New election, same old non-choices

I was just about to write about how opposition parties in Singapore aren’t doing a good job of differentiating themselves when the new Socialist Front got themselves into the news.

Here is party that that is reasserting a program that many may think has passed into history. That should grab some attention.

As reported by the Straits Times (30 October 2010), Chia Ti Lik, the Secretary-General of the Socialist Front, said their party’s aim was to set up a socialist government, with state control over key industries like transport and medical services.  It sounds like re-nationalisation, a rolling back of the neo-liberalism (more accurately rabid capitalism) that has dominated political fashion for the last 30 years.

Party Chair Ng Teck Siong told the media that their focus will be on Singaporeans’ welfare and not on making profits, as well as areas such as the rising cost of living, depressed wage levels caused by the influx of foreign workers, and casinos — which may bring short-term economic gains but social ills in the long term, as reported by the newspaper.

You may disagree with their bullet points, you may even mock their “Forwards, into the past!” scheme, but at least they point in a different direction, and offer voters a choice. And personally, I think when capitalism has gone too far, a dose of socialism isn’t a bad thing at all.

That said, it is easy to make such pronouncements, it’s another thing altogether to set down the details. What exactly do they mean by “state control” of medical services? Isn’t that what we have already, with our public hospitals? Or do they mean we should nationalise all private clinics too? What do they propose we do about the “influx of foreign workers”? Turn off the tap completely? If not, what new rules do they have in mind?

On the one hand, one may take the view that a detailed program is not necessary. Snatch a few key ideas that resonate with enough people and you can win their votes. The typical voter does not have time or interest in the minutiae of policy, one may say.

I will argue the opposite: that sketching a few key ideas is not sufficient unless these are inspiringly radical ones, which naturally is difficult to come up with; most radical new ideas will come across as crackpot rather than visionary. In lieu of that missing grand idea, a second best is nitty-gritty detail.

To be fair, it is a lot of work. And some opposition parties just do not have the resources – people, knowledge, time – to put a detailed program together.

Closetted manifestoes

But what is really funny is that those parties that do have meaty manifestoes, don’t spend much time telling people about it. I have often wondered about that and my thoughts have gravitated to four possible reasons:

1.  They think most people are not interested.

They may be right. Most people, especially in a politically apathetic place like Singapore, have neither the time nor inclination to plow through details, particularly when no opposition party is remotely near forming the next government.

But opposition parties do themselves a disservice by downplaying their detailed program. There is one important group out there for whom this can be critically important: the fence sitters. They are the ones who want to be convinced, and presenting (and discussing) a detailed program is a way to convince them of one’s seriousness of purpose and the practicality of the alternative.

It’s like this: When someone has a track record, he can get away with fewer details whenever he makes a proposal. His track record fills in the gaps. You know how he operates, you know his priorities, his style. You may not like it, but you know. However, when a new guy or party with no track record comes along, he/they need to compensate for the lack of reference history by presenting a more detailed plan. It’s a means of proving intellectual calibre, thoroughness in research and grasp of the subject matter. It is also an indicator of a grasp of reality, and honesty about hard choices ahead.

Since opposition parties have no track record in governing, I would say all the more they need to convince the undecided that they are worth their vote through thoroughness rather than slogans.

2.  Opposition politicians themselves are not interested

It is a funny thing again, but almost never, when I’m in the company of opposition politicians and their supporters, does anyone mention any specific idea they may have. Instead, the conversation around me is usually a litany of complaints about how hard life is in Singapore and how “evil” the People’s Action Party (PAP) government is.

Partly, it’s got to do with the very motivation that got them into politics in the first place: their dislike of the PAP. It is always top of mind for them. Venting is not only cathartic for them, but they assume that other Singaporeans too share their dislike of the PAP to more or less the same extent – it’s a well-established fact that most people assume others to be similar to themselves (one reason why heterosexual men find it extremely difficult to conceive of the idea that some men just don’t find “chicks” attractive) – and it’s an easy step from there to reciting stock phrases about the ills of PAP rule. There is a subliminal assumption that others enjoy hearing about those ills as much as they enjoy repeating them.

By contrast, talking about programs and policy ideas is extremely dull, nerdy almost.

There is also the implicit assumption that just as they got into politics when they saw how “bad” PAP rule is, so the route to getting votes is to goad others into feeling the same emotions. Unsurprisingly, policy and programs are forgotten along the way.

3.  What ideas they have are embarrassingly tiny tweaks on existing policies.

There really is just one area where some opposition parties have positioned themselves diametrically opposed to the PAP’s policies, and that is the area of civil and political rights. On all other issues, social policy, economic management, defence and foreign policy, there is either a tendency to accept the PAP’s framing of the issues (e.g. welfare state is a bad thing, an open economy is a good thing, Singaporeans are conservative, race and religion are no go areas, drugs are bad)  or a recognition that the PAP has mostly got things right.

Given this starting point, it is hard to come up with really different ideas. What one finds instead are small tweaks designed more to win favour by addressing public dissatisfaction where this can be found, than any comprehensive program that starts from first principles. Take foreign worker and immigration issues for example. For all the dissatisfaction which opposition parties think they see on the ground, and for all the bluster the parties generate about it, the details of what they would want done about the issue remains remarkably vague. Or take the minimum wage issue: as far as I am aware (and I may be wrong because I haven’t looked hard enough) no party has yet suggested a dollar figure, or stated clearly whether it should apply to foreign workers and domestic maids.

I wonder if parties are a little afraid that if they drew too much attention to the program, some precocious voters might ask for specifics, which will only reveal how vague, incomplete or internally contradictory everything is? So, might it not be better to stick to venting against PAP misrule and not draw too much attention to the manifesto?


4. No need for differentiating ideas since opposition parties avoid contesting against each other

This is perhaps the most insidious of all. All opposition parties know that three-cornered fights in any electoral constituency are very risky. If any candidate (or group of candidates in a Group Representation Constituency) fails to get 12.5 percent of the votes in that constituency, he/they lose their election deposit which was $13,500 per candidate in the 2006 general election. I don’t know if it’s the same amount for the next one.

Because they pull out all the stops to avoid three-cornered fights, no voter is confronted with having to choose between opposition parties. Each voter (other than those in walkover constituencies) has just the choice of the PAP and one opposition party. That being the case, opposition parties have no incentive to tell voters why they are different from and better than another opposition party; they focus on how bad the PAP is. In other words, back to the slogans and the reiteration of well-known grievances.

But as I have argued, all this does is preach to the choir and rally the ones who are equally dissatisfied with the PAP. It does little to change the minds of the swing voter.

And here’s another thing: In countries where it is not compulsory to vote, rallying one’s base makes a huge difference between getting their votes and not getting them when they stay at home. In Singapore, it is compulsory to vote so the base is more or less assured. Why waste too much time and resources rallying them? Parties should focus on the swing voter. Yet, somehow this clear-eyed logic is lost on many.

Leader’s personality rather than mission

But there is one unhappy consequence of parties not paying attention to program, or even to an overall political philosophy, and that is the rise of personality factionalism.

I see it this way: When a campaign is mission-oriented, the people who join start off with common ideas, and everybody understands that the mission is the primary glue that holds them together. Without a mission, the personality of the leader carries a lot more weight. The party becomes indistinguishable from the leader; it is how it would differentiate itself from other parties, if at all it needs to do so. But this then means that it is difficult for two persons with big egos to be in the same party.

And this is the result we see today. With the possible exception of the Workers’ Party, most of the others are more clearly identified with a leader than a program; and some might argue that the Workers’ Party doesn’t have a program either, the only difference is that it has two recogniseable leaders.

In fact, the history of Singapore opposition politics since the demise of Barisan Socialis – and that was a party with a very clear leftist program – has been one of a multitude of small parties, each centred around a single personality, and whose fortunes rose and fell with that person. You may argue that that is not true, the Workers’ Party had David Marshall, then J B Jeyaretnam, then Low Thia Khiang, for example, but I think a case can be made there those were three different Workers’ Parties, for depending on who was in charge, the party represented very different things.

The result of parties that are in the main built around a dominant personality is that co-operation among them (other than avoiding three-cornered fights) is very difficult. For an opposition landscape that is already small and resource-short, there is a tremendous amount of duplication as each little party has to organise everything from scratch by itself. It’s a real pity.

And so, as we head into another general election, I can’t shake off the ennui. Has anything changed?

19 Responses to “New election, same old non-choices”

  1. 1 Singaporean 2 November 2010 at 13:17

    I understand where you are coming from for this issue. However, the points you mentioned further disadvantaged the opposition parties, when the ruling party’s policy errors or governing incompetence are glossed over or not seriously looked into by the compliant local media. Hence, it is not surprising why the opposition parties are reluctant to go into details, which would then be “scrutinized” by the local media, which is effectively the communications branch of the PAP anyway.

  2. 2 kumar 2 November 2010 at 14:06

    When was the last time the incumbent gave a crystal clear manifesto to the people just before an election.It is always a very glossy airy fairy series of covenants that they hope would fire up the so called patriotism of the people.Can you blame the opposition for not banging on their policies when they know that the local media will not give a fair and proper platform to refute the incumbent but instead twist their edicts into something that the incumbent’s can use to gun them down without any rebuttals?

  3. 3 Faith 2 November 2010 at 15:59

    I feel that the opposition could try coming together to form a policy think-tank similar to IPS (Institute of Policy Studies) to work out the statistics and trends. They could use data from official sources or even craft out new channels to collect feedback from Singaporeans when the former’s information is deemed insufficient or biased.

    From such quantitative data, there can be room for each opposition party to explore how they would want Singapore to grow at the next developmental stage through both quantitative and qualitative analysis (as a coalition of opposition parties or within a particular opposition party).

    An opposition policy think-tank encourages both healthy cooperation and competition between opposition parties such that they are compelled to be more discerning and analytical; a nice balance for their emotional rhetoric. Ideally, this can nurture the opposition to be a “shadow government”; nothing dubious but rather an entity that has both acuity of knowledge of national governance and of citizen sentiments with the willingness to bridge the two together.

    Personally I don’t feel that the opposition actively consults me on national and individual matters. Something which ironically, the opposition criticizes the government for. Adding to this, I do sympathize with the opposition and admire them for taking up a cause which they did not have to undertake, challenging a situation whose odds are highly stacked against them, and for helping Singaporeans, Permanent Residents and foreigners in Singapore who might not be appreciative of their efforts.

    But it can do better. And contrary to someone’s recent words, Singaporeans are good enough. Good enough, even to take national politics and progress to the next level.

    • 4 Fox 3 November 2010 at 14:45

      In order for the opposition to come together ‘to form a policy think-tank similar to IPS (Institute of Policy Studies) to work out the statistics and trends’, they need data to be freely available. Unfortunately, government agencies are very good at stonewalling when it comes to requests for information.

      The government has a monopoly on real time data and the opposition has little access to it. Furthermore, the government is quite reluctant to provide information readily. I have personally written to REACH to request for certain information and have been told that such information is not available because of public sensitivities. Mind you, I was not asking for how many F-16s pilots we have or anything even remotely related to defence or security. I merely asked how much MOE spends on ABC. In Singapore academia, there is probably an entire industry devoted to extrapolating economic/demographic data from what is released by the Singapore government.

      Therefore, I’m actually not surprised that the opposition is generally unable to formulate specific alternative policies, given the paucity of data. I’ll cut them some slack on this.

  4. 5 Tanky 2 November 2010 at 18:05

    As a baby, you are totally dependent on your parents to care for you. As you are cute, full of potential, and easily moldable, your parents will go through fire for you. — (1)

    As a toddler, your parents will tolerate your “terrible 2” stage and actually find it funny. —- (2)

    As a child, you start to question your parents decisions. You sometimes disagree and if your parents do not give in, you make a fuss but can’t really do much if your parents insist. You are still largely dependent on them. —– (3)

    As a teenager, the dynamics changes. Your parents can’t bulldoze through decision anymore and they need you to buy-in. —– (4)

    As an adult, your parents start to rely on you to do stuff for them. They start to realize that the day may soon come that they need you to take care of them. They discuss with you on issues and listen to your inputs because they realize now that you might actually know more. —- (5)

    —> (1) new PRs and new citizens; (2) young Singaporeans; (3) what our government thinks Singaporeans are; (4) what Netizens think they are; (5) how I wish we cam grow to be, soon.

  5. 7 Politik sama 2 November 2010 at 21:52


    I agree almost wholly with what you wrote.

    And precisely why I think the outcome for the next election will not be very much different from previous ones.

    In Singspore politics, nothing will change drastically. Unless the opposition drastically changes to become strong or stronger than the PAP.

    But with the picture you have described, and which you have hit the nail on the head, this is far from being the case.

    So in spite of changes to demographics, income gap, etc, etc, politically, things will be pretty much status quo. And for as long as the opposition remain in current state.

  6. 8 Lee Chee Wai 3 November 2010 at 07:24

    I had (emphasize past-tense) been trying to get the Reform Party to be more specific about their ideas and plans.

    The “best” responses I got (my interpretation) was that they did not want the PAP to take their ideas. Usually, I just get stonewalled.

    So, I can identify with Alex over this issue.

  7. 9 Tanky 3 November 2010 at 11:30

    In “Why empathy matters?”, the author J D Trout pointed out that it is dangerous to think that people know what they want and can choose what they want. “When we choose poorly, these failures do not have a pure pedigree.  They are part individual irrationalism, part unconscious influence, and part lousy choices.”

    When we are unhappy with the behavior of our first choice, or that the logical “right” choice  disappoints, we might behave irrationally, especially under influence, and choose one of the lousy choices available.

    Underestimating the potential of irrational voting can be detriment to any incumbent.    

  8. 10 urbanrant 3 November 2010 at 12:53

    I agree with those points raised. It is important for the opposition to exploit on the cracks in the PAP policies. And then to focus on their energy on dispelling the PAP myth (of competence) using hard facts.

    Floods and Mas Selamat are important issues which were glossed over. We could have a more coherent position on where the ruling government was wrong and why an alternative is needed.

  9. 11 hahaha 3 November 2010 at 13:30

    PAP are being tansparent for what they want you to know only. Opposition parties also need to keep some bullets when the real fight comes around. All these talk in on TV of MPs complaining about Opposition members lacking in efforts are tricks to make Opp members shed more of their strategies, thus giving away the game plans.

  10. 12 patriot 3 November 2010 at 23:51

    What you have just expressed is vindication of the years of successful PAP ideological branding e.g. politics should be dull, technocracy is the pragmatic way of governing. In fact, you have even jumped the gun on opposition criticism before the election has been called.

    I disagree with many of your points and will not go into the details (because it is boring hah). What I will offer is just this, instead of focusing on the politicians and their grand plans to improve/impoverish this little island, why not ask ourselves: how would you like to see yourself and your children (or nieces and nephews) living in Singapore in 10, 20 years time and what will you do to be part of that process(es) from here till then?

    I know my answer. How about yours?


  11. 13 yuen 4 November 2010 at 09:44

    well, the whole point of a good political speech is keeping people’s attention for 20 minutes (or in rare cases, 2hours), and in the end giving nothing away; whether PAP or opposition, a good politician manages to talk about boring things in an interesting way; of course, very few have that gift

    the same goes for bloggers…

  12. 14 yuen 4 November 2010 at 13:53

    in any case, platform and presentation are not the most urgent of their problems; the crisis that arose in SDA and the likely departure of Chiam See Tong and his party, indicates a simple failure to work together democratically – an ironical point in view of their criticism of PAP

    the crisis is very similar to the one in 1992 with Chiam losing the leadership of SDP, triggered by the specific issue of whether SDP members Ling Hao Dong etc who were running town councils should employ Chee Soon Juan as part time consultant after his dismissal by NUS; this time, the issue is on what conditions the SPA can accept Kenneth Jeyaratnam’s Reform Party into the alliance

    in both cases, Chiam tried to implement his own solutions against the views of the party’s majority leadership, and refused to change position despite clear opposing voices, until the organizations publicly and quite rudely overruled him

  13. 15 prettyplace 4 November 2010 at 13:54

    Well said Alex.

    Your example of min. wage was good. It is quite dissappointing to see our opposiions, not arriving there yet.

    I think the problem of making a stand, a committed stand is scaring them, the fear that the stand might be wrong. What next, the entire political career is gone.

    This fear can only be wiped out if they come up with a plan on 1 issue. Something they know very well. Specialise.

    Finally a small piece of advice to the oppositions,

    people will not know,if your policy is or will go wrong until you have implemented it and start running it. Only time can tell, just like what the PAP is doing. So start on something and stand up for it, shout loud enough for people to hear and follow. Argue your cause with whoever refutes it and make sure its water-tight and it can become popular among the people.

    I think small party’s should specialise in one area, eg. housing, to make things clear to people what they stand for.
    It might take time, but people will recognise you, over-time for that particular matter and know that you are fit to be in Parliment to check on that issue & ministry.You naturally become a shadow minister. Thus, enabling you to stand anywhere in Singapore.

  14. 16 KT Phua 6 November 2010 at 10:45

    1) You say one, the other side will say not doable and tell you two, three, four.

    2) You say two, three, four, the other side will say not doable and tell five, six, seven.

    3) You say five, six, seven, the other side will say not doable and tell you eight, nine & one.

    The primary objective at this early stage is for the opposition to galvanize the necessary number and act as an effective counter-checking mechanism while learning the hands-on trick of governing and learning more about the workings (details) of any department / institution / division SO THAT they can come out with better programs that NEED to be reformed & refined.

  15. 17 market2garden 6 November 2010 at 17:31

    Thanks for sharing.
    The Article (Blog Entry) and Responeses (total 16).
    The realities of Singapore Political Landscape.
    This coming GE I may have the chance to vote,
    if according to ST today.

  16. 18 Robert L 8 November 2010 at 23:14

    Dear YB

    I’m terribly sorry, but I think you are completely off the mark with this latest essay. Quite unlike your usual high standards.

    I am completely opposed to any notion that an opposition party or candidate in the present Singapore context should give a detail outline of his alternative plans. The reason is so simple – the opposition is not privy to any data kept hidden by the civil service, and therefore we should conclude that any program they come out with must in essence be in the absence of valid data. In other words, guesswork. The opposition can only work with officially released data, and we all know how those figures are designed to mislead the public.

    To come to the bottom line of this logic, any program put up by the present opposition must be wrong; or if they are right, it would have been pure luck.

    Singaporeans must now take action. To continue to vote for PAP is to take no action. That would be suicide.

    I have come to the conclusion that Singaporeans must vote for any candidate as long as it’s not PAP. Even a candidate like Harbans Singh, who many have concluded had been a dummy put up by PAP as a black operation to guarantee the voters vote for their candidate.

    In the coming election, if the PAP continues to put up dummy “opposition” candidates, I would like to see Singaporeans vote these dummies into parliament, that would send a mighty strong signal to the PAP. And we do need to send a strong signal, because we cannot continue to take no action.

    Opposition parties should explain to voters that they should not put up wrong programs coming out of lack of data not forthcoming from civil servants. The opposition should give their program only when they have been voted into a position such that they can demand the true data from civil servants.

    There is a huge, huge difference between data that are selectively released to the public versus raw data that are kept hidden.

    Singaporeans must realise that opposition parties can work for them only when the parties are voted in. If they are not voted in, then let them take care of their own livelihood which are already in serious jeopardy. And do not be so silly as to ask them to come up with any program for running the country.

  17. 19 J 11 November 2010 at 09:49

    SDP has suggested a minimum wage pf $6.80/hr

    It’s a long article, the figure is towards the bottom in the section ‘Introduce Minimum Wage’

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