Hong Kong people can learn from Singapore

Hong Kong people can learn from Singapore

It is common for the people of Hong Kong to look to Singapore for lessons on town planning, public housing and the financial services industry. But not to Singapore's politics, viewed in Hong Kong as not democratic enough. This is disappointing. Singapore's political history holds valuable lessons for Hong Kong's "pan-democrats" as they decide to vote on electoral reforms being offered by the Beijing central government.

Singapore's political landscape today appears tranquil but this was not always so. In the 1960s the Barisan Sosialis (Socialist Front) party of Singapore was able to bring the city to a standstill at short notice in ways "Occupy Central" couldn't even begin to imagine. The Socialist Front of Singapore controlled all the unions and had the support of large sections of the population. But within a decade the party had completely disappeared - not due to repression, but mostly due to a wrong political strategy - "taking to the streets."

Singapore's Socialist Front was formed in 1961 by 13 former People's Action Party (PAP) and six prominent trade union leaders. To this day, the PAP is still ruling Singapore, whereas the Socialist Front has completely disappeared. At the time of the breakup in 1961, the Socialist Front was so popular that 35 of the 51 branches of PAP and 19 of its 23 organising secretaries changed allegiance to the Socialist Front.

In 1963, many Socialist Front members were arrested. But despite the arrests, the 1963 Singapore elections saw Socialist Front candidates win 13 out of 51 seats, accounting for a plurality - or 53 per cent of the popular vote.

In the "first past the post" electoral system this is the sort of discrepancy that allows a party to emerge victorious despite winning less than 50 per cent of the votes. It is also not uncommon.

However the next steps taken by the Socialist Front proved fatal for the party. Hong Kong's "pan-democrats" could and should learn from the Socialist Front's mistakes.

In 1966, unhappy with the dichotomy of their small representation in parliament despite having won a majority popular vote together with many other rules implemented by the PAP-controlled government, the Socialist Front decided to "take the fight to the streets" and started resigning their parliamentary seats.

The decision to boycott electoral politics and take to the streets proved fatal to the Socialist Front. In by-elections held for the seats they had vacated, the ruling PAP made a clean sweep - the prime minister of Singapore called it a "stroke of destiny" which simplified his job. Most of Singapore's voters did not follow instructions to cast blank ballot papers as the Socialist Front had requested.


Fourteen years later in 1980, Socialist Front chairman Dr Lee Siew Choh apologised to Singaporean voters for having abandoned parliamentary politics for street action in 1966. In 1988 Socialist Front was dissolved. For Hong Kong's "pan-democrats" the lessons from the sorry demise of Singapore's Socialist Front should be crystal clear - never give up on electoral politics.

When only limited electoral options are available, "taking to the streets" might, for a limited time, feel emotionally satisfying and may even garner good media coverage, but emotion diminishes rapidly and the media move on to the next story, whereas electoral politics plods on for decades. As Hong Kong's "pan-democrats" prepare to veto the universal franchise, on the table for the first time in Hong Kong's history, they might want to consider the fate of the Socialist Front of Singapore.

The Socialist Front put its emotions above reason, boycotted parliament, took to the "streets" and in doing so lost all public support - destroying itself and any prospect of opposition politics for decades to come.

Politics concerns the art of compromise. Hong Kong people are apt to denigrate the obduracy of the Communist Party of China (CPC), without realizing the many compromises, sometimes major compromises, the party has made along the way. In 1936 the CPC formed a "united front" to fight the Japanese. In 1971 Mao Zedong received then US president Richard Nixon even while the Chinese were helping the Vietnamese fight the United States, because the US wanted China's help to fight the Soviet Union. This was an immense compromise both on the part of China, and the US.

History teaches that in politics, the eventual winners are not only the "purists" who hold on to clear goals, but those who, while pursuing long-term goals, make the tactical compromises necessary to achieve them.

The "pan-democrats" of Hong Kong might say that universal suffrage as offered by Beijing is one of form without substance. However, it is heartening that the majority of people in Hong Kong, if the polls are any guide, seem willing - unlike the emotional "pan-democrats" - to accept the compromise.

The author is a former foreign correspondent and has lived in Hong Kong for the past 25 years.

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