Singapore's democracy is evolving: PM Lee in interview with visiting Asean journalists

The visiting Asean journalists responding to PM Lee during their interview with him at the Istana on June 4, 2015. -- PHOTO: MCI
The visiting Asean journalists responding to PM Lee during their interview with him at the Istana on June 4, 2015. -- PHOTO: MCI
PM Lee speaking to the Asean journalists during the interview at the Istana on June 4, 2015. -- PHOTO: MCI
PM Lee speaking to the Asean journalists during the interview at the Istana on June 4, 2015. -- PHOTO: MCI
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong posing for a photo with 17 visiting journalists from the nine other Asean countries. Mr Lee hosted an interview with the group at the Istana on June 4, 2015. -- PHOTO: MCI
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong posing for a photo with 17 visiting journalists from the nine other Asean countries. Mr Lee hosted an interview with the group at the Istana on June 4, 2015. -- PHOTO: MCI

SINGAPORE - SINGAPORE's democracy has delivered stable and competent government for its people, but is also evolving over time because society and expectations are changing, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said on Thursday.

However, Mr Lee told a group of 17 visiting journalists from the nine other Asean countries he believes progress will come from the quality of discussion in Parliament rather than the number of opposition members.

Responding to a question from a journalist from Thailand's Bangkok Post about democratic development and whether there is such a thing as 'Singapore-style' democracy, Mr Lee said Singapore has a democratic system which works for it, and which has a "mandate to govern effectively and do what Singapore needs".

Still, the democratic system is evolving over time as society and expectations change. "The way it operates will gradually adjust. So we are looking for our own way forward," Mr Lee added.

"I don't know if you call it a Singapore model for other people to follow, but it is a model which Singapore is making work for ourselves," he said.

As to whether more opposition MPs is a sign of progress, Mr Lee said he would not go on numbers, but the contribution they make. For example, having an opposition that is responsible, one that raises serious issues which concern the country, offers real alternatives and debates hard choices the country has to make.

"That is the duty of the opposition. If they do that, whether they have one member, whether they have 10 members, they are a good opposition. If they don't do that, you may have 20, 30 members, you are not being responsible," he said.

There are now 10 opposition MPs - seven elected MPs and three Non-Constituency MPs. The People's Action Party (PAP), of which Mr Lee is Secretary-General, holds 79 out of the 87 seats, with one seat left vacant after the death of Tanjong Pagar GRC MP and Singapore's founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew in March.

How did the PAP maintain its popularity for so long, the journalist also asked. Replying, PM Lee said "there is no secret", pinning it down to having policies that resonate with the electorate.

"You must have policies whch are in the interest of the people and you must also show to the people that you actually care for them," he added. "You have to work with them at the ground as well as at the policy level."

One way is through the Meet-the-People session (MPS), where MPs meet and help residents facing problems, and through constituency activities. As a result, residents know MPs, who are able to hold the ground.

The visiting journalists had the chance to observe an MPS with Geylang Serai MP Fatimah Lateef this week, meet Education Minister Heng Swee Keat and visit several government agencies.

Still, Mr Lee noted that these efforts do not mean the PAP manages to win over everybody, highlighting that in the last general election in 2011, the PAP garnered 60.1 per cent of the popular vote.

"It is a clear majority but it is not 100 per cent. But that is so in any society. It is not possible however hard you work," he said.

"I would say 60 per cent is a good result," he added.

He noted that in the recent United Kingdom general election, about one-third of those who voted chose the Conservative Party, who now form the government.

"That is the way democracy works," he said. "We try our best to bring together people so that we have a broad consensus of support for the government."

"You may not like everything which the government does, but on balance, you are prepared to say: 'This government is not bad. We vote for it'," he added.

PM Lee was also asked how different Singapore will be without Mr Lee Kuan Yew, and what he took out of his father's book.

He replied that while it was sad Mr Lee would not be able to celebrate the nation's 50th anniversary in August, a new team has been in charge since he stepped down, and his father had been preparing Singapore for the day when it carries on without him.

"All the years he was in government, he never stopped making the effort to make Singapore better," he added.

"We have to keep on moving forward. There are also stresses and strains moving forward. It is not so easy to keep on making progress because people have to change. But if you do not make progress, I think we would be finished," Mr Lee added.

wongsy@sph.com.sg