Monday, June 1, 2009

The opposition's Catch-22 situation

May 30, 2009

By Peh Shing Huei

AMID the slew of changes to be made to the political system, the trebling of the number of Non-Constituency Member of Parliament (NCMP) was the most eye-catching. Instead of the current three, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong proposed on Wednesday to increase it to a maximum of nine.

At a glance, that seems to be happy news for the opposition in Singapore. I wouldn't be surprised if quite a number of them cheered the announcement, pleased that the road to Parliament, albeit through the backdoor, has been widened significantly. But the expanded NCMP scheme is probably more of a curse than a blessing for the opposition. They will be pushed into a Catch-22 situation where they are damned if they do and damned if they don't.

The reason for the scheme is clear: To satisfy a curious Singaporean phenomenon, where the people yearn for a louder opposition voice in Parliament and yet prefer to vote for a People's Action Party (PAP) MP. The latter is deemed more likely to deliver the goods.

The Constitution allows for up to six NCMPs but for years, the number was capped at three. If two from the opposition were elected as MPs, then only one other opposition candidate - the one with most votes - would be invited to be an NCMP. And in the last 12 years, that precisely has been the case. With Mr Chiam See Tong and Mr Low Thia Khiang winning in their own right in Potong Pasir and Hougang respectively, Parliament has had only one NCMP. The late J.B. Jeyaretnam and MrSteve Chia have served as NCMPs; Ms Sylvia Lim of the Workers' Party is the current sole NCMP.

Most independent political observers would agree that both Mr Chia and MsLim did a good job. They were active, did their research and asked probing questions.

But therein lies the problem for the opposition. If the likes of Mr Chia and Ms Lim are such effective NCMPs, why would voters want them as 'proper MPs' (for want of a better phrase)?

This seems like a perfectly comfortable arrangement for voters. They can have their cake and eat it too. They get a PAP MP to take care of their needs as well as an opposition voice in Parliament to express their discontent.

The better the job an NCMP does in Parliament, the less likely it becomes for him or her to be elected as an MP. No NCMP thus far - there have been four since the scheme was introduced - has been able to translate the position into an actual parliamentary seat.

But that does not mean doing a bad job is an option. A more viable alternative is to not take up the offer to become an NCMP, which is what the Workers' Party (WP) did in 1984 when the scheme first started.

After the last General Election, the WP tussled with this option again. Its chief, Mr Low, had spoken of his disdain for the scheme on more than one occasion, arguing that it was designed to dissuade voters from voting for an opposition candidate. But when his party was offered the chance to nominate an NCMP, he did not want to stand in the way. The party nominated Ms Lim; Mr Low abstained from voting.

One reason for the WP's decision, I believe, was the fear that forgoing the opportunity carried the risk of being forgotten by voters during the long years between general elections, thus harming their chances of eventual victory.

After all, being an NCMP does provide a politician with an opportunity to speak up in the highest forum in the land, appear regularly in the media and gain name-recognition - all critical to an opposition candidate if he or she hopes to dislodge a PAP incumbent.

What all this means is that the

NCMP scheme has trapped the opposition. Take it up and you risk being seen by the voters as a 'useful loser'; reject it and you could very well be a loser forever. It is a beautiful straitjacket.

In the long-term, the opposition has little to win from the NCMP scheme, enlarged or otherwise. And the PAP has little to lose.

The increased number of NCMP seats will likely lock the opposition even tighter into a conundrum. Their voices will get louder in Parliament and their impact will get bigger. But their new-found visibility will give voters even more reasons to not vote for them.

The latest limitation of just two

NCMPs from each Group Representation Constituency (GRC) could also lead to further opposition fragmentation. Why form a five-man 'Dream Team' to contest a GRC if that would mean three of the five 'stars' cannot become

NCMPs if the team were to lose?

Such calculations, I believe, would not be far from the minds of many an opposition candidate. For let's face it: No one has beaten the PAP in a GRC. It would be realistic for the opposition to plan for likely defeat - and position themselves as best for an NCMP seat.

When covering the opposition during the last election, more than a few opposition politicians openly told me that they would be happy with a 'good defeat' - which they defined as a 35 per cent to 40 per cent share of the votes. Would they take up one of the nine

NCMP positions if they managed a good 'good defeat'? Probably.

The Parliament will become a livelier place as a result and the opposition will find more purpose in those years between elections. But the scheme will not bring the opposition parties closer to being genuine alternatives to the PAP.

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