Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Real challenge is to win back political capital

May 9, 2011
By Cherian George

ALJUNIED voters have elevated Mr Low Thia Khiang from a grassroots folk hero to an opposition legend. MrJ.B. Jeyaretnam will always be remembered as the warrior who broke the PAP's parliamentary monopoly. Mr Chiam See Tong still holds the record as the longest- serving opposition MP. Now, Mr Low Thia Khiang's success in GE 2011 has sealed his place in Singapore's political history.

What's next? Twenty years ago, when the opposition won four seats, the newly elected Workers' Party candidate declared: 'This is the beginning of the next lap.' It was a quoteworthy soundbite, but wasn't the most accurate prediction. The opposition went into reverse gear after its 1991 success. This GE, Mr Low asked Singaporeans to get ready to 'walk this journey together towards a First World Parliament'. He may be no more prescient now than he was two decades ago.

It is hard not to feel for his struggle against the odds. But the truth is that the world is not so sympathetic to underdogs. And, no, I am not referring to any punishment that the Government could inflict on the WP. After Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's promise to keep the electoral system contestable, we can hope for less of the goalpost-shifting and harsh treatment that used to plague the opposition.

However, even if the Government treats the WP team with as much civility as Mr George Yeo demonstrated in his concession speech, the First World Parliament vision may prove elusive.

First, the opposition's presence in the next Parliament still amounts to less than 7 per cent of elected seats. This is at most a speed bump, not a barrier, on the PAP's road to writing or rewriting laws. Besides, life in Singapore is not just shaped by statutes. It is also governed through subsidiary regulations and administrative decisions that don't go through Parliament. As observed decades ago by political analyst Chan Heng Chee, ours is a political system designed to give maximum leeway to the executive branch.

A second dampener on the WP's aspirations is the absence of a First World electorate, as Mr Ho Kwon Ping noted in a recent Straits Times op-ed piece. Political reform anywhere depends not only on political parties but also on active citizens who participate through civil society. The problem is that Singapore society has been systematically depoliticised over the decades and is mired in apathy. While there has been a noticeable revival of civil society over the past decade, activists of all kinds are still used to forging ahead only to find nobody behind them.

The 2011 election campaign may have energised ordinarily docile Singaporeans to share views on Facebook, attend rallies, and jostle for WP umbrellas, but the sobering truth for the opposition is that the vast majority will return to their private lives, and continue to outsource public affairs to politicians.

The third and biggest potential obstacle to Mr Low's dream of a significantly enlarged opposition is a much-improved PAP. The signal from voters that the ruling party must change is unequivocal. Couple this with its resolve to maintain its dominance, and it's inconceivable that the PAP will sit around twiddling its thumbs while letting the opposition set the pace.

The Government knows that if it can show dramatic improvements in the coming years, it can take the wind out of the opposition's sails. When the next general election comes, some Singaporeans may still be wedded to the vision of a two-party system, but many others may not crave an opposition as much as they did in 2011 if the PAP has given them less to complain about.

The big issues that have dominated the elections - such as HDB flat prices, traffic congestion and the cost of living - will, ironically, be the easiest for the PAP to solve. These are problems that are open to technocratic solutions, and the PAP leaders and their civil servants are masters of navigating complex policy terrains when they have the political will to do so.

Instead, the real challenge post-GE is to win back the people's trust. Only then can policymakers make what the Prime Minister called yesterday morning the 'difficult decisions and trade-offs which governing Singapore involves'. Worryingly for the PAP, the cynicism that greeted even PM Lee's appeals and assurances last week shows that the ruling party's political capital is significantly depleted, and perhaps at an all-time low.

Reinvesting in its political capital will be difficult because an emboldened public is not going to be satisfied with verbal assurances or token consultation. But it's not impossible. Simply by being tougher in his Cabinet selections and by reviewing the controversial ministerial pay formula, the PM could address the nub of voters' main political quarrel with the PAP - that its leaders are too comfortably insulated from the real-world impact of their policies - and deny the opposition a ready supply of ammunition.

For many years, the PAP has been spared the need to think bold thoughts about its relationship with the people because the barrier to political competition was set so high. The GRC system, in particular, helped the PAP win big.

This GE proved that, with GRCs, the PAP could also lose big. As they finally went to bed early yesterday morning, opposition leaders and their supporters may have had sweet dreams of Aljunied being the first of a succession of dominoes to come crashing down. And this may indeed happen if the PAP does not respond intelligently.

But Mr Low Thia Khiang's coup may have another kind of impact. By gathering a slate of credible, credentialed candidates under a trusted banner and toppling a heavyweight government team in a GRC, he has hammered home once and for all the message that the PAP cannot count on qualifications, party reputation or safety in numbers to win elections.

And, above all, that it cannot take voters for granted. So what's left as a potential winning strategy? Only dedicated service and the humility to treat all citizens as equals. After Aljunied, elections will have to be fought on these basics.

This is the great favour that Mr Low Thia Khiang has done for the citizens of Singapore. The irony, of course, is that it's also a favour to the ruling party - forcing it to reform and come back stronger in 2015/6. In 2011, opposition politicians wanted to teach the Government a lesson. Next, they'll have to face the daunting possibility that the Government actually learns it.

The writer is an associate professor at Nanyang Technological University. A fuller version of this article first appeared in www.airconditionednation.com

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