Saturday, May 06, 2006

*Aftermath of the Elections*

I'm going to be slightly lazy for now and repost some earlier pieces I did on elections, democracy and voter's intentions in a one-party state. I want to give it some time and look at the figures before trying to discover what the relatively poorer performance by the PAP means in the larger scheme of things.

Thus I refer you to these earlier posts I did. There will be some additional comments and amendments made in reflection of the highly amonolous situation that we found ourselves in this GE i.e. that a total of 47 seats were contested such that the PAP did not automatically form the government for the first time in 18 years, that the Opposition finally abandoned their so-called "Winning by Losing" electoral strategy and that there was a much longer electioning period this time round (with the GRCs generally staying the same). Oh and the active campaigning by the former PMs.

This first post was an commentary on the two following posts by my friends:
Pro-Create: a reply to catherine lim
me, myself and I: A response to a response to Catherine Lim

Both are good posts and touch on some rather importants points, including the nature of political discourse in Singapore and what choices are and have been made.

I'm going to attempt to make some comments on what are pretty cogent ones made above. And this will be by way of personal opinion, so I'm not going to pretend to speak for anyone else. This must be understood in the context that I doubt that I speak for the average man on the street and I think most people would laugh if I attempt to portray myself as a heartlander.

1. On the nature of political discourse in Singapore.

This lies at the heart of both posts. On the one hand, the first argues that Singaporeans have indeed made the choice of choosing economic growth and prosperity over that of individual rights and civil liberties and that as a party the PAP has fulfilled that need.

(ed: I think it must also presume quite a bit more e.g. the system of economics that is promulgated i.e. free-market capitalistic globalisation, the ostensible lack of welfare, strong meritocracy)

The second argues that it is premised on a fallacious argument that claims political democracy (or political pluralism if you will) is not mutually exclusive with economic growth (to be fair, no form of government is mutually exclusive with economic growth). That there really is no choice that one could speak of given the automatic formation of government and lastly questions whether if there had been a choice, whether it was an informed one.

I think they are actually both right.

The first one is persuasive insofar as it does explain the social contract that the PAP formed with society i.e. political power (and the corresponding loss of political dissent) in return for economic prosperity. This is something that the PAP has achieved in spades and it's track record is undeniably something that prompts a certain proportion of people to vote for it.

Similarly, that it has continued to deliver the goods probably prompts another segment of society to vote for it.

The second is persuasive in that it does show up some of the holes in the first's theory. And it does explain why the government probably feels the need to resort to what might be termed jerrymandering and to repeated trump the proportion of actual voters who got to vote that did vote for them.

I suppose here's where I come in. The way political discourse is shaped in Singapore and the manner in which electoral campaigning is done is that it does create the dichotomy that the first post mentions. The PAP will stress that this is an election about a tried and tested government against an inexperienced oppostion. But interestingly, even before elections begin, it will have already created an article of faith that says political democracy as incompetible with efficiency and economic growth. As a result, while it must be true to a certain extent that Singaporeans when voting in PAP candidates have this in mind, nevertheless, how important is the second factor compared to the first when it's not the most important electoral issue?

And as the second post points out, this must be further qualified by the fact that given that the government has already been formed and that a good 2/3 of the electorate did not vote, what kind of choice was it really? As a result, the credibility of the choice is in question.

But what must also be added is this. The fact that people actually vote in opposition members must say something. But what does it say? One argument would go that it is like trying to have your cake and eat it. That because the government has been formed and good times are likely to roll and all they want is a dissenting voice in parliament. As a result, all it merely says is that people put economic growth first and then civil libeties.

(ed: This of course was not the situation this time round. While there were indeed walkovers, there was also an actively contested GE, where admittedly thr results were not in doubt. As far as I can see, I think the PAP performed worse in terms of relative proportion of votes than they did in the last elections. But why? As I express some frustration below, it says something, but what exactly does it say is a massive pain to tease out without exit polls.)

However, given the very particular factual matrix of Singapore, where during elections, the PAP has acted AS the state and said like in the Cheng San GRC situation to delay upgrading if they voted in the opposition, then I think that an argument could be made that where in the face of this implied threat that nevertheless the opposition came close to winning, or in fact have won despite knowing that there will be a problem because of the PAP controlled grassroots (and rejecting upgrading etc.), that this is not a situation where 'civil liberties' come without personal cost.

(ed: Especially so when HBD and the CDC actually controls the monies)

But let's take this on a more fundamental level. Given the walkovers, can the 33% of electorate who actually voted be considered representative of the entire populace and their desires and aspirations? Without having more information, it is probably impossible to say.

(ed: Well it isn't 33% anymore, but the higher figure may well suffer from the same defect. I think it's definately more representational, but how much more and whether it is sufficient is another matter altogether)

To further complicate matters, what is really being said when an opposition member is actually voted in? Can it be said that they are voting for the opposition party's manifesto? I think that generally cannot be true simply because not being able to form the government means that they will not be able to implement their manifesto.

(ed: On reflection, this may not be necessarily true given that the PAP has a history of cooping good ideas and not just people after all)

But even where it could be said that people voted for this opposition member on the basis of the manifesto, can it really be said to be a vote for civil liberties? Because as far as I'm aware, quite a few of these opposition parties are actually rather populist in nature and advocate crowd pleasers like welfare (which I personally agree with on moral and some economic grounds). So arguably then, a vote for the opposition is not a vote for civil liberties (although the rallies do mention this of course).

(ed: I should also add that some of the opposition parties did campaign on a rather economic mechantalist platform of anti-privatisation and free-trade)

So maybe, what it really is, is politics of personality rather than politics of policy. The grassroot ties that Mr. Low and Mr. Chiam has created and strengthened over the years were more than sufficient to weather whatever slings and arrows shot in their direction.

(ed: And there were still the only Oppostion members actually voted into power despite all the additional campaigning from the former PMs. Plus at least for Mr Low, he improved on his prior performance. The WP did amazingly well in Aljunied though which really surprised me. I expected the SDA to lose in Punggol, after all, given a whole group of unknowns, what chance did they have against a seating Minster of Defence in an uncertain time?)

2. Personal Experience

I'm very much a supporter of a liberal secular democratic regime but also one that supports the PAP in almost everything except domestic electoral politics. But this is also shaped by the fact that I don't think the opposition is really good enough. Which is not a surprise given the usual electoral tactics, the generally apolitical electorate and the PAP's policy of coopting not only the best (who would not have join any party on their own) but also the so-called dissidents e.g. Dr. Vivian.

As a result, I cannot say for certain that I will vote in an opposition member unless I think he's capable of raising pertinent and relevant issues in parliamentary debate. If not, I would much rather go help put in an NMP who I think can cut it instead.

(ed: I think I overstated the issue here but the sentiments remain)

By way of illustration here's what happened a couple of months ago. As a member of the YoungRepublic (a non-partisan internet mailing group which discusses various issues), there came to be a certain WP member who basically told us the party's strategy. Note, this was way before the manifesto was published or announced and he said that because the WP could not form a government, therefore it would not try to even propose policies but would simply act as an opposition in an All Asians Debate format i.e. just rebutt.

What was interesting was that it was the most 'liberal' members of the mailing list who took him to task and basically said that if that were the case, there would be no point voting on the basis of a party but solely on the basis of the candidate (which might hurt the WP in a three way fight).

After the fifth mail, he disappeared from the discussion. But hey there's the manifesto now which we hope we played some small part in creating I suppose.

(ed: That and their grassroot activism did pay off at least in Aljunied I suppose)

This was a further post in response to Ted's Comments...

Ted was kind enough to leave comments on my general commentary based upon observations by two of my friends. I agree with much of what he says and it does address some issues that I unwittingly left out in my prior post.

Hmm just commenting on some points you made. I would have thought that being able to cast a vote would be an exercise in Civil liberties/rights, i.e. no matter who you vote for, just the act of casting a vote is an exercise in a (arguably) fundamental right.

Yes and no. While I do agree with this sentiment, the truth is, the right to vote is actually not in our constitution (unlike other fundamental rights in Part IV). It's actually derived from an Act of Parliament so theoretically it could just as easily be revoked by a simple majority of MPs. I do wonder whether that would push Singaporeans to protest, or whether the reasoning given will be sufficient for them to acquiese to this mitigation of our 'right'.

The AG in turn argues that there is an implied right to vote based upon the fact that our political system as envisaged by the Constitution requires it (if you read the parlimentary debates, it turn into a mess of ideas like 'duty' and 'privilege' etc.). So I suppose the courts will generally agree with that and our democracy is safe for now.

(Ed: Especially since he's the CJ now and would decide on Constitutional issues, whether on the Court of Appeals of the Constitutional Tribunal convened by the President)

Smaller political parties being small, have really nothing to lose by advocating populist policies, at the very least I do not see them as appealing to a section of voters (fundamentalists of whatever denomination) or else we would see the appearance of Family First Parties like in Australia. I also think there is a limit to how centrist or pragmatic any political party can be since at the end of the day no one policies looks different from the other. So it would just boil down to like you said who do you like better or as the PAP would say, the proven track record.

Our particular system doesn't work for, or perhaps to put it more bluntly, discriminates against small parties of any sort. Other than the fact that campaigning time is short (which means that you need a large party aparatus to get your name out or already have huge name recognition), our system does not reward small parties unlike a system with proportional representation. Worse still, with the GRC system now so huge and the pitiful number of single member wards, small parties would find it even harder to even contest an elections.

With regards to centralist policies and pragmatism, it's actually a very real trend that we see in mature democracies. With the exception of the extreme right shift in the Republicans in the US. Most biparty systems, or even multi-party systems see a growing convergence in terms of the policies of the 'left' and the 'right'. So if one looks at the policies advocated by Labour and the Conservatives (even in New Zealand or the Scandinavian countries), the differences are really miniscular.

I always think it was interesting that most people say they never think the opposition parties are good, simply because the cards are so stacked against them, ever seen a PAP member protrayed in a bad media light before like scratching his backsides on TV, I highly doubt so. Yes I know you also mentioned it,

No comment. The Andrew Kuan incident was disturbing in that he wasn't even a candidate for Presidency before he was savaged by and in the Press.

Raising pertinent and relevant policies questions or issues is also highly subjective to many circumstances. Mr Chiam had raised many concerns over education issues for many years and when the PAP government finally changed their minds, do the parents in the street at the end of the day think that it's due to the efforts of Mr Chiam or the opposition? I wonder.

I don't disagree. Hopefully with such information becoming more accessible and readily transmitted, we will learn more.

On your point on what are the signals broadcasted when opposition members voted into parliament, is it that important to ponder on what the voters intentions are or what are the effects of their votes? Does it really matter that they want to have their cake and eat it"

My commentary has to be read in the light of my friends' posts. Voter's intentions and signals matter insofar as it tells us what their aspirations and desires are. The problem when there isn't the possibility of an alternative government is that one then has to strain to figure what the hell the electoral will is. After all, being in a parliamentary democracy, parliament is suppose to represent the will of the people (the 'mandate' theory of representing constituents notwithstanding), one has to be able to figure out what they mean when they cast the votes to serve them. In theory anyway =P

Lastly, here's something from our Constitution that's worth thinking about i.e. the NMP and NCMP scheme. Note that the NMP scheme is subject to a sunset clause, which means that each parliament decides if they want NMPs. I don't think there's any danger of it being not implemented because of the overwhelming favour it found and the constant expansion of the scheme.

Anyway, here's article 39 of our Constitution
39. —(1) Parliament shall consist of —

(a) such number of elected Members as is required to be returned at a general election by the constituencies prescribed by or under any law made by the Legislature;

(b) such other Members, not exceeding 6 in number, who shall be known as non-constituency Members, as the Legislature may provide in any law relating to Parliamentary elections to ensure the representation in Parliament of a minimum number of Members from a political party or parties not forming the Government; and

(c) such other Members not exceeding 9 in number, who shall be known as nominated Members, as may be appointed by the President in accordance with the provisions of the Fourth Schedule.

(2) A non-constituency Member or a nominated Member shall not vote in Parliament on any motion pertaining to —

(a) a Bill to amend the Constitution;

(b) a Supply Bill, Supplementary Supply Bill or Final Supply Bill;

(c) a Money Bill as defined in Article 68;

(d) a vote of no confidence in the Government; and

(e) removing the President from office under Article 22L.


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