by: Elvin Ong/

With the recent conclusion of the 2011 General Elections and the impending Presidential Elections, Singaporeans have become interested in politics more than ever. We should welcome this development’

Greater awareness and discussions about politics in Singapore can only invigorate society, helping to create a ‘bottom-up’, more robust national identity with a tighter social compact. Passion about the politics of Singapore is passion for Singapore. One is the subset of the other.

But what exactly is politics? Recent commentary about the role and powers of the elected President reflect the lack of understanding about the concepts of what it means to be “political”, or to be “politicising” a certain subject.

Mr Ho Kwon Ping and Assistant Professor Wan Wai Yee both agreed that the recent “politicisation” of the presidency was a vexing concern, but Mr Tan Kin Lian rightly pointed out that the concept of “politicising” was undefined and not explained by both parties.

From this confusing debate, we can observe that public discourse utilising the term “politics” and its associated vocabulary tend to be impoverished of meaning.

Not so long ago, the Government attempted to circumscribe the boundaries of what it meant to be participating in “politics” and what it meant to be “political”. Social commentators such as Ms Catherine Lim and Mr Lee Kin Mun (also popularly known as mrbrown) were urged not to be armchair critics. If they were interested in engaging the Government, they should “enter politics”. Hence, politics was strictly defined as explicitly being a member of a political party and partaking in elections.

Such a definition impedes rather than advances engagement with the Government.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong rightly noted in his speech during the swearing-in ceremony of members of parliament, that the Government must “evolve in tandem with our society and people”, and that while “our political system can and must accommodate more views, more debate and more participation”, “Singapore politics should not become confrontational or worse, divide our people and society”.

A commonly-understood vocabulary about what is “politics” and what is meant by being “political” or “politicising” can help advance differences in public debate, while ensuring that that debate is kept on a same-shared platform.

In order to clarify future debates about politics and its related terminologies, I tentatively suggest an approach to the language of politics drawn from the ideas of British academic Bernard Crick, and the American academics Harold Lasswell and Steven Lukes.

In running the risk of doing a great injustice to the works of these academics, it might be suffice to summarize their views and modestly say that politics is about the power of who gets what, when, and how. Such a definition of politics as power may appear puzzling at first, but the three level analytical framework of Steven Lukes can help us to simplify and understand many current debates.

At the first level, politics as power is about different interest groups or stakeholders competing with each other to get their respective views heard and their ideas be implemented. For example, in the latest controversial debates about public transport fares, the commuters who use public transport and desire low fares compete against the interests of public transport operators who wish to raise fares. Thus, this competition of interests and voices can be said to be “political” and the various parties can be said to be engaging in “politics”.

At the second level, politics as power is about agenda-setting and decision-making. The person or organisation frames the perimeters of debate amongst various stakeholders, consider the tradeoffs between their different interests, and then decides what to do.

Utilising the same example about public transport fares, it may be said that the fare raising formula itself is “political” by implementing a cap and that the civil servants in the Public Transport Council are engaging in “politics” in deciding whether to raise or maintain the fares.

Third and finally, politics as power is about influencing norms in society. Through persuasion, coercion or charisma, individuals or organisations can affect how people think about events and treat each other in society.

For instance, the writing of this article to persuade the reader of an argument to change their behaviour is a “political” act and I can be said to be engaging in “politics”.

Once we are clear by ourselves and with others about these three perspectives of politics as power, it is fairly easy to discuss “politics”.

Looking back at the recent debate about the elected President, it appears that the worries about the “politicisation” of the presidency are restricted to the first level of politics as power.

The various commentators are concerned that an elected President may give voice to certain stakeholders in society or become an interested party itself, thereby engaging in “politics”.

Ultimately, in any public discourse, we must say what we mean, in order to mean what we say. Explicating a commonly understood definition of “politics” can help us do that.

The writer is undertaking the MPhil in Politics (Comparative Government) programme at St Antony’s College, University of Oxford.


Speech by PM Lee Hsien Loong at the swearing-in ceremony held in the State Room, Istana on 21 May 2011

Crick, Bernard. 1962. In Defense of Politics.

Lasswell, Harold. 1950. Politics: Who Gets What, When, How.

Lukes, Steven. 2005. Power: A Radical View. (Second Edition)


Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
You May Also Like

Hear no Evil? The PAP and the politics behind Minimum Wage

This is an excerpt of an article published on Singapore 2025. Pritam…

Why they want to be the next Elected President

The Prime Minister has issued the writ for the upcoming Presidential Election.…

MP defends govt saying help schemes available for elderly getting less than $1,379 a mth

A recent study by Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy (LKYPP)…

就业准证紧缩 外籍人士也忧工作不保、被歧视

S准证和就业准证的薪金门槛调高,政府有意借此减少外籍人士进入本地就业市场,但也使外籍人士开始担心自己的“饭碗”不保。 《今日报》于本月4日发表一篇文章,指外籍人士因我国紧缩工作准证的条件,开始忧心自身工作。 报道采访20位在我国工作外籍人士,随着条件的紧缩,他们开始担心无法保住工作。 由于近期该课题闹得沸沸扬扬,国人反对宽松外籍人士招聘政策的情绪高涨。尽管平日和其他国人交流,未有任何不适感,但网络的反对声浪极高,无疑增加了他们的焦虑。 “外国人走了,谁付房租?” 其中一名来自台湾的外籍员工,汤小姐(译音)指出,在过去两个月内,她感觉自己不受到当地的欢迎。虽然自己已经尽量避免在社交媒体上浏览,但网上越来越多人排斥外国人,甚至还听到如“外国人正偷走了我们工作机会”,“外国垃圾”等的恶毒话语。 但最令她感到惊讶的是,就连新加坡政治人物也呼吁收紧移民政策。她引用维文在本届大选电视辩论中的言论,邀请外籍人士来新的唯一原因,是为本地寻求机遇提供更多助力。然而,在疫情风暴的冲击下,也不得不卸载压舱物,这包括多达6万外籍人士已丢掉工作。 最令汤小姐担心的事情果然还是发生了,她随后也失业了,而且在经过10至17家的面试后,均以工作准证为由被告知无法聘雇她。 “经济会再次恢复。如果新加坡将自己置身在这种位置,谁会愿意再这里工作?这就和日本差不多。” 她也表示,“如果外国人都走了,谁又会支付这些公寓租金?新加坡业主将难以支付他们公寓的贷款。” 值得注意的是,据汤小姐的陈述,在未失业前,她的工资是足以让支付她每月4千元的租金。 印度籍外籍人士:没有了外籍人士,政府将会失败…