Singapore is a small country, so it has to stay agile, a one-party system may give Singapore its best shot at success, said Education Minister (Higher Education and Skills) Ong Ye Kung at the annual Institute of Policy Studies’ Singapore Perspectives conference on 23 January.
Opinions were shared by a panel discussing whether rule by a single political party is best for Singapore. The panel also conversed on the possibility of Singapore having a two or multi-party system.
Pointing out the long term risks for Singapore if Singapore has a multi-party system, Mr Ong who is a Member of Parlimaent from People’s Action Party (PAP) said, “50 years from now, if we have a multi-party system, what will define the key political difference between parties? What is the partisan line? Is it over the extent to which we should subsidise public services, healthcare and social assistance? If that is so, it may well be something we can manage.”
“What if it is over something more sinister that divide Singapore by race, language or religion? As we all know politics, race and religion is a toxic mix,” he said.
Mr Ong gave a justification on a one party system by saying, “Our equilibrium as a small country may well be a single party system. The party can be PAP today, but another party in the future — so long it is the most capable at that time.”
“The reason is geographic. Because between Singaporeans living in Changi and Jurong, their concerns and views on national issues may be somewhat different, but nothing like people living in Alaska or New York City, Jakarta or the westernmost of Indonesia. For big countries, geographical separation translates into different lifestyles, outlook, values and political affinities…”
“The single party in the case of Singapore, therefore, is not a prescription, but the most likely outcome of choice — a result of free and fair elections. It is not different from Massachusetts being dominated by Democrats for long periods, or Scotland dominated by Labour and until recently Scottish National Party (SNP). Smallness and concentration often come together.”
Mr Ong also said that complacency, elitism and corruption are not inevitable outcomes of single-party rule, and these traits have shown up across all political systems.
— IPS (@IPS_sg) January 23, 2017
Executive chairman of Banyan Tree, Ho Kwon Ping, spoke on the same topic and warned that one-party systems may cause its political elites becoming slow to change, resulting in a culture of entitlement and corruption as he did in prior talks that he held.
— IPS (@IPS_sg) January 23, 2017
He noted that the most desirable scenario for Singapore might be a system of robust internal competition within the PAP.
But Mr Ho said history shows that a ruling political party which faces no competition tends to turn complacent.
Pointing to the declines of India’s Indian National Congress and the Kuomintang in Taiwan, Mr Ho said a founding party’s political values can be passed down only over three or four generations of leaders. Beyond that, complacency will overwhelm the self-discipline instilled by the party’s pioneers and its political culture will erode, he said.
However, Mr Ho thought the PAP, because of its ‘ability to self-correct and obsessively talk about problems’ and find solutions to them, had the best chance of any long-term party to set a new record for staying in power.
He suggested that the party should introduce a formal way for competing policies to be aired internally.
Mr Ong seemed to have agreed, saying that the PAP needed to be as pluralistic a party as possible and must take in people with different views.
“This will lead to internal competition which will be a good thing. Today it exists, there are diverse views, the public doesn’t see them, but perhaps we ought to formalise this over time,” he said.
But Mr Ho responded that internal party competition by itself cannot ensure political elites remain relevant.
“Civil society should also be nurtured and information should be shared more freely, so that the public can have robust discussions on policies,” he said.
Professor Tommy Koh, Ambassador-at-Large at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, who was in the audience, asked if the PAP could buck the trend of history, or if it might falter within the next 10 years.
Mr Ho said, “I thought the party was unlikely to decline with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong around, even if he is no longer Prime Minister but is Minister Mentor or Emeritus Senior Minister.”
“So long as he is around, the party’s adherence to its core values will remain,” said Mr Ho.
Mr Ong said the new leadership team will face a severe test in the next few years, “How do we then ensure we have the bond with the rest of the party members to continue to hold everything together, while ensuring the PAP is as pluralistic and diverse as possible?”
Prof Koh called Mr Ong a ‘credible and leading candidate to be our next prime minister’. Mr Ong was recently made an organising secretary of the PAP and has been touted as the possible future prime minister succeeding.
Mr Ong had earlier contested in the General Election 2011 at Aljunied GRC but was defeated by the “A-team” of Workers’ Party led by its Secretary-General, Low Thia Khiang. After his defeat in 2011, Mr Ong was given the position of NTUC’s Deputy Secretary-General and eventually entered Parliament through Sembawang GRC before being appointed a Minister.