In his very first media interview since being appointed deputy prime minister (DPM) — the clearest indication yet that he may go on to become Singapore’s fourth head of government — Heng Swee Keat indicates that having alternative voices in parliament may not “result in the best outcome for our society.”
DPM Heng’s party, the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP), has dominated parliament since Singapore achieved independence in 1963. There are only nine opposition politicians (inclusive of three nominated members) in parliament compared to the PAP’s 82 parliamentarians.
In an interview with Channel NewsAsia, Heng was asked about his views on younger Singaporeans’ desire to have more alternative voices in parliament and the desire to see civil society playing a bigger role in the socio-political sphere.
The newly-minted DPM, who also serves as the nation’s finance minister, uses buzzwords like “fragmentation,” “political consensus,” and “constructive(ness)” to describe why a multi-party system may not be beneficial to Singapore.
Acknowledging that he “understands” the reasons behind these desires, Heng says that young Singaporeans exposed to the “Western” brand of democracy may think that having one party in power for so long is “not a good thing.”
However, he suggests that having multiple parties in parliament could lead to serious “fragmentation”. He asserts that it is “not a given” that have one or more opposition parties in parliament would “result in the best outcome for our society.”
In the same interview, the DPM expresses concerns over the “fragmentation” of society. Seemingly cautioning viewers that the lack of “political consensus” could lead to serious repercussions, the politician says:
“(What) everyone is very alarmed by is the speed at which society is fragmenting into parts. So, many societies cannot have the political consensus to do the right thing,” he said. “And even more worrying is that many societies do not take painful measures which are necessary for the long term.
“Everyone promises that things will be easier, better and sometimes to the point of telling untruths. I think that is not the kind of politics we should have in Singapore.”
Asserting that Singapore has had “very constructive politics” over the past five decades and that it is important to harness everyone’s energies in a “constructive” way “rather than spend time scoring political points, debating for the sake of debating,” the DPM says:
“So the question is this: As our society becomes more diverse, as our people are better educated, better exposed all round the world, how do we harness the energies of everyone in a constructive way and to take Singapore forward? Rather than spend time scoring political points, debating for the sake of debating.
“The world is moving really quickly and I think it’s important for us to understand the pace of change, the complexity of change, and for us to say: ‘Well, look, given these, how can you and I come together and agree to do X, Y or Z in order to take Singapore forward?’
“And it’s not just the leaders agreeing to do X, Y or Z, but it is that we have to mobilise our people at every level to say: ‘Yes we agree, we support this’ because at the end of it, that will give us a better life.’”
Heng also says that the biggest “unknown” challenge Singapore will encounter in the near future is the “nature of politics”.
Asserting that the “constructive” nature of politics in the past has led to a cohesive and united society, Heng asks: “Now, will we continue on that journey? I think that depends, critically, on the nature of politics in Singapore.
“How are we able to mobilise all Singaporeans to take part in this process and, at the same time, to keep politics constructive, forward-looking … so we can tackle the many challenges, many interesting opportunities ahead.”
The DPM’s views that having alternative voices in parliament may not be good for Singapore seems to match the views of his party leader, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.
Years ago, well before the Workers’ Party beat all odds to win a Group Representation Constituency (GRC), PM Lee had gone so far as to have urged voters to refrain from voting in more opposition lest he became forced to focus on how to “fix them” instead of focusing on the nation’s challenges. He had asserted:
“What is the opposition’s job? It’s not to help the PAP do a better job! Their job is to make life miserable for me so that I screw up and they can come in and sit where I am here and take charge.
“Right now we have Low Thia Khiang, we have Chiam, we have Steve Chia. So can deal with them, it’s ok. But supposing you had a Parliament with 10, 15, 20 opposition members out of 80.
“Then, instead of spending my time thinking of what is the right policy for Singapore, I’m going to spend all my time – I have to spend all my time – thinking what is the right way to fix them, what is the right way to buy own my supporters over, how can I solve this week’s problem and forget about next year’s challenges?”
More recently, in April last year, the head of government had said, “It is neither wise nor workable for the People’s Action Party (PAP) Government to purposely let the opposition grow bigger when most of the population supports the PAP.”
Using the imagery of an acrobatic performer’s safety net to describe a political system that eases the path for opposition politicians, PM Lee had added: “The more you have a safety net for the performer, the more dangerous the stunts the performer will do. Because there is no risk, so you will push further.”
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