In his first interview with the local media after he was appointed the new Deputy Prime Minister on 1 May, Heng Swee Keat spelt out some of the challenges Singapore may face. And the biggest “unknown” challenge is the “nature of politics” in Singapore, he said.
He noted that Singapore has had “very constructive politics” for the past 50 years and more, and this has helped keep society cohesive and united. In other words, Heng is referring to the kind of politics where Singapore has been dominated by his one party, the People’s Action Party, for over 50 years. In his mind, constructive politics of course, means having his party continues to dominate Singapore politics.
“Now, will we continue on that journey? I think that depends, critically, on the nature of politics in Singapore,” he told the media.
Responding to a question on the desire among younger Singaporeans to have more alternative voices in Parliament, he was quite dismissive of their suggestions.
He said young Singaporeans who are exposed to articles and magazines in the West, think that there ought to be a certain brand of democracy and that democracy should have two political parties, and one party that has been in power for many years is “not a good thing”.
However, he suggested that they should look at the evidence and what is happening in the world today. Heng pointed to UK, which is currently locked in “contentious debate” over the issue of Britain’s exit from the European Union.
“I spoke to so many of our colleagues from the UK and they are really quite dismayed at how the political process has turned out. If you look at the debates, the two-party system – actually it’s more than two parties now – the fragmentation is very serious,” he said.
It is “not a given” that having an opposition party, or having multiple parties, will “result in the best outcome for our society”, he added.
“So the question is this: As our society becomes more diverse, as our people are better educated, better exposed all round the world, how do we harness the energies of everyone in a constructive way and to take Singapore forward? Rather than spend time scoring political points, debating for the sake of debating.”
PAP ramming bills through Parliament unhindered
Still, having a single party dominating a country’s politics would also mean ramming though Parliament bills or constitutional changes which may not be agreeable to the general public.
For example, in 2013, Parliament endorsed the hugely unpopular 6.9 million Population White Paper with 77 PAP MPs voted for it. It angered Singaporeans so much that it triggered the largest-ever protest at Hong Lim Park in the history of Singapore.
The protest made global news with many news media in the world reporting it. BBC reported, “The crowds, protected from the downpours by a sea of umbrellas, came out to voice their displeasure at the ruling People’s Action Party’s (PAP) immigration policies… many local people say the surge in foreigners in recent years has already put a strain on the small, wealthy island state’s resources, and has pushed down salaries while raising property prices.”
Then, in 2017, the PAP also rammed through the Parliament a bill to change the constitution of Singapore with regard to the Elected Presidency. It virtually stopped Dr Tan Cheng Bok seen as a potential winner from contesting. Criteria were also raised to make it more difficult for people to qualify. In the end, only one person, Halimah Yacob, a former Speaker of Parliament and PAP MP, qualified to run for President.
After the Elections Department announced that Halimah was the only possible candidate for the presidency, global media monitoring house Meltwater observed a significant increase in negative sentiment on social media surrounding the Presidential Elections from 11 to 12 September 2017. The data shows 83% of negative sentiment and 17% of positive sentiment.
Lim Tean: UK party system has served UK well
TOC spoke to opposition member Lim Tean, who is familiar with UK and had worked there as a barrister. He studied law at the University of Reading and did his Master of Law in Cambridge.
Mr Lim said, “He (Heng) disparages the UK party system but chooses to ignore that the system has served the UK very well. It is a society that continuously reinvents itself.”
Indeed, the UK Parliamentary system has had several hundreds of years of history. Even Singapore’s Parliamentary system is modeled after UK’s.
“Heng Swee Keat and his colleagues like Ong Ye Kung of course love the idea of a one party state because they know that many of the PAP policies cannot stand up to scrutiny if there is a robust opposition in Parliament,” Mr Lim continued.
“Heng Swee Keat can’t even get productivity growth growing as Finance Minister and under his stewardship far more jobs for PRs, new citizens and foreigners than Singaporeans. He and the so called 4G PAP leadership are turning Singaporeans into refugees in their homeland.”
Mr Lim said that the last thing Singapore needs is a one party state which will be the death knell for us as a Creative and innovative society.
“Even a 2 party system is passé. We need a multi-party system which exists in so many of the Scandinavian countries and countries such as Germany who have led the way in economic and social development. Only in that way can we ensure an injection of fresh ideas to invigorate our Nation,” he opined.
In any case, Heng continues to believe that a 1-party “constructive” political system would serve Singapore well, it remains a question as to whether he will see the need to fix opposition parties like PM Lee Hsien Loong said in one of his election rallies, even as more Singaporeans are driving Grab and cleaning tables at food courts as “refugees” in our own homeland.