Like in elections past, the People’s Action Party (PAP) is once again trundling out an old bogeyman. It goes by slightly different names from year to year, but it’s the same guy. In the 2006 election campaign, it was called the “fix-the-opposition” bogeyman, after Lee Hsien Loong said that if there were more than the barest minimum of opposition party members in parliament, he would not be able to govern, since he would have to spend time thinking up ways to “fix” the opposition. Singapore would then go down the chutey.
This year, old bogey has been renamed “Deadlock”. The message is the same, though: if the PAP does not have a sweeping victory, there will be deadlock in parliament and Singapore will grind to a halt.
Old bogey emerged very soon after the Workers’ Party unveiled its key message: Singapore needs to vote significant numbers of opposition members into parliament if we are ever to acquire the security of an alternative government-in-waiting should the PAP one day flounder. This message has since been distilled into the catchphrase: A First-World parliament.
Immediately, the PAP declared that in this respect, Singapore must remain Third World. The First World is a very scary place. There, legislatures are in gridlock, governments do not function. How then these countries managed to reach first-world status in economic, technological and social development, is a mystery left unexplained.
Indranee Rajah (PAP Tanjong Pagar) had a letter published in the Straits Times Forum, designed to scare the daylights out of voters:
On the other hand, there are numerous examples of multi-party legislatures stuck in gridlock and engaged in political theatre, while governance, the economy and the people suffer.
If the WP really only wants to speak up in Parliament and question government policies, and act as a check on the Government, then the Non-Constituency MP scheme provides for exactly that. But in truth, the WP wants more MPs in Parliament to form a base for greater electoral success in the future.
They will act as a bloc to bargain with the Government. They will also seek to block constitutional amendments – thereby again preventing effective governance. Ms Lim has said as much publicly.
The result? Policies which would benefit the people cannot get passed. Many thoughtful American observers lament that this is happening in the US right now. In reality, the WP’s vision is a ‘Fictional World Parliament’.
— Letter by Indranee Rajah, Straits Times Forum, 19 April 2011.
Taking the cue, other fearful citizens penned their own letters to the newspaper. This one for example:
A two-party system can lead to an inefficient system of government where ideological differences result in an impotent Parliament (‘WP’s fictional First World Parliament’ by People’s Action Party MP Indranee Rajah’; yesterday).
I firmly oppose Western-style two-party systems, but we must define the system of democracy we want by being selective of MPs.
It is not desirable to have an antagonistic opposition whose main aim is to prevent the functioning of government.
I hope Singapore’s system can evolve so that the opposition serves to provide valuable input on policies in the public interest – and that such input will be seriously considered by the Government instead of being dismissed out of hand.
— Letter by Chua Sheng Yang, Straits Times Forum, 20 April 2011.
There are so many logical fallacies in these two letters, I hardly know where to begin. In any case, I can’t deal with all, so let me pick three.
Chua’s point that opposition parties should not be “antagonistic” (he refers to such as “western-style”) is just unthinking subservience, revealing no understanding of what democracy is about. He has no trust at all in the contest of ideas as an engine of development. Furthermore, his remarks reveal his perspective as that of a subject looking up to a monarch — a point I raised in the recent article Electing movers of pleas. He merely wants opposition parties to timidly proffer suggestions to help the king refine his policies, always settling for second-best in an unchanging order under heaven.
While Chua may be misguided, Rajah is so slick, she is dangerous. Did you notice the statement, “Policies which would benefit the people cannot get passed”?
Hold on a minute. Do all government policies and proposed laws “benefit the people”? Might it not be to the greater good that some hare-brained schemes and bills are blocked, or at least highlighted by opposition parties in robust debate so that the average citizen gets a chance to understand the risks and consequences of new laws? Isn’t it more risky to give the PAP a free pass to push through any and every law (and constitutional amendment) they want, via a supermajority in parliament?
And coming back to Chua, why would a government take on board any opposition party’s alternative ideas? In his scheme of things — a static order under heaven — it costs a government nothing to completely ignore the proffered ideas and suggestions from the grovelling opposition.
The only time a government will take alternative ideas seriously is if they know they will pay the price if their own ideas don’t work out. And that price, in politics, is to be booted out of office. It’s just like any worker. If he knows he’ll lose his job if he performs badly and refuses to take on board suggestions to improve, then he will listen and stay on his toes. But if his job is secure regardless, then he’ll continue to do whatever he wants, and more and more be driven by self-interest.
So if Chua wants a government that will listen, he has to accept an antagonistic opposition that is capable of overthrowing the government at the next election. And for that, it means an opposition that is a significant force electorally, with proven parliamentary experience. To not want a strong opposition, yet want a government that will listen, is a pipe dream. One cannot have one’s cake and eat it.
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Coming back to deadlock, the PAP’s scare-mongering is absolute rubbish, as I will explain here.
There are certain scenarios where deadlock is much more likely to happen. One is when the government does not have a majority in the legislature. Then the government may want something done, but the majority in the legislature will not go along with it.
This kind of situation very rarely arises in a Westminster-type parliamentary system that Singapore has, because under this system, if a party (or coalition of parties) does not command a majority in parliament, it does not even get a chance to form the government.
Instead, such scenarios arise only when separate elections are held for the executive (usually the president) and the legislature. Voters may vote someone from Party A to the presidency, but do not give Party A a majority in parliament. Since in Singapore we do not vote separately for the executive (prime minister, in our case), it is not a scenario we need to worry about.
The second scenario is one that can happen in a Westminster-style system. A party obtains a clear majority in parliament (about 72 percent of seats in my diagram at left), and thus forms the government.
However, this party is internally divided into factions. Even ministers in the cabinet may belong to different factions.
Conflict may occur between factions, e.g. over budget allocations, promotions or policy ideas. This can lead to the feared paralysis.
You will quickly notice, I’m sure, that the paralysis is not the result of opposition parties being significantly represented in parliament. They have nothing to do with it.
In fact this is a scenario that most worries me about the post-Lee Kuan Yew era that is fast approaching, but I will leave it to another occasion to expand on this topic.
In a Westminster system, it is possible that after a general election, no party secures a simple majority in parliament. In that case, parties usually go into negotiations, emerging with a coalition government.
In my example at right, the main ruling party is in various shades of brown (it is divided into factions too), in coalition with two smaller parties (yellow and leaf green). Together, they have a slight majority in parliament and so get to form the government.
But, over certain issues, the coalition parties cannot agree. Or maybe it is two or more factions within the main party that cannot come to a joint position. Disagreement can occur both within the coalition cabinet as well as among its backbenchers.
Once again, opposition parties are not the ones causing the paralysis.
Even if the main ruling party is not split into factions, conflict can still arise with its coalition partners, as shown in diagram 4.
That said, many countries have done very well despite having coalition governments frequently. Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden are some of them. Yet, these countries surmount difficulties, and arguably provide good infrastructure and a good life for its citizens.
To say that serious conflict leading to deadlock can arise is not the same as saying they will arise.
In any case, none of the above scenarios are even remotely possible in the case of Singapore this coming general election. What can happen is either #5 or #6 below. Diagram 5 represents what I believe is the “wildly-optimistic” scenario, where opposition parties win about half the seats they contest, giving them about 40 percent of the seats in parliament.
The PAP still has a simple majority and is in a position to pass laws smoothly, using the party whip. What “deadlock” are we talking about?
What may happen, though, is that PAP backbenchers need to show up for parliamentary sessions more often. By my observation, parliament is often less than half-full for most sessions. If PAP backbenchers do not attend parliament, then when a vote is taken, the PAP may find itself without a majority and a bill is defeated. But why shouldn’t PAP backbenchers attend parliament regularly? Why haven’t they, in the past? Perhaps their holding a day job at the same time has something to do with it?
Diagram 6 represents what PAP would like this election to produce: the minimum nine opposition members of parliament, preferably all Non-constituency MPs. Naturally, there is no risk of deadlock — or is there? Perhaps obscured within its supermajority, the PAP breaks into factions, like diagram 2 above?
But Diagram 6 represents a far greater danger: that of a supermajority giving itself a blank cheque to do whatever it wants with virtually no scrutiny. A small contingent of NCMPs (paid so little they can’t afford research assistants) cannot effectively hold the cabinet to account.
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The “deadlock” argument is just a bogeyman. Under no plausible scenario is this election going to produce a hung parliament. Far more likely, this election is going to produce a supermajority again, and for the next five years, Singapore remains politically in the Third World, with all the abuses that connotes.