Tuesday, May 10, 2011

After the polls, let the policy debates continue

May 10, 2011
Opposition parties ought to bring up their ideas for public discussion

By Chua Mui Hoong, Deputy Review Editor

A POLITICAL party is involved in three aspects of work: internal party work to recruit members and build up an organisation; party outreach via face-to-face meetings with residents or providing services for them; and party policy work to develop the party's platform and policy proposals.

Opposition parties in Singapore traditionally do the first - internal party work - year-round. Some of the more established ones like the Workers' Party (WP) are conscientious about party outreach.

But not many spend time and effort in between elections to develop and debate policy proposals in the public arena. Candidates who are elected of course will advance the party's platform in Parliament. But even those not elected can have a role.

After this general election, opposition parties may find it to their benefit to go beyond internal party work and party outreach, to engage in policy debate on national issues.

The campaign for General Election 2011 has been notable for the range and intensity of debate on policy ideas. Important policies came up for scrutiny, but did not always get a proper airing in the heat of an election campaign.

One example is the debate on how new Housing Board (HDB) flats should be priced. The WP wanted to peg it to median incomes. Two other parties - the National Solidarity Party (NSP) and the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) - favoured a cost-based approach, pegging prices of new HDB flats to actual cost of land and construction. This would be different from the current method of pricing flats by basing them on the market price of resale flats and then discounting them.

The PAP's argument is that a cost-based method would not work because the cost of land for various HDB land sites varied widely, depending on when and from whom the Government got the land.

But the two sides never really joined issue on the key question: Is there a way to set prices of new HDB flats so that they are more stable and insulated somewhat from runaway prices in times of soaring property values?

In the end, the PAP Government made a concession, promising to review the income ceiling to ease the pressure felt by couples earning just above the $8,000 a month cap to buy a new flat. But this very concession leads taxpayers like me to wonder if it was just yielding to populist pressure, or if there are sound arguments for raising the cap.

Another issue that saw heated debate was the minimum wage and ways to help the lower-income. The SDP returned to its social democratic roots, proposing more taxes on the rich and more subsidies for the poor. The WP, which supported the PAP's Workfare Income Supplement in Parliament, wants it expanded, while the Reform Party wants it replaced with a minimum wage.

I don't think the opposition parties were just capitalising on an emotive issue. The SDP's Vincent Wijeysingha and Ang Yong Guan and the Reform Party's Kenneth Jeyaretnam all come across as serious-minded opposition candidates. Their difference in views from the PAP appears to spring from a deep sense of conviction about the kind of society Singapore aspires to be and about how a wealthy nation should care for the poorest in its midst.

It was thus a pity that PAP candidates should dismiss the call for a relook at the minimum wage - with one deriding it as 'leng fan' (cold rice) even before the nine-day campaign period began.

The minimum wage debate began in the Review pages of The Straits Times and went on to become a national debate that reached Parliament with a debate on 'inclusive growth' in January. In that debate, the PAP-dominated House predictably endorsed the PAP's current approach.

Workfare is an excellent programme, and I'm not sure a minimum wage is the right solution for Singapore. But I wish there was a deeper debate amongst knowledgeable people outside Parliament on its viability here, or whether some form of a legislative nudge to employers to raise wages might also work. And is Singapore putting too much weight on Workfare as a solution to help boost low-wage earners' incomes? Workfare must not become a pseudo-panacea used to dismiss meaningful debate on alternatives.

For real engagement on policy issues after the election, PAP MPs have to get rid of any notion they might have, that the only debates that count are those in Parliament. After all, with the PAP dominating the next House 81-6, the ruling party will continue to have the last word in Parliament. Dismissing debate on an issue after Parliament has discussed it as cold or 'leng fan' is tantamount to saying debates outside the House don't really count.

Parliament is a legislative forum where policies are debated and laws made. But it is by no means the only debating forum that matters. Debate outside government-sponsored spheres - like in the media, online, and at forums and seminars organised by civil society groups or political parties - is part of the national conversation that makes for a healthy, diverse society. Ordinary citizens listen, some are moved to take part; many others will feel a sense of belonging just being a part of the conversation.

Opposition parties able to bring their ideas beyond the campaign period, into the agora of public discussion, will be able to broaden support for their ideas. Conversely, those unable to defend their proposals will be shown up.

For all this to happen, however, the leaders of the ruling party have to change the way they engage with critics, and treat opponents with more respect.

In the past, the PAP argued that only those in the political fray - defined as people who stood for election - could talk politics. This general election, no shortage of candidates have entered the fray. By the PAP's own yardstick, they have earned the right to talk not only politics, but also policy.

Several have not only good academic credentials, but also former government experience. This grounds their policy proposals. Their experience in the private sector since leaving government, and their perspective as outsiders of the system they were once part of, can give them an edge in offering fresh perspectives.

The elections may be over. But if opposition parties are serious about building a support base, the debate on national issues should be only just beginning.


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