Aug 23, 2015,
For a nation that stands at an inflexion point, there are good reasons to vote for either side
Chua Mui Hoong
The hot topic for discussion this weekend isn't the National Day Rally speech the Prime Minister is delivering this evening.
It is, instead, the coming general election. No one knows the date except the PM and his close confidants. But the entire nation has been in "election season" in the words of the People's Action Party organising secretary Ng Eng Hen, since the release of the Electoral Boundaries Review Committee report on July 24.
Nearly every day for the past week, the incumbent PAP and its challengers have been calling press conferences to introduce potential candidates. Everything is being seen through the lens of the coming GE. Even the Jubilee weekend celebrations around Aug 9 were tinged with election hues. Certainly the Rally this evening will be viewed through election lenses.
Apart from the question of When it will be held, there are questions of Who. Who's standing in which constituency? Who's stepping down? Who are the new candidates, from the PAP and the opposition?
But by far the most interesting question revolves around the What.
What is this election about? What is it going to be fought on? What matters to voters?
Every political party and candidate that wants your vote will promise to serve you, the voter. Every political party will have its own take on what this GE is about.
Gleaning from what has been said so far, the PAP will likely say this GE is about the future. The party needs the support of voters so it can bring in a team of people who can form the leadership of the future, to bring Singapore to greater heights.
The PAP has lined up a slate of candidates it hopes to see in Parliament who can augment the future leadership teams. But as Dr Ng underlined it, succession depends on voters' choice. If those intended future leaders don't get voters' support, the succession plan is thrown into disarray.
The Workers' Party will want to build on its First World Parliament appeal. The Singapore Democratic Party and Reform Party have been consistent in demanding more transparency and accountability from the PAP government. The Singapore Democratic Alliance and Singaporeans First look set to tap into a groundswell of anxiety about foreigners and campaign on platforms of putting citizens first.
It isn't clear what the Singapore People's Party, National Solidarity Party and Democratic People's Party, will stand for this election, given their leadership changes.
For the individual voter, the What question boils down to one simple thing: What is your vote going to depend on?
I started to think about this once election season kicked in. The campaign period will be full of sound and fury, and I wanted to reason things out first.
I am mindful that people base their vote on all manner of things. Kinship or communal ties matter: my late father once told me he voted for a candidate surnamed Chua!
People vote for candidates they like or who have done something for them. Or perhaps they support one candidate to spite his rival.
But when we try to be rational, I am sure Singaporeans will cast the vote according to what they think is best for the country.
In that context, there is only one question that matters for me this GE: Which is better for the future of Singapore - a stronger PAP or a stronger opposition?
Singaporeans know we are at an inflexion point in the nation's political development. The 2011 GE, which saw the opposition win six seats, backfooted the PAP.
Whatever PAP ministers may say, Singapore voters will remain convinced that the policy changes since 2011 - slowing down the influx of foreign talent; speeding up housing development and public transport infrastructure - are direct responses to the rise in support for the opposition. So, too, the move to introduce universal health insurance for life, and to expand early childhood subsidies beyond the low-income to the middle-income.
Having gotten a taste of blood, so to speak, some voters will press on to support the opposition, hoping to see more of such redistributive policies. Those who think a stronger opposition is good for Singapore will welcome this.
[The rest of the article is irrelevant as it assumes that voters are rational and are concerned with the big picture. She has not proven that voters are reasonable, let alone rational, but has instead observed that people based their vote on what is often frivolous or irrelevant. For a voter to follow either of these two complex arguments (any thing with more than one order of argument) is presumptuous.]
There is also the argument that a stronger opposition is good for Singapore's political development, not just as leverage against the PAP. Even some PAP ministers have said this.
According to this view, a strong opposition provides checks and balances on the ruling party. It sets Singapore further along the path towards a two-party system, the dream of political liberals who do not buy the PAP's argument that Singapore is so tiny and so exceptional, it can only be governed by the PAP's pre-selected A-team of political leaders, and that it lacks the talent base for other parties to build up a credible alternative. Each election that sees capable individuals joining the opposition dents that argument.
All that is needed next is for those capable individuals to coalesce around one or two serious political parties and their leaders, learn to compromise and work together, and win voters' support. Singapore can then become a "normal" country with a political system that remains stable even when parties alternate in power.
It may undergo a period of turbulence in the transition, but settle into a stable equilibrium. Then, the biggest risk for Singapore - of having a system untested by alternation of political power - will be neutralised.
Ergo, the patriotic voter who cares about the country's long-term future must support the opposition. Even if the opposition candidates are not as strong as the PAP ones, supporting the opposition is a principled stand to adopt, some will say.
But one can also make a convincing case for the opposite point of view: That a stronger PAP is more important for Singapore's future.
The first-order argument is simply that the PAP remains the best, and only, political party able to lead the country successfully.
Thus, it deserves voters' support, especially when it is trying so hard to get a new team elected who can join existing ministers to form the nexus of the future fourth-generation political leadership. No other party comes close to having a slate capable of governing the country.
The second-order argument is that the PAP is changing, and deserves support to nudge it along that trajectory of change: Of being more inclusive, and more empathetic of the struggles of the common man.
The third-order argument - commonly made by those who fear the PAP is becoming too populist - is that it is important to support the PAP in this GE, so they can reclaim lost moral and electoral ground.
Then they can have the political capital and confidence to govern, not just appease voters. Then they can make the policy trade-offs necessary for Singapore's future.
This is a variation of the fear among fiscal conservatives that a further slide in support for the PAP will see it lurch further left - towards fiscal profligacy, which would be disastrous for the country.
Those who think this way want to strengthen the PAP's political hand so it can afford to be less "populist".
Then there's the "last chance before the door slams shut" theory.
It goes like this: Support the PAP this GE2015 so it can put in place a team to lead Singapore into the future. The going will get tougher in future elections, as younger generations come of age - those who take Singapore's wealth for granted, who have never lived the miracle of going from Third World to First in their own lives, and who are restless for change.
Those who think like this will argue that it's important to support the PAP while your vote still makes a difference. Come GE2020 or 2025, it might too late, with too few drops of PAP votes in an ocean of opposition support.
The choices, to sum things up, are: Do you want to strengthen the PAP so it can consolidate and continue its 56-year record of successful governance (since self-government in 1959)? Or strengthen the opposition in the hope that a good alternative party will be built up, paving the way for a two-party system that could be more stable for Singapore?
Luckily for us all, there are a few more weeks to figure it out before Polling Day.
Your MP is not the Chief Social Worker. He’s supposed to raise issues and make laws.
Chua Mui Hoong
THERE I was, scrunched with the latecomer reporters, at the back of the PAP branch office in Clementi.
Up front, Mr Tharman Shanmugaratnam was introducing the party’s candidates for Jurong GRC for the coming General Election.
Reporters who turned up an hour early got to sit right in front - cross legged on the floor. The lucky ones got chairs. Then the photographers positioned themselves in lines. Behind them, several stood on chairs to get better angles.
And right behind the scrum - peering through the legs of those balancing themselves on chairs - were those of us who turned up later. Serves me right for not being kiasu.
I couldn’t see the candidates’ faces except on the camera screens of colleagues in front of me. I could hear, but had to strain to keep my attention from wandering.
One by one, each candidate spoke about their wish to build a more caring community in Jurong GRC.
To be sure, they sounded sincere.
Mr Tharman himself, although Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister with matters of state to occupy the buzzing brain underneath that gleaming bald pate, spoke passionately about the “Jurong way” - “our style in Jurong is to be on the ground all the time and to serve with our hearts. That's our style.”
Helping people when no one is looking, away from the glares of the camera, day in, day out.
The incumbent candidates - Mr Tharman, Mr Desmond Lee and Mr Ang Wei Neng - highlighted some Jurong GRC initiatives: helping disadvantaged kids; giving second, third chances to ex-inmates; harnessing volunteers.
The two new candidates in the GRC - Madam Rahayu Mahzam and Dr Tan Wu Meng - were also introduced as candidates with a genuine heart for the people.
Indeed, Madam Rahayu, 35, has been a volunteer since she was 17. She has met many families in difficulty. She wants to work with disadvantaged families and youth.
Dr Tan called himself “a doctor who has a heart to serve, who's very concerned about helping make people's lives better, who's very concerned about looking after elderly residents”. He spoke about a Lions Befrienders seniors activity centre at Blk 420A in Clementi to befriend vulnerable elderly, a childcare centre nearby and a special needs early intervention centre elsewhere.
But listening to them, my mind started to drift at the litany of the social programmes in Jurong GRC.
I started wondering: Were they standing as Members of Parliament, or angling for posts as Chief Social Worker in Jurong GRC?
In Singapore, it seems MPs have to be all things to all men - and women, and children too.
We want MPs to run town councils. They have to be financially trained too, to get accounts right.
We want them to step in to sort out disputes, so they must be skilled mediators and negotiators.
We want them to listen to our problems, so they have to be counsellors. We want them to help the poor and needy and the elderly and link them up with available resources, so they have to be social workers.
We go to them to write letters of appeal to government agencies to waive fines or speed up/ review/ reverse a decision, so they are glorified scribes.
We want them to get government agencies to put a playground here, or a bus stop there, and take away a funeral parlour elsewhere, so they are political lobbyists.
But in fact, the core of an MPs’ role is as a legislator.
MPs make laws in Parliament that determine how a country is run. They decide on policies. They decide how much money to give to which ministry to get programmes done.
Your MP isn’t your social worker, although doing social work is a good way to win hearts and minds - and votes. These programmes also make a genuine, often lasting impact on people's lives. They are wonderful.
But your MP should also be your representative in Parliament, championing issues you believe in. And so, from the back, blocked from view, I asked a friendly photographer standing on a chair in front of me, to raise a hand to get Mr Tharman’s attention.
I just had to ask this question.
I asked each candidate to highlight one issue he or she would like to champion in Parliament. I added: “ And please don't say 'caring, inclusive society', which is a catchall. Please try to be specific - one issue that might be close to Singaporeans' hearts that you want to champion in Parliament.”
Mr Lee, who is Minister of State for National Development, highlighted housing for seniors and helping families live close together. He went on to speak with considerable conviction, if less than perfect syntax, about his wish to “build communities of stakeholders” such as those around Pulau Ubin and the green rail corridor: “Bringing in one cosy room, stakeholders from Green groups, heritage groups, academics, musicians, artists, cyclists, educators, social anthropologists, come in together and each and everyone of them, not just having a say, not just giving a view but also actively participating in the constructive dialogue and a process that results in actual things happening on the ground both immediate and long-term.”
Madam Rahaya wants to focus on issues to do with family. Dr Tan plans to focus on healthcare: to help residents have better access to healthcare nearer their homes, integrating hospital care with community care. Mr Ang will focus on education, reducing the emphasis on grades, and transport. In the last, he wants to focus on the “first and last mile connection. So whether it's the cycling path, whether it is a walkway, covered walkway - making it easy for people to connect to the transport modes.”
Listening to the issues they want to champion gave me a glimpse into what matters to these candidates.
It also makes them more relatable. I found myself agreeing with Mr Lee (retaining Singapore’s green spaces is important) and Mr Ang: indeed, it is often the last mile connection that lets us down - if only there were a safe path to cycle to the MRT station so we don’t have to wait for the feeder bus.
In the next few weeks before the polls, every candidate aspiring to enter Parliament will stress his willingness to serve and maintain she has a heart for the people. In many cases, this will be true. But it is not enough.
Candidates must also articulate their positions on policies, and say what they wish to retain, adapt or see changed.
This is especially critical for those on the PAP slate expected to be parachuted into office-holder positions if elected, such as Ong Ye Kung, Chee Hong Tat and Ng Chee Meng, and perhaps one or two others.
Serious-minded Singaporeans will want to know their positions on issues that have been hotly debated publicly for the last few years.
This applies too to opposition candidates. Whether from the PAP or other party, candidates also shouldn't hide behind party manifestos and slogans and give up the challenge of articulating what they themselves believe in or stand for. In fact, political parties too should be clearer about their stands on issues.
You are an opposition candidate. Your party doesn't field enough candidates to take over the govt. You are simply planning to be at best an opposition in Parliament.The blogger had noted that there were two issues:
You think you can contribute to enact laws in parliament? Change policies? Make policies?
If the govt of the day (majority party in parliament) says "yes", you can say all the "no"s you want, the bill and law will still pass. If the governing party says, "no" you can say "yes" as much as you want, the bill will still not pass.
If you have a private member's bill and tried to convince the govt of the day to pass the bill, the fate of the bill lies with the governing party, not you or your party.
Yes, the PRIMARY role of an MP of the GOVERNING party is to pass laws or to help pass laws (in support of policies).
The PRIMARY role of an opposition party is to take over the government one day. In the meantime, they can try to showcase their brilliance in parliament in the hope that that translates to more votes for the party that they can take over the government in future.
There are two conversations going on: Town Management, and Leadership Renewal.This is in reference to Hazel Poa resigning (as Ag Sec-Gen) in protest from NSP after NSP decided to field Steve Chia in MacPherson making it a 3-corner fight. Subsequently, Steve Chia changed his mind. He probably realised that he would lose his deposit.
Are the opposition talking about Leadership Renewal? The opposition is blessed. They have leadership renewal in their blood. It happens almost automatically. NSP just had one. Sort of. Or maybe I am confusing "renewal" with "musical chairs".
If the most credible opposition is simply limiting itself to 28 seats - not even enough to block an constitutional amendment - then they are limiting themselves to debating town management issues and not leadership renewal.The point is that depending on whether you are likely to form the govt of the day, or whether you intend to simply be an opposition, your strategy in office is different. Your stand on issues are not a priority at the moment if you are in opposition. Your position is in opposition to the Govt of the day. As for your policies, nobody cares, or if someone cares, it is irrelevant anyway.]
Leadership renewal is an issue for the government of the day or the party with the ambition/delusion/reality of governing Singapore to address.
So of course WP is not even talking about that. WP's concern is recruiting enough talents without ego.
The other opposition parties' issues are a) ego (usually of their leaders), b) recruiting credible, non-delusionals, c) retaining talent (akin to herding cats, apparently), and d) holding together without self-destructing until polling day/election night.
Then a blogger comes along and decides, GE is about big deals.
Yes. She is right. Unfortunately the players are not up to speed.
On immigration - do they support the move to tighten the tap on foreign workers or should it be loosened? On the economy - do they agree with those who say Singapore’s high-cost, high-wages growth model benefits the high-waged elite, but is a burden on the low-waged who struggle to have a dignified life in a high-cost living environment? Should SMRT, which is listed, be corporatised, and public transport become a public service provided by the state?
What do the future leaders of Singapore, whether from the PAP or the opposition, stand for?
Or are they all for the status quo? In which case, Singapore’s future is dim indeed.
Yes, the explicit role of an MP, a member of parliament, is to pass legislation.
Just as the explicit role of a doctor is to treat illnesses.
But a good doctor treats the person, not the disease ("Patch Adams"). Doctors sometimes find themselves playing the role of "MC Issuer" because "patients" just need a day off, or have urgent matters to attend to (and can't take leave, have unreasonable bosses, etc).
A doctor sometimes play the role of counsellor or confidante when they are the only person an elderly patient has a chance to talk to earnestly in weeks. A doctor sometimes need to look and listen carefully to realise that the patient needs help that is non-medical. Doctors have been the first informant for many abuse cases.
But the dilution of the role of the MP is not simply the result of the realities of the role.
It is also the nature of democracy.
The MP in the legistlative chamber first and foremost needs to get elected. Erudite and high-minded voters like Ms Chua do not need the services of the MP to get a hawker licence, or get some summonses squashed or set aside, or a million other little things that matter to the voters. Or the low income voter. Or the less high-minded voters.
So before an MP can be a law-maker, he needs to win votes. And if all this is not relevant to his role as a law-maker, yes. But that is the nature of democracy. What wins you the job is not what makes you eminently qualified for the job.
Meet-the-people sessions (MPS) is a distinctly Singapore take on Democracy. But this is how MPs stay grounded.
Sure, it may in fact distort the parliamentary ideal (of what MPs role should be) but it is in keeping with the democratic spirit.
Of course, democracy leaves a lot to be desired...