The huge losses suffered by the ruling Cambodian People’s Party in the recent general election (July 2013) must worry the People’s Action Party (PAP) in Singapore. It comes merely months after Malaysia’s governing coalition, the Barisan Nasional, lost the popular vote in its May 2013 general election, though it kept a majority of parliamentary seats — a quirk of ‘first past the post’ electoral systems.
In both countries, young and urban voters were reported to have voted strongly against the incumbent party.
Even allowing for substantial differences in public opinion and political conditions in Singapore compared to these two countries, the trend is such that we may need to start thinking about the possibility of an upset victory for opposition parties here within the next 10 to 15 years.
But if Mohammed Morsi’s experience in Egypt is any guide, victory may be short-lived. He won the presidential election in June 2012, but within a year was ousted by the deep state taking advantage of massive popular protests.
Let’s not fool ourselves. We have a deep state too.
As at the time of writing, the situation in Cambodia is still not clear even though it’s been five weeks since the election. The National Election Commission announced early August a preliminary result that supported the ruling Cambodian People’s Party’s (CPP) claim that it had won 68 seats to 55 for the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP). No other party won any other seat.
The CNRP claims it won at least 63 seats in the National Assembly and has lodged complaints alleging massive irregularities including 1.3 million names missing from electoral rolls and that Prime Minister Hun Sen’s side had stuffed ballot boxes with illegal votes. The claims are being checked, but the checking process itself is in dispute.
The Committee for Free and Fair Elections (Comfrel), an independent NGO, says that the popular vote margin was narrow: CPP 48.8%, CNRP 44.5%.
Regardless of the final tally, even based on the election commission’s preliminary result, it is obvious that CPP suffered a huge drop in support. In the previous parliamentary election in 2008, it received 58.1 percent of votes cast. This translated to 90 seats (out of a total of 123 seats) giving it a headlocking 73% control of the legislature.
Singapore’s PAP would surely have taken note of Cambodia’s and Malaysia’s election results. Comfortable winning margins in one election can vanish by the next. This is particularly since there are many similarities among Cambodia, Malaysia and Singapore, not least of which is the fact that the respective ruling party in each country has been in office a long time. Electorates tend to get tired of long-lasting regimes. All three countries have seen incumbent governments use heavy-handed tactics to entrench themselves in power, including measures such as detention without trial, defamation suits, intimidation of opponents, control of mainstream media that do not pass democratic muster. Each of the three governments too has been accused of cronyism and blamed for neglecting social justice, even if the economy as a whole isn’t tanking.
But a striking difference is that where Cambodia in 2013 had a major opposition party (CNRP) and Malaysia had an opposition alliance (Pakatan Rakyat), in Singapore, our opposition parties are still uncoordinated. However, for the sake of visualising the future, let’s assume that we’ll soon get to the point where either (a) several of our opposition parties can form a united front, or (b) one of them grows sufficiently to contest all seats, presenting itself as a viable alternative government.
When that happens, I reckon that there is a real chance that an electoral upset may occur, and we wake up to a new government the morning after.
It will be rough going. Between inexperienced people taking over ministries and great wariness among civil servants about their new masters, there will be misunderstanding, miscommunication and a general slowdown. Civil servants may display a touchy defensiveness about past actions taken under the old administration. Effectiveness will suffer. Missteps will occur.
New ministers will likely face ‘damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t’ dilemmas. If they go about replacing senior officials because their loyalties are suspect, they may find themselves losing a lot of expertise. On the other hand, if they keep them on, they may not get the co-operation that is needed. Even if new ministers go out of their way to woo them, they may not succeed.
Mohammed Morsi, from what I’ve read, faced great resistance from the civil service he inherited from Hosni Mubarak, his predecessor. This resistance partly accounted for the widely perceived failure of the new administration to deliver services and rescue a rapidly imploding economy, which in turn led to disillusionment and protests.
You may ask why Singapore’s civil servants would want to be obstructionist. Some might do it out of political conviction. After all, the PAP would have promoted those they trusted most. But others will adopt a wait-and-see attitude out of self-preservation. They may believe the PAP will come back into power. A slim victory by the opposition is more likely than a crushing one, and so long as the deep state is not eradicated, the chance of the PAP coming back with a vengeance cannot be ruled out. Risk-averse civil servants will not want to be later accused of being too helpful towards a non-PAP government.
So, if the new government is radical about cleaning house, there will, in the short term, be severe disruption to the business of government. On the other hand, if it does not eliminate root and branch, then the deep state may very soon rouse itself. That’s what happened in Egypt. Various dark forces conspired to heighten the media decibels against Morsi, cause petrol shortages to inconvenience ordinary folks, bringing disrepute to the new administration. More generally, they sought to blunt his every move.
Of course, Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood were also incompetent at governing, as many other articles have pointed out. They created many of their own woes. By most accounts, they brought with them a degree of prickly paranoia, that might have served them well when they were persecuted by previous Egyptian administrations, but also prevented them from reaching out and building broader alliances with other anti-Mubarak groups once in power. And they were too drunk on their own narrative of Islamic solutions to all ills to notice that many fellow countrymen do not consider it the only desirable future.
Would our opposition parties, when they come into power display analogous weaknesses? I don’t see why we should discount the possibility. As it is, the Workers’ Party is already accused of staying aloof from other opposition parties and civil society movements. I have previously written about their post-1987 ‘Marxist Conspiracy’ fear of being sucked into others’ agenda. And if the market cleaning incident is recalled, it too — like all administrations — can have feet of clay.
Give people some credit
But another lesson from the market cleaning incident is this: People can see the broader picture. They will take hiccups and small cock-ups in stride when there is a bigger prize in hand. For now, that bigger prize is giving the PAP a bloody nose.
Small cock-ups. It’s one thing to run a town council. It’s another to run a state government. When an opposition party or alliance takes over the entire government, cock-ups won’t remain small. Mistakes, policy confusion, delays — all will be magnified. Finding enough people the new ministers can trust to fill second, third and fourth tier positions will take time. Acquiring experience and earning public respect will take even longer. Problems can spiral out of control and patience easily run out well before that.
The equation our opposition parties must remain acutely conscious of is this: how much inconvenience and incompetence will people be prepared to forgive in return for sweeping the arrogant PAP from power?
I have a sneaky feeling: not much.
So, given that the transition will unavoidably be difficult, what can the opposition do to buy itself more credit? How to increase the prize so that people are prepared to put up with the cost?
I’d offer two approaches:
1. Clear promises to implement easy-to-achieve goals within the first hundred days. In other words, don’t just aim to be a PAP-lite government without the arrogance, because it won’t take much to slide into aimless mediocrity. Be a government that marches boldly in a distinctly different direction and delivers big quickly. Doing so makes tangible the benefit of change.
2. Set out clear policy directions for the medium term. Even if some hopes cannot be realised quickly, convincing people that these goals will be arduously pursued will help keep voters on side.
As I will explain below, doing both increases the “value-add” of putting faith in an alternative government. It will better justify the cost of a messy transition.
The difference between (1) and (2) above lies in the fact that there are some things that can be done quickly and many others that just can’t.
The disruption of moving house can feel similar to that of changing governments
Those that can’t involve detailed modification of existing policy. You will need experts to consider alternatives and willing bureaucrats to implement changes. Examples include changing housing rules (which may also need time to re-orient development plans), modifying healthcare access and foreign manpower allocations (which has as many pros as cons). Even getting our sovereign funds to provide more transparent annual reports will take at least a year and much struggle with organisational inertia.
Those that can be done quickly are likely to be things where you can just stop doing something. Put a moratorium on giving out new citizenships. Stop regulating the media, entertainment or the arts (except maybe the barest minimum with respect to pornography). Close down the National Trades Union Congress. Slim down the Registry of Societies to make it easy for independent trade unions and other groups to be set up.
Another easy list would be, with a majority in Parliament, to make sweeping changes to restrictive laws. Of course Section 377A must go. The Public Order Act must be pruned. The Internal Security Act must be abolished and a Truth Commission established to review the ‘Marxist Conspiracy’ arrests of 1987 and 1988. New laws relegating ‘scandalising the judiciary’ to the trashbin should be put in. You don’t need to depend on reluctant civil servants to make these changes.
In short, opposition parties shouldn’t promise that when they come into power, things will run smoothly minus the arrogance of the PAP. History tells us that transitions after a long period of one-party rule will be bumpy, and raising expectations thus is the surest path to disappointment. The smart thing to do is to plan for a rocky transition by augmenting the value-add that people will reap when they back you for change, so that stoic patience is seen as the better bargain.