

NO. The difference between Singapore and China is that Singapore is not a one-party state. Singapore is a multi-party democracy dominated by the People’s Action Party (PAP). In order to win the mandate to govern Singapore, the PAP has to enjoy popular support and be accountable to the people. Every PAP member (including MPs) understands that he is here to serve the people and not simply acting as a government official. There is a big difference between the two.

Well, going by PM Lee’s logic that a two-party system is unworkable, and that Singapore should pool all our ‘talent’ in the PAP, the only outcome is that of a one-party state. And general elections would be unnecessary. We don’t need to have opposition parties, voters can tick ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ for the PAP slate. If the ‘Yes’ falls below 50 percent, then that MP or group of MPs should be replaced.

But PM Lee claims the PAP is dominant in a multi-party democracy, which is both true and false that it can spark an entirely different debate…

Well after saying so much, I think there are STILL a few questions to be answered:

1) Should there be a one-party state?

2) If not, a two-party state or multi-party state?

3) Which system can ultimately evolve from historical and present circumstances?

Next time then try answer…

[All quotes from PM Lee Speech at Kent Ridge Ministerial Forum 2011]


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Filed under Analysis, GE 2011

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