Saturday, September 5, 2009

"Sir, would you send in the army?"

Sep 3, 2009

AT YESTERDAY'S dialogue, writer Catherine Lim posed MM Lee this question: 'Sir, in the event of a serious threat of a freak election, would you do the unthinkable, that is, send in the army?' This is an edited extract from Mr Lee's reply:

'You look at our record and the moves we've made. Let me put it simply like this. First, we maintain a system which gives any opposition the opportunity to displace us peacefully. We allow the system: we've not interfered with the civil service, the judiciary, parliamentary procedures, the police and so on.

If you can win an election, so be it. If at some point we are not able to find a team which can equal an opposition team, on that day we deserve to be out. If we become corrupt, inefficient, can't deliver, we're out.

What if we have a freak election, as we may well have? Many voters say openly: 'In my family, three of us voted for you but two voted against, just to let you know that we want an opposition voice.' In that situation, you may have a freak result. That worries me.

So we've set in place a President with blocking powers. Any opposition that comes in will find that he cannot touch the reserves, otherwise you can promise the sky and spend the money. And all our hard-earned savings will go in five years.

Second, you cannot change the top officials without the President's consent. Any raiding of the funds must be approved by the President who has a council of presidential advisers to advise him yes or no.

Now, why should we do all these if we expect to overturn an election?

We expect that if we are voted out, to stay out, and hope that within one term, that new government, incompetent and unable to deliver, will be out. And there's enough core competencies and the funds to enable a fresh PAP government to revive the system.

I spent 15 years thinking about these safeguards and finally persuaded my younger colleagues that we needed these because they can't guarantee that each time they will produce a better team than the opposition just because you've done so in the past.

I don't see any problem in the next election, and probably the election after that. But if we don't get a good team in the election after that and the opposition does get a good team together, we're at risk.

One of the first lessons I learnt in politics was from Harold Laski. He said if you don't have a system that allows fundamental change by consent, you will have a revolution by violence. If we block all possibilities, we must expect violence. In that violence, eventually the army won't shoot because you are in the wrong. That's what happens in Africa, the army goes in and holds up the president and often shoots him.

If we had not these thoughts at the back of our minds, why do we do these things? Just to bluff the people? Doesn't make sense. An army commander, air force or police, has to be approved by a committee and the President must agree. Why? Because we will appoint the commanders? No, because a stupid government will do the wrong things and when we return, we may find the whole machinery has collapsed, as often is the case. Simple.

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