Two questions should be asked as Singaporeans decide whether they want the country to transition towards a two-party system, said former minister Raymond Lim on Friday.
One, whether the system it is evolving towards can forge consensus on the priorities and "necessary things" that must be done to move Singapore forward.
Two, having reached that decision, whether the system has the capacity to get it done.
The two questions are a litmus test for Singaporeans negotiating the change, Mr Lim told a student who asked him about the contrast between economic competition and political monopoly here.
The student, among 180 guests at a lecture and question-and-answer session held in conjunction with the launch of Mr Lim's first book, had argued that democracy requires the check and balance of a strong opposition.
The book is titled Straight Talk: Reflections On Singapore Politics, Economy And Society.
Mr Lim, a former journalist and economist, said the political situation here has evolved as no society can remain static. But he cited the "dysfunctional" system in the United States as a negative example of one that cannot agree on how to move forward and resolve its problems. The US recently emerged from a 16-day government shutdown caused by gridlock between the Democrats and Republicans over a Democrat-backed health-care law.
Beyond coming to a consensus, an ideal political system should also be able to implement its decisions, said Mr Lim at the Nanyang Technological University (NTU).
"This is the difference between talking about doing something and actually getting it done," the MP for East Coast GRC said.
A former transport minister who left Cabinet after the last General Election in 2011, he also touched on challenges for Singapore and the region in a lecture held as part of NTU's new undergraduate degree programme in Public Policy and Global Affairs.
Rising income inequality, which is troubling not just Singapore but other societies, has led to many feeling excluded from the benefits of growth, he said.
"This is why even though our economy is up, which is no mean feat in a crisis-strewn decade, yet the 'feel good' factor seems missing," said Mr Lim.
Bridging this divide and ensuring no one is left behind is high on the Government's agenda, he said, pointing to recent Budgets aimed at ensuring inclusiveness and the National Day Rally announcements in August.
"But the Government can only pursue this in a big way if it has the support of the people," said Mr Lim.
Support for an inclusive society is not a given once the questions of "how to pay" and "who to pay" are asked, he said.
Mr Lim highlighted the importance of a strong sense of community and an active civic society.
More are now willing to speak up, Mr Lim noted, adding it is "far better" to have an engaged citizenry than a "switched-off" one.
However, he called for courage to not just voice popular discontent, but also to oppose it "when you know in your hearts that it is right to do so".
While people used to speak of a climate of fear deterring them from criticising the Government, the converse is now true.
"Ordinary people are worried that if they speak up in support of an unpopular policy or against a populist view, they are immediately pilloried and flamed on the Net," he said.
"If you concede this civic space, not speaking up for our collective interests, then our society will start to fragment as populist voices and special interests will slice up our common welfare."
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