The Need for a Multi-Party System
Written by Dr Wong Wee Nam
04 December 2008
It has been broached in the past. Now Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has said it again. A multi-party system is not good for Singapore. For someone who had, during the 2006 General Elections, said that the government would have to waste time fixing the opposition if too many are elected into Parliament, such a view should not come as a surprise.
The reason he gave for not having more than one dominant party other than the PAP is that Singapore is too small and does not have enough talents to have a multi-party system. Israel is a small country, perpetually at war and yet they have a parliament of diverse views. Hongkong, New Zealand and Denmark do not have a population much bigger than ours. So was ancient Athens, the cradle of democracy. Even Singapore in the early years, when its population was less 2 million, had many dominant parties. Thus this reason cannot be valid.
It is not that we do not have enough good people. After all, with only 84 seats to contest, surely our country, with such a well-educated population would be able to find 168 candidates or more to make our elections a meaningful exercise and give our voters a decent choice.
Reasons for the poor State of Affairs
Why then is there a dearth of candidates to make a multi-party system possible? This is because the PAP government has, over the years, not only discouraged the evolution towards a multi-party system, it has in fact strangled and stunted it almost to the point of extinction. Before it came into power in 1959, Singapore had a healthy multi-party system.
Subsequently, political opponents were arrested, unions and other interest groups that did not support it were closed, the media was subdued and the climate of fear that resulted from all these prevented any possible growth of political activities.
Furthermore, it also made election of opposition candidates more difficult by monopolising the State media and the State’s grassroot machinery to raise their candidates’ profiles and also introducing the Group Representative Constituencies, where the boundaries of constituencies are so ridiculously elastic that they can be stretched north, south, east or west like a rubber band.
GRCs were introduced because the PAP argued that without them, minorities could not get elected. Yet before the PAP came into power and before they meddled with the electoral system, minority candidates were contesting in single wards and many of them had won comfortably against candidates from the racial majority. Let us not forget that those were times when people were speaking dialects, less educated and were more racially-conscious. Yet at that time we even had a Prime Minister of Jewish origin. Who says Singapore is not ready for a minority Prime Minister and a minority candidate cannot win an election on his or her own merit? Remember Anson and JBJ?
The truth is that Singaporeans have long been brain-washed not to accept a multi-party system. They are often led to believe that having opposition spells trouble. Countries like Taiwan, Phillipines, Thailand, South Korea have been held up as examples of troubled systems. Why use such countries which had just come out of an autocratic system into an infant democratic system as examples? Why not mention countries with a more mature democratic system and more exemplary healthy checks and balances like US, UK, Western Europe, Australia, Japan, Canada and New Zealand, where educational and economic levels are much closer to Singapore?
Governing is not easy
Yes, having a multi-party system would make governing difficult. Since when has governing a country been easy? Unless we are a country of robots, it is inevitable that there will be disagreements and conflicts in society. People will always be divided by social situations and points of view, dissatisfied with their lot, and they will demand their fair share of wealth and wish to see justice. People differ in educational backgrounds, values, cultural upbringings, racial origins and religious beliefs. It is this diversity that will make governing difficult. Even with prosperity, divergences will not disappear. In fact, the more highly-developed a society, the more diverse will be the interests.
Governing will only be easy when a people is so apathetic that there is no desire for change and also when a people is so cowed that desire for change cannot be expressed.
Sure, it would be easier and faster to ram policies down peoples’ throat to solve problems than to listen to everyone and adjust policies to try and suit everybody. But history has shown that a government who does not listen to people will have to continually use force, threats and intimidation to put down conflicts. However, such methods cannot hold forever. There will come a time when the tension in society can no longer hold and violence erupts.
It is for this reason that we must continue to work for a multi-party system. A multi-party system will allow conflicts, when they surface, to be resolved in a democratic way. It lessens the severity of conflicts because it makes government more transparent, resulting in fewer mistakes and less pain for the citizens. Moreover, it allows citizens to participate in the process of government, giving the citizens a sense of pride and community and a spirit of sacrifice and cohesion. There will be more give and take. Society is stable only when individual citizens with conflicting interests are allowed to have their voices heard and their needs addressed.
Better Deal for Citizens
Why is there the need for a strong alternative party? With only one dominant party, there will be inbreeding. We have seen how a dominant party can result in a monopoly of ideas and a narrow perspective of problems and solutions. Professor John Miller said, “A one-party state is vulnerable to be the operations of interests within the government and the party itself.”
The greater the participation from citizens, the richer will be the pool of alternative ideas. This means more accurate feedback for the government and a more equitable implementation of policies.
If there is another strong alternative party, the ruling party will have to listen more closely to the people or stand the risk of losing more seats to a better group of people. This means that policies will more likely to benefit a wider cross-section of the population and hardships for the voiceless low income group avoided.
When there is a free marketplace of ideas, people will feel that they are being listened to and hence will be more likely to participate in peaceful exchanges rather than become apathetic or vent their frustration in a destructive way like corruption, passive resistance and civil unrest.
What Needs To Be Done?
The Prime Minister is right when he said that it is not the job of the PAP to create a strong alternative party. I agree with him because I believe only our citizens can create a strong alternative party. They must decide whether they want to have a free marketplace of ideas to flourish in our country. Only they can work towards a more vibrant political culture. They must ask themselves whether they want to remain apathetic or to be constructive participants in our country’s affairs and be prepared to come forward and contribute and help. They must see resolving conflicting interests in society as a duty of citizenship.
The question each and every one of us must ask is: What is my role as a Singaporean? Is this my country, or is this a hotel where I sleep, a working place where I earn my living, a shopping place where I spend what I earn, or a country club where I can just give up my membership when it no longer provides me the fun?