On 11 April, the Financial Times (FT) published a report of an interview it had with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. In that piece by Gideon Rachman, the paper said Mr Lee hinted that “the PAP is beginning to consider the possibility of one day forming a coalition government.”
That “hint” seems to be based on a remark made by Mr Lee in that same interview:
“It may not be one team in, one team out, it may be more complicated – you’re getting used to more complicated than that in Britain now,” Mr Lee was reported as having said. [Read the interview here.] The local broadsheet, Straits Times, picked up the story and had this as its headline in its report of Mr Lee’s comments:
“Coalition government possible in future, says PM Lee.”
Channel Newsasia, the other main news outlet in Singapore, also picked up on the story and headlined the “coalition” idea:
“PAP considering possibility of forming coalition government one day: PM Lee.”
Unsurprisingly, these news reports raised not a few eyebrows, given what Mr Lee’s party, the People’s Action Party (PAP), and indeed Mr Lee himself, have been saying in recent times.
The PAP has always rejected the idea of a multi-party government, insisting that Singapore cannot afford “political gridlock” which this would bring, and that in any case there aren’t enough talented people to form such a coalition government.
In April 2011, just before the general elections in May, Mr Lee – who is also the secretary-general of the PAP – dismissed the idea of a multi-party government.
He said that it is “not workable”and that “such a system would result in weaker governance.”
“This is the way to safeguard our common future — not to weaken the ‘A’ team in the hope of buying insurance, but to strengthen the ‘A’ team, to give it the best chance of succeeding,” he said.
But a majority of people polled by Yahoo Singapore saw it differently and indicated they supported a two-party system.
The PAP’s visceral aversion and distaste for any hint of a coalition government is best evidenced by the now infamous remarks made by the party’s stalwart, Lee Kuan Yew – PM Lee’s father.
During the heat of the May elections, with the prospects of the PAP losing Aljunied GRC to the Workers’ Party, the senior Lee warned:
“If Aljunied decides to go that way, well Aljunied has five years to live and repent.”
The remarks backfired on the PAP, which was already struggling to win emotional support from the people, and was captured succintly in a headline in The Economist:
In August, just three months after the May general elections, PM Lee again dismissed the idea of a multi-party parliament in a National Day dinner speech in his constituency, saying that such a government will be bogged down with gridlocks.
“We are too small to be able to afford impasse and gridlock, to have two sides blocking one another, so you can’t move, you can’t solve problems, you can’t go ahead.”
A month later (Ocotber), in a speech in Parliament, he repeated this.
“Least of all can we afford in Singapore gridlock or malfunction, which happens in many first world parliaments,” he said, in a speech which emphasised political stability.
The fact that the Prime Minister himself had to dismiss the idea suggests that the ruling party wanted to nib any such ideas in the bud, following the bashing that the PAP received at the polls that year.
But the idea that a coalition government might not be beyond the realm of possibility in Singapore was raised again by the then newly-elected Workers’ Party (WP) Member of Parliament (MP), Pritam Singh, in July 2011.
At a forum organised by the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS), Mr Singh said that “a coalition government of a number of parties could also be possible, in the event no party secured an outright majority of more than 44 seats.”
“Let’s not rule out the prospects of the PAP being forced into coalition politics. And coalition governments don’t mean things don’t happen… (there) could be unity government… There is a huge political space there for us to actually think about, insofar as how politics in Singapore… is going forward.”
Mr Singh’s suggestion seemed to have ruffled a few feathers, coming as it did right after the WP had won an unprecendented six seats in Parliament. (It went on to further win another seat in the Punggol East by-election in 2013.)
But the PAP government is not giving up trying to convince Singaporeans that a one-party system is best for the country – and for Singaporeans – and it has continued to dismiss any idea of a coalition government, or to even have more seats go to the opposition parties.
Its position is and has always been that it is good for Singapore to have a one-party government, and that this one party is unequivocally the ruling PAP.
Nonetheless, the PAP’s stance has softened somewhat – and while insisting that the country is best served by one (PAP) party, a “credible” but limited opposition presence could also be good for the country.
Just last year, in 2013, Deputy Prime Minister and second assistant secretary-general of the PAP, Tharman Shanmugaratnam, said that the PAP “wants to remain a dominant party anchored in society – without dominating in all areas.”
“I believe we can play a dominant role, retain a dominant position without wanting to completely dominate,” DPM Tharman said in an interview with The Straits Times.
“It’s in Singapore’s interest that you do have a dominant party, but it’s got to be one that’s open to diversity, welcoming of a responsible opposition.”
This seems to be the prevailing position in the PAP, as far as the role of the opposition is concerned.
The opposition’s role, according to the PAP, is a limited one.
Indeed, in a subsequent clarification about its report that the “PAP [is] considering [the] possibility of forming coalition government one day”, Channel Newsasia said that “it has been pointed out that this is inaccurate.”
What Mr Lee had in fact said in the interview with the Financial Times was that there would be “contestation”, presumably between the political parties. It is not entirely clear what Mr Lee was referring to, actually.
“Even to form one team is a big challenge for us in the PAP, with all our advantages of incumbency. To imagine that you have another team, (a) shadow cabinet in the wings, ready to take over, equally able and possibly better? Nobody believes that.
“And so you could end up in a situation where you have contestation. It may not be one team in, one team out. It could be more complicated than that. You are getting used to more complicated than that in Britain now.”
The PAP’s position is thus one which is far from accepting or welcoming a coalition government.
But as Mr Singh said, it will perhaps not be up to the PAP, given how the political landscape is shaping up in Singapore.
UPDATE: On Sunday, 13 April, PM Lee confirmed that he did not say anything about considering a coalition government. Here is what he posted on his Facebook page: