Wednesday, 25 January 2017

Singapore Perspectives 2017

Institute of Policy Studies' Singapore Perspectives 2017 "What If?"

One-party rule 'may be way for Singapore to succeed': Ong Ye Kung
The system gives a small country that needs to stay nimble its best shot at success
By Charissa Yong, The Straits Times, 24 Jan 2017

A one-party system may give Singapore its best shot at success, because it is a small country that needs to stay nimble, said Education Minister (Higher Education and Skills) Ong Ye Kung yesterday at the Institute of Policy Studies' annual Singapore Perspectives conference.

But Banyan Tree executive chairman Ho Kwon Ping, who spoke on the same topic, warned that one-party systems face the danger of its political elites becoming slow to change, resulting in a culture of entitlement and corruption.

He added that the most desirable scenario for Singapore would be a system of robust internal competition within the People's Action Party (PAP).

Likewise, Mr Ong stressed that the PAP must stay open-minded and grounded in reality, and have integrity beyond reproach.

Both men were on a panel discussing whether rule by a single political party is best for Singapore.

The panel also addressed the possibility of Singapore having a two- or multi-party system.

In his speech, Mr Ong made the case that single-party rule is the best way for a small country like Singapore to succeed.

He said the party need not be the PAP, but whichever party is the most capable.

For a multi-party system to form, said Mr Ong, there must first be at least two sufficiently different paths for Singapore to take, and political views distinct enough for different parties to uphold.

But Singapore is not big enough to have geographically separate towns which evolve drastically different views on national issues, he said.

Another reason he cited is that Singapore needs to stay nimble and move fast in a changing global environment. Mr Ong questioned whether it could do so with a multi-party system.

He said: "A country's success is always idiosyncratic and can never be replicated wholesale by another.

"The formula for success is based on different political processes and ours happens to be a one-party system," said Mr Ong, who was recently made an organising secretary of the PAP and has been touted as a possible future prime minister.

He added that complacency, elitism and corruption are not inevitable outcomes of single-party rule, and these traits have shown up across all political systems.

However, Mr Ho said history shows that a ruling political party which faces no competition tends to turn complacent.

Citing the declines of India's Indian National Congress and the Kuomintang in Taiwan, Mr Ho said a founding party's political values can be passed down over three or four generations of leaders.

Beyond that, complacency will overwhelm the self-discipline instilled by the party's pioneers and its political culture will erode, he told the 960 policymakers, businessmen and students in the audience.

Nevertheless, Mr Ho thought the PAP had the best chance of any long-term party to set a new record for staying in power, because of its "ability to self-correct and obsessively talk about problems" and find solutions to them.

He suggested that the party introduce a formal way for competing policies to be aired internally.

To this suggestion, Mr Ong said the PAP needed to be as pluralistic a party as possible and must take in people with different views.

"This will lead to internal competition which will be a good thing.

"Today it exists, there are diverse views, the public doesn't see them, but perhaps we ought to formalise this over time," he said.

But Mr Ho said internal party competition by itself cannot ensure political elites remain relevant.

Civil society should also be nurtured and information should be shared more freely, so that the public can have robust discussions on policies, he said.

Ambassador-at-large Tommy Koh, who was in the audience, asked if the PAP could buck the trend of history, or whether it might falter within the next 10 years.

Mr Ho thought the party was unlikely to decline with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong around, even if he is no longer Prime Minister but is Minister Mentor or Emeritus Senior Minister.

"So long as he is around, the party's adherence to its core values will remain," said Mr Ho.

Mr Ong - whom Prof Koh called a "credible and leading candidate to be our next prime minister" while asking his question - also said the new leadership team will face a severe test in the next few years.

Describing their challenge, Mr Ong said: "How do we then ensure we have the bond with the rest of the party members to continue to hold everything together, while ensuring the PAP is as pluralistic and diverse as possible?"

Multi-party political system in which parties align along sinister lines could ruin Singapore: Ye Kung
By Tan WeiZhen, TODAY, 24 Jan 2017

Should the political landscape here evolve into one with more than one dominant political party, it could mean a lot more “jostling on the ground” as unions and various associations and even the media become split as parties seek support, said Education Minister Ong Ye Kung (Higher Education and Skills).

And should political parties align themselves along “sinister” lines, such as by race, language or religion, this “toxic mix” could leave the country broken, said Mr Ong, noting that even as political parties represent diverse views, that very same essence can “take a nasty twist, sowing discord and dividing societies”.

Mr Ong set out these scenarios yesterday at the Institute of Policy Studies’ (IPS) Singapore Perspectives conference, where he spoke at a session on a multi-party system in Singapore.

The Republic’s formula for success, noted Mr Ong, who is among those touted to be Singapore’s fourth-generation of leaders, could well be a one-party system.

One major long-term risk, he noted, is that a multi-party system could slow down decision-making and nimbleness while navigating an “ever-changing world and environment”.

“Imagine, if we have a multi-party system back in 1965, will we have come so far so quickly?” said Mr Ong in a speech opening the session.

But a single-party system in the case of Singapore is not a prescription but an outcome of choice resulting from elections, he pointed out. For example, the state of Massachusetts in the United States has been dominated by the Democrats for a long period, he said, adding: “Smallness and concentration often do go together.”

If the people of a country wish for a multi-party system, it will be so. “The job of the opposition parties is to point out the risks of a single-party rule. That is their job. But the job of the PAP (People’s Action Party) is to make sure that Singapore continues to flourish. We will also point out the risks of a multi-party system and, most importantly, we must always keep out the ills of complacency, elitism and corruption,” he said.

Mr Ong’s remarks are the latest on the issue of multi-party systems, which was also touched on by Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen during a dialogue with Yale-NUS students on Jan 13. Dr Ng had said that the extent of progress in a country should not be measured by its number of political parties.

In 2015, Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam had said that one-party states with no political competition face a disadvantage, but having a dominant player in politics is an edge.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong also weighed in on this topic in 2011 at the Kent Ridge Ministerial Forum, saying that a two-party system is not workable in Singapore as there is not enough talent to form two “A teams”, and it could also bring about a division in society based on class or racial lines.

Yesterday, Mr Ong noted that the civil service would be the most tested among institutions under a multi-party system, as it has to be neutral and serve whichever party forms the Government.

“You can work on one set of policies for five years, then someone new comes along and says, let’s redo everything, or undo everything. It can be frustrating and very demoralising,” he said. For instance, the Affordable Care Act in the US has been repealed, and the US is set to withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership after President Donald Trump took power, he said.

In the face of all these risks, the Government has to make sure that the current system continues to work, and the PAP must ensure that it is open-minded and keeps up with the times, and comes up with policies that are “rooted in the ground”.

Asked by Ambassador-at-large Professor Tommy Koh during the panel discussion whether it was in the national interest to evolve a credible opposition party to replace the PAP if it were to falter, Mr Ong said the possibility of the PAP losing power always has to be “at the back of our minds”.

For example, the PAP could become corrupt and complacent. “Then ... it deserves to lose. And I have faith that if that happens, there will be fine men and women who would form an alternative,” he said.

Also, others more capable than the PAP could come along and claim the mandate. “I would say there is robustness in the system, so long as we continue to identify good talent,” he said.

Banyan Tree Holdings executive chairman Ho Kwon Ping, also a speaker at the panel discussion, added that the most desirable scenario would be a system where there is “robust internal institutionalised competition” within the PAP. This system, he suggested, would allow the flexibility of continuing on one-party rule, or to split into two parties.

“If the PAP can contain the different tendencies of thinking within itself, it would go on as a one-party dominant system for a long time,” he explained. If it cannot, then the party can break into two, with the advantage of leaders on both sides that had considerable experience in governance, he concluded.

What if Singapore has to choose: China or US?
By Pearl Lee, The Straits Times, 24 Jan 2017

The question "What if Singapore has to choose between China and the United States?" featured prominently at a conference yesterday.

Professor Joseph Liow, dean of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, said it is unlikely Singapore will reach that crossroad.

China's growing clout in the Asia-Pacific, and concerns that America's engagement with the region will weaken should it turn inward, had led some observers to wonder whether countries in the region will have to take sides at some point.

However, Prof Liow noted, among other factors, that the scope of bilateral relations between the US and China has expanded.

Both countries share a complex relationship with intertwining interests, which have expanded beyond trade and exchange rate issues to include topics such as territorial disputes, climate change and counter-terrorism efforts, he pointed out.

China will not want the US to "entirely disengage from the region", and neither does the US want to do so, Prof Liow told the annual Singapore Perspectives conference organised by the Institute of Policy Studies.Singapore has long maintained that it does not want to choose between powers.

Still, Prof Liow noted that recent developments in Malaysia and the Philippines have been portrayed as the countries making a choice.

At another panel, Education Minister (Higher Education and Skills) Ong Ye Kung was asked about some of the hardest policy choices within the PAP. He cited the shifting geopolitical landscape as one issue.

Meanwhile, Banyan Tree executive chairman Ho Kwon Ping said Singapore could face its first major crisis if relations between the US and China worsen to a point where it has to pick a side.

Should Singapore ever have to make a choice, said Prof Liow, it will need to consider these terms:

First, the choice must be based on national interest, and not on countries. It should also not be made "at gunpoint", he said.

The superpower should also not interfere in domestic politics, though ensuring this will pose a challenge for the government of the day, he said.

Singapore also needs to be mindful of how other countries will interpret its move.

Prof Liow also highlighted two other points to keep in mind - that other Asean states are also navigating the same dilemma, and that there are other major players who have a hand in determining the state of regional affairs - such as Japan, Australia and Russia.

What Singapore should do, said Prof Liow, is to "look into diversifying engagement ... with external players of consequence in regional affairs".

Ong Ye Kung: PAP must be 'open-minded, attract diverse talents and constantly self-reflect'
Minister for Education (Higher Education and Skills) Ong Ye Kung addressed the Institute of Policy Studies Singapore Perspectives Conference on Monday, where he spoke on the issue of 'What if Singapore becomes a two- or multi-party system?' Below is an edited excerpt of his speech.
The Straits Times, 25 Jan 2017

Let's talk about the elephant in the room - which is the People's Action Party (PAP). The scenario painted to us is that by 2065, it is replaced by several smaller elephants that will take turns to govern after each election or rule through coalitions.

It's a drastic departure from the status quo, which we cannot rule out half a century from now. Question is: What happens then? I would like to present my remarks in three parts. First, while life will change in many ways, we will adapt and life goes on. Second, I will explain why this can give rise to a couple of serious long-term risks for Singapore. Third, which is what many Singaporeans will ask: "What is the Government going to do about it?"

First, what will change and how will life go on?

A major change in a multi-party system will be the shifting of the political ground. Expect intense ground jostling - different parties reaching out to various groups to garner support. The unions may not be as cohesive as they are today, working with the PAP in a symbiotic relationship. They may be split into two or more groupings, or there will be a competing federation, like the days when we had SATU and NTUC. Likewise, there will be split affiliations among associations, clans, societies, even recreational clubs, civil societies, sociopolitical sites, sports and arts bodies, etc. Media houses can be split too.

It's not a new phenomenon. It has been the case in more hotly contested constituencies. After GE2011, when the Workers' Party won Aljunied, I found myself becoming the opposition party in the GRC.

I believe the institution that will be most tested will be the civil service. The holy grail of the civil service is to be politically neutral and serve whichever party forms the government, regardless of their differences in governance philosophy. Offer the policy options, state the pros and cons, let the political leaders with the mandate decide, and civil service will support regardless. It is a professional ideal but, in practice, easier said than done. You can work on one set of policies for five years and someone new comes along and asks you to undo everything you have done and move to a new direction. We see that now happening - the Affordable Healthcare Act in the US is being unwound, Trans-Pacific Partnership being put to a stop. That can be very frustrating and disheartening.

It is useful to see how other countries deal with it. America ended up politicising the top echelons of the civil service. The top few layers of bureaucrats are political appointees, and whenever there is a change in administration, they are all replaced. That is why the new Trump administration has to make 4,000 appointments.

The alternative is the Australian or UK system, where all civil servants in the ministries stay intact, but the minister's office is packed with his own staffers - presumably more aligned to his thinking. In Australia, the ministers spend most of their time with these staffers in Parliament, and not with the civil servants in the ministries - because Parliament is where the political contest is.

We will have to adapt to all these, which also means status quo as we know it will change. But adapt we will.


Second, I will touch on the real long-term risks for Singapore in a multi-party system. The risk is not so much being in a multi-party system per se, but what are the forces and processes that will lead us there.

For a two- or multi-party system to take shape, there must first have been at least two paths sufficiently different for our country to take. But these paths can be a narrow fork in the road that can even merge further down, or a T-junction pointing in opposite directions.

Take the UK, for example. From the mid-1990s to early 2010s, the Conservatives and New Labour in UK both believed in a pro-business, market economy that upholds equality of opportunities instead of equality in outcomes. Both eschew labour unrest and strikes - which was a major shift for New Labour. The key divergence in policy was probably in their attitudes towards the European Union. Today, that has widened into a gulf between those who believed in Brexit and Remain. That difference has split the society between the young and old, urban and rural residents, the more and less educated.

In the US, the key historical divergence between the Republicans and Democrats was slavery. The situation has evolved. Slavery is no more and, today, the two parties hold distinct views on the size of government, taxation, abortion and gun control. But in the recent presidential elections, those positions widened, pitting nationalism against globalisation, whites verses other races. It was a bitter, divisive election which both candidates openly acknowledged.

Political parties are essential in representing the diverse views of people, and elections a necessary and peaceful discourse in finding compromises and seeking a way forward for the country. This is the essence of democracy. But that same essence can take a nasty twist, sow discord and divide societies. Hence, Winston Churchill said, "…democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time".

Fifty years from now, if we have a multi-party system, what will define the key political difference between parties? What is the partisan line? Is it over the extent to which we should subsidise public services, healthcare and social assistance? If that is so it may well be something we can manage. What if it is over something more sinister that divides Singapore by race, language or religion? As we all know politics, race and religion is a toxic mix. If that happens, we will be broken as a country and society.

Another major risk is whether a multi-party system will slow down decision-making, and our nimbleness in navigating an ever- changing external environment. If we had a multi-party system back in 1965, would we have come this far so quickly?

Back then, we could move to attract FDI (foreign direct investments) from multinational companies when it was not politically correct to do so in a post-colonial era. We forged omnidirectional, bilateral free trade agreements while others pledged allegiance to the World Trade Organisation multilateral system. We must move fast in embracing new digital technologies, even though it can be uncomfortable and disruptive.

If we envisage a future of tough challenges - a shifting geopolitical landscape, more intense economic competition, challenging demographic trends, rising sea levels - unity, common purpose and the ability to move faster than others will be central and vital for us. While other countries are either slow but big, or small but fast, will we end up suffering the worst of both worlds - small and slow?

The current system has worked well for the majority of Singaporeans so far. It still gets my vote as the best system for Singapore.


So, given these risks, what can Government do about it?

To answer this question, let me rewind to 2011 when I was first introduced as a PAP candidate. I was asked by a journalist what I thought of a single-party system in Singapore. I said that our equilibrium as a small country may well be single-party rule. The party can be PAP today, but another in the future - so long it is the most capable at that time.

Because between Singaporeans living in Changi and Jurong, their concerns and views on national issues may be somewhat different, but nothing like those of people living in Alaska or New York City, Jakarta or the eastern and westernmost places in the Indonesian archipelago. For big countries, geographical separation translates into different lifestyles, outlook, values and political affinities, which then lends itself to multi-party politics.

The single party in the case of Singapore is not a prescription, but the most likely outcome of choice - a result of free and fair elections. It is not different from Massachusetts being dominated by Democrats for long periods, or Scotland dominated by Labour and now SNP. Smallness and concentration do often come together.

So the answer to the question, what are we going to do about it, is to make sure the current system continues to work for Singaporeans!

To do so, we must understand what factors made it work so far. Complacency, elitism and corruption are not inevitable outcomes of dominant party rule. These ills have shown up across all political systems. The PAP knows that our integrity must be unquestionable. If something goes wrong, it will be rectified and the perpetrators must face the consequences and action has to be swift.

We must be a party that is open- minded and keeps up with the changing expectations of the population - so that we can be at the forefront of new ideas, and policies can adapt to the needs of the society and our people. We must attract talent from as diverse a background as possible to serve. That is why, every term, we replace a quarter to a third of our candidates.

The PAP must constantly self-reflect, on areas that it has not done well, and why the Singapore Dream did not work out for some Singaporeans. Our policies must be rooted in the ground. A sizeable proportion of our work must be on the ground. And in this age of inequality, ours cannot just be a system which rewards the best and brightest, it must also be a system that compensates for poor family circumstance and the role of luck.

Every country in the world is different. A country's success is idiosyncratic and can never be replicated wholesale by another. The formula for success is based on different political processes. Singapore's formula may well be a single-party system.

Ultimately, the political future of a country will be determined by the will of the people. If the people wish for a change to a multi-party system, it will be so. The job of the opposition parties is to highlight to people the risks of the current system. Likewise, it is the job of the PAP to do our best to make sure Singapore flourishes, point out the risks of a multi-party system for a small country like Singapore, and keep out the ills of complacency, elitism and corruption.

Ho Kwon Ping: Loss of confidence in PAP? Possible, if complacency sets in
At the IPS meet, Banyan Tree Holdings executive chairman Ho Kwon Ping spoke about politics in 2065, 50 years ahead. Here is an excerpt.
The Straits Times, 25 Jan 2017

The critical question facing Singapore in 2065 is not simply whether an accidental freak election or a sustainable pendulum democracy should or might occur. It is about whether the social contract between elite governance and the body politic can become so strained and frayed that a crisis of political legitimacy may thrust unexpected, extremist scenarios - ranging from rule by a military-dominated junta to unstable coalition governments - to become a reality.

In other words, what might happen to get us from where we are now, a bastion of political stability, to the uncertainties now plaguing the rest of the world?

Let me ask and then answer three further questions in pursuit of this issue. First, what events could lead to a massive loss of legitimacy or confidence in the People's Action Party (PAP) or the current political system?

Second, what are the chances of these events happening?

Third, is a two-party pendulum democracy a likely, stable and sustainable option? Alternatively, what might realistically evolve instead, in the specific Singapore context?

Let me address the first question in a circumspect manner, by alluding to other Asian democracies. The closest, though imperfect, parallels are India and Taiwan. In both places, the founding party - the Indian National Congress and the Kuomintang (KMT) - were led by charismatic leaders, Jawaharlal Nehru and Chiang Kai-shek, who were worlds apart both in their personalities as well as in their party structures, but possessed, as founding fathers, an unquestioned legitimacy. After their passing, their offspring - Indira Gandhi and Chiang Ching-kuo -succeeded them (albeit with brief interludes in India) but after them, both the party leadership and party itself started to decline.

Three identical things happened in both parties:

First, nepotism prevented the rise of younger, meritocratic elites vying within the party for ascendancy, resulting in sycophants all clustering around the dynastic heirs, like in some archaic monarchy.

Second, the values, policies and solutions which led the founding party to success became sacrosanct: sacred cows which could not be questioned even when their relevance started to wane. A sense of political complacency settled like fine dust over even the internal insurgents and overcame any impetus towards change.

Third, a culture of entitlement led to endemic corruption both political and financial, the final blow in an inexorable decline of legitimacy.

Should that fate, which has befallen almost all founding parties in electoral democracies over time, affect the PAP in the coming decades, we have the scenario for disruptive change.

The second question is: How likely is this to happen?

The short answer is: Not very likely (I hope) in the next quarter-century, or around 20 to 25 years. Beyond that, no one knows.

Why 20 years? (Perhaps too optimistic for some and too pessimistic for others.) I chose this time span because I assume that under our present system, even when Mr Lee Hsien Loong retires, he will assume the mantle of senior minister or minister mentor, and his cohort of leaders will remain like tribal elders to guide successive leadership teams not so much in policymaking but in the preservation of the political values, self-discipline and vision which congeal into a lasting political culture.

History has shown that the values of a founding political culture can usually be transmitted with vigour down three to four generations. Beyond that, complacency and entitlement usually overwhelm the messianic urgency and self-discipline found in pioneer values. One can only hope that future PAP leaders, after our current leadership has long passed from the scene, can learn from history.

They will have a few advantages, not least being that as a young nation, with a new political culture of anti-corruption, meritocracy and multiculturalism, they will not have to battle the centuries of deep divisions which afflicted, say, Indian civilisation.

But as Sri Lanka's civil war has shown, a relatively short period of self-serving political opportunism and populism can spiral out of control rapidly. And who is to say, from what we have already seen with the descent into opportunism in even mature, developed European and American societies, that our future leaders will be so self- disciplined as to eschew even a shred of self-interest, especially if their popularity starts to wane?

As for nepotism, there are no current signs of this happening with a Lee dynasty clinging to power or promoting only its relatives. Anti-corruption has now become not just government policy but a fundamental value of our people. And the Government has shown signs that even sacred-cow policies can be re-examined if they are no longer relevant.

And so I remain, using that cliched phrase, cautiously optimistic.

The third and possibly most intriguing question is whether the scenario leading towards pendulum democracy in Singapore is the most desirable and likely long-term outcome. And if not, what are the alternatives?

Here we have a conundrum. History has generally shown, despite recent events in the West, that a pendulum democracy offers a more sustainable, dynamic equilibrium than a single-party dominant system which has no competition and falls into complacent entitlement.

On the other hand, to move from the generally well-governed stability of our current single-party dominant system to a pendulum democracy implies that a massive loss of legitimacy by the ruling party has to first occur. That is not necessarily desirable, and of course not even likely, given the current robustness of the PAP and the weakness of the opposition parties.

The danger of a single-party dominant system is political ossification over time, as the sense of entitlement encourages the nepotism, complacency and corruption which inevitably leads to the demise - and eventual re-emergence, of course - of even the most idealistic founding parties.

Therefore, one viable alternative is to institutionalise internal policy competition and deepen internal democracy within the PAP, beyond just secret elections to a central committee or politburo.

By itself, however, internal party competition cannot assure that a political elite will remain relevant to the needs of a changing population... Civil society must be further empowered as a partner to strengthen the social contract, and also as a check against inept or corrupt governance.

Access to information enables the public to robustly debate and articulate ground-up responses to the pressing societal issues of today. An information-rich society is all the more important since we've seen, in the recent US presidential elections, how social media can easily distort facts and even manufacture dis-information.

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