Singapore 2025

What of Singapore towards 2025? Thoughts of a Singaporean.

8 July 2011: Coalition Government and the IPS Post-Election Forum Speech on Party Renewal

I attended a very thought-provoking conference at the invitation of the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS), Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy last Friday where I was asked to speak on party renewal. I have appended my speech in full below. I spoke on the subject of party renewal alongside Hazel Poa of the National Solidarity Party and Vikram Nair of the PAP. Many subjects were covered during the question and answer session including my response to a question from Dean Kishore Mahbubani of the LKY School who used the co-driver analogy to enquire when the Workers’ Party would be ready to form government. I suggested to him that the reality of any party forming government is only one possibility and that a coalition government of a number of parties could also be possible, in the event no party secured an outright majority of more than 44 seats.

Tessa Wong of the Straits Times called me up on Saturday morning oddly asking if the Worker’s Party aimed to be a part of a coalition government to which I answered in the negative. She filed her story on Saturday night, with the headline, “WP’s Pritam Singh clarifies coalition suggestion” (see screenshot timestamped at 10.07pm on Saturday). Between the time Tessa filed her story and before the next day’s paper went to print, someone in the Straits Times had changed the headline to “Pritam retracts coalition suggestion”. Tessa did not call me up again after she filed her story, so I am not sure how the Straits Times concluded that I had retracted the coalition suggestion. And for the record, nothing has been retracted.

All said, this did not distract from an interesting exchange that ensued from the floor on the prospects of coalition governments with the Chairman of our panel discussion, Mr Ong Keng Yong (outgoing IPS Director and Ambassador-designate to Malaysia) suggesting that the Institute of Policy Studies may want to consider pursuing research work on the prospects of coalition governments in Singapore. The prospects of a weak PAP government buttressed by any opposition party or even the prospect of a weak opposition government, buttressed by some PAP MPs is not necessarily exactly outside the realm of imagination. One possible vestige of such a scenario is playing out in the UK today with the Liberal Democrats joining hands with the Tories to form government. Perhaps one important question is how successful such coalitions could be in governing the country, for there are enough examples the world over of coalitions that work and those that do not.

The nature of the democratic process is such that it is not the politicians, but ordinary Singaporeans that will determine the political contours of this country. There may well a sizable constituency that backs the NSP, SDP, RP, SDA or WP in the years to come. These parties may or may not form a significant parliamentary presence should be people of Singapore decide to vote for these parties. The PAP may be left with a paper thin majority or one that does not inspire confidence in Singaporeans, leaving it little choice but to consider the prospects of a unity government.

Over the last few years, Singapore has seen the establishment of a number of new think-tanks like the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS), Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) and the Institute of South Asian Studies (ISAS). All produce cutting edge insight on contemporary issues with RSIS building a strong reputation for its Commentaries and ISAS hosting a high quality blog. IPS conducted a useful and informative survey on GE2011 that was presented at the aforementioned conference. All these think-tanks are in a position to assist government in scenario-planning for the future. RSIS in particular hosts a particularly appropriate motto – “Ponder the Improbable”.

I am not not sure whether a coalition government in Singapore in future is improbable, but that certainly should not stop anyone from pondering about it.


Pritam Singh: IPS Speech 8 Jul 2011

I was asked to comment on the “topic of the renewal of the respective parties that might have taken place before the election and will continue to take place after it.” The ambit of the assigned topic is exceptionally broad. More specifically, the very definition of renewal has to be contextualised. Renewal for the Workers’ Party must be set against some comparative indicia. Are we renewing with a view to host the same style of politics that we have adopted in the past? Are we renewing with a view solely to bring in more people into the party, replacements as it were, but critically, the same type of people? Or are we renewing with a view to including a more varied membership base?

As many of you would know, the Workers’ Party, as an opposition party does not have the luxury of hosting official tea sessions for hundreds of prospective candidates. We do not go out and pro-actively encourage Singaporeans to join us. Nor do we pro-actively seek out the man or woman with a string of accomplishments to join our cause. Every Workers’ Party member walks through our party doors through his or her own volition. We do not entertain prospective members who come by, demanding or subtly hinting at guarantees or who come with a list of terms and conditions before agreeing to stand on our ticket. Singaporeans join the Workers’ Party because they believe in a more progressive society and a better tomorrow, and they see the Workers’ Party as the vehicle that will take Singapore to that very destination.

The chosen path of an opposition member in Singapore is a challenging one. Any Singaporean with plans to join the opposition cause must accept that he or she will be scrutinised closely. The prospective member may be wise to expect unusual attention, especially if he or she is likely to become a candidate. A certain paranoia may also grip you – that of being followed, or being pulled out of the immigration queue for apparently routine questioning. So the very concept of renewal for an opposition candidate must necessarily take on a different meaning than for the ruling party. We are guided by different parameters when it comes to renewal. There is an argument to be made that renewal is driven less by the party and more by the person who comes through the party doors. To some extent, this view is not necessarily incorrect.

If we personify the Workers’ Party for a minute, and force it to hold a mirror up against itself, the image that ought to appear would be that of the average Singaporean. He or she would be an individual who could possibly have gone to the top schools, a polytechnic student, an accomplished ITE graduate, a father or mother, son or daughter, a wage earner, an engineer, a bus driver or construction supervisor. The Workers’ Party believes every Singaporean, no matter what his lot in life can make a contribution to the public discourse. Renewal or not, any prospective member to the Workers’ Party must remember that it is people who are the masters and that grassroots and community activists and of course politicians, are the servants. These words may sound very jarring to those who believe in elitism or who believe that an anointed vanguard should lead Singapore society. Whatever the case, a substantive democracy remains the best guarantee against any political force that rules a nation not on behalf of the people, but on behalf of itself.

Now, there would be an urge in some of you to conceive of what I just said – about the politicians as servants and the people as masters – in terms of political ideology. That this is somehow a socialist message cast against the backdrop of a left vs. right divide. To those who believe so – let me disabuse you of this thought. There is nothing ideological about public service and having the long-term interests of your fellow human beings at heart. So in the name of renewal, how does the Workers’ Party make that all-important call – to recruit members who never forget that fundamentally they are the servants of the people?

Judging an individual’s character can be a hugely challenging exercise. Even seasoned individuals can get this wrong. I am reminded of that PSC scholar on a teaching scholarship who was charged last year for producing child pornography while studying at York University. A few meetings and interviews are definitely not be enough to suss out what motivates a person and why he or she chooses the path of opposition politics. The stakes are equally high when it comes to selecting candidates and members for the Workers’ Party.

So on what basis do we renew the party? Nothing reveals how interested a person is in ordinary Singaporeans like a splash in the deep end of the pool. At the Workers’ Party, new members are exposed to one or two public engagement opportunities very early on to suss out how comfortable they are dealing with ordinary Singaporeans. These include selling the party newsletter, the Hammer at hawker centres or going on house-visits to assigned HDB blocks. Younger members can expect to volunteer with the party’s youth wing, and getting involved with their activities.

One key trait the Workers’ Party looks for in a prospective member is if he or she is a people-person. This trait usually manifests itself most readily at 12 o’clock, in the heat of the afternoon where a member of the public is challenging a prospective recruit for the party’s position on a policy matter, like the lack of a freedom of information law in Singapore and what the Workers’ Party is going to do about it. Now, being a new volunteer, this challenge may be a bridge too far for some, and perhaps even the best of us. Some may get defensive and fudge the issue, or show-off his or her knowledge of the matter queried, effectively going over the head of the resident in his or her reply. The prospects that the Workers’ Party are more likely to keep tabs on are those that politely share with the resident that he or she is not sure of the matter at hand but will find out and return to the resident with a reply, or those that are able to synthesise the issue quickly before providing the resident with an answer any layman would understand.

Now, in the comfort of this air-conditioned room, some of us may feel up to the task. But let me assure you, after a couple of hours of walking and constant engagement with residents, a person’s true inclinations usually begin to unveil themselves, and quite readily I might add. This may not happen immediately, but after a couple of months, a fairly reliable composite assessment of that new Workers’ Party member is likely to surface. The impatient, the arrogant, and those that dismiss others quickly, people with a chip on their shoulders and individuals with hidden agendas quickly find themselves feeling very uncomfortable, as they come to realise that joining the fight under the Workers’ Party is not a walk in the park. Members who join with an agenda in mind quickly realise, as Abraham Lincoln was popularly quoted as saying, “You can fool some people all of the time, and all the people some of the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.”

To conclude, party renewal means nothing if it means bringing poor prospects into our ranks. But it is also important to remember that not every new member in the Workers’ Party is a front-end party member. The worst kept-secret in the Workers’ Party is the existence of a solid and dependable bunch of members and volunteers who work the back-end, and who recognise that the Workers’ Party chain is only as strong as its weakest link. They are the unsung heroes, those who join the party with no other aim and or ambition, but to contribute towards building a more democratic, equal and just Singapore. For renewal is a meaningless word if the Worker’s Party evolves into a party that does not have the pulse of ordinary Singaporeans.

Written by singapore 2025

10/07/2011 at 8:20 pm

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