By Andrew Loh
In a forum in London, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong took a dig at the Singapore political opposition. Regurgitating what he has said in the past, Mr Lee said the people of Singapore know that “the government generally is doing the right thing” which he described as “the odd thing going on in Singapore.”
“But they like somebody to be there to put a bit more chilli on the government’s tail,” Mr Lee told his audience at the Chatham House Dialogue, hosted by Sir Malcolm Rifkind MP, Chairman, Intelligence and Security Committee; UK Foreign Secretary (1995-97).
Mr Lee said that the opposition is not interested in governing the country.
“And the opposition in the last election didn’t stand to run for government,” he said. “On the contrary they made it a point of saying, ‘We’re not going to run the government. Please vote for me.’.”
He said the opposition “just snipe at the government from time to time and when the election comes, you have the opportunity to make a fuss and rouse issues (sic), and argue again to be re-elected.”
Mr Lee’s claims are not entirely true because the opposition parties, especially the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP), have proposed alternative policies. In fact, the SDP has released policy papers on several issues such as Healthcare and Housing. The Workers’ Party (WP) too have suggested the nationalisation of public transport, and had also made proposals for ministers’ salaries back in 2011/2012.
Its chairman, Sylvia Lim, had also consistently raised the issue of a lack of police manpower since 2006, way before the public knew of this from the testimony of the police commissioner at the recent committee of inquiry hearings into the Little India riot.
Indeed, during the General Election of 2011, Singaporeans were more impressed with the WP’s manifesto which were detailed positions on policy than the one by Mr Lee’s People’s Action Party (PAP), of which Mr Lee is secretary general. The PAP’s manifesto was accused of being more of a glossy document of smiling faces and motherhood statements.
It was also argued that the PAP’s policies have failed or have been shortsighted, as indeed Mr Lee himself admitted during and after the 2011 general election.
Mr Lee’s government has had to spend the last three years or so after the elections trying to correct these mistaken policies, such as opening the door wide to the foreign labour influx, and the runaway housing prices. It is still dealing also with the transport problems which have affected hundreds of thousands of commuters the last few years.
Nonetheless, Mr Lee continued to defend the political system set up by his government.
Mr Rifkin asked if it was “healthy” to be in power for 50 years, citing his own experience as a member of the Conservative Party in Britain whose longest continuous reign was 18 years.
Mr Lee: “I think there’s some advantages if you can keep the system...”
Malcolm Rifkind: If you’re prime minister I can see that...
Mr Lee: You don’t want to be prime minister for 50 years, or even 18 years.
Mr Lee’s own father, Lee Kuan Yew, had been prime minister of Singapore for 31 years – from 1959 to 1990.
Mr Rifkind pressed his point and repeated if it was “tenable” to continue to have a system where a growing support for the opposition is not represented in Parliament in terms of the number of seats won. For example, while the opposition had 40 per cent of the votes in the last elections, it only has less than 10 per cent of the seats in Parliament.
Mr Lee replied that there are provisions for non-elected Members of Parliament (MP) such as non-constituency MPs and Nominated MPs.
“Therefore, the way the Parliament has to be built up and composed is different and we’ve evolved. We’ve first-past-the-post but we’ve topped up beyond the people who win in the constituencies with non-constituency members,” Mr Lee said.
“So that although the opposition won 6 seats, there are nine opposition members,” he said.
Actually, the opposition won 7 seats, not 6 seats as Mr Lee said.
The 7 elected opposition MPs – all from the Workers’ Party - are:
- Low Thia Khiang
- Sylvia Lim
- Chen Show Mao
- Pritam Singh
- Muhamad Faisal bin Abdul Manap
- Png Eng Huat
- Lee Lilian
Nonetheless, Mr Lee seemed to dismiss the concern about the disparity of growing support for the opposition and the actual number of seats for them in Parliament.
Mr Rifkind asked: “In your case because of the growth of support for the opposition, how tenable can that be in the longer term? Because if you have an opposition, let’s say, that consistently gets 35, 40, 45 per cent of the population, but even with top-ups it’s restricted to about 10 per cent of the seats, isn’t that not going to create deep growing resentment and need some political reform?”
Mr Lee, in trying to explain this, in fact avoids the question.
He instead said that “if we look at the way politics is played in Singapore, a lot of it doesn’t happen in Parliament because the opposition in Parliament has decided it’s politics for them not to propound policies or alternatives.”
Whatever it is, who governs Singapore is up to Singaporeans to decide, Mr Lee said.
“And in the end people will have to decide in Singapore what government they want and whom do they want to run the government.”
But he warned that the system here is such that “if you tilt it you might suddenly have a complete change overnight.”
Mr Rifkind replied: “Well, once every 50 years is not exactly overnight.”
Here’s a transcript of the particular part of the exchange between PM Lee (LHL) and Mr Rifkind (MR):
MR: At your last general elections, if I’m not mistaken, your opposition did much better than ever before and got some 40 per cent the popular vote
LHL: Yes, that’s right.
MR: That means that in terms of voting preferences they’re not a long way away from perhaps one day overtaking you and taking power.
LHL: Well, I don’t think you can draw straight lines like that, in politics things never progress in a linear fashion. And in the end people will have to decide in Singapore what government they want and whom do they want to run the government.
And the opposition in the last election didn’t stand to run for government. On the contrary they made it a point of saying, ‘We’re not going to run the government. Please vote for me.’
MR: You think that’s why they got 40 per cent of the vote?
LHL: I think that’s part of the factor. No, that’s part of the factor.
MR: Why should Singapore be different in this sense? I mean, being blunt about it, any opposition that says, ‘Don’t worry, we don’t want to run the government’, either you don’t believe them or there is some very odd thing going on.
LHL: Well, the odd thing going on is that in Singapore people actually know that the government generally is doing the right thing. But they like somebody to be there to put a bit more chilli on the government’s tail.
MR: Ok, I’ve mentioned that 40 per cent voted for the government but in terms of your electoral system...
LHL: No, 40 per cent voted against the government..
MR: Against the government, I’m sorry...
LHL: In Britain, 40 per cent vote for the government.
MR: When we’re lucky! We should be so lucky. The fact is, nevertheless, there is something less complementary, compared to the point you just put to me. 40 per cent voted for the opposition but in a Parliament of what, 87 seats the opposition won 7 or 8 seats.
LHL: No no no. The system is different. We have a first-past-the-post system...
MR: We do...
LHL: Like you do. You mitigate that because in first-past-the-post home county scored Tory, Scotland goes Labour. We don’t have Scotland.
MR: You never know what might happen here.
LHL: So, what we really do have is smaller than London. And it’s uniform, we’ve made a point of making the different constituencies representative of our national mix so you don’t have Chinese constituencies and Malay ones. So, it’s a very flat political landscape. And if you tilt you might suddenly have a complete change overnight.
MR: Well, once every 50 years is not exactly overnight.
LHL: Therefore, the way the Parliament has to be built up and composed is different and we’ve evolved. We’ve first-past-the-post but we’ve topped up beyond the people who win in the constituencies with non-constituency members. So that although the opposition won 6 seats, there are nine opposition members. And we make sure there’s always a minimum representation of non-government members of parliament.
MR: But, a very serious point: we all know that if you have first-past-the-post, it can sometimes mean that the government has a greater proportion of seats than its share of the vote justifies. That happens in many countries that have that system. In your case because of the growth of support for the opposition, how tenable can that be in the longer term? Because if you have an opposition, let’s say, that consistently gets 35, 40, 45 per cent of the population, but even with top-ups it’s restricted to about 10 per cent of the seats, isn’t that not going to create deep growing resentment and need some political reform?
LHL: There is a desire for more representation of voices in Parliament and so in fact beyond the opposition-assured seats, we also have nominated members of parliament, who are neither government nor opposition but they represent academia, unions,...
MR: Not very democractic, nominated members of parliament..
MR: We have the House of Lords
LHL: There you are!
MR: But ah... that’s only one chamber but that’s not where the government comes from.
LHL: But.. but.. ah.. the fact is is that if we look at the way politics is played in Singapore, a lot of it doesn’t happen in Parliament because the opposition in Parliament has decided it’s politics for them no to propound policies or alternatives. They just snipe at the government from time to time and when the election comes, you have the opportunity to make a fuss and rouse issues (sic), and argue again to be re-elected.