A novel proposal for political reform

A novel proposal for political reform

As Singapore marks its 50th year of independence, perhaps the greatest challenge going forward lies in maintaining the highest quality of relevant and effective political leadership, at a time when the profile and aspirations of the electorate are rapidly changing.

Today's citizens are far more empowered, with better education, greater wealth, and more far-reaching and swift influence - especially through social media - than the populace led by our founding fathers 50 years ago.

In broad terms, the political landscape continues to be largely dominated by the People's Action Party (PAP), created by the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew. Despite Singapore's economic progress, the PAP's overall popular vote has been slipping sharply: from 75.3 per cent in the General Election of 2001, to 66.6 per cent in 2006, and 60.1 per cent in 2011.

This downward trend evidences the growing diversity of expectations of our rapidly changing populace, which today aspires to having much more than just economic growth and development.

Based on this trajectory, one could expect that increasingly more seats are likely to be won by opposition parties. And one would wonder if votes would be cast "for" the opposition's competent ability to lead the nation or, rather, "against" the dominant party.

This throws up a deeper question: Voters under the current system by which political leadership is assembled must make a simplistic either/or choice between parties. But is there another way?

Rather than party-versus-party, what about the possibility of making choices based on the specific competencies and leadership categories actually needed, that might best address prevailing aspirations for improving the nation? These are skills which the leadership of no single party might, in reality, totally possess.

Ailing system

But, first, you may ask, what ails the current system?

Essentially, Singapore's system is based on an adversarial party-versus-party Westminster model. It has many virtues - and many inefficiencies.

For instance, legislative houses in Western-styled democracies are often burdened by the debilitating effects of gridlocks, governmental shutdowns, and negative or smear campaigning, engendered by a zero-sum-game mentality battle for control along party lines.

In a world of growing diversity, those systemic inefficiencies are likely to erode the effectiveness of leadership in the West.

Does Singapore necessarily need to keep to this same pathway? And how could we reduce the adversarial impact of an "opposition"-based partisan system?

Such questions are relevant to Singapore because in an increasingly competitive world, the electorate should most ideally try and hold on to the most capable political leadership assets available to serve the electorate - regardless of party affiliations.

What gets lost in the current party-versus-party system are the strengths of the "losing" party which could otherwise still have been of value to the nation.

Especially for a small country like Singapore, where the talent pool for top-notch political leadership is constrained (in terms of the smallness of numbers, from a normal bell-curve distribution of talent perspective, when measured against a very small population base), any loss of leadership strengths due to the structural set-up of the electoral system is a tragedy for all.

Consider the loss of the invaluable experience of Cabinet minister George Yeo, a tireless patriot who lost his seat in Parliament at the 2011 General Election when the People's Action Party team in Aljunied GRC was defeated by the team from the Workers' Party (WP). Mr Yeo, whose portfolios had included Information and the Arts, Health, Trade and Industry, and Foreign Affairs, then retired from politics.

The Aljunied electorate, in wanting the opposition WP leader to have a voice in the House, had apparently "no choice" but to vote along partisan lines, despite the many governance and leadership skills that Mr Yeo had to offer to the electorate and for the broader benefit of the nation. Yet, many in Aljunied might have been quite happy to have both the opposition leader's voice in Parliament, and that of Mr Yeo.

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