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.
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?