I think we in Singapore have many things to be thankful for. We are an improbable nation. It took the alignment of many stars and no small amount of great fortune and incredible luck for us to have made it as far as we have. Amongst the many things that we have to be thankful for is that the dominant political party that formed the government of the day had largely been clean, capable, visionary, courageous and empathetic to the needs of Singaporeans.
However, I do not think that it is wise to hope that we will continue to be so lucky. It is a matter of time before luck runs out. Therefore, instead of just relying on luck, we need to take active steps to put in the systems that will ensure that the political party that forms the government of the day remains equal to the task of keeping Singapore exceptional and able to take Singapore to many more 50 years. To ensure that we continue to thrive, I think that one of the most, if not THE MOST, important system we need is to have a good number of good quality elected opposition members of parliament.
There are three reasons why I think that having a good number of good quality elected opposition members of parliament to ensure our future:
- Pushes the party that forms the government of the day to continue improving in serving Singapore
- Constantly remind the party that forms the government of the day that they are not rulers of the land, but servants of the people
- Be a viable alternative to step in should the worst case scenario where the party that forms the government of the day fail catastrophically in their duty
Pushing governing party to continue improving
Having good opponents is imperative in pushing you to keep improving. Let me illustrate with the following story. I know of this young lady who came to Singapore from China. When she was in China, she was her age-group state champion in badminton. For various reasons, she came to Singapore to study in a JC and do her A-Levels. In Singapore, she continued to play badminton and represented her JC. She spent as much time training as hard as she did in China. She beat everyone in her age group in Singapore fairly easily. When she went back to China for her vacation at the end of the year, she went back to see her old coach and play against her former teammates. To her surprise, she was beaten by people she used to win easily against. Her coach also told her that not only did she not improve, she actually deteriorated. She did not understand why that was the case. She did not slack off on her training in Singapore. Her coach explained that it is because she did not have good opponents who can challenge her, push her, and stretch her to up her game. Similarly, why is it that the Chinese national table tennis team is so dominant? Because each and every member in the team is a fantastic player. And each and every member in the team knows that at any point in time, there are many other capable players who are more than willing to take their place. As a result, the players on the Chinese national table tennis team are kept on their toes and relentlessly improve lest they be replaced. Having strong opponents to play against is the reason why the standard of the Chinese table tennis team is way above anybody else’s.
I believe that that is the case for political parties too. I believe that the party that forms the government of the day will only keep improving if it has to regularly contend with strong opponents in the one sphere that matters most – parliament. If there are no opposition MPs, and the governing party only has to contend and spar against its opponents once every four to five years during elections, then there are far lesser opportunities for the governing party to push and stretch itself, to sharpen its political acumen, to raise its quality as a political party. This increases the chance that the governing party will be ensnared by groupthink (or as someone said, buy its own bullshit). This increases its chances it selects more of the same types of candidates who share the same philosophy to governance. As such, I believe that it is important to have a good number of good quality opposition MPs that regularly questions the assumptions of, analyzes the policy options chosen and scrutinizes the directions sets by the governing party in parliament so that the governing party will keep continually up its quality and remain equal to the task of keeping Singapore exceptional.
Constant reminder that the governing party serves the people
As the adage goes, power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. It is therefore important that the governing party is constantly reminded that their authority to govern and make policy decisions on our behalf is a privilege that we bestowed upon them. They need to be reminded that they are not lords over us. They need to be reminded to stay humble. However, unless they credibly believe that there is a chance that they will not be re-elected as the governing party, they will invariably become arrogant, complacent and forget that they are there to serve the people. And the only way to ensure that they do credibly believe that they may not get re-elected is that they are constantly reminded at every parliament sitting when they see a good number of elected opposition MPs.
Have a viable alternative should the worst happen
Atrophy is the natural order of things. We should therefore prepare for a foreseeable future where the current governing party is no longer up to the task of governing, or worse, it has let its long held absolute power corrupt it, leading to catastrophic failure. As Mr Lee Kuan Yew himself put it, his ambition was “not to preserve the PAP, but the system that produces the answers that we must have as a society to survive.”
How do we do that? Do we wait until we see that the current governing party is indeed flailing and decrepit before we try to cobble together an alternative? That is what Syrians tried to do. And we all know what is going on in Syria. No. The best time to prepare for the worst is when things are actually going well. You do not wait until you fall ill to take vitamins, eat fruits and vegetables and consume health supplements. You do it when you are still healthy. You do not wait until war is about to break out before you start building your defence force (look at Crimea). You do it when things are still relatively peaceful.
Similarly, unless we want to end up like Syria, we would start building up the possible alternatives to the current governing party right now, when the governing party is still doing a fair enough job. So that, instead of being like Syria now, we can be like Japan in the late 1990s, where, according to Mr Chiam See Tong, “Politicians there in the LDP, which has been the ruling power for over 40 years, I believe, have become greedy. But luckily, in Japan, there are patriotic and good people in the opposition who are ready to take over power and make sure that things do not get too bad for Japan.”
But for the opposition to be ready to step up to the task should the worst happen, they need to have people voted into parliament as MPs. According to Mr Lee Kuan Yew himself said, they would probably need “two to three election terms, 12 to 15 years on the opposition benches in parliament” before they are able to “understand the system and, if they take over, there is a chance this system of governance can continue.”
When things are going well, we need to start preparing for the worst. That has been the Singaporean way. So while the current governing party is still doing a sufficiently good job, we need to already have opposition MPs getting to know the system so that they can take over and continue to run a system that gives us the answers we need as a nation to thrive should the worst happen. Hopefully, though, with enough opposition MPs, the worst may not even come to past because the governing party will be constantly reminded that it does not lord over the people but instead serve the people, stay humble and keep itself in check. Better yet, with luck and enough opposition MPs of good quality constantly sparring and challenging the governing party, our system of governance will improve dramatically, providing us with better policies that can lead our nation on to many more 50 years to come.