Will PAP refuse to be part of a multi-party system?

It is a strange thing to hear the Minister of Education, Ong Ye Kung, claim that a “multi-party political system could ruin Singapore.”

Besides the fact that there are many examples of small countries with just such a system which are thriving, Mr Ong’s claim raises the question of whether his own party would then decline parliamentary seats if they only formed the minority.

In other words, would the PAP decline all parliamentary seats if they only formed the minority because the party does not, as Mr Ong says, believe in a multi-party political system?

Indeed, Mr Ong’s views are not just his but also that of his party leaders, including Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong who, in 2011, said a two-party system was not “feasible” for Singapore. It would, he said, “result in weaker governance.”

Mr Lee made his remarks in April that year, just days from the General Election on 6 May.

Mr Ong and Mr Lee’s views, however, do not seem to be shared by their party colleagues, such as Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam, and former Foreign Minister, George Yeo.

In separate remarks made around the same time, then Finance Minister Tharman said in a televised political forum, “I think a strong opposition is good for the PAP, and for Singapore, as well.”

Mr Yeo, speaking a day later, said, “It is important to have a credible opposition so that should the PAP turn corrupt or become flaccid, there’s an alternative that Singaporeans can go for.”

There seems to be, therefore, a split in views within the PAP about whether there is a role for the opposition, and whether a two-party system is really bad for Singapore.

If one were to turn the table around and query the PAP leaders on whether they would decline all parliamentary seats – if they did not win all of them – because they do not believe in a multi-party political system, chances are that their views may be different.

For one, it would be hard to imagine that Mr Lee, being the leader of his party besides being the leader of Singapore, would affirm such a thing. If he did, the PAP would have to be prepared to shut down.

We all know this is not going to happen – the party would have learnt from what the Barisan Socialis did in the 1960s when it boycotted Parliament and gave up all its parliamentary seats. The Barisan Socialis never recovered from that politically, and has long become defunct as a party.

So, what exactly is Mr Ong saying? For one, he clearly premised his remarks on the presumption that the PAP will be the ruling party. Thus, a multi-party system is not good for it because well, it is a party which prefers total and complete control and freedom to do as it pleases.

But what if the PAP was not the ruling or dominant party? What if the PAP was the opposition with a minority share of the vote and seats in Parliament?

Would Mr Ong still believe that a multi-party system won’t work, and throw in his towel, give up his parliamentary seat? Or will he join the opposition to ensure there is one dominant party?

When you say you do not believe in a multi-party system, you really put yourself in a corner, especially if you are a partisan politician. Your game becomes one of all-or-nothing.

You have to have it all because otherwise the system won’t work, according to you.

But if you do not have it all, you will then have to honour your words and not be part of a multi-party system because your very presence in it will “ruin Singapore”, as you yourself warned.

So, in the end, it is clear that what Mr Ong and his colleagues in the PAP believe, is just pure nonsense because if and when it comes down to it, they themselves will not practise what they preach – that is, not participate in a multi-party system.

The PAP, of course, will – at such time – be saying the opposite: that a multi-party system is what is needed to check on the opposition government.

In the end, we must realise politicians will say whatever is expedient to them. And this is why even among the PAP, the views on this topic are split.

There are many examples of small countries which are doing just as well with a multi-party political system. The issue here is not just the political system itself per se, but also the institutions which uphold our entire society, and whether these are as robust as they should be.

And here we talk about the judiciary, the legal system, our Constitution, the media, our business infrastructure, the Civil Service, and so on.

Mr Ong says if there was more than one dominant political party, the Civil Service “would be the most tested among institutions under a multi-party system, as it has to be neutral and serve whichever party forms the Government.”

“You can work on one set of policies for five years, then someone new comes along and says, let’s redo everything, or undo everything. It can be frustrating and very demoralising,” he said.

Mr Ong paints a simplistic picture of change which must happen when a new political party takes over – it is what the people would have voted for.

And yet, as the Minister of Education, Mr Ong himself would know that his ministry has seen many changes through the years – each time a new minister in charge comes along.

Change is thus an ingrained mindset among Singaporeans.

A strong Civil Service will not fear change. In fact, it will thrive in it.

To cite such an example shows a poor understanding of Singapore society which, in the last 50 years, underwent tremendous change, led, ironically, by Mr Ong’s own party.

Nah. Change is not the problem.

The problem is unchanging, anachronistic mindsets even among the so-called “4th generation” leadership. They seem to fear change, and are already making unfounded claims which are not borne out by facts and empirical evidence.

A multi-party system can thrive in Singapore. It has in so many other places. What we see in the US, which Mr Ong cited as an example, is temporary. The US will find its feet again.

Democracy, which is enshrined in our national pledge, is about the contest of ideas, in a robust system of competition, encouraged by the openness of the political system, encased in the courage and neutrality of our national institutions.

Singapore may have thrived in the last 50 years based on a one-party rule. But past success is no guarantee of future ones, especially in a constantly and fast changing world.

To think that only the PAP can bring Singapore forward is dangerous thinking, given how the party itself has found it difficult to attract the best of our talents.

A party which does not attract the best talents but is the only party in a one-party political system does not bode well for the country – for it puts absolute power in the hands of mediocre men.

And we all know what absolute power does.

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