Will Singapore’s honest and pragmatic style of politics ever lead to a multi-party parliament?

Photo: William Cho/CC BY-SA 2.0

Can Singapore’s style of honest and pragmatic politics continue to carry the city-state into next generation, or is there a need to change the principles that have steered the country to success thus far?

By Hisyam Nasser, edited by John Pennington

Increasing criticism of the political system that laid the foundations for Singapore’s impressive development is raising serious questions about whether the People’s Action Party’s (PAP) parliamentary dominance could one day come to an end.

The discontent comes against the backdrop of an extraordinary rate of development, Singapore increasing its gross domestic product (GDP) by roughly 300 times in the last 51 years, making it the third richest country in the world today.

It’s the safest city in Asia, and has the highest quality of living in the region yet for all its achievements on the global stage, the country faces criticism for its style of governance, some going as far as calling it “one-party rule”.

Singapore’s founding policies set the scene for today’s stability

The economic wealth and social stability that Singapore now has was hard fought for. Professor Kishore Mahbubani, Dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, expresses the popular view that Singapore’s early leaders deserve much credit for this.

This exceptional team also implemented three exceptional policies: Meritocracy, Pragmatism and Honesty. Indeed, I share this “secret” MPH formula with every foreign student at the Lee Kuan Yew School, and I assure them that if they implement it, their country will succeed as well as Singapore,” he writes, and it is these three policies that Singapore government became famous for.

Pragmatism and honesty came first

Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew was the first to put policies of pragmatism and honesty in place, acting – transparently – in Singapore’s benefit, and if he thought a certain course of action was what’s best for the country, then that was the route he was going to take regardless of whatever else he was told.

“In a developing country situation, you need a leader… who not only understands the ordinary arguments for or against, but at the end of it says, ‘Look, will this work, given our circumstances? Never mind what the British, what the Australians, what the New Zealanders do. This is Singapore. Will it work in this situation?’” he said.

Pragmatism and honesty helped the Singapore government earn the trust of the people although this came at the cost of certain liberties, as Lee did not hesitate to silence anyone who might stand in his way of making Singapore a better place. “I learned how to govern, how you dominate the people, as the British did, and how the Japanese used their power,” he said.

Lee applied his knowledge with strong governance, as evidenced by the retention of the Internal Security Act – a detention without trial – after its independence from Malaysia in 1965. Between 1963 and 1966, under this Act, several key leaders of opposition party Barisan Solialis were detained and with the opposition crippled, the PAP went on to win all of the seats in parliament by 1968.

Meritocracy was a natural progression in Singaporean politics

Meritocracy became a natural part of the political process as people wanted only the best and most capable people to represent them in parliament. This sentiment was strongly etched into the country’s education system to develop the sentiment that education is important amongst its population.

Over time, meritocracy — particularly in the education system — became a way of effectively developing human resources and efficiently allocating talent to where it was most in need, particularly in key leadership positions in government, the economy and society,” notes Associate Professor Kenneth Paul Tan, Vice Dean (Academic Affairs) of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. The hope was that the brightest minds would continue the good work that their predecessors had done to lead Singapore onward.

The impact of the three policies are still felt today

Fast forward to today and the impacts of the three policies of pragmatism, honesty and meritocracy have manifested themselves in the characteristics that Singapore is known for all over the world – a rich economy, social stability, and one of the most educated populations in the world. While Singapore continued to prosper, the country’s achievements far outweighed any critique of the methods used, but that may no longer be the case.

The PAP has been the dominant party in Singapore’s government since its independence in 1965, and although they have always been democratically elected into power, there are concerns that having a single party dominate the government borders on a tightly managed regime.

Graham Allison, director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School commented that, “Singapore’s late leader governed undemocratically but effectively.”

Singapore’s growth is a paradox in political terms

Comparing the country’s development with the United Kingdom, from where its parliamentary system is modelled on, we can see how the results of having one party remaining dominant in parliament differs from a parliament where multiple are parties elected. We should also compare Singapore’s progress with its neighbour Malaysia, which has had a multi-party system since its first election.

Singapore United Kingdom Malaysia
Current population 5.399 million 64.1 million 29.72 million
GDP (US$) in 1965 974.193 million 100.596 billion 2.956 billion
GDP (US$) in 2015 292.739 billion 2858.003 billion 296.283 billion
50-year growth ~300 times ~28 times ~100 times
Literacy rate 95.9% 99% 93.1%
Safety (Global Peace Index) Rank 20 Rank 47 Rank 30
World Happiness Index Rank 22 Rank 23 Rank 47
Net Migration Rate 13.6 migrants/1,000 population 2.5 migrants/1,000 population -0.3. migrants/1,000 population

As the table shows, Singapore expanded its economic wealth the most out of the three countries. In addition, due to Singapore’s relatively small population, the government has had to bolster its workforce by taking in migrants from abroad, leading to a high ratio of migrants to locals. However, despite such a high ratio relative to the other countries, Singapore has been able to maintain a high level of safety and security, as well as a happy citizenry.

Economist Bryan Caplan calls this situation the two paradoxes of Singapore. “(Firstly), it frequently adopts policies that economists would call ‘economically efficient, but politically unpopular’…(Secondly), even though Singapore follows the forms of British parliamentary democracy, it is effectively a one-party state.” he notes.

So why is it that despite being a parliamentary democracy, Singapore has chosen to continuously elect the PAP leading to its dominance in parliament? If having a one-party state truly is detrimental for the progress of the country, why would its very people choose to place their faith in it?

The mystery of the electorate

The closest that Singapore has come to breaking the one-party dominance of the PAP came in the 2011 general election. Despite claiming a victory, the ruling PAP received its lowest share of the vote since the country’s independence in 1965. Many observers interpreted the result as the population’s indication that they wanted a change in the way that Singapore was governed. An article published by the Singapore Management University noted that, “more Singaporeans believed PAP’s continued dominance of the political system to be untenable. The widening income gap, concerns about inflation and increased costs of living exacerbated a growing dissatisfaction with the PAP government.” It also highlighted perceived arrogance and highhandedness by some PAP politicians.

However, in the general elections that immediately followed, the PAP won comfortably in almost all the areas that they contested, which Channel NewsAsia reported as a “significant, unexpected result.”

The win raised plenty of questions about what the electorate wanted

Did the comfortable win mean that the general population were happy with the PAP’s ability on crushing the opposition? Did they not want the change that they implied they wanted in the 2011 elections?

Perhaps not. Such a drastic swing in the direction of the election results between the two elections could be an indication that the electorate wanted to send the message that they wanted a change in how the PAP operated. It could suggest that the electorate still trusted the fundamental policies that have steered Singapore to success but not in the execution of these policies due to the change in times.

“It can be argued that the majority of people in Singapore may consider the opposition primarily for its utilitarian purposes; one such utilitarian purpose could be to signal discontent against the government and to provoke policy change,” writes Saleena Saleem, Associate Research Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Singapore.

In the future, the people of Singapore have the casting vote

As Saleem notes, the decision to remain with the incumbent dominant party or to side with an opposition party still rests with the people, and it is precisely because of this power that the people hold that utilitarian purpose that she suggests is plausible.

Members of the electorate make use of their vote to show whether or not they still trust in the PAP, and in the case of the 2011 elections, the made their voices heard even if it meant losing one of the most well liked politicians in the party at the time – George Yeo.

If Singapore is to become a country where a multi-party parliament exists, then it is up to their citizens to decide if they are ready for such a system to exist. The population of Singapore is only going to become increasingly smarter, and at for the moment, they understand that Singapore’s future either lies with a party that has proven their capability, or an opposition that exists solely to oppose them.

Should there be an opportunity in the future where a party worth voting other than the dominant party exist, then perhaps that will be time that the shape of politics in Singapore finally shifts towards more robust opposition representation in parliament.