Do wrong, go soft or don't deliver, and no party machinery will keep PAP in power: K Shanmugam

Do wrong, go soft or don't deliver, and no party machinery will keep PAP in power: K Shanmugam

Throughout his career, Home Affairs and Law Minister K Shanmugam has made a name as a straight talker on a wide range of issues. He goes "On The Record" about how politics has evolved in the almost three decades he has spent as a politician.

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Screengrab of the interview with Minister for Home Affairs and Law K Shanmugam. 

SINGAPORE: By 2018, Home Affairs and Law Minister K Shanmugam will hit the milestone of having served 30 years in politics, having first won his seat in Parliament for Sembawang GRC in the General Election of 1988.

By 1998, at the age of 38, he was appointed a Senior Counsel of the Supreme Court, one of the youngest lawyers to achieve this. A decade later, Mr Shanmugam joined the Cabinet as Second Minister for Home Affairs. Since then, he has also been Foreign Minister, and now helms the Home Affairs Ministry and Ministry of Law.

Throughout his career, Mr Shanmugam has made a name as a straight talker, never shying away from strong statements on issues ranging from foreign policy to terrorism and fake news to the challenges facing Singapore as a whole.

He went “On the Record” with Bharati Jagdish about governing Singapore today, some of the legal policies he has made headlines for and maintaining the electorate's trust.

But first, they spoke about his assessment of how politics has evolved in the almost three decades he has spent as a politician.

K Shanmugam: I think the basics do not change. What is politics about? It is about representing the people, having a system of governance and government that ultimately leads to a better life. This does not change. Politics is about understanding the people’s needs, projecting ahead the challenges, the opportunities, trying to make sure that the systems, processes are in place, get it done, and also communication.

Communicate with the people to get them to buy into what you see as a vision and the future, and provide a secure environment for people to achieve their full potential. So that does not change.

The challenges appear in different forms. The opportunities appear in different forms. The challenge of communication gets changed but the underlying central aim of what politics should be about does not change.

Bharati Jagdish: How would you describe the changes within Parliament though, and this clamouring that we saw in 2011 for opposition voices in Parliament?

Shanmugam: I think it is entirely understandable and it is not new. The Singaporean public is very pragmatic, very practical. They understand what good governance is. At the same time, there has for the longest time - not just in 2011, but in the 1980s, 1970s - there has always been the feeling that there should be some opposition in Parliament to keep the Government on its toes. So it is not new.

Bharati: Of course I am sure you would say that is really the way to go - to keep the Government on its toes, in spite of the fact that it would be in the interest of the People’s Action Party (PAP) to continue with one-party rule, or am I wrong in saying that?

Shanmugam: What I would say is this: Political systems, types of frameworks of parliament and all that, by themselves do not guarantee good governance. You look at the post-Second World War world. You have had single-party systems, you have had military dictatorships, you have had two-party systems, you have had multi-party systems. I would say most of them have failed in uplifting the people.

Singapore is one of the few places where we have succeeded, and the reason why we have succeeded is that we were lucky enough to have a set of leaders – who were not corrupt, and there is no legislation in the world that can guarantee that – (and) who were also competent, and competence alone is not enough.

A lot of post-colonial leaders, getting independence for their countries, they were tremendously charismatic - but when they get into government, they find that they are not able to deliver.

We were lucky that they (Singapore's leaders) were competent, and that alone is not enough. They were also able to communicate with the people and win elections. So those unique sets of qualities were in the leadership, the first generation leadership, and then they looked for successive leaderships, a second, third generation with the same kinds of value systems.

The charisma, the presence, those are not things that you can just find automatically. It is not always applicable, but they found the best people they could, in their view, who could do the job. You have had Prime Minister Goh (Chok Tong) whose style was very different and then now of course, PM Lee, his Cabinet, and now you are looking for the next generation.

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File picture of Home Affairs and Law Minister K Shanmugam. (Photo: AFP/Roslan Rahman)

The key, I think, for Singapore anyway, I can’t talk about other countries, is we look around the world, do we think that the politics in the US is an ideal model? You see what is happening. You see the politics in many Western European countries. Would that work here, does it work even for themselves? I think these are important questions to ask before we just jump and say "this is good or bad".

What I am saying here is this: It is, I think, wrong to think that (a) one-party system by itself would forever succeed, or a single party in power can always succeed, because it depends on the leaders. They can go soft and they can go wrong. And it is wrong to say if you have a two-party system, it will succeed because we have seen in many places that it does not succeed.

Bharati: But while multi-party systems may not have worked in some other countries as desired, they could work.

Shanmugam: It works in some places, it does not work in many places. But don’t get me wrong. I am not therefore advocating a dictatorship or a single-party rule. All I am saying is most forms of governance that you see around the world have not succeeded. Except, you would say, take Germany for example, or the Nordic countries, Switzerland.

If you take East Asia - Japan for a long period. China now delivers growth and upliftment for its people even though there are many criticisms of its system. But I do not think China has been given enough credit for the fact that more than 500 million people have been lifted out of poverty within 30 years. It is the fastest and the best upliftment of human welfare in the history of mankind and that has not been acknowledged. South Korea for a period, and now it has moved to a different system. Taiwan for a period. Now, I think, it looks a little bit different.

So in every system, whether it’s, as I said, single-party, multi-party, the politicians have found it difficult to plan for the long term, which means taking short-term pain, and bring(ing) the people around. The short term often overwhelms the longer-term plans. 

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Minister K Shanmugam at a PAP rally in Yishun Stadium, Sep 8, 2015. (Photo: Pichayada Promchertchoo)


Shanmugam: I think the true framework has got to be this. You’ve got to have a highly literate, educated population which is politically aware. That is a starting point. Second, I think that the barrier to entry to politics has to be kept very low. So in the US, if you wanted to come, you want to fight for a Senate seat or a seat in the House of Representatives, it takes a lot of money. We should try and make sure that it does not cost very much, and it doesn’t in Singapore.

Bharati: Why do you think that’s important?

Shanmugam: So that people who feel that something is going wrong will be able to come and fight for a cause. So you must always keep the entry barrier low. That is what will keep any party in power on its toes because Singapore is a small place. You keep money politics out of it, you keep corruption out of it, you keep the entry barriers low, you have a highly educated population. If whoever in power is going wrong, you can quickly coalesce a group of people who will say: "Look, let’s put this right," and come in. That will keep whoever is in power on their toes.

Bharati: I’m sure anyone would agree with that, that sense of openness. However, they might also criticise the fact that, at the end of the day, the PAP still has a really strong party machinery. So, even if you enter the space as a group of people who feel strongly about an issue, who feels that the PAP is doing something wrong, you are not going to survive for very long.

Shanmugam: I disagree. If the PAP is doing wrong and is not delivering or has gone corrupt or has gone soft, the party machinery is not going to keep it in power. The party machinery can put out messages but the opposition can also put out messages. Average size of a constituency: You have about 150 blocks. If you really work on it, you can cover them. So party machinery is essential and important but it is not difficult for somebody else to build up and, if necessary, start with a few constituencies and then build up some more.

The real test is whether - and I won’t say PAP - whoever is in government is delivering. If they do not deliver, that party machinery is not going to keep them in power. Nor would laws. Nor would force.


Bharati: You mentioned communication having changed as well. Over the years, I am sure you have heard this criticism – that sometimes the PAP government comes across as being arrogant. What do you have to say to that?

Shanmugam: In our open society, you will have a wide variety of viewpoints. You will have people who criticise the PAP, you will have people who support the PAP. You will have people who support their MPs.

The real test in the end is economically how we are doing; in terms of the human potential, human development, how are we doing; how we rank in terms of quality of life; the ability of a person to maximise his potential. How do we compare against if you had been born in some other place.

In the end, I think it is a test throughout the period between elections but also during elections. I think people speak, and at every election, people have spoken. I think that is the true test.

All of this has got to be seen within the framework of: “It’s a trade-off”. You have a place that is in the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula, 760 square kilometres, which I often describe as a spinning top. You’ve got to keep spinning faster and faster just to stay in the same place, just to stay upright. You do not have any resources. No one owes you a living and everything that delivers jobs to people is something that can be done faster, better and cheaper nowadays elsewhere.

We are an air hub but what guarantee is there that we will continue to be an air hub? There are other places within Asia which are more natural air hubs, likewise shipping hubs. All of these things depend on our ingenuity, which requires us to have a highly educated population, a good system of governance and keep thinking forward. If you do not do that and if you do not get your economics right, you would not have much else to talk about. 


Bharati: What would you say is the next pressing issue Singapore faces?

Shanmugam: I think the biggest challenge in government, not just for our Government, but everywhere, and you have seen around the world, there are major tectonic shifts that are taking place. India and China have hundreds of millions of young people coming into the workforce, causing great disruptions to the way in which the international economy is structured.

Today, anything that can be manufactured anywhere in the world can be manufactured in China faster, better and cheaper. Likewise, Indians are coming on and they also have a “made-in-India” policy and it is entirely understandable.

India and China are looking at their economies. All of this is having an impact on the global economy. At the same time, the new information technology, the impact of new technology on existing workforces has been quite brutal in many countries.

Globalisation, all of this has had an impact. People everywhere in the world are reacting to it, through politics and through elections that you see. We have not been spared but the Government has been quite successful in cushioning a large part of the population from the vicissitudes. So that our people who are engaged in the economy have largely, not completely, but largely have been shielded.

But we face challenges of ageing, we face challenges of an economy which is mature with an ageing population and a smaller number of people coming into the workforce. It has its unique challenges; healthcare challenges and a whole variety of social challenges.

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File photo of an elderly man in Singapore. (Photo: Francine Lim)

How do we negotiate the next ten to fifteen years successfully, making sure our people are well cared for and communicate the policies in a way that people understand and accept them.

Some will be policies that require sacrifice from the people. Some, from people’s perspectives, will be positive in the sense that they can see the immediate effect. So these are the kind of challenges.

The main pressing issue is: We are one of the fastest aging societies in the world. By 2030, we would have two persons under 65 for every one person above 65. That is a sharp drop from two years ago when it was five persons to one, and in 1970s it was like 17 to one. So that’s a big challenge.

The healthcare demands would grow - where are we going to get our nurses from? We don’t have enough babies, where are we going to get our people for the economy? The civil service has had to be very careful with how many people we employ, because we can’t just take as that would deprive the private sector. Everywhere you turn, shortage of manpower is a big issue in the economy.

Bharati: Do you think it’s time to relax the curbs on foreign manpower, considering the realities?

Shanmugam: It’s a complicated issue, because as a lot of people would point out to you, we only have 760 square kilometres. So how many people can we bring in into that space? So this is a topic which you will need to have an open discussion with the population - what is and what is not acceptable, and what are the trade-offs. Because every choice you make has trade-offs. So what are the trade-offs? This level of growth, this level of services, for this number of foreign manpower. You increase on one, you have a trade-off somewhere else, and that is something that needs to be talked about.

Bharati: Do you feel now is the right time to start that conversation again?

Shanmugam: It’s a continuous conversation. We have that conversation with the industry, which is crying out for manpower. We have to have that conversation with people as well, and show the linkage between the economy and their jobs. At the same time, there are physical constraints, so you have to deal with those too. This is not something the Government can wave a magic wand and say they solved it.

We are a very small place. And this is why Mr Lee always talked about never tak(ing) your existence for granted. We are a very small place. We face economic challenges, we face demographic challenges. What has kept us going is (that) our people are highly talented, highly educated, economically active, hardworking (and) bright. And our systems are good and not corrupt, and we have good governance.

But in terms of what drives the economy - Land, we don’t have more land; population – we don’t have more population and you can’t keep increasing foreign labour. Capital – we have, but capital alone is not going to be enough. Then productivity. Most people say productivity, but show me a country that has improved its economic success by its productivity alone. It’s not easy. It’s very difficult.

Bharati: We’re having problems too, obviously.

Shanmugam: Everyone. We are trying. We have to upskill. We have to re-train. It’s not easy. At the same time, we are not working in a vacuum, because other countries are also moving and some of them are moving very fast and providing a huge challenge. So it’s a complex set of factors.

Bharati: You mentioned productivity alone may not be the only answer.

Shanmugam: Productivity has to be one of the answers. But it’s very difficult. Because in theory it’s possible, but in practice I haven’t come across any examples where productivity alone has driven an economy.

Bharati: What else do you think is needed then?

Shanmugam: Land, capital, technology, productivity and manpower.

Bharati: But considering our constraints, are we in trouble?

Shanmugam: I won’t use the word trouble, because if you look at the opportunities, our population is bright, hardworking, talented, inventive, imaginative and we are in the middle of one of the fastest-growing regions in the world. ASEAN - 600 million people, growing at four to five per cent, and it’s one of the top 10 economies in the world. By 2020, 2021, you would have increased substantially, and there must be opportunities.

For us, what it means is getting our people to look at those opportunities. Quite a number of people would have to retrain themselves, and we have to persuade people on that. We have to be more productive over a longer period of time. We can’t just stick to one way of doing things. I don’t underestimate the challenges. It’s huge, but a lot of ministers are focusing on that.

Bharati: How would you assess the way members of the public, Singaporeans in general, have responded to initiatives over the years, to tackle some of these issues that you have just mentioned?

Shanmugam: I think I can say that they understand the challenges better than many other populations in the world.

Bharati: What makes you say that?

Shanmugam: The message has been repeated over and over again - it’s a smaller place, it’s easier for us to get the messages across and our people are economically aware.

They know that they want to get ahead, they are looking for ways to getting ahead. There are various ministers talking about it, MPs talking about it, on the ground, in the constituencies regularly.

It’s one of the few places the MPs are required to go down two to three times a week at the minimum, and weekends. So the ground connection is very substantial and the messages are constant. And the challenges, I think people can see for themselves.


Bharati: I would like to move on to something else that was in the news recently - the issue of fake news. You announced that new laws to tackle fake news are expected to be introduced next year. While the very real danger that fake news poses must not be ignored, there is a concern at the same time that laws could lead to Government censorship. Can you address these concerns? 

Shanmugam: Why should there be if the legislation is targeted at fake news? 

Bharati: But we know and analysts have said as well, that these laws could be used by the Government to declare something that is real, fake. 

Shanmugam: Well, it is not the Government that is the sole arbiter or will be the sole arbiter. In the end, any laws will provide for redress. If it’s true news that is sought to be censored, people can then see that the Government is abusing its power, and as I said earlier, our population is very savvy. If the Government abuses its power, it won’t remain in government for long. 


Bharati: Something else that you have been in the news for recently is statements against the harassment of any group due to their opposition or support for the LGBT community. Within some sections of the LGBT community, there are still some issues with Section 377A that criminalises sex between men.

Looking at it as a matter of law, the Ministry of Home Affairs has said before that it will not be proactive in enforcing this section against adult males who are engaging in consensual sex in private. But if the intention is not do anything at all, why have the law there? Some might say it’s a bad law because it’s on the books but not enforced.

Shanmugam: I can only refer you to the Prime Minister’s speech. There was a whole debate on the matter. Our society is still largely conservative. Internal surveys show that two-thirds of the population either don’t want any change in the law or actually want 377A to be enforced. It’s therefore a slightly messy position that we have the statute; there is a large majority that either want to see it enforced or at least not removed. There is a minority who’d like to see things changed. The Government is in between. 

I’ve said the debate speaks for itself – the MPs who spoke for it, MPs who spoke against it. The Government has not taken an ideological or dogmatic position on this. Our position has been – laws have to fit in with social mores. And today, given the state of public opinion, this is what is doable and we’re at a landing where we think (it) is doable, and a sort of solution that works for our society. 

People may not be happy with that – those who want to see it abolished will want to see it abolished, those who want to see it more strictly enforced will push for that and the debate has to take place. We aren’t going to stop that debate. And this is a debate that Singaporeans need to have, and then come to a landing.

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The crowd at Hong Lim Park for a Pink Dot event. (Photo: Monica Kotwani)

Bharati: But if we spoke about it just clinically, as a matter of law. There is a law in the books that’s not enforced …

Shanmugam: We cannot speak about laws clinically because laws need support from the people. 

Bharati: But while you say laws have to fit in with social mores, shouldn’t laws also set the tone for social mores?

Shanmugam: The Government’s position is to also lead and explain to people why certain things have to be done. But at the same time you also have to judge where the weight of public opinion is likely to be, particularly when the laws touch on, or are closely linked to social mores. And there cannot be too far a gap between a law and what people want. If there is, that law will not find favour. So the Government’s duty is both to lead when it believes that it is good for the country, but also to be very careful about having laws in place that can command public support. And you cannot afford to just go and put something in that a large majority of people will instinctively reject. 

Bharati: Of course I’ve spoken to some activists about this from an ideological perspective, and they are of the view that maybe you are surveying the wrong people. Do you think that it’s time perhaps to again relook at the barometer?

Shanmugam: We don’t do surveys to give us answers that we want. These are scientifically, systematically valid surveys. In the end, we are in Government, we have to do the right thing, and we have to understand what our people want. If we don’t understand, or we get it wrong, the people will punish us.

Bharati: Yes, you’ve said this several times during this interview. 

Shanmugam: It’s something that runs through our thinking.


Bharati: We have seen a few things happen in the last few weeks including the Oxley Road debate in Parliament. What would you say is needed at this point for the Government to build trust, considering these developments? 

Shanmugam: You’ve got to start before the few weeks; the kind of trust people have and the kind of faith people have in government, again, if you look at international surveys and our own internal surveys, the trust in government, trust in institutions, trust in the Government’s competence, trust in the Government’s honesty - I think it is very high in Singapore. 

I have read out in Parliament our internal survey showing that more than 90 per cent of Singaporeans trust our police force. Ninety-seven per cent feel safe walking alone, even at night. 

That is the kind of trust in the judiciary, the police force and the Government that very few countries can boast of. Not that we ought to be boasting. We should not be boasting. So we start from a very good place.

Bharati: But trust can be lost in the blink of an eye. 

Shanmugam: In a free and open country, you are going to have regular disputes; people are not happy with policies, people are not happy with specific individuals. Sometimes, as in the recent attack on the Prime Minister, it could be an attack on some other minister, it could be an attack on the Government, or it could be disagreements. It could be a substantial public opinion on issues. You must expect all of this. 

But people will want to see how you deal with it. Do you deal with them openly, squarely, publicly? Our approach to issues has been: Let’s debate it. Let’s put it in Parliament. Let’s listen to the evidence. Let’s deal with the issues. So it is not just the recent attack on the Prime Minister, or any other issue. 

People want to see how you deal with it. Now, for some issues, what they want is not a discussion but for you to solve the problem. So they will give you time and see whether you solve the problem. Are you able to solve problems? Are you able to deal with the economic issues? Are you able to deal with security issues? Basically, it is governance. 

And when you handle governance, how you handle it, are you open about it when you need to be open about it? The people will judge you. You have five years and then there is a report card. I think as long as we keep to those principles, each crisis or each dispute or each argument, if you handle it well, it actually strengthens us. 

Bharati: Here’s the thing. There are lots of sceptics out there even about that survey that you mentioned that showed a high level of trust in government. Lots of sceptics out there who question how this survey is conducted, who ask, is this real? 

Shanmugam: The Singapore Government is not in the habit of making up numbers. So if people disagree, they have a right to disagree and I have to live with that. 

Bharati: Of course there are also those who are sceptical about how various challenges have been dealt with. What do you have to say to them?

Shanmugam: What do I have to say to them? I have to say to them, look at international surveys on Singapore, on our judiciary, how does the WEF (World Economic Forum) rank us, how do investors rank us? Look at our quality of life as defined by Pricewaterhouse or Mercer in Asia and the world. Look at the quality of our education. Look at our quality of healthcare as assessed internationally. Education by reference to PISA and other standards. Look at the quality of our universities. 

Look at the safety and security. Look at the number of policemen per 100,000 population. It’s one of the lowest; our crime rates are also one of the lowest. You will always get sceptics who will have a mix of motives, some are well-minded, some are honest, some just want to pull the Government down. In the end, I think it is difficult to argue with the results. So if we compare our results with others, I would say, judge for yourselves. 

Bharati: Several times during this interview, you have mentioned that if the Government is not doing well, we will have elections and people can make their voices heard … 

Shanmugam: It is not just elections. I think during the period itself, even in the in-between, people will make their views known. Our MPs are in touch with the ground. As you walk around, you can feel the pulse of the people. How they smile at you or how they shake hands. What do they tell you? People are not shy about telling you their thinking. In doing house visits, during the market walks, our PAP MPs are expected to work very hard and we get immediate feedback. 

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PM Lee addressing Parliament on Jul 4, 2017 during the debate on the Oxley Road dispute between him and his siblings.

Bharati: Let us talk about the opposition MPs. The opposition MPs in Parliament, the tone and the texture of Parliamentary debate in the last few years. What is your assessment? 

Shanmugam: I do not want to be commenting on opposition MPs. I think you should ask them.

Bharati: What has it done for you though, Having more opposition members in Parliament?

Shanmugam: I think my own approach to policy-making and politics is this: The run-up period to developing a policy has got to be thorough. I consult experts and when I say I consult experts, I do not mean in-house. Out there, there are experts. My people are required to do thorough research and rigorous work. It comes to me, I analyse it to the best of my ability. I am satisfied, I have done my consultations, I present it and I am able to answer the questions. 

So far, when I present it, some bills do not attract much attention, some have attracted attention. I believe I have answered them honestly and to the best of my ability. In the end, the ultimate test is that it benefits the people. I think it has. 

If you look at the way the legal landscape has changed, the way we have set out to do a number of things, make Singapore a thriving legal centre. The way we have attempted to make Singapore an international arbitration centre. The way in which we attempted to change trial processes and the criminal bar has welcomed them. 

Moving on to other policy areas, we deal with issues, terrorism. The framework of putting in our response to the wave of international terrorism has been both philosophical as well as practical. On the ground, Emergency Response Troops, quick response. Our own assessment as to how quickly they can be at any given place. Training the entire population, at least getting them to think about this and at the philosophical level, how do we structure our society? How do we make it a better place so that the bonding grows? These are things that I take seriously and I do them. There will be people who approve. There will be a large majority who watch, who do not express their opinion and there will be some who oppose. It is par for the course. 

Bharati: What are the most important lessons that you have learnt in your career in politics thus far? Last question. 

Shanmugam: To be centred to taking feedback but just focusing on getting the right thing done. The single focus on getting the right thing done while listening to feedback but not to be buffeted too much by criticisms or praises.

Source: CNA/nc