Two oppositions, and why in the long run, they may not matter at all, part 2

Much opposition politics in Singapore is driven by strong dislike of the People’s Action Party’s style. This needs to be distinguished from dissent – which is a disagreement with the government’s policies.  One can dissent without disliking; on the other hand, one can dislike the PAP without articulating differences of opinion policies-wise. Failure to distinguish between the two explains many features of our political landscape and electoral results. Full essay.

12 Responses to “Two oppositions, and why in the long run, they may not matter at all, part 2”


  1. 1 Tan Ah Kow 29 December 2009 at 21:46

    Whilst I agree that there is lack of policy debate amongst political parties, I think it is worth noting that even in mature democracies such as the UK and US, it is not common for policies to be debated in parties. Rather much debate are typically generated by civil society.

    Take many of the green policies that political parties in democracies are signing up to, much of it were not formulated from party political debates but from NGOs or independent think thank.

    So coming back to your analysis about the state of our political parties, I personally think, that the action of these parties are really no more different from what you would find in any mature democracies. They exists to chase for votes to win power.

    Ok it might be argued that more could be done on their part, and as I fully agree with you, in particular, the Workers Party. As a person who is more aligned to the current SDP positions, I am not going to say what the WP (and NSP, RP, SDA) should do. What I would say is that I am not surprised by the position they have taken. After all, as much as I disagree with their positions, I have to admire them for believing in playing within the, albeit flawed, rules. Like political parties in any mature democracies, you would have expected them to try to win over the hearts of the “middle ground”. But in the Singapore context, the “middle ground” is an elusive one to spot. So should one not be surprised by the somewhat, as I see it, muddled way in which WP approach the “policy issues”.

    Personally, I think, the bigger problem really lies in the electorate itself. As someone who is based in a mature democracy, it is easier to see the mood of the electorate. For example, when the main political parties ignored green issues before it became fashionable, a green party sprang up from civil society. Also many policy debates are driven by civil societies in the form of foundations. Can the same be said about the situation in Singapore?

    Come on, even a simple act of declaring one’s party affiliation publicly, including PAP, is such a scary thing in Singapore, what hope is there for any political party to really know the so-call pulse of the “middle ground”?

  2. 2 sgcynic 29 December 2009 at 22:59

    My vote will not change, for as years go by my dissent and dislike of the PAP and its policies have increased. My mind and heart are in sync.

  3. 3 cy 30 December 2009 at 11:31

    Frankly speaking,very few bothers to read any parties thick manifesto. elections is more about appealing to personal interests and emotions than trying to reason with the voters.

    anyway if worker’s party reveal their manisfesto now,pap will have more time to counter-attack, which is of course stupid in war strategy.

    this coming election has one main theme: Singapore for singaporeans,slogan used by SDA. the rest are just variations on the theme.

  4. 4 yawningbread 30 December 2009 at 13:49

    CY – yes, I understand there are plenty of reasons (excuses?) why opposition parties should conceal their policy preferences even if they have any, but my point still stands: If they don’t flesh out policy positions, they won’t make any real progress. It’s like saying, sure, there are plenty of reasons not to do your homework, but the inescapable fact remains that if you don’t, you won’t pass the exam.

    Relying on voters to dislike the PAP govt for vote-share is a one-legged strategy. There are simply not enough voters who dislike them to the same extent. The rest have to be won over by appealing either to reason or their self-interest – and that requires talking about issues.

    It’s interesting you have introduced the SDA’s slogan – I hadn’t known they had any. It seems to me that even the SDA, in its own perhaps unintended way, have a more established policy position than even the Workers’ Party. My impression is that the SDA represents nativist, populist views – anti-immigration, almost anti-the modern world. I think Chiam See Tong once suggested that the right way forward for Singapore was to merge with Malaysia. I’m not dissing these positions; they will obviously appeal to some. What I’ll say is that at least it makes it clear to the large middle of voters whether they ought to vote for them or not. (The danger though is that this may NOT be SDA’s policy position, just the impressions that outsiders like me get, in which case, the SDA had better work at communicating what exactly their policy preferences are!!!)

    I will take the opportunity to add one more thing: The proof of my thesis that diehard opposition folks fail to see the distinction between dislike and dissent can be seen each time we hear calls to Vote For The Opposition, as if opposition parties are a uniform, homogenous bunch. This call has no appeal unless the audience is expected to be primarily motivated by such a strong dislike of the PAP that ANY opposition party will do. Issuing such a call reveals the caller’s blind spot – failing to see that many voters do not dislike the PAP that much, even if they disagree on substantive issues and that such a call will not resonate with them.

    • 5 Tan Ah Kow 30 December 2009 at 17:26

      Yawningbread,

      True, if these diehards, as you put it, is unable to make such detailed analysis as you have then they should be allowed to fade into political obscurity.

      At the risk of digressing from you thesis, it is worth noting that there is another equation that would clearly invalidate the conclusion of your thesis, if expand the scope of your analysis — i.e. the electorate.

      If these diehards opposition does not change their mindset and is clearly not serving the pulse of the electorate, then why don’t the electorate — at lest those who feel passionate about how badly served — form an alternative party, even single issues one. Why don’t more, “capable” people, take up the leadership of a political party.

      If you take the UK, for example, you have say people who are sick of being in the EU forming a party to get Britain out. Or people who are sick of immigrations, forming foundations to champion their pet causes or those for immigration forming their own to champion their own cause.

      Such single issue campaigns can have an effect on mainstream party policy making process. Most notable is the green agenda. You see such single issues parties, in most cases driven by dislike, are often unlikely to win party can flesh our policy issues for mainstream parties to latch on. Best example, is the UK Labour party, when Tony Blair took over the party much of his policy that he eventually brought in was really formed from policies he pinched from the left of centre foundations. When he become increasing out of touch he lost power.

      The fact that none, with rare exceptions, spring from electorate — or more accurately civil society — makes it hard for any political parties (including the PAP) to really take a pulse on what the electorate wants. The fact, that such “diehard” parties including the PAP do not a have process of grass root based renewal really speaks volume about what the electorate wants!

    • 6 Tan Ah Kow 30 December 2009 at 17:49

      Oh just one more thing to add. In much of your thesis, you have noted a lack to clear policy differences in the economic front.

      I have a question for you. If the “bread and butter” issue is such a pressing issue with the Singapore electorate, then why is it the so that there are so many (vocal) civil groups campaigning on civil rights — against death sentences, migrant rights. Why are there not too many vocal civil groups addressing economic policies?

      Ok you might say the Reform Party, post JBJ, is trying to reposition itself to be more “bread-and-butter” focus but being a political party, it has to also address the political aspects like fending of non-bread and butter issue. Such as addressing the mandatory death penalty issue. So where are the civil groups advocating alternative policies?

      Does the lack of civil groups for alternative economic policies not demonstrate a lack of clarity on the part of the electorate themselves?

  5. 7 Tan Ah Hock 30 December 2009 at 16:00

    Hi Alex, you are spot on in suggesting that opposition politics is driven by dislike for the PAP. I have never interpreted the situation from this angle. When you think about it, such dislike probably stems from being personally inconvenienced in some way by PAP’s current policies – to a point where the individual is willing to adopt a personal agenda to see change in government. I don’t see any other incentive for getting involved in opposition politics.

    With regard to positioning and philosophy, our opposition parties can definitely take a learning point from the websites of political parties in other countries which position themselves very clearly along the political spectrum, and support their position with well defined values and causes.

    For example, a glance at the website of Conservative Party in UK shows that they are positioned as Centre Right. Their goal for businesses (one of the many areas in which they adopt a stand) is “to make Britain the easiest and best place in the world to set up and grow a business.” And they state their intention to achieve this by “Establishing a temporary National Loans Guarantee Scheme to get credit flowing again and help protect jobs”, and “Allowing struggling firms to defer their VAT bills for up to six months”, among many others. (website http://www.conservatives.com/Policy/Where_we_stand/Business.aspx)

    This kind of depth in idea development and proposed policy formulation is lacking from our opposition parties’ websites, which begs the question of whether they can be truly effective in government. As a voter I do not feel much comfort seeing a pithy statement like “The government should not make our workers bear the full brunt of the reviving the economy again” in the Singapore People’s Party manifesto, or ““In rainy days, black clouds, thundering and showers, we urge the government not to build mountains of surplus every year, in such economic climate, the government should stop accumulating wealth, at the expense of our workers. We want the government to accept deficit for another two years and ease the hardship of our workers with more relief packages” (http://www.spp.org.sg/manifesto.php) without seeing these statements being elaborated on.

    In such instances it would also help if our opposition parties position themselves more clearly along the left-right spectrum, so if their stand on an issue seems unclear, it would be easier for people to guess what and how they might approach an issue if they were in a position to take any action on it.

  6. 8 Robox 31 December 2009 at 02:22

    Re: “I don’t think that is the case with the Workers’ Party. Nobody can place where they stand today. Are they rightwing? Leftwing? Pro-laissez-faire? Socialist?”

    I would position the Workers Party as a decidedly conservative (ie. rightwing) party ideologically, based on their *commentary* – I too don’t know anything about their policy platform – on both economic and non-economic issues.

    (The same goes for Chiam See Tong; I have serious hesitations about referring to his party whose name few can remember and whose members, if any, are completely unknown even to the politically-interested online community which has greater access to information on the opposition and ex-opposition parties.)

    If we accept that the PAP is an ultraconservative (and sometimes outright fascist) party – their slight but discernible leftward shift along with the general electorate, esentially initiated by the SDP, notwithstanding – and you measure both WP members and Chiam See Tong against the PAP, we see a common thread: “This PAP policy is fundamentally right, but if they only made little tweaks here and there, this PAP policy would be a perfect one.”

    Having said that, I see Sylvia Lim – but not Low Thia Khiang because it is clearly not an area of specialization of his – as having the potential, though one that is sadly far from being realized, for political centrism ie. an adherence to constitutionalism and the rule of law, both of which the PAP has long abandoned. (Only the SDP can be described as a centrist party according to the definition. Incidentally, the political parties that dominate politics in liberal democracies, most of whom are First World countries, are all centrist parties.)

    My own comments on the WP’s role as “watchdog” – I see Chiam See Tong as playing the same role – follow from the above observation.

    Being in fundamental agreement with the PAP, both the WP members and Chiam See Tong are then not under any pressure to come up with policy alternatives; they merely need to focus on their task of being “kinder and gentler” versions of the PAP. But they would not seek to change PAP policy.

    In that, they also relegate themselves as merely *reacting* to the PAP, and never initiating anything; I would not regard them as proactive by any stretch of the imagination. (Again, that honour can only go to the SDP although, because of Kenneth Jeyaratnam’s political astuteness, the RP does come across as a party that is willing to take the bull by its horns.)

    Yet, it is real policy alternatives that I see as being desperately needed in Singapore right now, and in that sense the current batch of two-and-a-half ex-opposition MPs are not of much service to Singaporeans; Singaporeans might as well vote the PAP instead whose track record shows that are not about to capitulate to any bid by the ex-opposition MPs to make them kinder and gentler.

    By sharp contrast, the SDP with no seats in Parliament, have been able to impact on the PAP in hugely disproportionate ways, all from their ringside seats. (The online discussions on Minimum Wage as well as this same issue even having to be addressed by PAP ministers – including Lee Kuan Yew – and backbenchers is instructive. So too, the impact made by the issue of the abolishment of the death penalty.)

    Imagine how much more impact they would have if they actually had seats in Parliament.

  7. 9 Robox 31 December 2009 at 03:14

    On the question of why political discussion is not dominated by discussion of policy (but is an merely expression of hate for the PAP) – on the part of both opposition/ex-opposition parties as well as their support base – I think that there are multiple reasons for it:

    1. Lee Kuan Yew has long proposed that the only important quality that a politician needs – an ephemeral one, at that – is that s/he be of ‘good’ character. I believe that many Singaporeans, including those who will not vote the PAP (or sound like they wouldn’t) have accepted it to be the gospel truth. Hence, political discourse tends to be dominated by discussions of liking (or not liking) political personalities, either in the PAP or in the opposition/ex-opposition parties. (Eg. “I will vote for Chiam See Tong because he is a good man.”) Needless, to say this precludes any discussion on policy. Here, I believe that close to 100% of Singaporeans actually believe somewhere in their subconcious that the PAP is essentially right so there need not be discussion on policy; we just don’t like their arrogannce, say.

    (Incidentally, though this is a seperate topic, if only good character is required in politics, it follows that there is no need for checks and balances; we can substitute checks and balances with trust instead.)

    If it were to be the opposition/ex-opposition parties instead whose responsibility it becomes to initiate discussion on policy, then I see other reasons that hinder their abilities to do so:

    2. Following from #1 above, opposition/ex-opposition members are Singaporeans, and as Singaporeans, they too are impacted in exactly the same way as all Singaporeans by the larger political influences that Singaporeans are exposed to; they too are quite inarticulate about policy. Of course, like so much else, this is beginning to change. (The one credit I give to them is that they are probably individuals who feel intuitively that “There is something dreadfully wrong about this PAP policy.” and thus act to change it.)

    3. The people whose expertise is policy – top civil servants, academics, consultants both local and foreign – are only accessible to (or make themselves only accessible to) the PAP as the only party that has ruled Singapore. Thus, discussion of policy, if any, can more readily be initiated by the PAP since they not only have access to the policy experts but an assumed familiarity with those policies.

    (As an aside, it pays for Singaporeans who are wary that any change in government would spell disaster to know that those same policy experts are just as available to any new government as they are currently to the PAP. Politicians – cabinet ministers usually – only play the role of “project managers” for policy; they do not work on those policies personally.)

    4 A next impediment I see to the opposition/ex-opposition parties taking the lead on discussion of policy is that they may themselves be unaware of policy alternatives, usually already implemented in other countries. Here’s where those parties can indeed pick up the slack, especially in this wired age. (The right contacts are crucial.)

    5. The last factor is Singaporeans themselves, a population that is largely unfamiliar with democratic practices. (I believe that this is the point that tan Ah Kow was driving at in his first comment here.) If democracy can be defined as the maximum possible participation by the electorate in the political process – based on the meaning of “democracy’s” root words – then Singaporeans are sorely lacking when it comes to that participation. By and large, Singaporeans themselves tend not to initiate discussion on policy which alone can drive any political parties policy position, provided they are also familiar with the policy positions or alternatives (ie solutions) available for use. Even Singaporeans who are aware of policy alternatives – and your article on “Negative Income Tax” would fall into the category of policy alternatives – don’t communicate with political parties on those alternatives. (I hope that by writing that article, you have set an example to Singaporeans about communicating policy alternatives to the greatly underresourced opposition/ex-opposition parties.

  8. 10 yawningbread 31 December 2009 at 09:06

    Just a short note to say I really appreciate the comments here. They are meaty and offer serious points of view. Thank you for adding so much to the discussion.

    Tan Ah Kow’s question “Why are there not too many vocal civil groups addressing economic policies?” is a troubling one. I don’t know the answer. I can postulate that unlike the issues of civil rights and social justice, PAP’s track record on the economic front has, on the face of it, been laudable, and maybe this leaves little cause for dissent. What grievances there are pertain more to questions of redistribution, but even here, no one, not even in civil society, seems to be persistently pressing an alternative. That said, I have seen dissenting articles from academic economists, and recently even a Straits Times journalist on the whole mess that is housing policy. So there are individuals who have thought about such issues and came to conclusions different from the PAP; they are just not argued for in a sustained way. Why not? I don’t know.

    I also take the point that even in mature democracies, it is usually civil society groups that come up with alternative ideas. Typically, when they are first proposed, they sound utterly far-fetched to people, but gradually, the sense of them become apparent… and then political parties adopt them. This point reminds us that Singapore’s democracy fails in another way – our civil society is very undeveloped too.

    Add to that the Workers’ Party’s great reluctance to have any kind of contact with civil society (ghosts of 1987), and civil society’s reluctance to mix with opposition parties (because many receive funding from the govt), and we have a bad situation made worse.

  9. 11 Ponder Stibbons 2 January 2010 at 11:15

    I suspect the lack of civil society groups addressing economic issues may be because addressing them requires 1) non-trivial amount of quantitative information on Singapore’s economy, and 2) general quantitative and economic expertise. In contrast, issues like civil liberties and the death penalty can be addressed by anyone with a basic grasp of ethics, philosophy of law, and decent reasoning abilities.

    The effort and difficulty involved in first obtaining detailed economic statistics of the kind required to make causal (and not just correlative) claims about economic policy, and the quantitative expertise then required to evaluate those statistics, set a higher barrier of entry for most intellectually curious people. I think most people find it easier to take a principled, well-supported position on issues like civil liberties and the death penalty.


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