Job Vacancy: Alternative Government
First published on publichouse.sg in August 2012
Too much democracy is a nightmare for management. Who do you listen to? How do you decide? Who wins in the end? Right now, the government must feel like this is becoming a problem for them. With society opening up like never before and a proliferation of citizens’ voices and civil society groups making themselves heard on everything from housing to education to foreigners to Bukit Brown, the government is being besieged from all quarters by different groups, each demanding to be heard.
So much so that Minister Tan Chuan Jin retorted, “Do we then clamour for consultation, engagement in every single thing ... before we get a decision? At some point as leaders, you must have the capacity to listen, the sincerity to listen, take on board perspectives, society feedback and so on, but you must have the courage to make the calls. And it is not always a popular call,” said Mr Tan.
This is logical, no doubt. Someone has to decide or things stall. And the PAP have always maintained that winning a general election is a mandate from the people, who have expressed through their votes that they fully trust the judgment of the PAP to make the right decisions for the country for the next five years—not a opening for people to engage the government, question them on everything, ask for accountability or propose alternative ways to do things.
But a politician can only take this stand if he or she is assured of being in power for a considerable period of time. Which is the unique position that the People’s Action Party has been in practically its entire existence. It has never really been in danger of losing an election, has dominated parliament since 1966, and enjoyed several walkover elections where it was returned to government before a single vote was cast. Even in the 2011
The Reform Party in the 2011 elections said that they were contesting to become government—which was an extremely bold claim, but is in principle correct. The RP’s infancy and small size of course meant that this was impossible, but that was the right stance to take—even if it was too forward for many voters here who are used to thinking of PAP as the de facto government and opposition as vocal backbenchers at best.
Not having the PAP in power is still in the future but it’s inching its way towards us. And Singapore will seriously need a strong alternative if or when the PAP’s way really does fail us. Or we as a country simply outgrow them.
So far the Singapore Democratic Party has the most fully fleshed out policies and proposals, from its Shadow Budget to its Healthcare Plan and its recent Housing Proposal (which PM Lee Hsien Loong echoed in his National Day Rally speech), and probably has the most clearly defined vision. But no party is yet able to put together a shadow cabinet, to say who could be a finance minister or health minister or prime minister.
This is not to disparage the opposition. Given the huge odds stacked against them, the lack of resources, relatively few willing participants and still limited channels of communication, the opposition has come a long way in the past few years. And there are many admirable, noble politicians and activists in opposition parties who have sacrificed a great deal for their beliefs.
Nor is this to lump ‘opposition’ into a single entity. Each opposition party is different and these differences will become amplified as parties are called on to present their ideas and their visions.
It is to say that the non-PAP parties in Singapore have a very important role to grow into. In the current state of things, the PAP is no longer going to have all the solutions. It’s apparent that their style and approach is falling out of favour with many and is no longer fooling people. Their policies and top down stance have alienated a large number of people.
It is to say that one day, one of these opposition parties might really have to be government.
General Election, when all parliamentary seats were contested for the first time since independence, there was no real question of the PAP losing the election. And come 2016, I doubt that scenario will change in any fundamental way though we may continue to see a shift towards having more non-PAP members of parliament if the opposition parties keep their act together.
Needless to say, this monopoly on government was achieved in no small part by hitting the opposition below the belt. From Operation Coldstore in 1963 that destroyed the breakaway PAP faction Barisan Socialis, to the silencing of JB Jeyaratnam and Chee Soon Juan through hefty defamation suits and other means, to the general shaming of the opposition in the media to slap a huge stigma on them, the ruling party cemented their position. They may like to claim that they have retained power for so long because they earned the people’s mandate through brilliant government—and while no one will deny their successes—that claim is tantamount to an athlete breaking the knees of his opponent before a race and then saying he won because he ran faster.
This means that any viable alternative for government in Singapore has never been able to develop.
And now that dissatisfaction with the state of things in Singapore has risen to a fever pitch, with the weaknesses of the PAP model showing through—like cracks that start appearing in a building which looked perfect when it was first built—this alternative is needed more than ever.
The opposition have begun their long, slow climb back up the political ladder. And they made great inroads in 2011, with the Workers’ Party taking Aljunied GRC. But now—just like there is pressure on the PAP to reform—there is also pressure on the opposition parties to step up in a big way.
It will soon no longer be sufficient to be ‘opposition,’ to voice alternative views or to be a check and balance. The co-driver position put forth by the Workers’ Party in 2011 must give rise to a full driver’s licence, where an opposition party has the capability to drive the bus and take it in a good direction. That’s what it really means to stand in an election—being prepared to win and able to do the job if you do.