Singapore 'must decide for itself how its model works'

The crowds cheering as they do the Kallang Wave at the National Day Parade (NDP) held at the Padang, on Aug 9, 2015.
The crowds cheering as they do the Kallang Wave at the National Day Parade (NDP) held at the Padang, on Aug 9, 2015. ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

With no "perfect model" anywhere in the world, Singapore must find a political system of its own, in line with its own principles, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong during the third day of debate on the President's Address yesterday.

In doing so, gradual evolution and adaptation was a better approach than one that involved a complete overhaul, he said.

To succeed, Singapore needs good policies and good politics, which go hand in hand - and to keep the system working well, it is prudent to look at making changes now, said the Prime Minister.

This is not an urgent task, he noted, as Singapore's politicalsystem currently works and will continue to do so for the next decade or more.

"But if we are thinking beyond this term and this team, about how a new PM and Cabinet, with a new electorate, will need to keep Singapore working, it is prudent to consider possible adjustments now, in good time."

And Singapore must decide for itself how its political system works, he said. "There's no perfect model anywhere in the world."

He noted the political gridlock in the United States, the rise of fringe extremist parties in Europe, and communal politics in Asia.

"If you look at other people's political problems, we don't feel any schadenfreude, any sense of superiority or rejoicing. In fact, we say 'There but for the grace of God go I', because what happens elsewhere can easily happen in Singapore too."

Such political problems could occur if Singapore blindly copies the practices of such countries "or we find our own way but take a wrong turn", he warned.

In determining its political system, Singapore has taken the approach of gradual change, he noted.

Most newly independent countries start out with a new Constitution, but Singapore did not do that.

Instead, it kept and tweaked existing constitutional arrangements from when Singapore was part of Malaysia and a self-governing state before that.

PM Lee quoted Mr Lee Kuan Yew's explanation in Parliament in 1984, in which he compared the Constitutions to shoes - "the older they are, the better they fit".

Mr Lee, then Prime Minister, had said: "Stretch them, soften them, resole them, repair them. They are always better than a brand-new pair of shoes. 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."

This has been Singapore's approach, said PM Lee yesterday, "to evolve our political system as we go along".

"We've continued to do this, learning from experience, stretching and easing the old shoe and then adapting it to our needs and dealing with problems as new problems emerge, as we understand the difficulties and the weaknesses."

For instance, Singapore inherited a first-past-the-post electoral system from the British. While that has been kept, new institutions have been introduced.

These include Non-Constituency MPs, Group Representation Constituencies and an Elected President - "each institution with a purpose, each one in line with our principles", said Mr Lee.

Proposing tweaks to these institutions yesterday, he said it was the current Government's responsibility to keep the political system up to date, if it is to serve future generations well.

"Whatever the shape of Singapore 50 years from now, today, we can and must help Singapore build a political system that will give us the best shot at prosperity and progress over the next 50 years," he said.

"A system that's not set in stone, a system that's not fixed and unchangeable, but one that future generations can continue to improve and adapt in order to meet their future needs."

Janice Heng

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 28, 2016, with the headline 'Singapore 'must decide for itself how its model works''. Print Edition | Subscribe