Singapore

Greater political diversity must not lead to polarisation: PM Lee

It will be the end of us, says PM Lee, if every issue becomes partisan

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong yesterday warned against Singapore's politics going down the path of polarisation, as this would divide the country and send it into a downward spiral.

Singapore will not just cease being an exceptional nation if politics permeates every issue and every subject becomes partisan, he added.

"It will be the end of us."

In a speech setting out why it is crucial for the country to get its politics right, PM Lee said having an adequate number of opposition MPs in Parliament is good for Singapore, as it keeps the Government on its toes and shows Singaporeans it has nothing to hide.

But for politics here to work, the Government and the opposition must share the overriding objective of working for Singapore, and not just for their party or supporters.

Having more opposition MPs and fiercer debate in the House may not necessarily be better, the Prime Minister said, cautioning that the tone of Singapore's political debate could change for the worse.

"We all hope that diversity will make a hundred flowers bloom. But how do we prevent diversity from producing polarisation?" he said. "How do we make sure that disagreement does not result in paralysis?" he asked, noting that this has happened in many other countries.

He expects the tone of debate in Parliament to shift with a stronger opposition presence, and said People's Action Party (PAP) MPs will have to raise their game, be prepared for sharper questioning, and defend the Government's policies and decisions while speaking up for their constituents.

PM Lee called on opposition MPs to also step up and go beyond criticising government proposals to putting up their own proposals to be examined and debated. The Government, on its part, will take an open and constructive approach, he said.

But on major issues concerning Singapore's fundamental interests, the Government cannot wait passively for consensus to form, he added.

If there remain different views at the end of a full discussion, it will have to make the best decision, and take responsibility.

"Having been elected to govern, we must govern," he said.

Singapore's Westminster-style democracy, based on the British model, is inherently adversarial, PM Lee noted.

But the tone of parliamentary debate here is less combative and its political traditions have developed differently, he noted.

PM Lee said he listened closely to Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh's speech on Monday, on how he intends to perform his new role.

"I applaud his tone and approach," he said of Mr Singh. "The government benches will do our part to work with him, to keep Parliament a constructive forum for debate."

Ultimately, the type of politics that Singapore has depends on Singaporeans, who have a responsibility to engage in public discourse, send the right signals at the ballot box and reward parties that do the right thing and deliver, he said.

In Singapore, the PAP Government has been able to do the right things for Singaporeans and get re-elected, PM Lee noted. "Sometimes we've paid the price in the vote, but overall, we've continued to win elections. And therefore, the Government has been able to think long-term, well beyond the next general election."

The country progresses, Singaporeans benefit and the PAP continues to win elections in a "virtuous, self-reinforcing circle".

PM Lee asked if Singapore could continue to work this way, and keep its focus on the long term with more diversity and contestation.

These questions have no easy answers, and in the nature of politics and human societies, things can and do go wrong, he said. "Each successive generation of Singaporeans has to keep on doing its best to keep the system working right," he added.

"The PAP feels acutely its special responsibility to keep on doing its best for Singapore, and keep Singapore working in this unique way. That is our sacred mission. We will do our utmost to persuade good men and women to enter politics, to take over the torch and lead the next generation. We will fight hard to win the hearts and minds of Singaporeans, and show Singaporeans that the PAP continues to deserve their support and trust."

Singapore Politics