SINGAPORE'S best days are still ahead of it but, in contemplating its next 50 years, a key question to ponder is whether the ruling party will stay dominant, said leading public intellectual Ho Kwon Ping yesterday.
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Here is the speech by Mr Ho Kwon Ping, the first Institute of Policy Studies S R Nathan Fellow for the Study of Singapore, delivered at his first lecture last night on The Future Of Singapore: Politics And Governance:
In only 20 more years, the youngest minister today will be retiring and there will remain no more politicians who have any working memory of today's leaders, much less the founding generation.
In the history of young nations, this is the most precarious period of transition, when new generations who have not the slightest personal memories of or connections to the founding generation take on the mantle of leadership.
Passing on policies is easy; transferring ideals and values requires continual collective connections between generations of living, breathing people.
To achieve consistent economic growth with broad-based gains for its entire people has already been a rarely scaled hurdle. To maintain exemplary, transparent governance with an entrenched ethos of incorruptibility is even harder. The People's Action Party (PAP) has enabled Singapore to rise to the top of the list of successful newly independent states with these two accomplishments.
Its third challenge is not to just remain in power, nor to maintain its one-party dominance and deny the opposition its self-described role as a "co-driver" of the nation, but to do so in a manner which ensures that the party truly renews itself and retains its original vitality, vibrancy and vigour.
If history is anything to go by, this last task will be daunting. The fact is, democratically elected ruling parties have generally floundered after about a half century to three-quarters of a century. They become corrupt, riven by internal strife and eventually prompt a previously loyal electorate to vote them out.
One thought is that there are only three basic scenarios for the PAP in the next 50 years:
- 1. The Status Quo Scenario. As it suggests, this scenario sees the PAP controlling, say, 85 per cent to 90 per cent of parliamentary seats, with the opposition controlling at most a dozen seats. This is regardless of the popular vote, where support for the PAP has dropped to a record low of 60 per cent, and may even decline further because control of Parliament is what really counts.
- 2. The Dominant Party Scenario. The PAP retains control of an important two-thirds majority or, at the very least, an absolute majority, of parliamentary seats. Assuming there are still around only 90 to 100 seats in Parliament, that means the opposition parties will control around 30 to 50 seats
- 3. Two-Party Pendulum Scenario. A single opposition party or a coalition wins an election. Power then shifts between the PAP and the second major party in Singapore. This is pretty much the norm in all other developed, liberal democracies. A variant of this scenario is that the PAP splits and new coalitions form which alternate in winning elections.
These scenarios are quite obvious and commonsensical. It is the likelihood of the various scenarios occurring which may be controversial. Let me rate these probabilities into three categories: Unlikely, Possible and Likely.
And let me divide the next 50 years into three sets of 15 years, with each set roughly comprising three elections. We can therefore create a matrix for the scenarios:
Status Quo Scenario: first 15 years, possible; second 15 years, unlikely; third 15 years, unlikely.
Dominant Party Scenario: first 15 years, likely; second 15 years, possible; third 15 years, possible.
Two-Party Pendulum Scenario: first 15 years, unlikely; second 15 years, possible; third 15 years, likely.
Basically, all these scenarios foresee that the PAP will face a challenge to retain the same degree of control over Parliament as it has had in the past. So long as the very popular current Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong remains in control - not only as PM but as Senior Minister or Minister Mentor, like his predecessors - the mantle of legitimacy can perhaps be extended to younger leaders. But even Mr Lee will be in his 80s by three more elections. The challenge will be considerable from then onwards.
This is not actually a radical conclusion - almost everyone I informally surveyed agreed with it broadly, but differed in their estimation as to how many years it would take before the PAP would lose an election, and how many terms it would stay out of power before bouncing back.
In fact, Mr Lee Kuan Yew himself has publicly pointed out that the PAP will eventually lose an election, but he did not foresee a date nor a cause.
Causes for loss of power
SO FAR, historical trends elsewhere point towards an election loss by the PAP in the second half of the next 50 years. Or to put it another way, it would be extraordinary if that did not happen. The issue we should now consider is: What might cause the PAP to lose a general election, given its current overwhelming dominance?
There are three basic possibilities: First, an accidental or freak election. Second, a split within the PAP, resulting in a loss to an opposition party which might not otherwise be stronger than an united PAP. And third, an anticipated, outright loss to an opposition party.
- Freak Election
Advocates of the freak election thesis note that the near-absolute control of Parliament by the PAP is not reflected in the total anti-PAP votes in every general election, which has averaged between 35 per cent and 40 per cent.
This has been due to the first-past-the-post Westminster system, which intentionally favours a strong ruling party rather than multi-party coalition governments. And so a party winning with only, say, 60 per cent of the total votes cast in an election may control some 90 per cent of Parliament - as in Singapore.