I contributed the following article to the just published Hammer newsletter of The Workers’ Party:
Former top civil servant, Mr Ngiam Tong Dow was once asked in an interview what kind of Singapore he hoped his grandchildren will inherit. He replied with a story of two city states in Greek history – Sparta and Athens. Ngiam said Singapore was like Sparta, where the top students were taken away from their parents as children and educated. Each cohort selected their own leadership, ultimately electing their own Philosopher King. Ngiam felt that though the starting point was meritocracy, the end result was dictatorship and elitism. He believed that was how Sparta crumbled in the end. He observed that Athens, a city of philosophers known for its different schools of thought, survived. Sparta was a well-organised martial society, but was very brittle. Athens survived because of its diversity of thinking and was a city Ngiam considered as worth fighting for.
In today’s post-Mr Lee Kuan Yew era, the question of what kind of system we want for Singapore has become more pressing. It was a question that I had asked myself five years ago before I eventually entered politics. No political party or government can rule forever. A party can become incompetent or corrupt over time. I had grown increasingly uncomfortable with the lack of diversity of views in our government and was concerned about whether my children will have viable alternatives to the current ruling party to choose from.
We have often heard the narrative that Singapore does not have enough talent for two teams, something which I disagree with. I believe there are enough people who want to serve Singapore, given a fair political climate. All the more going forward, Singapore needs to have diversity in political views for its long term sustainability. In an interview conducted at the World Economic Forum in 1999, when asked about people contesting against him politically, the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew said, “They can run against me, but it’s an effort to gather enough people to make that consistent try year after year, to build an organization.”
It is extremely difficult to form an organisation quickly to respond to a future situation where the incumbent party may no longer competent enough to rule. It takes a long time to build up a rational, respectable and responsible alternative party and to attract good people to join it. I believe this continuous process of building up of the alternatives is even more relevant today as we move into the post-Mr Lee era to have a more resilient Singapore.
In the business world, we value competition and even have anti-monopoly laws to protect the consumers. Competition forces the incumbent to improve or be forced out. It has been so in every business. Monopoly brings about complacency and dearth of innovation because there are few incentives for those with monopolistic control to improve or else lose market share.
There should be healthy competition in politics as well. Democracy is about empowering the people to choose their leaders and make decisions affecting their life. It should be about a fair system that allows willing people to come forward to serve according to the political beliefs they have. We should break away from the unhealthy fear factor under the iron-fist rule of the past that has unnecessarily limited the choices of our people because capable people have been deterred from politics due to high stake political price.