A Member of Parliament said this recently in Parliament, urging fellow politicians to work together to build a positive political culture:
"Politicians must be aware of what political culture we are building through our style of political engagement as well as our actions.
“If you support a political party which believes in overthrowing the government by taking mass political action against the government regardless of the laws and proper channels to change things, you are building a culture of lawlessness.
“If you support a political party conducting its political engagement with a habit of playing racial politics and mud-slinging and launching personal attacks on its political opponents, you are building a thug political culture. If you support a political party with the habit of fixing its opponents, you are breeding a political culture of fear.
“While all politicians play a role in building a political culture through political engagement, the government is the dominant player of politics in Singapore, and plays a significant role.”
All of this forms a point of view that responsible party leaders – and voters – would likely agree with. It would surely form part of what the Government wants to see in “constructive politics”, which at its heart is about having a political system that will elect men and women of good character who can work together to come up with policies that are good for the people in the long term.
And yet, after that speech in Parliament, Workers’ Party (WP) leader Low Thia Khiang – yes, he made those comments – was drawn into a heated exchange with the Prime Minister on constructive politics.
Mr Low’s point was that a country’s political culture matters. And what shapes that culture? The conduct of politicians, and from his viewpoint, especially government leaders.
In addition to that onslaught above, Mr Low interspersed his speech with further volleys: “If the people continue to support a government party that uses high-handed tactics against its political opponents, we are endorsing a bullying political culture.
“If the people support a governing party that uses governmental resources, including civil servants, to serve its partisan goals, we are condoning the abuse of political power as an acceptable culture. If you support a political party with the habit of fixing its opponents, you are breeding a political culture of fear.
“Using differentiating measures in policies to punish people who voted for the opposition breeds a culture of divisive politics.
“It also used to be said that the political incumbent has no obligation to level the playing field, that might is right, and that the political incumbent has the right to use all legal means to remain in power because everyone will do it if they are the incumbent. This is building a self-serving political culture.”
The People’s Action Party (PAP) will surely dismiss all of this as typical opposition politicking that is all sound and fury, but there will be those who will view Mr Low’s comments – made during last month’s debate on the Presidential Address – as depicting the PAP style of politics.
And therein lies the cognitive dissonance in the whole debate on constructive politics.
The PAP tries to take the moral high ground in this debate, depicting the opposition, especially the WP, as one that flip-flops on policy positions, or is disingenuous in ignoring difficult policy trade-offs.
The opposition – and a good segment of voters, I would venture – looks at the PAP’s political tactics past and present, and wonders if those have any part to play in the constructive politics it is now calling for.
Those above the age of 30 will remember the votes-for-upgrading strategy which some see as examples of divisive, partisan politics, and the concerted attacks on opposition candidates’ character at elections as examples of bullying.
By using such tactics in past elections, the PAP risked failing to connect with a generation of voters. Many of those in their 30s and 40s today who might have become keen supporters of the Establishment status quo and a solid PAP-voting bloc may have instead become disenchanted by the political process as they came of age. They witnessed one too many one-sided political battles.
Memories of the PAP’s past tactics could be one factor continuing to fuel the rage that can be felt online against the Government today, when ironically it is trying so hard to win back support.
Pent-up anger when unleashed is hard to channel into logical debate.
In the same way that the PAP’s digs at the WP for its policy flip-flops strike home, the WP’s description of the prevailing political culture in Singapore draws blood.
Two weeks ago, I wrote in this space that the WP should “grow up” to develop its positions on policy, as this would help it mature as a party – which would be good for Singapore. After all, if the WP develops its policy-thinking capability, and blossoms into a credible alternative party, Singapore’s political future will be less worrisome.
Just as the WP seems flat-footed in policy proposals, so the PAP similarly seems clumsy in the art of politics. One commentator, consultant Devadas Krishnadas, summed it up pithily in a recent Facebook post, which The Straits Times ran an extract of: “While the Government emphasises policy thrusts, the public is focused on political trust.”
Just as the WP’s inability to engage seriously on policies keeps the opposition in its infancy, so too the PAP’s inability to engage seriously on political change hinders the country’s political maturation.
The Government has tried to set the agenda with its notion of “constructive politics”. Aside from its supporters, others want to hear more of that – from the Government.
Will the PAP in the next election still try its votes-for-upgrading strategy and continue its creative redrawing of electoral boundaries?
Should there be constitutional changes to the political system? Is the Nominated MP system still relevant in the face of rising contestation? Should the bar be set even higher for presidential candidates?
On an even more serious note, how prepared is Singapore for a change in government, whether by design or accident? What does the Constitution say about coalition governments?
Of course, the Government may choose to busy itself with policy changes. And there are issues aplenty, beyond those of housing, transport and health care that already seize the Government: Should the Government continue to be the arbiter of morals in the arts? Why should housing and social policies be privileged towards married couples? Is it time to rethink the media regulatory model?
But the question is whether good policies can make up for bad politics – or the absence of any meaningful discussion of it.
The Government can ignore the topic of political change and talk about constructive politics. But that would be like ignoring the elephant in the room – but everyone can still see, hear and smell the elephant.