Two Party System Will Not Work in Singapore? How about 3, 4 or 5 Parties?


This article is contributed by a Singaporean residing and working in Finland. He had earlier contributed the article on the Finnish Education System on my blog.

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Written by A Singaporean Observer in Finland

 Mr Lee Kuan Yew hopes Singapore would just stop at having a competitive opposition in Parliament – and he hopes Singaporeans would not be swayed into wanting a two-party system, believing that it would be better.

“I do not think so,” he said. “Among other reasons, I do not think Singapore can produce two top class teams. We haven’t the talent to produce two top class teams.”

Mr Lee said it is popular democracy that has driven governments in the United States and Europe into its current debt crisis. – The Business Times, Thursday, Sep 15, 2011

There has been much debate on whether Singapore should and can have a two party system. Founding father Lee Kuan Yew made his points clearly during a dialogue at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy and then again in an interview with China Central Television that aired on 6 July.

Since then, there have been much rebuttals and agreements in varying volumes. This title may seem rather more exacerbating and may generate even more debate. There can be no definitive answer to whether a two party system is feasible in Singapore since there is little evidence in Singapore’s context to support this claim and vice versa. We can only look at how other successful countries with a two party system (or more in this case) to see if we can draw some lessons from there.

 

The Finnish Government – Finished from the start?

Residing in Finland presented an opportunity to witness competitive elections in 2011. The elections concluded on 17th April 2011 but the government was only officially inaugurated on 22nd June 2011 after a lengthy coalition negotiating period.

Finland’s 72nd government, headed by Prime Minister Jyrki Katainen, is a majority coalition formed by the National Coalition Party, the Social Democratic Party, the Left Alliance, the Swedish People’s Party in Finland, the Green League and the Christian Democratic Party.  The opposition is formed by the Centre Party and True Finns (recently renamed as The Finns). In case, you missed the count, it is 6 parties in government, 2 parties in opposition. If you look at the overall results, the total count is actually a staggering 18 political parties taking part in the elections. Here’s a snapshot:

General Elections 2011 in Finland – Result by party 

Time

20.4.2011, 19.14

Turnover 2011

70,5 %

Votes Counted

100,0 %

Turnover 2007

67,9 %

Counting Status

completed

Turnover 2008

61,3 %

 

Changes with General Election 2007

Party

% Share of votes

MPs elected

Votes

% share

MPs

Votes

National Coalition Party

20,4

44

599 138

-1,9

-6

-17 703

Social Democratic Party

19,1

42

561 558

-2,3

-3

-32 636

True Finns

19,1

39

560 075

+15,0

+34

+447 819

Centre Party ofFinland

15,8

35

463 266

-7,4

-16

-177 162

Left WingAlliance

8,1

14

239 039

-0,7

-3

-5 257

Green League

7,3

10

213 172

-1,2

-5

-21 257

Swedish People’s Party

4,3

9

125 785

-0,3

0

-735

Christian Democrats inFinland

4,0

6

118 453

-0,8

-1

-16 337

Pirate Party ofFinland

0,5

0

15 103

+0,5

0

+15 103

Independent Groups

0,4

1

11 763

-0,1

0

-825

Finnish Communist Party

0,3

0

9 232

-0,3

0

-9 045

Change 2011

0,3

0

7 504

+0,3

0

+7 504

Freedom Party

0,1

0

4 285

+0,1

0

+4 285

IndependenceParty

0,1

0

3 236

-0,1

0

-2 305

Senior Citizens Party

0,1

0

3 195

-0,5

0

-13 520

The Finnish workers’ party

0,1

0

1 857

0,0

0

+93

Communist Worker’s Party

0,1

0

1 575

0,0

0

-432

For the Poor

0,0

0

1 335

0,0

0

-1 186

 Source: http://yle.fi/vaalit/tulospalvelu/2011/parties.html

If you look at the 6 parties forming the coalition government, they have similarities but their differences are equally stark when examined from the political spectrum. Similarly, on the Finnish opposition end, the 2 parties have major differences as well, one anti-EU, the other pro-EU. The question thus is whether such a government is in gridlock over policy making, or making simple decisions a major hurdle?

The truth is that Finland continued to function normally after the elections and inauguration of the government. Essentially, public services continued unabated.

The True Embrace of Diversity

What is the secret then? There is no secret.

“Finnish society is based on hard work, respect for application and entrepreneurship, equality, solidarity and caring for one another. Respect for everyone and openness to diversity are Finnish virtues. Finland’s status as a bilingual country is a strength and resource. Various religions and communities are valuable to moral growth. In Finland, everyone is equal irrespective of their gender, age, ethnic origin, language, religion, convictions, opinions, health, disability, sexual orientation, or any other factor. The Government will systematically act against racism and discrimination.” – Programme of the Finnish Government, 22 June 2011

Incidentally, the Finnish Government Programme is an action plan agreed on by the parties represented in the Government, including the opposition. Not convinced? One opposition member chairs the parliamentary administration committee.  The administration committee is tasked with immigration policy as well as with a range of other issues. To add further, this new chairman is an outspoken critic of Finland’s immigration policy. The entire government programme is a worthwhile read, only 90 pages; 100 pages if you include the appendices. All the Finnish government’s priorities and policies from climate to welfare are covered here in one document, which demonstrates clearly the government’s ability to work as a whole despite having 8 different political parties in parliament. The Finnish electorate can judge the government by this document when the next elections are called. I can’t seem to find the Singaporean equivalent… but please point it out to us if anyone finds it.

What qualifies as a minister in Finland? A very short answer is this: Ministers must be Finnish citizens, known for their integrity and ability to serve.  In case, this doesn’t quite make an impact, perhaps this will. The Minister of Labour, Lauri Ihalainen is a carpenter but he has loads of experience with trade unions. You can view the membership of the Finnish government here and decide for yourself if the concept of diversity is truly embraced.

In case, you are interested in the ministerial pay package. It is as short as this:

 “Monthly remuneration paid to cabinet ministers is equivalent to that of a deputy speaker of Parliament (9,729 € per month in May 2011). The prime minister’s pay is same as the speaker of Parliament (11,675 € per month in May 2011). Ministerial pay is subject to tax. Members of Parliament appointed as members of the Government forfeit half of the salary and expense allowance they receive from Parliament. A member of the Government is entitled to a 30-day paid leave corresponding to annual holiday.”

Source: Ministerial pay, Facts about the Government

 (note: 1 € is equivalent to SGD 1.74 in today’s exchange rate)

 

A Finnish Heritage?

Finland has a history of having multiple parties forming a government and perhaps, this may be the reason why the Finns are comfortable with such diversity in their political arena. The past Finnish governments (especially those in power over 1300 days) have never been dominated by one single political party. Some readers may like to dig this a little deeper. You will find more information here. When looking at the numbers, do bear in mind the history of Finland at those times, particularly the shortest serving governments.

If there is anyone believing that the Finns are all cordial with each other in the political arena, you can’t be more wrong than that. Have a look at these two pieces of news: Finns party MPs handed “forbidden words” list and Kiviniemi: Hard to work with Finns Party. Openness is better than keeping it under the table, when it can boil over; but clearly they practice responsibility for what they say.

The Finnish electorate (President Halonen: Voters Expressed Dissatisfaction) themselves show clearly that they are a matured lot. I personally think this makes a difference. In all my conversations with my local contacts here, we can differ on opinions in politics, sociology, economics and even the way we speak English, but we remain friends and close ones. You can have a civilised debate here, and no matter how heated it gets, you can part ways not as enemies or opponents, but as more knowledgeable people at the end. Perhaps, the weather here helps keep heads cool.  People respect each other’s vote, whether it is for the Pirate Party or Green League. Clearly, openness to diversity is already ingrained as part of the national identity. See my previous post on education for pointers why this is the case.

In Conclusion

I agree with Mr Lee that Singapore should not produce two top class teams. Why should there be two?  It should just be ONE, but that team needs diversity from all possible quarters, even from the opposition. If this team cannot even deal with diversity between themselves, how can they possibly deal with the diversity within Singapore itself? The political divide will only become a national divide if the leaders do not first take the lead to close the divide.

Following the aftermath of GE and PE 2011, there have been divides between friends and families. The Singaporean electorate (regardless of which side you are on) needs time to mature to see that the person who votes differently is not an opponent, trouble maker, anti-establishment and whatever label we can think of. We are all equals, who are different, but still Singaporean. Surely, we can embrace and respect diversity as well as the Finns do; Singapore being more a more ethnically diverse society than Finland is.

Tn my perspective, the senior Mr Lee’s comment on that popular democracy is the main cause for the current debt crisis is a little harsh and overbearing . A debt crisis is not solely the fault of a government and perhaps, we differ in this opinion since Mr. Lee believes that strong governments can avert all crises. Lest we forget, that the word ‘crisis’ in Chinese (危机), actually has an opportunity component in it. It may serve us better to embrace crises to seek out better opportunities.

 

The author attended ACS & Nanyang Junior College in Singapore, graduated from the University of Manchester, served in the civil service for 15 years and is currently residing in Finland.

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11 comments on “Two Party System Will Not Work in Singapore? How about 3, 4 or 5 Parties?

  1. Singaporeans today are more educated and more travelled, exposed and better informed than their previous generation of the 40s, 50s and 60s. They have witnessed how democracies that embraced diversity have produced the best decisions through contest of ideas. They have also seen the danger and peril of leaving key decisions of the nation to an elite group who claimed to be all-knowing and have seen such elitist society failed and got into trouble. Only the Rulers of the day who are afraid to be replaced are afraid of diversity and change.

  2. Democracy is supposed to be a way to allow a peaceful transfer of power when the one in ruling has degenerated so badly that it is not fit to rule anymore. I know democracy is not perfect, but this is how things work. If 2-party system doesn’t work, I really don’t believe the current system serves Singapore’s long term interests either. The current system looks like those old Chinese dynasty. By denying others the experience to govern the country, one day, when this ‘ruling dynasty’ collapse, the country will plunge into chaos, just like ancient or even Communist China. When you look at China’s history, there were many dynasties and dynasty rule doesn’t last and often end in chaos. Does LKY want Singapore to eventually end up this way when he is no longer there? What makes him think the ruling power will always be in the best position to govern? What makes him think the ruling party will not one day becomes morally not right to rule anymore? Can he guarantee this? He is too selfish, putting his own family and party interests above country’s long term interests.

    Wake up, Singaporeans!

  3. First, I agree with the writer’s conclusion

    Second, most people when confronted with this notion, will think linearly of division of power, being either you (PAP) or me (Opposition)

    The sad fact is (at this juncture) Singapore indeed cant afford 2 top class teams as it is a severe waste of talents and resources, due to the limitations of the system and the size of the talent pool.

    Take for example the case of WP winning Aljunied GRC, it is a loss of 1 good PAP minister and the “loss” of atleast 3 ministerial good quality candidates from WP simply because they are not part of the government.

    which implies that unless the point of combine government is reached, opposition parties winning more seats will result in a greater reduction of talent pool avail for ministers selection.

    I hope people will henceforth understand what exMM meant when he said 2 parties doesn’t work.

    but I do hope that something is done to the system limitations as it does not bode well for the future of Singapore.

    • @notorion on September 22, 2011 – 12:47 pm
      “The sad fact is (at this juncture) Singapore indeed cant afford 2 top class teams as it is a severe waste of talents and resources, due to the limitations of the system and the size of the talent pool.

      Take for example the case of WP winning Aljunied GRC, it is a loss of 1 good PAP minister and the “loss” of atleast 3 ministerial good quality candidates from WP simply because they are not part of the government.

      which implies that unless the point of combine government is reached, opposition parties winning more seats will result in a greater reduction of talent pool avail for ministers selection.”

      I wait for the day when a cornered LHL bans all political parties and imprisons all non PAP MPs so that his Team becomes the BEST by default. Let’s face it – the better team is somewhere out there refusing to be a part of the PAP.

      • the moment you spewed the word the better team, it already indicates the amount of arrogance that is similar to the party you hate most, and I bet you didn’t even realise that

  4. May I try challenge ourselves on this idea of Singapore not being able to afford two so called two top class teams competing to be governments?

    What do you mean by “top class team”? Must they necessarily be former top civil servants, former scholarship holders, Oxbridge graduates, first class honours? If so, why must it be the case? I suggest to you that this idea of “top team” and the requirement of good academic credentials and scholarship background has been planted by the PAP government in our minds so we won’t accept something different. Elsewhere in the world, we can hardly find any country where there is such obsession that such qualifications are the quid pro quo for good politicians and ministers.

    Finland is a good example of not having a government dominated by such type of politicians. And I say Finland is doing much better than Singapore. Their government is certainly excellent value for money. In comparison, we have to pay a high price and still remain dissatisfied. But it is not just Finland. Look around the world and you will find quite a few other countries.

    Seriously, is our government that good? The academic credentials of our ministers may look good on paper. But does it mean that they are delivering the value we expect from the premiums we have to pay? Is PAP’s yardstick for political candidacy the only valid discourse?

    In the past few months, in the wake of the elections this year, I have the privilege of meeting many Singaporeans from all walks of life; they are well educated, successful in their own fields of work, intelligent, well read and well travelled. They have their own minds and are capable of critical thinking and may not churn out standard lines I often hear from many senior civil servants or scholarship holders. Many of these people do not agree with the way the government is leading the country. Unfortunately, many of these people may not fit the PAP traditional mound of a political office holders and will not form the PAP’s idea of a top team. But I actually take heart that a lot of these people can step up to be part of any competent government and they have a heart and passion to want Singapore to survive, do well and not go in the directions that they think PAP is wrongly bringing us towards.

    Contrary to what PAP has been trying to tell us and has been indoctrinating the civil service, good academics and scholarship credentials are not crucial for politics. It is important to have politicians who are intelligent and knowledgeable. It is equally that such people must have the right heart for SIngapore and the passion to serve Singaporeans. I take heart from the many Singaporeans I have met and known that our country will still be in good hands without relying on PAP’s traditional preferred source of office holders.

    No matter which part of the political divide you stand on, there are enough intelligent and capable people in Singapore who will be able to lead our country forward and have the heart and mind to do so.

  5. I agree wholeheartedly. The purpose of the opposition, unlike how most of the PAP portrays it, isn’t to fight with the PAP, but to serve as a check and balance to ensure an even spread of political parties as well as more fairness in policy-making. For instance, to ensure that a policy isn’t made solely to run along the ruling party’s laws. Yet the government takes a strong stance against the opposition, politicizing them and even, if I dare say so myself, demonizing them : see the recent news about the PAP saying that the opposition could not run PAs as ‘the opposition would oppose the PA’s actions’. Politics shouldn’t be solely about the consolidation of power : in light of our country’s National Pledge, it is to seek progress for society, not to allow it to stagnate.

    A big problem in Singapore is the usage of media against certain fractions of society, which prevents closer co-operation between the two parties, as well as to further its own personal goals. We see this subtle push by the Straits Times to push for PAP policies, supporting them, as well as creating a media blockage on undesirable events that may derail the PAP’s reputation, while simultaneously creating obstacles for the opposition, casting them in a negative light. Why is this urge to stay in power held in such high regard by the PAP when a true, successful government should have parties working in tandem to obtain the maximum happiness for the greatest amount of people rather than to appeal to a select few?

    Also, I find that several policies seem to prevent true progress, and keep politics to a select, elite few. Aside from the mastery of the media as well as powerful figures like MME Lee Kuan Yew himself, what Dennis said was true. When MME Lee says that he needs two ‘world-class teams to compete’ with one another, how does he define ‘world-class’? Educated scholars? Or by the recent presidential election, CEOs? Better yet, why the term, compete? Furthermore, through the PAP-exclusive usage of the NMP system, where they can simply nominate new MPs to the PAP, it creates a one-sided autocracy that pretends to be a meritocracy, and a meritocracy that pretends to be a democracy. Should the PAP continue to push on with its tactics to remain fully in power, Singapore will lose out in the years to come.

  6. Can I also add that political competition is not a wastage at all? Fair political competition (which is not happening in Singapore yet see eg the ongoing PA controversy which would not be acceptable in any other serious democratic countries) is essential for any strong democratic country to survive in the long run. Without competition, the political leadership can be dangerously skewered in the interest of a minority, a select class of people or even a few people. With a healthy and fair political competition, those who do not have the stomach in politics or the genuine passion to serve will be weeded out. It will also allow a sensitizing of political leaders in deciding on policies. Political leaders may have their views but ultimately the people should have the say over the type of policies they want. This is not happening in Singapore yet too.

    Another danger of the lack of competition is the lack of balanced and alternative views. We are now mostly hearing what the ruling party says is good or bad for the country. We have to start to ask ourselves: what makes their views correct anymore? Without the credible option of a serious alternative, who is to know whether these views are ultimately justified in the first place. Hence for example, PAP loves to take their favourite chapter in Machiavelli’s book, scaremongering: e.g. if we don’t vote for PAP, investors will be frightened away and the country will be doomed. This tactic will not work if we have strong and healthy political competition. Just imagine the reaction say the British or the Australian PM will get if they try the same tactic. They would be mocked and ridiculed. In Singapore, this is only just happening.

    Further, in the history of mankind, no political regime has lasted indefinitely.In fact some quarters of our country have started to think that the decline is already setting in, pointing to the policy booboos over the past 5-10 years, the unacceptable acts in the past (such as the use of the ISA on political opponents) and more crucially, the continuing refusal of the PAP to reform seriously and genuinely. Actually I know of a lot of educated people who have written PAP off. The people who are not supporting the PAP anymore is not restricted to the younger Singaporeans as some stubborn members of the old guard in PAP like to think. Many Singaporeans who voted against the PAP in the past elections were the educated and professionals in their 30s to 60s. Over time this will increase and unlike voters who are less educated or less politically discerning, chances are, these people will never vote PAP ever again. So the longer the PAP refuses to reform itself and allow the political system to open up fairly, the bigger price it will have to pay in future.

    We have to ensure that our political system must mature. There should be fair and transparent rules in politics that apply to all. There should not be any stigma for anyone who wants to take part in politics. Civil servants who privately supports parties other than PAP should not be penalised. The current political nature of PA should stop. The board of the PA should be made up entirely of civil servants. PA should be re-legislated to be a truly neutral statutory board and all MPs must be the grassroots advisors. PAP candidates must learn to be gracious in defeat and cede control of their role as grassroots advisors. PAP leadership must stop being childish and unfair and PAP should stop abusing the position of PA to obstruct efforts of the MPs from other parties in serving their residents.

  7. Whether we can have two alternative teams to take over in a 2-party system depends on whether we can foster a conducive environment for alternative teams to form. The present political system does not encourage the forming of alternative teams. When winning an election gets easier for the opposition, the obstacle to attract the right people to stand up will be less surmountable. Singapore’s population is small but still a significant number to choose from, if you go for the basic qualities. I believe neither has Finland a large population.

  8. Singapore…
    As a Dutch person, with a government very similar to Finland, Singapore is a bizarre place to me, politically speaking.

    I am thinking all sorts of unsavory thoughts, such as that Jackie Chan might’ve been right when he said something about democracy not being suitable for the Chinese…Yes, that’s racist, but it’s that which pops into your mind when you consider that apparently 5 million HIGHLY EDUCATED AND WEALTHY PEOPLE accept living under a dictatorship in the 21st century. Sure, sure, many people get a piece of the pie. Sure.

    But: A guilded cage is still a cage after all.

    See: Tunisia. Tunisia is/was in a different environment, culturally, but it too, was a relatively wealthy dictatorship, surrounded by poorer neighbors. Yet it crumbled.

    Reading through the history of Medieval times, what one notices is that great empires often do not end up in dynasties. It’s all based on persona. Feudality disappeared when Charlemagne died, his empire divided amongst his sons.
    LKY may think his clan will rule forever, but I think not. This system is based on his persona, and when he dies, it will die too. It might take a generation, but it will die.

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