By Dr Wong Wee Nam
29 May 2009
When the President opened the new session of the 11th Parliament last week, he said, “Our political system is not set in stone. Singapore politics must evolve over time, as the world and our society change. It must respond to new circumstances and goals and continue to deliver good government to Singapore.”
For the optimists, this statement gave a glimmer of hope that our political system is evolving for the better.
A few days later, Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong gave a glimpse of what is to come when he outlined three principles that will guide the changes to be made to the political system. One, they must be fair to all political parties. Secondly, they should result in a strong and effective Government after an election; and thirdly, they must ensure that diverse views are represented in Parliament. Without the details, all these sounded reasonable.
However when Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong fleshed out the details in Parliament, anyone who had wished for a more democratic system and a system that could produce better political leaders ended up with nothing to celebrate about.
True, the number of seats for the opposition would be increased to nine with the extension of the NCMP scheme, 3 more single seats will be up for grabs, and the size of some 6 member GRCs would be reduced. But these are not drastic changes. They are mere tweakings of the existing system. However, the media and the PAP would like Singaporeans to see these as huge concessions.
Why the Change?
On the surface of it, the PAP government appears very magnanimous. Losers now get to have 9 seats when previously they could only have three. Smaller parties and independents now get to contest 3 more single seats. And the sizes of the GRCs are going to be reduced when all of us thought that they would be increased. Nevertheless, all these are nothing but to tell the skeptics to stop complaining about the unevenness of the playing field since the PAP has become so generous.
The PAP has never been known to give concessions to the opposition. With draconian laws still in place and demonstrations by even one person now illegal, and filming of such acts could lend one into trouble, it is obvious they are not becoming more democratic than what they were before.
However, recently there has been a lot of public discontent on various issues and the grumbling citizens feel that their problems are inadequately aired. People now feel that there is the need for more opposition voices in Parliament. The PAP is probably thinking that by giving all these token concessions, the voters, particularly the younger generation, who are now more outspoken and more ready to make changes, would be appeased.
Whether the voters will buy into this or not is left to be seen.
Recently, there too has been talk of opposition unity and a lot of discussions on the ground to get the opposition parties to come together and contest the election as a united front. In fact the focus of many opposition members has been on winning a GRC in order to make a psychological breakthrough. The opposition parties realise they are too small in terms of resources, manpower and candidates to take on the PAP effectively without coming together.
Now with these changes, it is probably the PAP’s hope that all the small parties would stop talking about opposition unity and go it alone. Perhaps the stronger candidates from the various opposition parties will now go for the single seat wards, leaving the GRCs to be contested by weak teams. It is better for the PAP to have nine fragmented NCMPs in Parliament than to have five strong, duly-elected, unified opposition Members of Parliament.
Will these changes halt all the talk about opposition unity and send the opposition parties back to their fragmented stage? It is difficult to say.
What the Opposition Parties Need To Realise
However one thing is clear. The opposition parties must realize that they are like small market stalls struggling to make a living by scrambling against each other for morsels and yet have to compete against a giant hypermarket at the same time. With such an uneven contest, it is inevitable that Parliament will end up overwhelmingly dominated by the PAP with a motley bunch of 9 opposition MPs/NCMPs each with his/her own disparate views acting as discordant accompaniments — just like bells and cymbals in an orchestra.
In such a parliamentary composition, the PAP will always look like the only party capable of governing and the opposition will always look fragmented and not capable of providing an alternative.
No matter what, NCMPs and NMPs will always be seen as objects of PAP’s creations. They will never have the status and dignity as elected members of Parliament.
The last Malaysian General Election should serve as a good lesson for our opposition parties. In the past, they were fragmented and bickered against each other and did not make much headway against the ruling party. Then in the last GE, they decided to fight the Barisan Nasional as a united front. Now they are truly an alternative, capable of ruling the country should the time come.
Thus, these changes that the PAP intends to introduce will not change the status quo. In fact, it will entrench the PAP even more. Unless the opposition parties realize this and get their act together, they would be consigned perpetually to the role of political bridesmaids.
The Change that is Needed
Sadly for Singapore and Singaporeans, the changes proposed will do nothing to improve their democratic aspirations. The lives of Singaporeans will not be less controlled, the climate of fear will not go away, and our citizens will remain politically immature and apathetic.
Rather than tweaking the electoral process to appease voters as opposed to giving them a choice, what Singapore needs is a system that can help us produce plenty of good political leaders and not worry about the dearth of it all the time.
Instead of constantly stressing of the need for “our leadership team” (read PAP) to continually self-renew by inducting new leaders and mollycoddle their entry into Parliament, we should create an environment where young people with leadership qualities can bloom and come forth naturally.
For Singapore to succeed in future, we need to have strong political leaders, and strong political leaders can only be forged and emerge by fighting the electoral battles by themselves. Strong leaders will provide strong governments. For this reason, GRCs should be done away completely. Any political worth his salt should not be afraid to face the electorate and try to carry the ground by himself.
The right change to be made then is to provide an environment where the young are taught to have a sense of service to the country, to have a sense of justice, to have an independence of mind and to be imbued with a spirit to right wrongs and to allow ideas to contend so that leaders will naturally surface. The right change to be made is to remove the climate of fear that discourages political participation so that all these idealism can be expressed freely.
To ensure political participation, we need to make sure that people with leadership qualities will be able to fight an election fairly and also not ostracized for his political conviction. For this you need a free and fair press, a civil service that is seen to be neutral and an electoral process that does not catch a candidate by surprise by not giving him ample time to prepare.
How about fairness to the young candidates who wish to contest the general election? Would the hefty election deposit required be reduced to allow more young people, who are yet to be settled in their career to join in the fray? Would the government set up a Political Arbitration Court, so that employees who are victimised by their employers for their political affiliations can get their problems redressed? How about the Political Donation Act? Not only is a young candidate hampered by hefty deposits, victimized by employers, he would also will have difficulty getting donations. It does not need a clever man to know which party’s candidate will get donations easily now that donors can no longer remain anonymous.
We should be fair to all candidates who are willing to come forward to serve in what I consider to be the highest form of national service. If we can encourage the growth of political talents by treating everyone of whatever political affiliations fairly, there would not be any need to feel anxious about strong political leaders not emerging in future.
Then there would not be any need to keep thinking about how to keep the PAP entrenched in perpetuity in order to save Singapore.