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5 key principles for Singapore's political system: PM Lee

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong lists what the country's political system needs to ensure the people's interests are served, including the need for it to be open, contestable and stabilising while fostering accountability and multi-racialism.

SINGAPORE: Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Wednesday (Jan 27) in Parliament detailed five principles on which the Republic’s political system must be founded on.

The first, he said, was the need for the system to enable a "high-quality" Government that is accountable, honest, competent and effective.

“Government must be responsive to the people, able to look ahead beyond the short term, and keep us safe and successful,” said Mr Lee. “For a small country like ours, excellence and integrity in government has been, and must always be, a crucial competitive advantage.”

He added: “I’ll put this quite bluntly: If we hadn’t had a good Government, led by exceptional leaders able to foresee problems and mobilise the people to support policies, sometimes tough ones, Singapore would not have survived." 

Second, Mr Lee called for a political system that is open and contestable.

“There must be free and fair elections. It must not be forbiddingly expensive for people to stand for elections,” he said, noting that at the General Election last year, all political parties spent S$7.1 million in total, or S$2.89 per voter.

By comparison, the 2012 United States Presidential and Congressional elections cost the candidates US$7 billion, said Mr Lee.

FOSTERING ACCOUNTABILITY, MULTI-RACIALISM

Third, said Mr Lee, Singapore’s political system must foster accountability to keep the Government “on its toes” and motivated to look after the interests of Singaporeans.

He said: “Parliament must be a serious forum where big issues are discussed and decided – for example defence, economy, our choices to tax and spend, our plans for the future.”

“Government’s actions must be scrutinised and debated in Parliament. If an MP – Government or opposition – makes a case against the Government’s proposal, Government will either have to rebut and explain what it is doing and how, or if the case is compelling, amend its policies,” he said.

“If an MP makes a good proposal, and advocates convincingly for it, the Government should support it, back it with resources and help to make it happen - as has occurred with PAP MPs and NMPs who have moved private member bills.”

Added Mr Lee: “Ultimatley, every Government is accountable to the electorate. If it performs well, it wins the support of voters, and can continue in office. If it performs poorly, there is an electoral price to pay: Either the Government mends its ways and regains its support, or the electorate can vote it out and have another party take its place and try to do better.”

“So we must have a system where Government does not over time become complacent, go soft, or even worse become corrupt.”

Fourth on Mr Lee’s list was to have Singapore’s political system uphold a multi-racial society. “Multi-racialism is fundamental to our identity as a nation. Race and religion will always be tectonic fault-lines for us. If we ever split along them, that's the end,” he said. “Therefore, our political system must encourage multi-racial and secular politics, and not racial or religious politics.”

“It has got to encourage political parties to seek broad-based, multi-racial consensus, and pursue moderate policies in the interests of all Singaporeans, regardless of race, language, or religion. It has to discourage parties from forming along racial and religious lines, or championing the interests of one race or religion over others, whether it be a majority or a minority group in our society,” added Mr Lee.

“Minority Singaporeans must have the confidence that they will not be marginalised, shut out, or discriminated against,” he said. “Every Singaporean must have the confidence that he has a place in Singapore.”

STABILISING SINGAPORE

Finally, Mr Lee said Singapore’s political system must incorporate stabilisers.

“The Government must be responsive to the will of the people, but there must also be safeguards in case the country is swept off course by a transient public mood, or an erratic Government,” he said. “Most political systems have such stabilisers built in - either an upper house, like the Senate in the United States or the House of Lords in United Kingdom.”

“Singapore is too small to have either an upper house, or regional sets of Governments beyond Town Councils. But we too need stabilisers, especially in two areas: Protecting our reserves and safeguarding the integrity of the public service,” Mr Lee said.

“It has taken us decades to build up our foreign reserves. They are our oil in the ground. If we don't have a second key, a profligate Government can spend it all and bring us back to zero. Elections will become auctions, where parties compete to be more generous than the other and compete for voters by raiding the bank.”

Mr Lee added that Singapore depends critically on the competence and integrity of the individuals in the public service, such as judges, central bankers, the Accountant General, the Commissioner of Police, the people on key statutory boards and those safeguarding the country's wealth. 

“Once corrupt persons get into key positions, that's the end. They will entrench themselves, degrade the system, and the system will be permanently broken,” he said. “To prevent this, the system needs the second key. The challenge is how to ensure this second key strengthens and stabilises our system of Government.”