Singapore's political system: Tweak, tinker or overhaul?

Reshaping the system for a better future

British Constitutional Law expert Ivor Jennings (seated in centre, with spectacles) in Singapore in 1956 with members of the legislative assembly then, including (seated, from far right) PAP assemblymen Lim Chin Siong and Mr Lee, and then Chief Minister D
British Constitutional Law expert Ivor Jennings (seated in centre, with spectacles) in Singapore in 1956 with members of the legislative assembly then, including (seated, from far right) PAP assemblymen Lim Chin Siong and Mr Lee, and then Chief Minister David Marshall. Mr Lee said Sir Ivor taught him, among other things, the difference between political realities and constitutional theory.ST FILE PHOTO

Lee Kuan Yew on why a Constitution must suit the needs of its people

But my lecturer pointed out that the British political system, the two-party system, evolved gradually over history. It evolved through the Golden Age of the Victorian era, Britain at the height of its wealth and power, an empire. And the toss of the coin was between Whigs and Tories. Later they were known as Liberals and Conservatives.

In the 1930s, it became a toss-up between Conservatives and Labour, and the Liberals were squeezed aside.

For the two-party system to work, the two main parties must share basic beliefs in the fundamentals of what the national interests are and what are the political variables over which they could contest.

When leaders of both parties, Conservatives and Labour, shared common values and beliefs because these leaders had, through a common educational system, mostly the elite British public schools and Oxford and Cambridge, come from similar social and economic backgrounds, it worked.

Now it is under very great stress and strain because the conditions have altered. And it is in recent times, in my active political lifetime, right up till 1964 with the first Labour government under Harold Wilson, there was Tweedledum and Tweedledee, from (Harold) MacMillan to Alec Home, both from Oxford, to Harold Wilson, Bradford Grammar School, Oxford. Polarisation set in. It was apparent by the third Wilson government, 1974-1976. It became deeper under the (Jim) Callaghan government, from 1976 to 1979.

By the time the Tories returned to office under Margaret Thatcher in May 1979, polarisation was a fact of British political life. And when the Labour Party elected Michael Foot as leader of the opposition, despite his being an Oxford man like Mrs Thatcher, an Oxford woman, it had sharpened. Now under Neil Kinnock, neither public school or Oxford or Cambridge but Cardiff University, as leader of the opposition, the conflict is in fundamental objectives that puts the two-party system in jeopardy...

U.S. AND OTHER DEMOCRACIES

Sir, the US democracy. It is just over 200 years old.

It is an endless fascination for all those who, like me, have to read about them because what they do affects our lives, not only what the President does but what the US Senate does, what the US House of Representatives does...

The member for Kreta Ayer (Dr Goh Keng Swee) and I regularly read weekly reports from our man in Washington, a professional, whose job it is to keep people like us informed so that we know the political and legislative background against which the financial markets have to operate.

REFITTING FOR NEW GENERATIONS

There are as many Constitutions as there are ingenious legal minds to translate popular will into a workable legislature and an effective executive.

From my experience, Constitutions have to be custom-made, tailored to suit the peculiarities of the person wearing the suit.

Perhaps, like shoes, the older they are, the better they fit. Stretch them, soften them, resole them, repair them. They are always better than a brand- new pair of shoes.

Our people have got used to and understand the present system. It takes a long time - like discarding dialects and learning Mandarin. Any fundamental change takes a long time. But most important of all, the Constitution works.

Many countries have tried and gone through several Constitutions since independence, from prime minister and parliamentary systems to presidential government, on to military rule, back to elections for a president, on to a people's republic, back to a revolutionary junta.

They have not brought stability or legitimacy. I believe it is better to stretch and ease an old shoe when we know that the different shape and fit of a younger generation requires a change. It is a change to meet the future.

MR LEE KUAN YEW

The conclusion of Dr Goh is that any country less rich, less robust, less talented than the United States would have collapsed a long time ago with their system of government and their infinite number of power groups and lobbies, and unending compromises for every piece of legislation and every resolution, a paralysis of government in every fourth year of a presidential election.

America's allies shudder each time a new president takes office and starts off on a new initiative. Helmut Schmidt, the former German Chancellor, once told me what a burden it was that just when they had educated President (Jimmy) Carter, they got to start all over again educating President (Ronald) Reagan on the facts of international politics and international finance.

And even if the President is with you, they find the Senate taking initiatives, passing a resolution to withdraw or reduce Nato troops in Europe unless they increase their defence expenditure.

The American system has been tried in the Philippines. They gave the Philippines independence in 1946. It failed. By 1972, it had already failed before President (Ferdinand) Marcos declared martial law. And whatever happens, it is unlikely that it will ever be reattempted in the Philippines in its unadulterated form.

The Philippines is not rich enough, not talented enough, not big enough, not robust enough, to pay the price of such a system.

Now, Sir, what about the other mature democracies?

Take France. It has gone through five republics since the French Revolution with the storming of the Bastille on 14th July 1789. In between, they had emperors, Napoleon, Napoleon 11. The Third Republic, for those young enough not to remember, went down with Marshal (Phillippe) Petain in Vichy, France, in disgrace as collaborators of the Germans.

(Charles) De Gaulle went back with the liberating Free French forces, and the Fourth Republic was inaugurated. He withdrew and retired to his country home. By 1958, paralysis, chaos, pandemonium. They had lost the war in Indochina, Dien Bien Phu. They were in deep trouble in Algeria and the generals were in revolt.

I was in France in 1958 for a break from my constitutional conferencing in London, and it was pandemonium... De Gaulle was summoned from his retirement. He had a referendum and instituted strong, tough presidential rule with a Fifth Republic. It only lasted 26 years, 27 really, 1959, no proof that it will go on. There were considerable doubts whether after De Gaulle apres moi la deluge (after me, the deluge), as they say.

Germany and Japan, it is uncomfortable to mention the past, but you know they were not model democracies up to 1945. Their democracies stemmed from Allied occupation of West Germany; Russian occupation of East Germany, now a people's democracy; and American occupation of Japan. And it started in the 1950s when the occupation forces handed over power. So it is only just over 30 years.

If you read the reports of what happens in Italy, changing governments every six months, please remember there was (Benito) Mussolini. There was Marshal (Pietro) Badoglio, who took over after Mussolini was overthrown.

Then came Victor Emmanuel, again Allied occupation and this democratic system for just over 30 years.

Ask yourselves, let us be honest, let us not bluff ourselves, what are we? Anglo-Saxons with phlegmatic temperaments, not excitable? We are Chinese or Chinese ethnic descent, Malays, Indians, Punjabis, Pakistanis, Sri Lankans. Remember, for thousands of years, not just these countries but even the British, their societies were governed by tribal chiefs, kings, emperors, military commanders who made themselves kings and emperors and conquerors like the Romans.

It is just not part of our history to count heads to decide who is the leader. It is not part of either Chinese, Malay or Indian culture or tradition. Indeed, it is anathema to Chinese culture that the emperor's mandate from heaven should depend on the counting of heads. It depends on the chopping of heads and that mandate was exercised not through a rabble in a legislature but through a strictly quality-controlled mandarinate that went through a series of imperial examinations.

Sir, 29 years is all the practice that we have. Our attitudes, our practices, have been shaped by our history in these 29 years.

How we will progress depends on how we direct our social, economic and political policies, and including how opposition leaders or members accept the basic parameters of what Singapore is about - the independence and sovereignty of Singapore, its multiracial, multi-religious, multilingual, multi-cultural character. They are not for argument. We start arguing about that, we are tearing out our entrails. Any argument as to party differences must accept that these basic parameters cannot be changed...

Sir, I played a little part in shaping our Constitution. Earlier - in 1959 - I attended three constitutional conferences - 1956, 1957, 1958 - the 1959 Constitution. In 1956, for eight weeks, under the leadership of the then Chief Minister Mr David Marshall, we had Sir Ivor Jennings, the leading British constitutional law expert of his generation, and for many years vice-chancellor of the University of Ceylon - and it was a renowned institution of excellence - and he was legal adviser to the delegation, and we became friends.

I used to visit him subsequently when he was master of Trinity Hall, Cambridge. He taught me, among other things, the difference between political realities and constitutional theory.

But I think my best teacher was not Sir lvor Jennings or the British Commonwealth experts. It was the Tunku (Abdul Rahman).

He tossed it to me in a chit-chat once. This was late in 1962 in his drawing room in the residency. I looked at the beautiful leather-bound green cover volume Constitution, and there were some Arabic letters on it.

So I said: "Tunku, what is this?" He said it was given to him by (Pakistan) President Ayub Khan. It was his new Constitution.

I said that it looked splendid. I was looking at its inscription. He said: "But you know, Kuan Yew, they make very good Constitutions. They have many brilliant lawyers. With every new leader, they have to make a new one."

Sir, I remember that. So in 1970, our Constitution was in a mess - part State Constitution, part Federal, part amendments after separation. Untidy. So I asked the British High Commissioner, Sir Arthur de la Mare, in 1970, I said: "You have got a lot of legal experts. I remember them from my constitutional talks. They draft so many. They become experts. Polish it up for me."

And he did me a great service. They polished it up. It came back in April 1971. I had forgotten the date. This is just looked up. I thought perhaps I ought to tell the House how careful I am about fiddling around with Constitutions. I looked it up.

The FCO (Britain's Foreign and Commonwealth Office) had done a first-rate job. The Attorney-General pencilled in his comments. I read the draft through, and I paused. I paused for several months and read it again, and I reflected on the matter for several weeks more.

I decided that the experts just had no idea why we had made certain basic alterations, like when an MP leaves his party and crosses the Chamber, he loses his seat and he re-contests an election. He thought that was unusual and said: "Refer back to British practice." I said: "No, no. We stay put." I have paid an awful price for it in 1961. I have not forgotten that lesson.

And please do not forget that the price may yet be paid again. I may not be here, but Singapore and Singaporeans may have to pay for it if I allow a constitutional perfectionist to alter what he thought was a little unusual mote in the Singapore Constitution. I decided to leave the Constitution as it is, just incorporate all the amendments, publish a clean copy. Never regretted it.

Sir, I learnt my constitutional law not so much from my lecturers and my textbooks or my association with people like Sir Ivor Jennings. They taught me the theory.

I learnt it in real life, hands-on experience, and from watching the Malaysian Constitution being amended, over 100 amendments, in just under three years since it was promulgated and it has gone through many more since, as members will know.

I suggest we stick to the Singapore Constitution because it works and I am suggesting this minor amendment in the hope that it will work better.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on January 24, 2016, with the headline 'Reshaping the system for a better future'. Print Edition | Subscribe