Thursday, May 5, 2011

Towards a First World electorate

May 4, 2011
By Ho Kwon Ping

A NEW generation will decide Singapore's future in a few days. One of the ruling People's Action Party's (PAP) concerns is to find a future prime minister from this generation. The opposition must also fill its ranks with voices from the future, not the past. And as a nation, the baton that was successfully passed from the founding generation to its custodians, the baby boomers of my generation, is now being handed to Gen Y.

Across the entire world, Gen Y - those in their mid 20s to 30s - is coming of political age. They have already made their mark in the Arab Spring, though arguably their inchoate, even naive democratic ideals may not translate altogether successfully from the street to the halls of government. In China, Gen Y is still more concerned about economic self-improvement than the future of the Chinese Communist Party, though they too are demanding more accountability from their government.

How should governments that have enjoyed more than a half-century of uninterrupted and unopposed rule respond to the winds of change with a firm yet enlightened touch? Political science textbooks provide no answer. Established liberal democracies with routinely rotating ruling parties have no such dilemma at all.

Current events have not been inspiring. Arab leaders have no qualms about quashing youthful dissent with bloodshed in order to perpetuate their rule. Halfway across the world, China's response is to simply clam up, with arrests of dissidents representing more a lack of imagination about how to deal with the imperative for change than a clearly thought through policy of repression. Besieged Arab governments and stubbornly recalcitrant Chinese leaders are certainly more reactionary than proactive.

The history of former colonies in the Third World trying to achieve First World economic and socio-political maturity is replete with failures. To achieve consistent economic growth with broad-based gains for entire populations has hitherto been a rarely scaled hurdle. To maintain exemplary, transparent governance with an entrenched ethos of incorruptibility is even harder. The Singapore that the PAP built has already risen to the top of the list of successful newly independent states with these two accomplishments. Can it remain in power with a clean sweep of all the seats on Saturday, denying the opposition the role of a 'co-driver'?

If history is anything to go by, this task will be daunting. History has not been very encouraging - whether it be Israel's founding Labor party, India's Congress, Taiwan's Kuomintang or Japan's Liberal Democratic Party. Ruling parties have generally foundered after about a half-century, then lost their original visionary leadership and mandate to rule. Some have been voted - usually temporarily - from power, others have splintered. The only ruling parties with zero challenges to their authority, even after a half-century of rule, are those that do not subject themselves to elections at all. If the PAP can buck the trends of history, it will have set a new paradigm.

And it is by no means impossible that the PAP will do precisely that, but possibly with greater difficulty than it took in achieving its earlier goals. The PAP may have to amend its aims and accept - if not in this general election, then in the next - that a robust multi-party system with a single dominant ruling party but several responsible opposition parties in Parliament may be a more sustainable and stable prospect.

With the PAP possibly holding the world record for the longest, uninterrupted stint as a governing party, the Singapore story may provide an example of how other countries can make a successful transition from what has been called 'developmental authoritarianism' to a robust, sustainable multi-party system.

But everyone in the game must cooperate to make this happen: an enlightened ruling party less obsessed about its own dominance than the survival of the system it helped to create; opposition parties peopled by pragmatic, capable idealists; and most of all, a demographically young yet emotionally mature electorate.

Whether the PAP should continue to rule without its efficiency being hamstrung by a 'co-driver' - or whether the car can bear the weight and lower speed in exchange for the extra safety and insurance that a co-driver will bring - is what Singaporeans are essentially going to choose on Saturday. Despite the importance of issues such as housing, transport and cost of living, the drama and the significance of this general election is the prospect of Singapore moving towards a multi-party system in this election or the next - towards, in other words, what the Workers' Party calls a First World Parliament.

Whatever happens, three myths have been debunked by this election.

The first is that because the PAP has exhaustively searched the country high and low and its candidates are the best in the land, there is a dearth of talent outside the ruling party. Therefore, a robust multi-party political system is not sustainable and even dangerous because there simply are not enough capable men and women to make this work.

In this election, the number of qualified opposition candidates has rendered this myth difficult to maintain. The opposition parties have fielded many candidates who are clearly not the disgruntled, self-interested and virulently anti-PAP 'bicycle thieves' of the past.

Some share the same backgrounds as the PAP's 'star' candidates: government scholarship holders and senior civil servants, blue-chip professionals from the establishment and university-educated professionals from the HDB heartland, all of whom have openly praised the PAP and avowed no interest at all in destroying the system that nurtured them. If anything, they claim to want to protect the system they grew up in, by playing the same kind of role as the elected presidency does on another front - to serve as a check on the government of the day.

The second myth - favoured by the opposition - is that the PAP will do anything to perpetuate its rule, from gerrymandering electoral constituencies and creating ever-larger Group Representation Constituencies to threats of not upgrading housing estates in opposition-held wards. Certainly, in previous elections, the PAP had adopted a much more aggressive, no-holds-barred approach than it has in this.

In this election, the noticeably generous coverage of the opposition in the mainstream media, the inclusion of previously disallowed social media as legitimate means of campaigning, and even the unprecedented appearance of a senior minister in a television debate with opposition candidates, have clearly not been the actions of a ruling party that wants only to perpetuate its rule by any means possible. The younger PAP leadership has chosen to liberalise the political landscape in Singapore even at the risk of losing more opposition seats, and even possibly going against the instinct of the old guard.

The third myth is that young Singaporeans are generally apathetic and concerned only about their narrow interests. Although the huge buzz in online forums about the election may represent only a fraction of youth at large, although the large turnout in rallies by young people may only be for their entertainment, although the many young PAP and opposition candidates may just be flashes in the pan - the myth of apathy that older Singaporeans may have held about Gen Y is clearly no longer viable. As the baby boomers pass into retirement, it is very encouraging to see young people coming out and making their voices heard.

Unless we have a freak election with unexpected results, Singaporeans can be proud both of the ruling as well as opposition parties. And of themselves too as an electorate whose demands are increasingly shaping the responses of both players.

Singapore may be moving deliberately yet irrevocably towards a First World electorate - in an evolutionary process that may take another two or three elections over the next two decades - but one that embraces common values so that the electorate, not the political parties, demand civility, intellectual rigour and competence of all their politicians, whatever their affiliation.

If all goes well, the winner in this watershed election may well be Singapore's future.

The writer is chairman of the board of trustees of Singapore Management University. Think-Tank is a weekly column rotated among eight leading figures from Singapore's tertiary and research institutions.

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