Electing movers of pleas

About half of the twelve participants in the English-language Question time with the Prime Minister, aired on 12 April over Channel NewsAsia, were redundant, asking wimpish questions. More than being wimpish, these participants’ approach was more along the lines of offering suggestions and asking for favours rather than contesting ideas.

One asked Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong to set up a “ministry for the seniors and the aged”. Another, a “unionist” (if such a term can be applied to people from government-linked organisations) spoke up to deflect a question by a social worker about older workers unable to get jobs, by suggesting that they join some fancy-termed scheme launched by the government. I was glad to see the social worker shoot him down with the power of experience.

A newly-naturalised citizen declared, in thick foreign accent: “Don’t marginalise the foreign talent. We are shoulder to shoulder with Singaporeans and we are one of you and that having [been] said, there is no scope for this debate about foreign talent.”

If somewhere in there was a question for the prime minister, let alone a challenging one, I have not yet found it.

Beyond the specifics, the wimpish group illustrated a point that I’ve been wanting to make for some time: A large segment of our population understands politics very differently from the more politically aware ones. They see government — and more often than not, a People’s Action Party (PAP) government — as a given. They do not see themselves empowered to change that reality. They may be unhappy and disgruntled, but the solution to their unhappiness and frustrations is to petition the government and hope that the loftier power cares enough to respond. If deference helps smooth the way for their petition, they will gladly show it.

Government, to them, is more monarchy than republic. As for themselves, they are more subjects than citizens.

Of course they know that at election time they get to vote for their MP. But “MP” to them means quite a different thing from what it means to the more politically aware ones. The chief job of the MP, in the former’s conceptualisation of it, is not to contest policy and argue for wholesale change, but to convey their feelings and requests up. “MP” stands not so much for “Member of Parliament” but “Mover of Pleas”.

The politically aware will see straight away that such a concept of politics is extremely limited, and ultimately ineffectual. Often, the source of social problems and our frustrations is the system itself with its values and priorities, and no solution can be found within the system. Politics, in the full meaning of the word, must include contestation over what the system should be.

Naturally, such contestation does not suit the hegemon. Lee himself tried to cast those prepared to question the system in a negative light, when he said in the program,

Not all opposition parties are the same. Some work within our system and try to play a constructive role; others try to pull down the system and bring it into disrepute. And I think there’s a difference in the way they approach politics and the way we approach them.

You’d notice the hint of a threat when he said “the way we approach them”.

The unfortunate thing is that lots of Singaporeans unquestioningly accept that robustly questioning the system is insupportable, and here it should be said that many of us would know that Lee was referring to the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP), particularly its leader Chee Soon Juan. This party has put civil liberties and democracy front and centre of its mission, which brings it into head-on collision with the very controls that the PAP considers non-negotiable in its quest to remain in power.

In response, the mainstream media, doing the work of the PAP, has either demonised or shut out the SDP, resulting in widespread opinion today that the SDP is somehow disreputable or dangerous. We see comments in various online media that the SDP is “too confrontational” for example, perhaps in reference to the civil disobedience campaigns they tried to launch in previous years.

The Straits Times recently planned to do a story about whether the SDP has “changed”, as if street politics and parliamentary politics are either/or choices, as if “respectability” comes from abjuring street politics.

A little bit of self-reflection would illuminate the terrors within our own little heads. Not two months ago, we were mostly cheering the Egyptian people and their political leaders as they engaged in street politics and civil disobedience in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. We celebrated with them as Mubarak finally resigned, ending a regime that distorted the electoral system and jailed its opponents just as Singapore’s has. Now why is street politics and civil disobedience admirable in Egypt, and not here?

On the other hand, I may be thinking too highly of Singaporeans. Perhaps they didn’t cheer on Egyptians in their hearts. Perhaps they didn’t celebrate the downfall of Mubarak. Not because they were pro-Mubarak, but because they didn’t even know who Mubarak was, or much about what was going on. Two in five Singaporeans aged under 35, reported the New Paper about a month ago, had no interest in politics. Only 15 percent of Singaporeans aged 21 – 25 said they “keep track of local political events and issues” often, according to a Straits Times poll published 16 April 2011 — a poll that I will discuss a bit more about in the next article.

Singaporeans are by and large just not politically aware. The tendency to see MPs as little more than movers of pleas may well be the norm. After all, it would be a fair guess that 99 percent of Singaporeans who have ever interacted with their MPs would have done so as a mendicant, at the MP’s “meet the people” clinic.

Here’s a quote from a report made by students of Nan Hua High School when they, in a school project, paid a visit to the Clementi MP’s clinic:

After the short briefing, each of us was assigned to a petition writer. These petition writers are volunteers who offer their time and services at the GRC. The volunteers’ job is to assess and evaluate the resident’s problem and then send requests or enquiries to higher authorities regarding their problems.

Link.

That’s what MPs are for — to move their pleas and petitions to the powers that be.  But if so, then rationality dictates that to be effective in whatever little way they can, the MP should belong to the same party as that which forms the government — the PAP. There is little reason then, to vote for an opposition party; even if they win a seat or two, their MPs will just be ignored.

And so we head into another general election. In the end, Singaporeans get the government and the system they deserve.

14 Responses to “Electing movers of pleas”


  1. 1 Tanky 18 April 2011 at 18:50

    In Japan, the LDP ruled for 38 years until 1993, 4 years after the burst of the Japanese economic bubble. The LDP broke up and some became the “oppositions”. Since then, it was never ending merry-go-round of PMs. The biggest impact of the long one part system (followed by switching of A and B team) led to a largely apolitical population. As voting is not compulsory in Japan, the turn out rate of GE is often around 30+%. What will be our turn out rate if voting is not compulsory?
    In Finland, it has 18 political parties. In the latest GE, 9 parties got at least one seat. The top four parties each got about 35-40 seats of a total of 200 seats. By the way, Finland has 5.4 million people.

  2. 2 Gard 18 April 2011 at 19:52

    It is possible there had been a question (or questions) for the PM – since people are allowed to write in online.

    The real question is, can it be truly that no viewer of ChannelNewsAsia (or members of the public) actually raised a challenging question for the PM?

    If there is the case, your assertion is true: Singaporeans will get the monarchy they deserve. There is nothing wrong with monarchy – able monarchs supported by efficient bureaucrats have thrived throughout ancient history in China, India and Europe. Geographical smallness is an advantage, as information moves quickly to the decision makers and corruption are held in check by the rule of law.

    But when the messengers (mainstream media in this case) do not carry the news (good or bad) to the king, you know the system has started to rot.

    • 3 paradize 12 May 2011 at 12:36

      “But when the messengers (mainstream media in this case) do not carry the news (good or bad) to the king, you know the system has started to rot.”

      the messengers are also the RC, CC, MPs themselves. the system began to rot with the departure of old guard under “renewal”.
      the CC, RC, etc always put up a good show and the MPs started to believe in their bubble world.

  3. 4 Elijah Lau 18 April 2011 at 21:51

    I think when you say “we were mostly cheering the Egyptian people”, the “we” is mostly people like us – the “politically aware group” that you mentioned in your article. The majority would see the images on tv and conclude that the protests are “bad” – cause instability, damage economy etc etc.

    Mediacorp’s coverage was a travesty – purely focused on how the economy is affected by the protests and nothing about the reasons behind the protests. But can’t blame them. They are just be pandering to the prejudices of their audience.

  4. 5 TC 18 April 2011 at 22:10

    There was a similar one on Channel 8 too – think it was on Saturday.

    I happened to be sitting in the hall and caught a few minutes of it.

    I was skeptical of course. I mean, what do the expect the people to ask the Emperor? It was more of an opportunity for the PM to “educate” the masses and impress upon them before the election.

    There have been a lot of such exposures in the past month alone.

  5. 6 anon 19 April 2011 at 00:19

    I got the idea that voting here is compulsory because if it is not, the PAP would probably have been thrown out of office!

  6. 7 CK 19 April 2011 at 04:17

    86:1. 87:0 if Low ever leaves HG.

    Don’t love Sinkee too much, or it’ll break your heart like it did mine.

    I have left for more than 2 years now. Best decision ever.

  7. 8 hahaha 19 April 2011 at 09:06

    Dominance leads to complacency. Complacency leads to apathy. Apahty leads to ignorance. Ignorance leads to stagnation.
    Using LKY own words on them, once PAP are entrenched and take for granted the mandate to rule, they need have spurs stuck on their hide.

  8. 9 wongyy 19 April 2011 at 17:31

    CK
    19 April 2011 at 04:17:

    86:1. 87:0 if Low ever leaves HG.

    …just wondering if YB is making any changes
    to the earlier Base case Prediction prior to Nomination Day? Thanks!

  9. 10 boman 20 April 2011 at 08:49

    To quote your article, “Government, to them, is more monarchy than republic. As for themselves, they are more subjects than citizens.”

    This is what I see even among my many contacts who are supposedly well-read and yet hold the PAP in that regard. It’s sad.

  10. 11 Tan Tai Wei 20 April 2011 at 10:27

    This “role” of MPs, which you perceptively point out distracts from their national political role of representing constituents’ concerns about the polity, including its “systemic” concerns (which, you perceptively say, tends towards leaving the PAP-engineered “system” unquestioned), the PAP has institutionalised by making MPs municipal CEOs of their districts.

    The move was probably originally meant by the arrogant PAP to show up any opposition MP to be “dud”, presumed by them to be unable to manage a district. (However Loh and Chiam have proven them wrong, and have instead strengthened their hold on their constituencies by competent management. This may partly explain why they had continued to be voted in despite not very oustanding performance in Parliament.)

    The management of districts within a nation is the reponsibility of the state civil service, which has the task of looking after their specific concerns, etc. Political leadership over the civil service is on broad policies, such as relating local affairs to national ones and vice versa. When these have been decided, the civil service then implements the policies as regards their details fairly across the nation, irrespective of whom the respective districts voted for.

    MPs are chosen to represent the concerns of constituencies as they relate to national affairs, including the need, where they arise, of making national “systemic” changes, etc.

  11. 12 Robs 20 April 2011 at 10:41

    Hi, avid reader here.

    1) On Street politics: I don’t think you can use the events in Tahrir Square to justify street politics in Singapore. The Mubarak regime is an old-fashioned Middle-Eastern military dictatorship that was unpopular and kept afloat by military fiat whilst the PAP, for all its faults, has popular legitimacy. They are hardly synonymous.

    I’m not saying a dose of civil disobedience will not be good for Singapore. In fact I think it is needed to push the boundaries of many of the unnecessary restrictions on our civil-liberties. I’m just saying that if one wants to convince people that their aversion to it is unfounded, using the Arab Spring as justification will not do. It just gives succour to those who claim that advocates of change are hysterical and intemperate. It has to be argued on Singapore’s own terms.

    2) Your indictment on Singaporeans’ attitude to politics is also, I think, not useful. Politics is not an end in of themselves, merely an instrument to help people lead better lives. You speak as if every citizen have an obligation to be a political warrior in one way or the other. The fact is, for the vast majority of the country, more prosaic concerns predominate. They are just trying to get by and live out a dignified life. It is the obligation of politicians to make their work relevant to these concerns, not for the people to re-orientate their priorities to lead a life more infused with politics. Condemning people who identify their everyday concerns with PAP rule as ignorant obfuscates the fact that these are the very people that any successful opposition must reach out to and aim to serve. (Of course, I do think that there should be less restrictions on this discourse, which is why I’m still leaning opposition this election).

  12. 13 Lord Jim 21 April 2011 at 15:24

    The political situation in Singapore reminds me of Darwin’s theory of Evolution. In Darwin’s theory, species evolve rapidly when there are selective pressure(or changes) in the environment or else only very small changes can come from it’s own internal mutation.

    This is exactly what happened in Singapore’s politics. PAP has managed to keep the larger environment(i.e. food supply, job, defense, housing etc) stable. These are factors deem to be important in the mind of the average Singaporean, not political ideologies.

    It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the PAP can remain pertinent in the lives of so many of it citizens for so long and look set to continue to do so for quite sometimes to come.

  13. 14 bourgeousie 27 April 2011 at 14:18

    (food supply, job, defense, housing etc) stable?

    I think food prices and housing have really gone through the roof with rising rents pushing them up.

    If you have a cushy job you obviously cannot empathize with the jobless who are many in Singpaore, just underdeclared.

    defense sucks up most of our tax money, that’s why it is stable.


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