Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Two party system in Singapore

Apr 8, 2011 Commentary  

Why calls for two-party system won't go away  

There are examples in other areas that competition results in better performance

By Lydia Lim

LET me come right out and say it. I do not know if a two-party political system would be better for Singapore than the current state of one-party dominance. It all depends on what kind of two-party system takes shape.

If the system that evolves turns out to be one where the two strongest political parties want only to stay in power, choose the politically expedient options over those that promote the long-term interests of the country, and try to block and derail policies of the other side regardless of merit, then, of course, it will be the ruin of Singapore.

That is, however, the pessimists' version of a two-party system. To be sure, there are plenty of examples of two- and multi-party democracies which are plagued by one or more of these problems, and which have not prospered as Singapore has.

But those who yearn for a two-party system tend to be optimists. Call them political upgraders if you will; they are not content with what they have today and aspire to something even better. There is evidence aplenty that stronger competition leads to better performance and outcomes in many realms - sport, academic achievement, the production of goods and the provision of services.  

[But in politics? Or in parenting? Young democracies like Philippines, Thailand, and Taiwan are more sensational than sensible. Older more matured democracies like the UK and the US, and maybe Japan are stuck with political institutions and baggage from bad policies that progress is measured in compromises for the present instead of commitment to the future.]

In recent years, the People's Action Party (PAP) leadership has found it near impossible to lay to rest yearnings for a two-party system, though Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong took another crack at it on Tuesday night in a speech to 1,200 undergraduates at the Kent Ridge Ministerial Forum.

A two-party system is not workable for Singapore, Mr Lee declared, because 'we don't have enough talent' to staff two top-flight leadership teams to govern the country. As a small, vulnerable city state, Singapore needs to concentrate its resources and form one really strong leadership team, he said.

Mr Lee made two other points. The first is that Singapore's dominant party system has produced a high-quality government that has won respect and praise from many international observers. The latest example is the editor of the Economist magazine.
In an article published last month, he held Singapore up as an example of a state that worked, with a government that was authoritarian yet accountable to the people.

[The other important point is that the govt plans well ahead. The Marina Barrage project was decades in the making. That means planning decades ahead. In his address, PM Lee spoke of the 4th generation leadership that will only take over in 10 years, to lead Singapore for 10 15 years after that. No other country have the ability and the room to plan that far ahead.]
The second point is one Mr Lee illustrated with a football analogy - the contest that matters is not the one among political parties within Singapore, but among nations at the global level. 'If you watch World Cup soccer, every country only has one team. No country fields two teams for the World Cup,' he said. Singapore, he added, has not been so successful in soccer, 'but we are not doing badly in government. And I think that we should keep up our winning streak and stay in the championship league in the international contest of nations'. While Mr Lee's arguments may be convincing to those who are happy with the status quo, here are three reasons why I believe they will not persuade those who hanker after a two-party system. The first concerns the PAP's argument that Singapore has insufficient talent for two A-teams to lead the country. That might have been persuasive in the desert decades when qualified and credible opposition candidates were few and far between.

But since the last general election in 2006, more such candidates have come forward to contest under opposition banners. At the coming polls, there is a distinct possibility that the new candidate with the most impressive academic credentials will don not PAP whites, but the light blue of the Workers' Party. That suggests there is talent beyond the pool from which the PAP has been fishing.

[Interestingly, the opposition have been harping on the fact that academic credentials are not and should not be the sole criteria for electing MPs. Similarly while intelligence is essential, it is not a sufficient criteria for leadership. And for policy making and planning, an ability to look beyond the obvious is critical. So as PM Lee said, perhaps they are not looking for the same fish. What I would find interesting is if PAP had a tea session with someone, and that person declined, and join the opposition instead.]
Is the source of the problem a lack of talent or the unwillingness of some with talent to throw in their lot with the ruling party?

The second concerns the argument that Singapore already has an outstanding government. Political upgraders are not inclined to believe that the present state of affairs is as good as it gets. Let us take Budget 2011 as an example. Yes, it was good, but could it have been better?

Few of us are privy to the discussions within Cabinet and ministries on the alternatives and trade-offs either taken on board or rejected in the policy process. Surely a plausible question for voters to ask is whether having a second political party in the House with the wherewithal to scrutinise and critique government policy, and indeed to form an alternative government, would yield better outcomes for Singapore?  

["Could it have been better" will always be a theoretical question with the logical answer being , "of course". In infinite alternatives, it is always possible to tweak the policy just a little bit to be a little bit better. The problem is that there will be no occasion for two political parties to propose 2 budget for the people to vote on. If PAP loses and WP take over, WP will put the next budget together. There are two other parties represented in Parliament already, and they have asked questions during budget debate. But seriously, the PAP backbenchers ask questions that are as good if not better.]
The third concerns the World Cup football analogy that Mr Lee employed. Sure, no country fields two teams for the World Cup, but it is competition within each country - whether at village, town or regional levels - that helps throw up top football talent to begin with. The PAP's stance is that there is contestation of ideas within the party, and that it is of such quality and rigour as to yield excellent policies and outcomes for the country.

But as anyone who plays team sports knows, while you may learn from your teammates, worthy opponents are the ones who push you to sharp improvements in performance. To take an example from economics, Microsoft has been, for decades, the dominant player in software development. Its position gave it the resources to suck up software engineering talent from around the globe. Yes, its top talent generated good-quality products and continued to innovate and make improvements, even when competitors lagged far behind.

But it was the second party in this space, Apple, that conjured up the game-changing iPhone. Might that not apply to politics as well? I think the PAP will find it difficult to convince those who want change that such paradigm shifts in the political sphere are an impossibility.

[Yes. Microsoft is a democracy. Anyone can write software to run on Windows. And windows crashes regularly, software have bugs, virus, and other malware.

Apple's iOS for the iPhone and iPad is different. Apple controls the apps, ensures compatibility, reliability and acceptability (no porn), and requires all apps to be cleared by Apple. Their control over the iOS ecosystem is complete and total, from hardware to software. Like the PAP.

The rest of the world's government is running on Windows. Singapore is running Apple iOS. The paradigm has shifted. Isn't it time you switch?]

Apr 8, 2011

A strong opposition will draw talent

I RESPECTFULLY disagree with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong ("2-party system not workable here: PM"; Wednesday). First, a few top candidates introduced by the People's Action Party (PAP) joined the party recently after leaving the civil service and military. I believe they are standing for election because they were invited by the ruling party to do so - the key word being "ruling".

If Singapore were to have a two-party system and if, say, the Workers' Party were in power and invited top civil servants to join it, I believe many would, too. The new entrants have probably thrown their hat into the ring because of their desire to make or influence national policy at the highest levels. They would get to do so only by joining the ruling party, regardless of which one. The PAP does not have a monopoly on talent.

Second, I believe that with a strong opposition, more people with good credentials will come forward to participate in national politics than is the case now. Deputy Prime Minister Wong Kan Seng said recently that some potential top candidates declined to stand despite being invited by the PAP. These people must have diverse reasons for not joining the PAP, but one reason could be that they disagreed with certain PAP policies.

[Or the sacrifice of privacy and income and the personal pursuit of happiness and the commitment of time is too much. Disagreeing with PAP policies is speculative at best, and if in fact they disagree with policies, that would be the lead in for PAP to hook them. You don't like the policy? You can join the PAP and change the policy from within. Or you can wait for the opposition to win power and change it. Hopefully, it will be to your liking. Or you can join the opposition and fight and win power and then change policy. Which is the fastest way you can change policy? And if he doesn't choose join the PAP, you know he is not serious, not rational, and not worth it anyway.]

With a two-party system, well-qualified candidates would have a choice of parties to join, and that would raise the level of national debate and encourage the competition of ideas.

Third, there is no reason why Singapore being small should preclude a two-party system. New Zealand has four million plus people and Denmark has five million plus people. Both countries have robust multi-party democracies and are doing well economically. Why should Singapore be any different?

[Good point! If small only meant population size. There is also small as in no land. And small as in no resources. And small as in no water (except those you pass yourself). Small as in being vulnerable. Small as in having very little margin for error. If the New Zealand govt fails, there are still sheep and vegetables, food and water, and you can sort it out yourself in terms of offering your skills in exchange for food and shelter. And they are doing well economically? NZ can't even afford an air force! But that's ok cos they are so far away from everyone that anyone will have to invade Australia first. Unless it's Australia invading them.]

Tan Soon Meng
[Here are some cold hard facts:] 

New Zealand economy (CIA World Fact Book)
"Debt-driven consumer spending drove robust growth in the first half of the decade, helping fuel a large balance of payments deficit that posed a challenge for economic managers. Inflationary pressures caused the central bank to raise its key rate steadily from January 2004 until it was among the highest in the OECD in 2007-08; international capital inflows attracted to the high rates further strengthened the currency and housing market, however, aggravating the current account deficit. The economy fell into recession before the start of the global financial crisis and contracted for five consecutive quarters in 2008-09. In line with global peers, the central bank cut interest rates aggressively and the government developed fiscal stimulus measures. The economy posted a 1.7% decline in 2009, but pulled out of recession late in the year, and achieved 2.1% growth in 2010."
GDP: US$119.2 billion (2010 est.)
revenues: US$56.24 billion 
 expenditures: US$62.18 billion (2010 est.)
[NZ was not doing well, and from the above it would seem that the NZ budget is more than half the GDP!]
Denmark Economy (US$)
GDP: $201.4 billion (2010 est.)  
revenues: $160.3 billion 
 expenditures: $175.9 billion (2010 est.)
[Denmark is even more shocking, with Govt spending at more than 85% of GDP! This can partly be due to stimulus to get the economy out of the downturn.]
Singapore Economy (US$)
GDP: $292.4 billion (2010 est.)  
revenues: $29.87 billion  
expenditures: $34.01 billion

[In contrast, Singapore's Govt budget is about 12% of GDP. Of course, these figures prove nothing about a robust democracy, but it puts paid to the "They're doing well economically". For that kind of govt expenditure, it would mean that taxes will have to be cripplingly high (NZ, DN) and the economy driven almost by govt spending. Note also that our GDP is higher than either country's.]

Apr 12, 2011

Solve issues, rather than churn them

DEPUTY political editor Lydia Lim dismissed some of the ills of multi-party democracy as those of a pessimist ('Why calls for two- party system won't go away'; last Friday). Yet the pessimist's nightmare is now a reality in the United States, whose mid-term congressional elections were hailed as an example of the people's voice ringing loud and clear.

Those very voices are now being drowned by partisan politics, which nearly shut down the US government.

If ever there was an example of policy being held hostage by sabre rattling, chest-thumping partisan politics, this must be it.

The potential for gridlock is real when multi-party politics starts dabbling in a dangerous game of political brinkmanship to which a multi-party Singapore will not be immune.

Let us see Western democracy for what it is: A powerful tool against tyranny. But, does it do more than that? It is effective as a tool for selecting leadership, but as a tool for governance, its use becomes less evident.

[Slight disagreement here. He is doing rather well, and I hate to interrupt, but Democracy is a way of selecting leaders. Leadership is what the leaders bring with them. Or not. I would say most of the US politicians are not exercising leadership. And without that leadership, there is no governance.]

A multi-party system will certainly guarantee more voices and nothing more than that. There are as many examples of successful companies run autocratically as corporate fiefdoms as there are ones run democratically. [Apple!]

It would be more productive to widen the sources and channels of input and feedback to the Government and fine-tune its radar so that regardless of which party rules, the people's voice is at least heard and not given short shrift.

We can add and expand feedback loops already in place, formalise them and legislate them after a period of trial and error. We can make it such that all the most pressing views collected could be transcribed into an official quarterly review sent directly to the Prime Minister rather than through the byzantine hallways of bureaucracy.

[I believe it's called the Feedback Unit or what ever new name it has... Reach?]

If the Prime Minister can present it before Parliament for formal debate, it will go a long way towards ensuring the sceptics their views are being added to public debate.

Unfortunately, the People's Action Party Government has been too opaque with how it does this, which has led many to feel left out of the decision-making process even if the PAP has assiduously canvassed the ground.

[Not really. If the suggestion is a credible one, the govt usually respond. The problem is if the respond is not "yes", the people don't hear it. Take the Casino. Religious organisations said they object to it. People with similar values objected to it. The Govt says, we hear you, but having looked at all the facts and factors, we are going ahead, but we will contain the problem. And people say... "There was not enough debate on important issues like the Casino". And how much debate would you consider enough? "When the govt decides to close the Casinos."

Same for minister's salary. This is explained, the explanation is not accepted. The issue is raised again and again.]

We cannot avoid greater public debate as we graduate to a First World democracy. But the process also requires us to ensure that Singapore is not held hostage to power-hungry demagogues. What we need in government is not a leadership that churns issues about issues but one that solves them.

The Singapore voter must decide who within the opposition are churners and who are problem-solvers. In the West, one cannot often tell between the two and therein lies democracy's soft underbelly.

Daniel Yew
[I'm generally in agreement with this writer, but he makes the error of thinking that more public debate would be better. Sometimes, yes. Often, no. Internal debate where there is no political point-scoring is more likely to result in a rational decision. Internal debates are also often out of the public eye so those who are convinced do not lose face. Those whose arguments are bettered do not face a public defeat. Inter-party debate, televised live becomes a game with points to be scored, and face to be saved, and position to be entrenched as a matter of principle. So more public debates doesn't mean better decision necessarily. More internal, confidential debates and discussion, yes. ]

April 15, 2011

Why an opposition 'A' team may not work

IN LAST Friday's report, 'Why calls for two-party system won't go away', Ms Lydia Lim states that there are more qualified and credible opposition candidates this upcoming election and that the 'new candidate with the most impressive academic credentials' could belong to the opposition.

While I agree that this might be true, it does not address the fact that there could be insufficient talent to form two governments in Singapore. What she cited refers to the distribution of the talent pool among the different parties. In fact, we see the opposition having trouble fielding candidates to contest a few group representation constituencies, which is indicative of its ability to form an 'A' team for this election.

Her second argument for the opposition lies in having alternative viewpoints in Parliament 'to scrutinise and critique government policy'. However, if such critiques come from a minority party without veto power, it will not be able to make an impact on policies. Thus would the inclusion of opposition in Parliament really result in the checks and balances envisioned?

[Finally! Some one who recognises that asking questions is all the opposition can do. They can't veto. They can't block. They can't filibuster. They can't check and they can't balance. They are only slightly better than NCMP, and they can't even block constitutional amendments.]

Finally, Ms Lim used Apple and its iPhone as an example of how world-beating innovations tend to come from 'the second party'. Can we be sure that the opposition parties we see today are the equivalent of Apple in the political scene? As the late founder of Ford Motor Company Henry Ford said: 'You can't build a reputation on what you are going to do.'

[The better quote from Ford would be, "If I ask my customers what they want, they would say, 'a faster horse'." The point being all the other democracies in the world are multi-party systems with unfocused government. The opposition wants more of the same. Only in Singapore is the government focused, competent, and innovative. The opposition isn't Apple. The PAP is Apple! They control the OS, the ensure the Apps comply with standards, and they unilaterally ban offending things that take up too much resources (Flash for Apple, Chewing Gum for Singapore.)]

We need to consider whether the opposition parties have shown themselves capable of forming an 'A' team and providing checks and balances in Parliament.

Goh Ching Soon

[The opposition should point out that the only way they can block anything is if they have at least one-third of the parliamentary seats, not counting NCMPs, because if there is a constitutional amendment, the motion will pass only with 2/3 majority. They can't block normal bills.]


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