The value of political competition

Singaporeans are not necessarily yearning for a political ideology—be it democracy or otherwise. What we want is a government that is more open and accountable to its citizens, and which truly serves its citizens, not just the ruling elites. One of the proven ways of bringing this about is through more political competition.

Political competition, just like competition in the commercial world, can bring about great benefits to citizens. Imagine walking into a supermarket and having a choice of only one brand of products on the shelves. The manufacturer of that product may claim that its product is ideal for local households, but without competing products, can consumers really know if they are getting the best possible deal?

The product manufacturers may also start getting complacent, thinking that there is no need for continual improvements, as there is no risk of losing their monopoly status.

This, I feel, is exactly what is happening in Singapore.

We have a ruling party that dominates almost every aspect of our lives—from political to business to cultural—without much political counter-balance. The operational and policy failures in just the last five years—from Mas Selamat’s escape, to the repeated floods, to the poorly managed immigration policies—have put into question the ability of today’s PAP to guide our country through its future challenges. Despite their glaring mistakes, they don’t seem aware of the frustration felt by citizens—or they are choosing to ignore it.

What benefits can political competition bring to Singaporeans?

Competition will make the incumbent party work harder to get re-elected. They will no longer be able to simply coast along. Instead they will have to work for every vote and really listen to, and act on, the concerns of voters.

Competition provides choices for voters. They will have a direct say in who runs their country and their constituency. This could in turn establish a greater sense of belonging and commitment among citizens.

Competition leads to better service for citizens, because the parties and candidates are competing to present better proposals and serve their constituents better. Many Singaporeans will remember the days when Singtel was the only mobile provider in town. When M1, and later Starhub, entered the market, prices suddenly dropped and service levels improved. Would Singtel have improved on their own without the “help” of fierce competition? I don’t think so.

Competition provides a more sustainable, self-regulating system. With the right incentives and rules in place, and with a free flow of information, political parties will be competing to serve their constituents better. There will be less of a need to depend on a strongman to hold the party or the country together.

Is all this is too idealistic? I think it’s possible.

It depends firstly on a level political playing field, which Singapore is far cry from. But more important than that is a need for more upright and passionate leaders to step forward to serve in opposition parties. A political party is only as good as its leaders and members. An in order to provide sufficient competition, opposition parties need to rise to a higher standard in order to be seen as a viable alternative to the incumbent.

This all takes time, on election at a time. It also depends on voters to educate themselves about the candidates, and not blindly vote for the incumbent because they didn’t bother finding out who the opposition candidate was or what he or she stood for.

So next time you have a discussion with your friends and relatives, and they ask “What can the opposition do for me?”, this article can provide some answers.

Author: Gerald Giam

Gerald Giam is the Member of Parliament for Aljunied GRC. He is a member of the Workers' Party of Singapore. The opinions expressed on this page are his alone.

40 thoughts on “The value of political competition”

  1. Words penned by Einstein(seems like he makes for a pretty darn good social scientist as well!)

    “The need for such groupings is perhaps most easily seen in

    the field of politics, in the formation of political parties.

    Without parties the political interests of the citizens of any

    state are bound to languish. There would be no forum for the

    free exchange of opinions. The individual would be isolated

    and unable to assert his convictions. Political convictions,

    moreover, ripen and grow only through mutual stimulation and

    criticism offered by individuals of similiar disposition and

    purpose; and politics is no different from any other field of

    our cultural existence. Thus it is recognized, for example,

    that in times of intense religious fervour different sects are

    likely to spring up whose rivalry stimulates religious life in

    general. It is well known, on the other hand, that

    centralization — that is elimination of independent groups —

    – leads to one-sidedness and barrenness in science and art

    because such centralization checks and even suppresses any

    rivalry of opinions and research trends.”(from ‘Why Do They

    Hate the Jews?’, 1938)

  2. “With the right incentives and rules in place, and with a free flow of information, political parties will be competing to serve their constituents better.”

    OK. Will you support a Free of Information act?

  3. Fox, this author has repeatedly not published my comments on this blog, and ignored my messages to him seeking clarification – so I think he will only support free information only if it benefits him politically. He is after all, a politician and it’d be quite surprising if this comment was published and you get to read it.

  4. Do the elites know everything?

    A black economist at Stanford shares his insights and observations.

    “…no one is smart enough to carry out social engineering, whether in the economy or in other areas where the results may not always be so easily quantifiable. We learn, not from our initial brilliance, but from trial and error adjustments to events as they unfold.”

    “Elites may have more brilliance, but those who make decisions for society as a whole cannot possibly have as much experience as the millions of people whose decisions they pre-empt. The education and intellects of the elites may lead them to have more sweeping presumptions, but that just makes them more dangerous to the freedom, as well as the well-being, of the people as a whole.”

    check this out for an alternative view-point

  5. I was just thinking the other day of the need for political competition in Singapore, and that opposition parties need to lift their game quite a far bit to be seen as a credible alternative to the PAP.

    In fact, I was chatting with my father-in-law on SG politics recently, and he said to me that in his view as a layman, opposition candidates need to be almost PAP-lite (well-educated, articulate and reasonably charismatic). He mentioned Sylvia Lim is one who fits those criteria.

  6. ‘Well-educated’, ‘articulate’, these are fine qualities. But I prefer to drop the ‘charismatic’ bit. The most charismatic leaders of the 20th century were Hitler, Stalin and Mao. They mesmerized the crowds and kept millions under a spell. I am almost tempted to say that ‘charisma’ is a dirty word. Just some thoughts..

  7. Thanks for sharing your thougth on political competition for what you believe in.
    I would like to suggest you to read the same article again in near future like 3 years, 5 years and 7 years and 10 years.
    The suggestion may sound funny, but served as reaslistic checking points for you to scrutinize your position and surroundings.

  8. @market2garden

    Just like to add, perhaps mildly conservative, but great advice nonetheless! Thanks!

  9. I do think oppositions are needed in Parliament at least to keep the ruling Party on their toes. I am impressed with Sylvia and most probably Gerald Giam if he succeeds in his election bids.
    Singaporean are intelligent people and just screaming ‘TBT’ etc is not going to work. CSJ is such a waste. He is young, articulate and intelligent but stupid enough to be used by the West. In his fixation, he ends up trying to demolish what we have build up all these years.
    Demorcracy like India or the USA is not productive. We don’t have the luxury.
    Certainly I do hope that there will be more single wards.

  10. @ Botak

    Charisma is to describe a human quality. It is neither good or bad. Charismatic leaders on the other side of the scale included Mohatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Lim Chin Siong.

  11. I think it would be fair to say we have a Party that is pro-business & that is not something bad. We’ve signed FTAs, we trade globally, procure FDIS & we’ve also liberalise & restructured our local industries. So the Govt realizes we need to have an open economy to attract the best talent, grow our economy & attract foreign investments in the hope that this would, besides increasing their tax revenues also perhaps assist in job creation & hopefully increase our wages. (Which obviously has room for improvement)

    The question then is, why is it at a political level, we do not sense a similar level of enthusiasm & vigor? Notwithstanding the fact that you don’t assist your competition in increasing their market share, the party that is elected (whichever party that may be) is bonded by its duty to put the interests of citizens & state as a 1st priority above all else. Hence, a ruling party or the opposition (If they were in-charge today) ought to give citizens a choice to choose the party that best serves their interest. So if at commercial level, we believe that competition spurs progress, then i see no reason why this should not be applied at a political level.

    Personally, i feel the fundamental problem is how a political views citizens & themselves. For example, in any country, its the citizens who own the country, not any party. After all, its the citizens who gives the party the mandate to manage the country (but not own it) without which they would not be in power in the 1st place.

    So if any political party for whatever reasons feel they own the country & thus own the citizens, then you might have a perpetual problem of citizens being treated as employees rather than as customers or partners. – And that’s an enormous difference! These differences cannot simply vanish during election periods & then its back to business as usual after elections. To put it simply, i think the citizens of today are far more sophisticated, intelligent, & discerning then that of yesterday & they know if they are getting a raw deal before or after elections. Political parties who choose to ignore this, do so at their own risks.

  12. @Daniel Lee

    There are many different ways to look at things. My thinking is shaped by what I personally have experienced and also the books I read. If I may share, one of the books I chanced upon contained a chapter on charisma. The title of the chapter is ‘Developing Charisma with Caution’.

    It was written by a young American Captain who was a Company Commander in the Infantry in Iraq. She shares her views on charisma, touching on lots of stuff, including her swim coach, her school teacher, experiences in the military, signs of charisma getting out of hand, as well as possibly what to do about it.

    Some excerpts..

    “We are able to see better the strengths and weaknesses of those leaders who are less charismatic. Our emotions get in the way of our judgement criteria when dealing with charisma.”

    “Charismatic leaders can create such a strong organizational culture that people find it hard to criticize them or their ideas. And when a subordinate does criticize a charismatic leader, that subordinate can be seen as disloyal.”

    “It is hard for a cohesive group to see themselves , and the group can take on an arrogant quality where their devotion to the charismatic leader’s way becomes the only way and the best way. This like-minded thinking can work against creativity and new best practices.”

    I just found out that the Captain is now a Major and has a video clip here too!:-)

  13. @ Daniel Lee

    There is a whole range of perspective one can adopt. My personal outlook is largely shaped by what I have experienced and also the materials I read.

    Some time ago, I read a chapter entitled ‘Developing Charisma with Caution’ in a book. It was a written by a young US Army Captain who served in Iraq. She shares her view-points on charisma in the chapter, bringing in experiences from the military, as well as experiences going all the way back to her primary school days.

    Some excerpts…

    “We are able to see better the strengths and weaknesses of those leaders who are less charismatic. Our emotions get in the way of our judgement criteria when dealing with charisma.”

    “Charismatic leaders can create such a strong organizational culture that people find it hard to criticize them or their ideas. And when a subordinate does criticize a charismatic leader, that subordinate can be seen as disloyal.”

    “It is hard for a cohesive group to see themselves, and the group can take on an arrogant quality where their devotion to the charismatic leader’s way becomes the only way and the best way. This like-minded thinking can work against creativity and new best practices.”

    google.books has a fair amount of the chapter here.

    She also shares things like, How to spot if charisma is getting out of hand, and also what one might do about such situations.

  14. @ Daniel Lee

    I guess there is a whole range of perspective one can adopt.. My own view is that even if charisma is neutral, it might get tricky to handle.

    As it is, some time ago, I read a chapter entitled ‘Developing Charisma with Caution’ in a book. It was a written by a young US Army Captain who served in Iraq. She shares her view-points on charisma in the chapter, bringing in experiences from the military, as well as experiences going all the way back to her primary school days.

    Some excerpts…

    “We are able to see better the strengths and weaknesses of those leaders who are less charismatic. Our emotions get in the way of our judgement criteria when dealing with charisma.”

    “Charismatic leaders can create such a strong organizational culture that people find it hard to criticize them or their ideas. And when a subordinate does criticize a charismatic leader, that subordinate can be seen as disloyal.”

    “It is hard for a cohesive group to see themselves, and the group can take on an arrogant quality where their devotion to the charismatic leader’s way becomes the only way and the best way. This like-minded thinking can work against creativity and new best practices.”

    Google.books has a fair amount of the chapter.

    In the chapter, she also shares about, How to spot if charisma(in either superiors or subordinates) is getting out of hand, and what one might choose to do about it.

  15. Sorry for the repeated posts, the posts did not appear instantly like in precious occasions, so I “kept trying”…duh!

  16. I have always thought that Einstein is ‘just’ a scientist ;-) But seems like he came up with a ‘General Theory of Politics’ and a ‘Special Theory of Politics’ as well!

    Excerpts from article ‘Why Do They Hate the Jews?’ published in 1938. (Emphasis in capital letters mine)

    “In the field of politics and social science there has grown

    up a justified distrust of generalizations pushed too far.

    When thought is too greatly dominated by such generalizations,

    misinterpretations of specific sequences of cause and effect

    readily occur, doing injustice to the actual multiplicity of

    events. Abandonment of generalization, on the other hand,

    means to relinquish understanding altogether. FOR THAT REASON


    REMAINS AWARE OF ITS UNCERTAINTY. It is in this spirit that I

    wish to present in all modesty my conception of anti-Semitism,

    considered from a general point of view.

    In political life I see two opposed tendencies at work, in

    constant struggle with each other. The first, optimistic trend

    proceeds from the belief that the free unfolding of the

    productive forces of individuals and groups essentially leads

    to a satisfactory state of society. It recognizes the need for

    a central power, placed above groups and individuals, but

    concedes to such power only organizational and regulatory

    functions. The second, pessimistic trend assumes that the free

    interplay of individuals and groups leads to the destruction

    of society; it thus seeks to base society exclusively upon

    authority, blind obedience, and coercion. ACTUALLY THIS TREND






    This part applies to America in particular, so I like to think of it as the ‘Special Theory of Politics’.

    “Here in America all pay lip service to the first, optimistic,

    tendency. Nevertheless, the second group is strongly

    represented. It appears on the scene everywhere, though for

    the most part it hides its true nature. ITS AIM IS THE



    PRODUCTION. Its proponents have already tried to utilize the

    weapon of anti-Semitism as well as of hostility to various

    other groups. They will repeat the attempt in times to come.

    So far all such tendencies have failed because of the people’s

    sound political instinct.”

  17. Discovered a web-site that seems really interesting(even possibly as sort of a good model). Or at least, from what it’s stated purpose is.

    2. What is the purpose of the Zambian Economist?
    The aim is to provide “a non-political platform for exchanging ideas on the many issues facing our nation”. This is not to say political issues are not discussed here, we do as politics and economics tend to be inseparable (see the tag cloud on politics). It essentially means three things:

    Learning: It is our hope that this website will enable everyone to learn more about Zambia (a sort of independent economic source about our country). Often as individuals and citizens, we build up “priors” or preconceived ideas. It is good to see those tested and refined so that our individual perspectives on life and issues facing Zambia continues to improve. It gives us an unparalleled opportunity to research areas we know nothing about, by being free to debate and ask questions, with the full certainty that an answer will pop up from another contributor.

    Influencing : We want to see Zambia become better than it is. There’s no reason why after 44 years of independence many of our people live in abject poverty. It is deeply frustrating to see that often the politics get in the way of intelligent and effective dialogue on life and death issues. Many Zambians just want to see things get done, regardless of the chitenge you wear. More importantly, many Zambians have the solutions to make our nation better, but have no avenue for communicating their thoughts or debate them with other people. They simply wonder why is it that something so simple cannot be fixed? Or why has that never been tried? Or where can I know more about X? This website is a small step towards offering a platform to ask and debate such questions. It exists to try and encourage positive dialogue on the many pressing challenges facing the nation. Its strength is drawn from the many contributors who sacrifice their time to understand the pressing issues and offer meaningful exchanges on many areas, and have fun doing it!

    Sharing: We can all influence and learn as individuals from a closed room! But our culture emphasises the village community and the beauty of interactions. Blogging together allows us to interact with other Zambians (and friends of Zambia) thinking about the same issues and share experiences. We believe there’s much to be gained not just in reading what people write, but also understanding why people write the way they write. It’s our goal therefore to ensure that at all times, Zambian Economist remains a friendly relaxed site.

    Seldom thought there’s anything to learn from Africa. Here’s one ignorant fella for you!

  18. A bit more about Africa(and America too!)

    “…in democratic politicaly theory…It is foolish for

    Americans to transport their political techniques wholesale

    and without any change-over to the Belgian Congo, let’s say,

    where the conditions are absolutely different, the history is

    different, the individual people are different, the politcal

    structure has been different, etc. The politcal forms demand

    all sorts of prerequisites of sophistication, levels of

    education, levels of expectations, kinds of philosophy, etc.

    Democracy in our sense will simply not work in many situations

    of the world today, as any quick glance at the newspapers will

    prove; it is necessary to use another kind of management

    policy, even thouhgh our goal would be to transform the

    situation into a democratic situation ultimately. This is a

    matter of transitional management, a shifting over from Theory

    X to Theory Y kind of management.”

    (from ‘Maslow on Management’ by Abraham Maslow)

    In another part of the book, Maslow wrote..

    “The style of organization, the style of management, and

    everything that goes with Theory Y management, when it’s

    realistic and under good environmental conditions with the

    self-confidence and the self-respect that goes with it, and

    with its tendency to create steadily a better kind of human

    being(more self-respecting, less fearful, less timid, less

    masochistic, less sadistic, less hostile, more affectionate,

    more friendly, more trusting[@Botak’s note: man.. this list is

    getting long!], more honest, and the like), all of

    this is part of the “know-how”.

    It may ultimately be that American know-how will really be, so

    to speak, the American character. This is an important point,

    especially these days when so many other societies can beat us

    in so many different ways. For instance, labour is cheaper in

    many places…There are places in the world where the raw

    materials are available in greater quantities than we have,

    where just simply quantity of labour is available in endless

    amounts, where police systems will prevent strikes of any


    Just a note, I found out this book was written almost half a century ago in 1962, when America was, if I am not mistaken, the pre-eminent world power coming out of WWII.

  19. Hi Mr Giam,
    You mention that political competition will make the incumbent party work harder, and you seem to use this as an argument to urge people to vote opposition. My question, though, is: Doesn’t political competition already exist in the form of elections? For the ruling party to be kept on its toes, I believe they do not have to necessarily lose. All they need is to have a threat of losing.

    Since you brought up economics concepts in your blog post, the economics equivalent of what I’m talking about is the Theory of Contestable Markets. This states that a monopoly does not necessarily need to lose its position in order to innovate and offer lower prices. The requirement for innovation and lower prices is merely the threat of competition (i.e. an open, contestable market). For example, even if Airline X is the only airline which flies between city A and city B, so long as there is an open skies agreement and other airlines are allowed to enter, Airline X will be pressured into offering competitive prices and good service. If it does not do so, other airlines will enter the market.

    In my opinion, this is the situation in Singapore. Free and fair elections (and reading your earlier posts I understand that you do believe that our elections are free and fair) ensure that there is the threat of the ruling party losing power, and that is enough to keep it on its toes. I am sure you will agree with me that if the ruling party does indeed make a major screw-up (e.g. politicians found to be corrupt, or unemployment rate skyrockets above 10%), the opposition would likely come into power. Thus, I don’t really believe complacency will set in.

    I look forward to hearing your views on this. Do you believe there are more reasons to vote for an opposition party candidate, other than for said candidate’s competency alone?

    All things said, I’m still a youth and I do expect to see a larger opposition presence in parliament within my lifetime. I am heartened and excited at the growing numbers of young, educated professionals, such as yourself, joining the opposition.

  20. @ Joel,

    Here are some reasons I can think of for voting in multiple political parties into parliament:

    No one party’s manifesto can appeal to the whole society. Different values and views mean that is not possible. Just have a look at the manifestos of the PAP, WP and SDP. WP appears more left of centre while SDP is more to the left of the political spectrum. PAP started out as a progressive left-wing party has moved to the right side of the spectrum over the years and is now more focused on conservative politics.

    Having parliamentarians from different political parties mean that the views of their supporters from various segments of society actually get to have their views aired in parliament. It is one thing to bring up an issue to your local MP during the ‘meet and greet’ session; it is another to have your MP raise those issues in parliament.

    Different parties have different views on any issue at any one time. Just look at the WP website when parliament is in session. Low Thia Khiang and Sylvia Lim frequently debate on bills with alternative views to that of the PAP. Having one dominant party eventually means toeing the party line, regardless of how vigorous ‘internal debates’ might be among PAP MPs.

    Lastly, even honest people in business believe in the importance of checks and balances. In the commercial world, no business will operate solely on trust alone. Even if Singaporeans ‘trust’ their politicians, they should only do so to the extent of a boss trusting an employee, regardless of political affiliation.

    An election should not be the only way of providing political competition, nor should just the threat of losing a few seats. That simply means months prior to an election, the ruling party can throw some money at the populace (eg: Lift-upgrading program, etc) and come up with new ways of holding onto power (One day cooling-off before voting day to allow for mass broadcast of pro-government advertising to influence votes). If no seats change hand, then it is back to status quo for any ruling government.

    The point is this. The PAP has been going a pretty good job over the last few decades, but their standards have slipped since the early 2000s. While I am a pluralist and a firm believer in a multi-party political system, the PAP losing a few seats might just be what is required for them to drag their standards back up. Also, the ex-PAP MPs don’t really go away. They just become ‘special advisers’ in the local Citizen Consultative Committees (CCC) until the next election. As for the CCC, that is another story all together.

    Hope this helps.

  21. @ botak

    No problem. My personal view is focus on the person, not the tools that the person use.

  22. The analogy to commercial competition is bogus.

    Business competitors do not seek to act as “checks and balances”‘, nor do they strive to “raise issues” or “air concerns”.

    Sadly, this is what the “opposition” in Singapore amounts to.

    If that is the limit of its ambition, then they are not really political competition at all.

    Real competition in the business world means someone who wants to eat you for lunch.

    Don’t talk about competition unless you’re ready to fight.

  23. The analogy is bogus II:

    Does Motorola ask people to buy its phones so that people can hold Apple more accountable for the quality of its iPhones?

    If not, why do “opp” leaders ask people to vote for them so that pap can be more accountable to the electorate?

    Does BMW ask people to buy its cars so that Mercedes can produce better cars?

    If not, why do “opp” leaders say that people should vote them so that pap can come up with better policies?

    Implicit in all this is a mindset that surrenders to the pap’s hegemony, a willingness to play second fiddle to the pap.

    Your qn is better directed to the opp leaders. From their public assertions so far, none bar one has any ambition to form the next govt.

    Here’s the analogy for you: please buy my product even though it’s not the best in the market and will never be in the foreseeable future. My company is small, weak, underfunded, has low/no market share and could go bankrupt any time and leave you without after-sales support any time. But you should still buy my product so that you can be sure that others can enjoy a better product from the market leader.

    Would you buy such a product?

  24. The analogy is bogus III: there’s plenty of competition. Otherwise we would have zero electoral contests, 100% walkovers.

    The problem is not that we don’t have competition.

    The problem is that the competition sucks, and thus, rightly (ie after considering the merits of the opposing candidates) or wrongly (ie out of ignorance, habit or fear) the electorate have time and time again rejected the opp and voted pap.

    So is the problem a lack of competition?

    Or a lack of viable competition, ie true competitors who want to provide the electorate a real choice vis a vis the pap?

    Do they want to compete on a platform of “vote me because I will be better than pap” or “vote me because I will make the pap more accountable”?

  25. @ Wai Leong

    There is a saying and it goes something like that… The electorate does not vote for the opposition, they vote against the current government.

    While your counter-arguments hit home, it still does not answer the question: Where do you stand?

    Are you a believe in the PAP way: A country’s best talents in one party working for the good of the country; eg China, Vietnam, etc…

    Or are you the unlikely (closet) believer in a pluralist political system where talent is spread out among various parties; eg many European countries.

    Maybe you are option Three? An intellect who excels in debates and arguments but who will not make a stand, or have already chosen to be with the winning team, regardless of the (un)fairness of the political system and process.

  26. I do not understand your obsession with where I stand. However, here’s a clue. I believe the term “opposition” is meaningless and creates an unhealthy mindset, even among the “opposition” politicians.

  27. @ Daniel Lee

    Thanks for your reply. Reading the hansard reports online, I do feel that PAP MPs bring up the views of various segments of society in parliament. As for your statement that “No one party’s manifesto can appeal to the whole society”, I do agree. However, I believe that in a small country like Singapore, a single party’s manifesto tends to be able to appeal to the large majority of society. We are after all a tiny country, and the interests, values and goals of people living in Woodlands aren’t very different from those living in Jurong. This is unlike most countries, where the vastly different economies (e.g. agarian, urban) in different parts of the country means different priorities for people in different constituencies.

    I agree that the opposition party provides a good check and balance. I love the intelligent and eloquent speeches that Sylvia Lim so frequently gives. However, I do not believe in voting for the opposition solely for the sake of providing competition. And I don’t think too strong an opposition is desirable. I am very interested in US politics. While their system is very interesting to spectate, I would be very sad if that happened to my country. The fierce partisanship, congressional deadlock.. as a small country, we would be dead if we had those problems. We would not be able to adapt quickly enough, and would quickly lose out to our larger neighbours.

    That said, I appreciate your stand and I understand where you’re coming from.

    If you’re still there btw, do tell me more about the CCCs. I’m very curious about them. I don’t understand why there are so many different grassroots organisations, some political, some non-political, some supposedly-non-political-but-actually-political. I find it very confusing and it would be great if you could explain them thanks (:

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