What is politics?

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)