Single-party or multiparty?

By Jeraldine Phneah

A young reader asked me recently if a multi-party or single-party system will be better for Singapore. He believes that we have been doing well in a single-party system so far. Thus, why would there be a need to introduce even more parties into our existing system?

Credit: Albert’s photo

It is my personal view that a single party system is quite a good idea for developing countries like Singapore from the 1960s-1990s.

In such a situation, people are less educated and not familiar with public policy, economics and current affairs. We also did not have the world wide web to allow greater access to such information for people. Given the lack of information for most people and ability to think critically about what is best for our country, democracy could fail in the sense that they might be more likely to cast votes based on shallow reasons like populist leaders.

Given all these factors, a strong leadership is needed. Back then, we had Lee Kuan Yew and a strong core of leaders to shape the direction of our future and they did a very good job. Their contribution to our society (despite lower pay for ministers) is impressive-  ensuring we were clean, establishing a good transport network, improving public safety, planning for water resources etc.

These are things Singaporeans will stay eternally grateful for and feel proud of. Perhaps this was why a recent casual poll by EDMW loves Singapore shared that most people preferred Singapore in the 1990s.


One reason cited by the ruling party for a single party system is that a multiparty system may distract politicians from their jobs.

Credit: Money Smart


In 2006 during PM Lee Hsien Loong’s rally, he said  that with more opposition members,

“Instead of spending my time thinking what is the right policy for Singapore, I’m going to spend all my time thinking what’s the right way to fix them, to buy my supporters votes, how can I solve this week’s problem and forget about next year’s challenges?”

PM Lee’s idea is that greater competition would lead to poorer policies. Yet, many situations have proven that greater competition has a tendency to lead to better performance. Why so? Because each party would want to prove themselves better than the other.

In business, Samsung and Apple’s competition is creating a better selection of smartphones for us and driving innovation and technology. In relationships, sometimes the presence of a small threat can lead to better treatment from the existing party.  What we have seen in the recent AIM-FMSS saga is a very good example, this debate has helped us to expose more things about both PAP and WP for the citizens to evaluate.  If we had a single party system, little details like these may have gone unchecked by the public.

Given that people are more educated than before, perhaps they will have greater cynicism and ability to assess a politician based on substance over style. These days young people are participating more actively in our national issues than before, they have greater cynicism and take time off to read up on national issues. I also believe the ministry of education could do more to teach young people about how to be a responsible voter (without biasness of course), see through ‘wayang’ and evaluate policies.

While PM Lee worries that politicians may end up making populist policies, I doubt so as Khaw Boon Wan has claimed earlier this week that there were many true patriots in this house.

“This is self-righteous and – pardon me for saying so – arrogant. Many of us in this House have been serving Singapore for decades, long before she (referring to Ms. Sylvia Lim) entered this House. Please, don’t behave as if you’re the only patriot in this House.”

If many of our existing leaders are true patriots, a good way to prove it will to show that one puts their country interest before themselves and continues to stay strong and make rational and good policies, even if they can potentially be unpopular. As Lee Kuan Yew said “Only those count and matter who have the courage of their convictions to stick up and stand up for what they believe in , for their people, their country, regardless of what happens to them.”

The ruling party cites the most important reason as to why a two party system is not workable as “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.”

However, in the recent GE 2011, in WP teams there are people from the legal service and their star, Chen Show Mao, stepping forward to want to serve. NSP’s Nicole Seah and PAP’s Tin Pei Ling are also comparable in terms of academic caliber (both coming from NUS).

Additionally, I think Singapore defines political talent too narrowly into “strong academic track record”. It is important to note that people like business men are also talents. To run a successful enterprise, one has to be highly resourceful, strong in networking, strategic and think beyond the step-by-step logical method needed to excel in academic results. Such methods of thinking is also excellent for public policy making, it helps us to innovate and do better.

The best thing about more alternative voices is the prevention of GROUP THINK in the whole parliament. Members of the same political party would often not oppose party leaders and toe the party line. The presence of an alternative can challenge the existing one and help to build better ideas together.

The success of greater alternative voices in parliament will all depend on – the personalities and attitudes of the leaders, and whether they are willing to put aside their differences to work together for a better Singapore when necessary. It will also depend on the ability of our citizens to make good judgement.