Room for opposition voice in a democracy

Some time back, I wrote in the Forum page that the political system of a country has to evolve to suit changing conditions ("Focus attention on how Singapore can evolve"; May 29).

The results of this year's general election have shown that we are evolving.

But are we evolving in the right direction?

Fifty years ago, our population was a diverse group of immigrants, with low education levels and no sense of a national direction.

We were fortunate to have a group of leaders dedicated to nation building. They were able to galvanise people behind them to accept many policies which were unpopular to individuals who wanted individual freedom as practised in the West.

But these policies were good for the long term, and were in the interest of the nation as a whole.

As an old Singaporean, let me recount what it was like at that time.

The Government had to rule with a firm hand. It was perceived to be "dictatorial", "arrogant" and "uncaring", and people were afraid to speak up or openly defy the Government.

In hindsight, this has worked well in nation building for Singapore. However, this type of paternalistic government, over the years, was perceived by younger and better-educated Singaporeans as being too overbearing and arrogant.

With succeeding general elections, the incumbent ruling party's percentage dropped from more than 80 per cent in the past to 60 per cent by 2011.

This year, the support has grown to 70 per cent. What has changed?

The people's perception of "arrogance" and "uncaring" has changed to "humility" and "caring".

This is an evolution for the better.

What of the future?

Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam's comments are noteworthy ("Opposition 'can continue to contribute to Singapore'"; Monday).

He said: "We will take views from the opposition, from civil society, from people from different walks of life." He also said that the opposition plays a critical role in advancing the country.

The opposition has an important role to play in a democratic system.

The members must not be discouraged, but must regroup and unite as a single credible force as a balance in Parliament, so that the Singapore ship will have stabilisers to sail in the right direction in troubled waters, and not sink like the Titanic.

Our evolution over the next 50 years will depend on this. It is in the hands of the future generation.

George Wong Seow Choon (Dr)

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 15, 2015, with the headline 'Room for opposition voice in a democracy'. Print Edition | Subscribe