Singapore: Who’s in charge?

The rules of the government keep the public safe and peaceful. They stand at the vanguard of order and chaos, right and wrong, peace and protest protecting citizens from the treachery of unflushed toilets. That’s a $500 fine. Other odd prohibitions include cuddling without consent, walking in your house naked, and putting pictures of officials in restaurants and bars. But who is behind the rules and regulations that have chased Singapore with the nickname “the fine city”?

We’ve all got a lot on our minds. There is a delicate karmic balance of work, sleep, and people that weave the lives of your average student that so many of us don’t really pay attention to the Straits Times or Channel News Asia. Nothing’s really wrong in Singapore, it all just sort of works. In the wake of recent terrorist threats and the death of Lee Kuan Yew, the leadership in the small city-state spoke up to remind the public of the political horizon. A few months ago, the President and the Prime Minister of Singapore made an address to the Singaporean parliament regarding the state of the nation.

President Tan and Mrs. Tan in their official portrait. Photo provided by the Singapore government.

To understand the Parliament address in a more simple way, think of it like this. Singapore is like that one kid in class who says he’s failing but is totally getting straight As. In terms of government, this kind of thinking isn’t bad thing at all. Singapore has a wonderful policy of preemptively confronting their problems. But as the president put it, “Singapore has no easy journey ahead.”

One of the president’s ceremonial duties. Photo provided by the Singapore government.

One of the big concerns he addressed was the threat of terrorism. His main concern seemed to be not only the threat of death and injury, but that a bombing here would tear the social fabric right open. Singapore prides itself in its social integrity of races, religions, and cultures, and a blow to this would mean a blow to the country. While this is concerning, his other concerns ranged from political reform and corruption to literally being nice to each other. However, the title doesn’t give him as much power as you might think.

As his speech went on, there was a discerning similarity every time he addressed an issue. During policy changes, he would rarely mention himself and his influence over circumstances. When addressing parliament, he seemed to be pleading rather than proposing anything.

After doing some digging, it’s not hard to find out just how powerful the president really is. Even the president’s official website, The Istana, boldly states under constitutional responsibilities that he, in fact, has none. Not only that, but any voice he has in Parliament (the place where stuff happens) has to be first filtered through the “Council of Presidential Advisors.” And you may be thinking, “That makes sense, Obama had a cabinet, so why can’t Dr. Tan?” Well, the thing is he can only choose two of the 10 members on his own board.

So if that’s the president, who has the power in Singapore? My first step was to watch the PM’s address as well. First of all, PM Lee Hsien Loong puts the “Loong” in Parliament addresses, this thing was over 90 minutes, 30 minutes of which was spent saying things along the lines of “Look at all these foreign countries and look how great we are.” To be fair, any country leader probably has something like that written on their coffee mug, but then the address really started.

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Prime Minister Hsien Loong at his address. Taken from the Prime Minister’s Parliament Address.

He also addressed the social fabric of our nation as a delicate balance of ethnicities, religions, and views. While unity is definitely important, there can be a point when a country can be too unified. One thing to note is that the Prime Minister is a part of the ruling party called the PAP (People’s Action Party) and so is much of Parliament.

The PAP has been ruling Singapore for over 50 years in a self-proclaimed representative democracy. To counteract this imbalance, Singapore elects Non-MPs (people not a part of the ruling party) to be a part of Parliament. While this seems good on paper, the opposing parties make up only nine out of the 100 members of Parliament. The PM, at one point, addressed this and called forth an age of “good politics and good policies” by increasing the Non- MP’s from nine to 13.

But those are the workings of our government whose one party passes bills with ease and makes progress in Singapore’s growth. Through this one-party system, the people who have been good at being in charge have remained in power for decades and have kept Singapore safe and operational. It all just works, right?

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