Changes to political system: Key principles

PM sets out core principles for Singapore political system

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong taking the oath of allegiance during the swearing-in ceremony at the opening of the 13th Parliament on Jan 15.
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong taking the oath of allegiance during the swearing-in ceremony at the opening of the 13th Parliament on Jan 15.PHOTO: MINISTRY OF COMMUNICATIONS AND INFORMATION

Designing system around five principles makes 'happy outcome more likely'

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong laid out five guiding principles for Singapore's political system as he set the scene for changes to schemes such as the Non-Constituency Member of Parliament (NCMP) and Elected Presidency.

These are: Ensuring high-quality government; keeping politics open and contestable; maintaining government accountability; upholding a multiracial society; and having stabilisers in the system.

It is not possible for any political system to guarantee stability and prosperity forever, he told MPs when he joined the debate on the President's Address.

"But we can make such a happy outcome more likely if we design our system carefully and correctly around (these) core principles."

Mr Lee said the system must enable Singapore to have "a high-quality government" that is accountable, honest, competent and effective. With no natural resources or a hinterland, one of Singapore's key competitive advantages has been - and always must be - excellence and integrity in Government.

FINDING OUR OWN WAY

The political problems we see in other countries can occur here too, if we blindly copy
their practices. We can end up in such a situation also. So it doesn't mean we do nothing, it doesn't mean we learn nothing, it means we have to keep evolving our system carefully, step by step, making sure that our Government works and the politics in Singapore serves our
people's interest. We have to find our own way forward. ''

PM LEE

NO PERFECT MODEL

There's no perfect model anywhere in the world and much less one which we can import wholesale and apply in Singapore. 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, 'If not for the grace of God go I.' ''

PM LEE

Singapore would not exist today if it had not had a first-class Government that could foresee and avoid problems, seize opportunities and mobilise the people, he added.

"We cannot afford ever to be paralysed, gridlocked or become dysfunctional, like some other countries," he said.

Second, Singapore's political system must be open and contestable, with free and fair elections that are not "forbiddingly expensive" for people to contest.

Keeping money out of politics is one of the greatest things Singapore has done to keep its system open, said Mr Lee.

He noted that at last year's general election, political parties here spent just $7.1 million altogether, less than $3 per voter. In contrast, candidates in the United States presidential election in 2012 raised and spent US$7 billion (S$10 billion), or about US$20 per American.

He also stressed the need to avoid the "money politics" seen in many countries, where money changes hands for votes.

The third guiding principle is that Singapore's system must foster accountability, both in Parliament and at the ballot box.

This is so that the Government is always kept on its toes, and will always be motivated to look after the interests of Singaporeans.

Parliament must be a serious forum where big issues are discussed and the Government's actions scrutinised and debated.

And voters must be able to judge the Government - re-electing it if it does well or withholding support if it does not.

"So we must have a system where the Government does not, over time, become complacent, go soft, or even worse, become corrupt."

Fourth, the system must uphold Singapore's multiracialism, which is fundamental to the country's identity, said Mr Lee.

Political parties must be made to seek a broad-based, multiracial consensus and pursue moderate policies that benefit Singaporeans regardless of race, language or religion. The political system must similarly discourage parties from being set up along racial or religious lines, or championing the interests of one race or religion over others.

  • FIVE GUIDING PRINCIPLES

  • 1  Ensuring high-quality government

    2  Keeping politics open and contestable

    3  Maintaining government accountability

    4  Upholding a multiracial society

    5  Having stabilisers in the system

The fifth principle is that the system must have in-built stabilisers.

Said Mr Lee: "The Government has to be responsive to the will of the people, but at the same time also has to have safeguards in case the country is swept off course by a transient public mood, or an erratic government - which can happen."

Other countries have an Upper House in Parliament or regional governments, such that "no single point can cause the whole system to fail", he noted. Singapore is too small to have that. But it still needs stabilisers, especially to protect the reserves and the integrity of the public service - two critical elements to assure the country's future.

The lack of safeguards could allow a profligate government to drain the reserves.

Mr Lee pointed to Australia, which had built up significant surpluses a decade ago. But when the elections arrived, the competing parties tried to outdo each other with expensive policy proposals.

"Today, the funds for the future have disappeared... They're back where they were all within 10 years."

As for the public service, Mr Lee said: "The whole of our excellence in government, competence, the performance of the country, depends on the integrity and the ability of the individuals in the key posts in the public service."

These include judges, central bankers, the Accountant-General, the Commissioner of Police and the heads of statutory boards.

"Once corrupt persons get into key positions, that's the end," he added - not just because of what they do alone, but because they "subvert and corrupt the system".

To protect both the reserves and the public service, Singapore's system thus needs "a second key" - the Elected Presidency.

After setting out the principles, Mr Lee outlined the suggested changes, such as expanding the NCMP scheme, having smaller Group Representation Constituencies and more single-seat wards, and setting up a Constitutional Commission to look at the Elected Presidency.

Mr Lee said he was raising these issues now, just after Singapore's 50th anniversary, so the country is able "to go into the next 50 years with the best chance of making a success".

"We have to have a system where all the political parties... have to fight hard, stay lean and be responsive to the people, and win the right to govern afresh in each election, a system where Parliament will always be the place to debate and to decide important policies, where alternate views will always have a place.

"The opposition will never be shut out and the Government will be held to account, so that the Government of the day - whoever that may be - is always kept on its toes."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 28, 2016, with the headline 'PM sets out core principles for Singapore political system'. Print Edition | Subscribe