Singapore Politics: Check-and-Balance & Accountability

One of the strongest arguments that the opposition parties have rallied behind is the idea of check-and-balance, preventing one branch or party from being supreme and limiting their powers so as to keep them in check. 

This check-and-balance principle for the government was devised by the great French philosopher Montesquieu. A well-known example is the US government and the way it separates powers among the legislative, executive, and judicial branch. 

Singapore is a tiny nation that has benefitted remarkably due to one party for the past 50 years.

In this setting, is the check-and-balance principle necessary? 

The answer, as it is with most difficult questions, is that it depends. 

If you agree with Lord John Dalberg-Acton's quote that "absolute power corrupts absolutely", then check and balance is necessary. 

If you think it's possible to not be corrupt by power, then check-and-balance is unnecessary. 

At a luncheon with Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong in May 2014

At a luncheon with Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong in May 2014

Emeritus Senior Minister (ESM) Goh Chok Tong, the former Prime Minister of Singapore, supports the latter notion. Last month, he said that, "We [the People's Action Party] are our own checks, the integrity of our leaders and our MPs … not this seductive lie of check and balance." (1)

Part of the problem that the check-and-balance principle tries to address is the idea of accountability. In other words, who is accountable when things go wrong? 

The opposition parties want to have check-and-balance to make the ruling party more accountable for their actions. 

The ruling party believes that they are already accountable enough and they are their "own checks" so they don't need anyone else to look over their shoulders. 

It would have been interesting if someone actually called out ESM Goh Chok Tong for specific examples on how the ruling parties are their "own checks". 

Stranded commuters. Picture is from http://newnation.sg/wp-content/uploads/mrt-breakdown2015.jpg

Stranded commuters. Picture is from http://newnation.sg/wp-content/uploads/mrt-breakdown2015.jpg

Deputy Prime Minister Wong Kan Seng's oversight allowed terrorist suspect Mas Selamat bin Kastari to escape from a Singapore detention center back in 2008. It was a national embarrassment, but Mr. Wong Kan Seng remained Deputy Prime Minister until 2011. In July of this year, Singapore experienced its worst disruption in public transportation in history, stranding 250,000 commuters or about 10% of the voting population. Minister of Transport Lui Tuck Yew decided to step down from his post this month, a good six weeks later and on his accord. 

For some comparison, four-star general David Petraeus had to leave his position as Director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) back in 2012 due to his affair with Paula Broadwell. Eric K. Shinseki, one of the longest serving and most trusted officials in Obama's Cabinet, resigned in 2014 over the Veterans Health Administration scandal

US politics is very different from Singapore, but with such graceful exits in Singapore, it's hard to determine if it's due to accountability or an Asian management style. 

Singapore politicians are among the highest paid politicians in the world. (2) The rationale for their high salary is that it should be comparable to the private sector so as to entice the best to a life of public service. It makes sense, but then shouldn't accountability also be similar to the private sector? If you mess up badly, regardless of how nice you are as a person, you'll be fired in the private sector. This doesn't always seem to be the case with the ruling party. 

I'm bringing this up because yesterday I said that as long as the ruling party doesn't screw up, its position should be more secured than ever. I'm clarifying that hubris, arrogance, and a refusal to be more accountable is a form of screwing up. Hopefully, the ruling party will keep it in check so as to give its citizens a peace of mind. If not, then the next election will bear more semblance to the results of the 2011 election rather than this recent one