Saturday, May 16, 2015

A novel proposal for political reform

May 15, 2015

Today's political system pits political parties against one another. Can Singapore create a system where voters pick competent candidates from different parties to form the government?

By Dinesh Senan, For The Straits Times

AS SINGAPORE marks its 50th year of independence, perhaps the greatest challenge going forward lies in maintaining the highest quality of relevant and effective political leadership, at a time when the profile and aspirations of the electorate are rapidly changing.

Today's citizens are far more empowered, with better education, greater wealth, and more far-reaching and swift influence - especially through social media - than the populace led by our founding fathers 50 years ago.

In broad terms, the political landscape continues to be largely dominated by the People's Action Party (PAP), created by the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew. Despite Singapore's economic progress, the PAP's overall popular vote has been slipping sharply: from 75.3 per cent in the General Election of 2001, to 66.6 per cent in 2006, and 60.1 per cent in 2011.

This downward trend evidences the growing diversity of expectations of our rapidly changing populace, which today aspires to having much more than just economic growth and development.

Based on this trajectory, one could expect that increasingly more seats are likely to be won by opposition parties. And one would wonder if votes would be cast "for" the opposition's competent ability to lead the nation or, rather, "against" the dominant party.

This throws up a deeper question: Voters under the current system by which political leadership is assembled must make a simplistic either/or choice between parties. But is there another way?

Rather than party-versus-party, what about the possibility of making choices based on the specific competencies and leadership categories actually needed, that might best address prevailing aspirations for improving the nation? These are skills which the leadership of no single party might, in reality, totally possess.

Ailing system

BUT, first, you may ask, what ails the current system?

Essentially, Singapore's system is based on an adversarial party-versus-party Westminster model. It has many virtues - and many inefficiencies.

For instance, legislative houses in Western-styled democracies are often burdened by the debilitating effects of gridlocks, governmental shutdowns, and negative or smear campaigning, engendered by a zero-sum-game mentality battle for control along party lines.

In a world of growing diversity, those systemic inefficiencies are likely to erode the effectiveness of leadership in the West.

Does Singapore necessarily need to keep to this same pathway? And how could we reduce the adversarial impact of an "opposition"-based partisan system?

Such questions are relevant to Singapore because in an increasingly competitive world, the electorate should most ideally try and hold on to the most capable political leadership assets available to serve the electorate - regardless of party affiliations.

What gets lost in the current party-versus-party system are the strengths of the "losing" party which could otherwise still have been of value to the nation.

Especially for a small country like Singapore, where the talent pool for top-notch political leadership is constrained (in terms of the smallness of numbers, from a normal bell-curve distribution of talent perspective, when measured against a very small population base), any loss of leadership strengths due to the structural set-up of the electoral system is a tragedy for all.

Consider the loss of the invaluable experience of Cabinet minister George Yeo, a tireless patriot who lost his seat in Parliament at the 2011 General Election when the People's Action Party team in Aljunied GRC was defeated by the team from the Workers' Party (WP). Mr Yeo, whose portfolios had included Information and the Arts, Health, Trade and Industry, and Foreign Affairs, then retired from politics.

The Aljunied electorate, in wanting the opposition WP leader to have a voice in the House, had apparently "no choice" but to vote along partisan lines, despite the many governance and leadership skills that Mr Yeo had to offer to the electorate and for the broader benefit of the nation. Yet, many in Aljunied might have been quite happy to have both the opposition leader's voice in Parliament, and that of Mr Yeo.

[The last sentence is speculation at best. ]

An alternative governance model

AHEAD of the next general election (which must be held by January 2017), this is perhaps an opportune moment in Singapore's development as a nation to explore structural alternatives to the current model, to reduce the raw, adversarial impact of the party-versus-party-based system of governance.

It is common today to hear grumblings that the dominant party is failing to meet the aspirations of the people in some areas such as housing policy, transport and healthcare.

And yet, the same citizens who feel disappointed in the PAP also do not deny the party's many positive capabilities, in economic development, for example.

And they may not yet see an alternative opposition party that is fully ready to take on all of the roles of the dominant party with equal capability to deliver, either.

However, the current political system effectively requires them to adopt an either/or choice. They are in effect obliged to register their discontent with the perceived failings of the dominant party by voting "wholesale" against it, even if they may not think the opposition can form the government. I would ask if this is a case of the electorate being forced, by virtue of the current electoral model, to throw the proverbial baby out with the bath water.

Furthermore, as Singapore society becomes more diverse, and increasingly polarised, it is uncertain if the leadership required to bring the country to its fullest potential resides in just one political party.

Indeed, it is becoming more unlikely that any one political party could competently lead a nation across all aspects of governance, to the entire satisfaction of a diverse populace.

This is not unique to Singapore.

Many electoral systems around the world have had to grapple with eroding support for dominant parties and to share power with smaller parties.

[So, why not speed it along?]

Many modified electoral systems are already in use elsewhere. Examples include proportional representation (where divisions in an electorate are represented in proportion to the actual electoral support gained, within the House).

Then there are numerous voting methods, such as the party list proportional representation and single transferable vote methods. Under party list proportional representation, political parties define candidate lists, and voters then vote for a list.

With single transferable vote, voters rank individual candidates in order of preference, enabling them to also vote across party lines and elect independent candidates.

There are numerous other hybrids, adapted by various countries to suit their specific national needs.

A new model

CAN Singapore consider creating its own model to allow, instead, for a capabilities-based legislative assembly structure, separate and distinct from a municipal body?

[See online comment below which points out that democracy is a popularity contest.]
One problem in politics is that the skill set needed to run a government is quite different from that needed to run a municipal authority.

To tackle this, we could have a bi-cameral house. Elected mayors can take care of constituency affairs in a Lower House. In the Upper House, however, candidates from different political parties or independents can put themselves up for election into specialist "chambers of governance". 

[If the issue is municipal government (i.e. AHPETC), then the suggestion here seems to be to set up even more hurdles or road blocks to stop the opposition from winning elections. So WP would be reduced to running for the mayorship of Aljunied, Hougang, and Punggol East, instead of MP for the same?] 

This more sensibly spreads out the arenas of political competition for seats within the House, allowing for the most competent parties and independents to contest the specific chambers wherein they believe they have the strongest levels of relevant competence and capability to lead.

For example, each chamber of governance could take care of cogently linked functional clusters, such as economics, finance and trade matters. Another can take care of education, social and family matters.

At an election, voters would choose which candidates they want for the different chambers. They need not pick them from just one party. These chambers of governance promulgate national laws. All parliamentarians can debate the laws, but final decisions on such specialised national areas of governance would be taken on Bills and budgets through voting within each chamber.

Overall coordination of the government would be done by the Cabinet, which consists of representatives from the various chambers of governance. 

[As pointed out in the comment below, this in effect is to set up SG to vote in only coalition governments from now onwards (unless PAP "ministerial" candidates win all the seats).]

The details can be worked out, but the key point of my proposal is to have a system that allows voters the option to pick from talent across political parties.

So, instead of having each political party simply position itself to represent the electorate across all aspects of government, and then vie for as many seats as they can possibly muster, my suggestion of a competencies-based Parliament spread into several chambers of governance now allows parties to focus their talent and recruitment on specific areas.

Thus, one party may build talent in the area of social policies; another in business and finance. And parties now don't necessarily get thrown out just because they don't have all the competencies across all categories of governance that we the electorate might wish to have in our House. 

[Right. And of course the Social Welfare Ministry and the party in charge of it will fight for a bigger budget so it can prove to the people that they are great at social welfare and get re-elected in the next election. Same for almost every other ministry, especially the vote-getting ones. Of course if you are in the party that gets the transport ministry, you know what to do to win votes - repeal the COE. And ERP. And Road Tax. And Motor Vehicle Tax. And Petrol Tax. Singaporeans will not need to go to M'sia, we can enjoy the incompetencies of the coalition govt that is M'sia's BN, but the SG version.]

The reader may ask at this point how these chambers are to cohere as one House. The Cabinet, drawn from representatives across the chambers, is to coordinate the functions of government. The prime minister is then chosen from among the Cabinet members, leading synergistically across these co-governing chambers to achieve diverse yet harmonious leadership, where loyalty to nation among all elected representatives is now paramount.

[I wonder if "synergistically" was meant ironically, sarcastically, or did he misunderstand the meaning of synergy?]

The advantages of such a system are several.

One, it allows voters access to talent from many political parties, and does not restrict them to one.

Two, each elected chamber representative will be accountable to the entire nation, and not just to any one constituency.

Three, it separates the municipal from the national governing function. This allows deeper concentration of expertise. It also isolates the government of the day from malfunctionings within an estate. So if a fishball stick isn't cleared at a foodcourt, the mayor is responsible, not the entire national government.

My proposal is, of course, a tentative one. The structures of democracy are still evolving. Many others can put forward more detailed and more workable solutions.

My hope is to stimulate the search for a more effective electoral model to optimise the process by which we secure the right blend of relevant political assets and competencies in Parliament, in order to achieve optimal synergistic political leadership for the country.

What we currently have, however, is an electoral system that hinders this.

The writer is chairman and CEO of sustainable clean technologies firm VIA Group Holdings.

Online Comment: 
The end result (of the proposal) is similar to a coalition government made up of cabinet members from various parties. All coalition governments are weak governments.

For this to work, idealistically, you would want to disband political parties. All candidates would be independent, non-aligned candidates not affiliated to any party, and so when the cabinet is formed, it is not a coalition, because, technically, there are NO parties to be coalition of. HOWEVER, that is the theoretical framework. The reality will still be that there are factions, and cliques and alignment, formal or informal, and there will be... (surprise, surprise)... politics.
The proposal is idealistic, theoretical, and discounts or ignores the natural inclination of people to find like-minded people.

The writer notes that the skills needed to run a government is different from that required to run a municipal authority. He does not go far enough. The skills required to WIN elections is not the same as the skills or knowledge required to RUN government.

Democracy is a popularity contest (hence the ever present danger of popularism). Good government needs to be carefully created, as Lee Kuan Yew did.

[The writer points out that democracy in the west is burdened by gridlock and political paralysis... and then goes on to suggest a very good way to ensure that SG will be burdened with gridlock and political paralysis. 

He might as well have also pointed out the ineffectiveness of coalition government because his suggestion will lead to a de facto coalition government.

The irony probably escapes him.

Synergy, he says.

This  blogpost provides an analysis of the political value of various ministries. The political value of a ministry does not equate to its importance. MTI is probably important. As is Defence. And Foreign Affairs. But they have very poor direct political value. Defence might even be considered a political liability. 

This means that political parties will be vying for high political value ministries in order to win votes regardless of their competence. 

Ah, but the voters will vote for the most competent candidate to, for example, head the Defence Ministry. 

Sure, they will. ]

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