Tuesday, September 8, 2015

The best form of government is the one that works

Calvin Cheng

8 Sep 2015

The People's Action Party (PAP) has often said that it believes multi-party democracy would be bad for Singapore.

This is an untenable position.

In the past 150 years, several societies, primarily in the West, have flourished and developed under systems of multi-party democracy. To argue categorically that Singaporeans should not vote in an alternative party because it will hurt us, is an argument that would hold no water with many.

Conversely, the opposition has argued that single-party dominance would be bad for the future of Singapore, and diverse voices are needed to bring us forward. This argument, being the mirror image of the PAP's, is just as faulty. First, Singapore made the greatest leaps in development and quality of life during PAP's complete political dominance under Mr Lee Kuan Yew. Second, in the global arena, one-party China beats multi-party democracy India on most indicators of human and economic development.

The fact of the matter is that the truth lies somewhere in between. There are multi-party democracies that work, and there are those that are paralysed by competitive politics. There are single-party governments that are ridden by corruption and who cause misery to their people, and there are competent ones that are able to implement visionary long-term policies without being blocked at every juncture.

The best form of government is, at the end of the day, the one that works.

As Singaporeans go to the polls on Friday, dogma and ideology should not hinder us from making the right decision.

The overarching issue in the campaigning hitherto - which encompasses all others such as immigration, cost of living, healthcare, education and so forth - is whether the electorate should vote in more opposition into Parliament as alternative voices, and as a check on the PAP.

And, bearing in mind the preceding arguments, the answer is clear: we should do so, only if the Opposition is good. Having Opposition for the sake of opposing voices would be exactly the kind of dogma we seek to avoid.

But what, then, makes a good Opposition?


Crucial to this question is what a Member of Parliament (MP) is meant to do, another debate that has been ongoing. And again the debate has been framed in a simplistic binary fashion thus far: should MPs be town council managers or parliamentary legislators?

The answer is obviously both.

First, an MP needs to show that he has the ability and integrity to manage a town council well. A town council is set up as a microcosm of the issues that a country at large faces. At the heart of it is the allocation of financial and other resources to maintain housing estates, upgrade them, disburse grants to needier constituents and manage other day-to-day operations of the constituency.

It is boring and mundane, but absolutely vital to keep a town running. Likewise, it is also these nitty-gritties that keep a country running, not grand speeches and rhetoric.

And that is why the town council issue, as confusing and grating as it may be for laymen, is so important.

If you can't run a town, how can you run a country?


Second, as many have rightly pointed out, MPs must also perform in Parliament. However, the debate on this has also been simplistic.

Several websites have compiled lists of the number of times MPs have spoken and have asked voters to make a judgment based on that. The Workers' Party has also pointed to its parliamentary record of asking the most questions over the highest number of sittings.

This is valuing quantity over quality.

It is not the number of parliamentary questions one files but the impact one makes on the legislative agenda that counts. It is what one says that is important, not the number of times one speaks up.

A case in point is former Nominated Member of Parliament Walter Woon, who, by getting the Maintenance of Parents Act passed, arguably made even more impact in the history of Parliament than most PAP backbenchers.

If the Workers' Party retains or increases its presence in Parliament, I hope its MPs will file full motions to debate matters of national importance they have championed during campaigning, such as minimum wage and the nationalisation of public transport, instead of filing hundreds of parliamentary questions that nobody remembers. Or, worse, engaging in fiery speeches that, in the end, results only in minor policy tweaks to the ruling party's, is not only counterproductive but makes a mockery of being an Opposition MP.

This Polling Day, Singapore is at a crossroad. Many of us are not against the establishment of a good, credible Opposition that can contribute to nation-building. What we do not want is a fixation on numbers, that we have to have more Opposition MPs regardless of who they are and what they stand for. Such dogma would only be detrimental to Singapore.

The writer is a media entrepreneur and former Nominated MP.

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