At the annual Singapore Perspectives conference organised by the Institute of Policy Studies, Education Minister (Higher Education and Skills) Ong Ye Kung said that: “Singapore is a small country, so it has to stay agile; a one-party system may give Singapore its best shot at success“.
This statement is so sweepingly loaded that I am still trying to quell the barrage of warning bells that are going off in my head. Yes, Singapore is a small country that needs to stay agile but do small countries not require checks and balances? What defines success? Who determines the notion of success? A one-party system may ensure that bills are rapidly passed but does this mean that such bills are necessarily beneficial to the country? Have the issues of efficiency and long-term success been confused?
This point of view highlights the myopic opinion our government has towards disagreement and discourse. Debate and discussions do not necessarily hamper success. Surely, it is better for the pros and cons of any potential bills to be fully deliberated instead of rushed through?
Perhaps the government needs to rethink its attitude towards respectful dissent. It is not something to be feared. Rather, it is an opportunity for it to become better engaged with its voters.
The Minister appears to have assumed that a multi-party system will inevitably lead to deadlocks and roadblocks without giving due weight to the importance of listening to credible perspectives.
Besides will the existence of a perpetual one-party system lead to members of government invariably conflating party interests with national interests such that bills passed benefit the party more than the country? Even countries with multiple parties face these issues. What more a country with only one party and no competition?
Take British PM Teresa May for instance. She has repeatedly insisted that Brexit means Brexit when there is evidence that her private view couldn’t be more contrary. Is she insisting on her hardline approach to keep the Conservative party together at the expense of the United Kingdom?
If this can happen in the UK where there are multiple opposition parties, what of a country where there is no one to offer a different outlook?
Mr Ong goes on to speculate that multi-party systems could lead to “something more sinister that divide Singapore by race, language or religion”. Again, this is something that stokes unsubstantiated fears by only underscoring the worst case scenario. Besides, is Mr Ong not aware of the allegations of racism that affect all spectrums of society that are frequently in the media? If the government were really so concerned with issues of race, why not do something about that right now?
Mr Ong also said that: “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.” This begs the question: How can another party come to the forefront and display its capability if a multi-party system is not encouraged?
Further, Mr Ong said that “complacency, elitism and corruption are not inevitable outcomes of single-party rule, and these traits have shown up across all political systems”. While I wouldn’t equate single party rule with corruption, I would say that a single party rule will make corruption easier to hide by those who are so inclined.
For any system to remain accountable to the people who put it in power, constant checks and balances are vital. For governments, the only viable objective checks are those that are meted out by a rigorous press and a meticulous opposition.
Take the recent Protection from Harassment Act court ruling whereby the government has indicated that it is now considering options to combat the spread of fake news and falsehoods. Without opposition presence, would this even have made it to the news or would new laws be quietly enacted with the public being none the wiser?