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.
[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.
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.
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?]
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)
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!]
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.]
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.
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.
April 15, 2011
Why an opposition 'A' team may not work
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, 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.'
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