How good politics works in practice

Just what is good politics?

This was top on my mind as I listened to President Tony Tan Keng Yam's address to open the 13th Parliament yesterday.

Speaking four months after the Sept 11, 2015 General Election in which the People's Action Party (PAP) Government won a strong mandate from voters, President Tan began with sober reminders of Singapore's geopolitical realities. It will always be a small country in a volatile region, and one where terrorism is a "dangerous and persistent trend", an apt reminder given the Jakarta bomb blasts a day earlier.

He also spoke about the need for economic restructuring, and for a caring society. He then went on to stress that good politics is needed for the Government to carry out its programmes.

"Good policies and good politics go together. Good policies ensure that all citizens benefit from Singapore's success, fostering a society that encourages everyone to come together in building a nation.

"Good politics ensures that we elect governments that develop and deliver on sound policies, strengthen the country and bring people together."

How to ensure that politics works for long-term good?

He highlighted two factors: having an honest and capable political leadership with high standards of ability and integrity; and having a political system that allows effective government in the interests of all, discouraging "narrow interest-based politics".

He went on to touch on what the Government means by good politics. But just how this works in practice might best be gleaned by looking at past Parliaments.

First, good politics is politics for the long term, with a government that plans for the future and carries out its plans.

In 1991, the Eighth Parliament had the Government talking about a third polytechnic being completed within its term of government, by 1995. Today, there are five.

In 1997, the Ninth Parliament discussed a new vibrant city centre around Marina South. Today, as Singaporeans who visit the Marina Bayfront area know, and the world knows as images are screened globally on F1 racing nights, those plans are a reality.

In 2011, in the 12th Parliament, there was talk of plans to expand MediShield to cover the very old. Today, with MediShield Life offering lifelong health insurance for all, the reality has gone beyond what was promised five years ago.

Last night, the President pledged infrastructure changes that will take "several terms of government" to complete. Such a claim would be ludicrous in many countries with weak or revolving-door administrations, but given this Government's track record, and if Singapore continues to get its politics right, it will be no empty boast.

Second, good politics is one where capable, honest leaders get voted in, and political parties renew their ranks.

Among the 91 MPs sworn in yesterday were 19 first-time elected MPs, all from the PAP. There were two new Non-Constituency MPs, both from the Workers' Party. Seats for the NCMP posts go to the top opposition losers in an election.

This will be the first Parliament that opens without the presence of founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, who died last March, sparking an outpouring of national grief. That Singapore hums along, even thrives, post-LKY, is testament to the success of its political regeneration.

Third, good politics is based on government partnering citizens, not lording it over them.

President Tan stressed the need for the Government to engage and partner with citizens for nation-building.

He said: "The future of Singapore is what we make of it. We must foster partnership and collaboration among citizens so that everyone plays a part in building our nation. During SG50, we saw how willing Singaporeans were to contribute and share a part of their lives with one another. Let us all participate in shaping our common future. In doing so, we will strengthen our bonds and deepen trust with one another."

Here, citizens will be watching to see what form such a partnership will take.

President Tan referred to a few national platforms for such engagement - such as the recent series of Our Singapore Conversations, the forthcoming SGfuture dialogues, and the Future Economy committee.

These are laudable but rather limited platforms for citizen partnership, being initiated by the Government and top-down.

Genuine partnership requires the Government to have the humility to take a step back, pause and rethink when others take the lead, such as when artists call for a censorship review, business leaders say costs are out of whack, or voluntary groups propose new care models.

Fourth, good politics makes for more accountable government that embraces diversity. Here, President Tan explicitly said that the political system must let alternative views be considered, and assure that minority communities are integrated, not shut out of the mainstream.

But sceptics often ask if "good politics" is really just the Government's code word for continuing a political system where the PAP remains dominant and exercises its executive power with few external checks.

This is pertinent in a system where 83 out of the 89 elected MPs are from the PAP.

One institution designed as a check on a potential rogue government is the elected presidency, which President Tan referred to yesterday. He hinted at the need for change, calling for a "refreshed" system, "so that we can be assured of clean, effective and accountable government over the long term".

Given this Government's commitment to carrying out things on its agenda, political change will surely happen.

But what shape will it take?

Here, the Government's own emphasis on good politics must guide reform. Change allows for capable, honest governance for the long term. It must strengthen citizen-government bonds and partnership. Most of all, it must improve democratic accountability, not serve to strengthen the Government's executive power, leaving it further from being checked.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 16, 2016, with the headline 'How good politics works in practice'. Print Edition | Subscribe