I should also state here that the scenario I am sketching is, going by past electoral record, very unlikely. Yet, precisely because nothing like this has ever happened within living memory of most voters, the scenario is terribly scary, so scary that for most, it is unthinkable. The fear of walking into the unknown quickly settles the voting choice for them: Vote PAP.
Play safe because the risks are incalculable.
Actually, the risks are knowable, and the purpose of this post is to walk you through them. At the end of that, I hope you will agree that nothing much will have changed except for one big thing. One very big thing.
If you don’t want that big thing to happen, then fine, vote PAP. If you do want that big thing, then don’t vote PAP. The cost of doing so is not great, as I shall argue here.
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Imagine you wake up on 8 May 2011, the day after the votes have been counted, to find that five group representation constituencies have gone to opposition parties. You can imagine whichever opposition party/parties you like to be the gainers; it does not matter a lot for the purposes of this post. Of the single-member constituencies, another four have also gone to the opposition. That makes a total of 28 or 29 opposition members in the new parliament. The PAP will have the rest, i.e. 58 or 59 members.
There will be no non-constituency members, since the total opposition wins exceed nine.
What effect will this have? Let me touch on three:
Since the People’s Action Party has placed at least one minister in each group representation constituency, in this scenario, five, six or seven ministers will lose their seats. Under Singapore’s constitutional principles, if they are no longer members of parliament, they cannot continue as ministers.
Is it so bad? Can you think of a handful of ministers we could do without? I most surely can. As the Workers’ Party argued last night at their rally in Serangoon Stadium, if we’re so relaxed about Lim Boon Heng, Jayakumar and Lee Boon Yang retiring, why should we be so worried if a few more followed?
The PAP says they have plenty of talented new candidates. They may be inexperienced in managing affairs of state, but no minister, however experienced, acts alone. He’s just one person atop a large, professional civil service in his ministry that is always going to be more experienced and familiar with matters under its purview than any minister can ever be. As Kenneth Jeyaretnam, leader of the Reform Party, has said many times: ministers may change but the civil service stays and will remain there to keep things running.
Not only will the civil service stay, I think their voice will be better heard. It’s like this: after 50 years of having the same party in office, the balance between the party and the professional civil service is now badly unbalanced. With no risk of change in the political seat, ministers have unconsciously lost their willingness to listen to advice. Civil servants, however good their ideas, have learnt it is better to shut up and just take orders than to argue an alternative point of view with their bosses.
Putting ministers on notice that if they do not listen carefully to popular opinion and to professional advice, they can be voted out, will engender a more open mindset at the top of each ministry. This in turn creates a climate where good, alternative ideas within the civil service can bubble up.
There is the argument that any rocking of the boat will scare off investors, and with that, jobs. That is way too simplistic. No investor makes an investment decision on the basis of a government retaining monopoly of power when he is looking at a relatively open society like Singapore.
In any case, the scenario we are discussing does not involve the PAP losing power; they will still have a comfortable majority in parliament.
And if the opposition members that do get elected are of the calibre we have seen among the best candidates of the Workers’ Party, the Singapore Democratic Party and the National Solidarity Party — top lawyers, entrepreneurs, Ph.D holders and other scholars, including those who have been part of the top-tier Administrative Service — no investor is going to lose sleep over the outcome.
This is one of those truly shallow political promises that leave many of us who desire a more mature political culture shaking our heads, yet it has to be conceded that it is probably a vote-getter for the PAP.
Singaporeans need to look at this with more common sense. Upgrading of housing estates’ common areas (walkways, landscaping, ornamentation of blocks’ facades) does not come free. It costs money that comes from our taxes. And like all money in a government’s budget, deliberate decisions are made what to spend it on, or even whether to collect this much in taxes to begin with.
If you look beyond the spending on upgrading, you see these issues:
(a) Should all that money have been taken out of us via taxes in the first place?
(b) If yes, should it best be spent on estate beautification and ornamentation? Might it not be better to spend it on public transport infrastructure or more polyclinics (cut down waiting time) or more schools (decrease class size)?
You might say you’re in a contest of selfishness against other constituencies. The PAP is anyway going to form the next government. It’s not as if upgrading will go away, it’s just a matter of which constituency will get it. If I don’t vote a PAP candidate in, I will lose out while other areas will gain.
But if you think of the larger interest — not the larger interest of other people, but the larger interest of yourself — it’s not so obvious that the PAP is the best choice for your vote. How so? It’s like this:
1. Yes, you may lose out on upgrading, but it’s only for five years. You will have a chance to reconsider at the next election. In the meantime, opposition parties have proven themselves more than capable of keeping the basic maintenance going at the very least; in some areas they’ve even upgraded lifts and rescreeded common walkways.
2. Yes, the value of your property may appreciate a little more slowly than properties in other areas with lavish beautification programs. But is it in your larger interest to keep asset price inflation, particularly housing prices, going on the up and up? For the great majority of Singaporeans, the flat they live in is the only flat they own. They cannot just sell it and pocket the cash; they have to buy another place to live. As prices go up, it means more cash upfront for the next purchase and a larger mortgage (therefore riskier, relative to your income stream). Is it in your larger interest to have a government that obsessively feeds this price spiral madness with more upgrading programs that add no extra space to your own apartment?
3. Pulling away the rug of complacency under the PAP changes their psychology. They are more likely to rethink the vicious cycles they have created, one of which is that of housing prices. And here’s where I come to the one big thing.
Almost every problem (other than the personal) that Singaporeans face today can be traced to the PAP’s immunity. They have come to believe that their overwhelming control of parliament and government is secure. This control is the result of many defences, including keeping a grip on mainstream media, a history of defamation suits that silences criticism, its capture of labour unions, its tentacles in the economy via government-linked companies, and not least, gerrymandering and group representation constituencies.
Having confidence in their immunity from ouster, more and more policies are crafted to benefit themselves and the privileged class they identify with. Less and less is attention paid to issues that affect the broader mass of citizenry, such as income gap, inadequacy of public transport and healthcare infrastructure, and safety nets for the poor, the aged and the disabled.
We see the trends in ministers rewarding themselves handsomely while refusing to attend to even their own backbenchers’ pleas for an increase in support for the poorest of the poor; in the total lack of accountability whether for ego projects like the Youth Olympics or for common, but massive-outlay projects like public housing — where after 50 years Singaporeans are still in the dark as to the breakdown of costs and pricing.
We see an obsession in shovelling more and more funds into reserves, even if it means pricing goods and services higher than they can be (to make profits that are then poured into the reserves).
Example: SMRT Corp has just released its financial results for FY 2011. Its train (excluding LRT) operations earned revenue of S$527.1 million, of which S$113.5 million (21.4 percent) percolated down to Operating Profit. Should public transport make profits like this? Could fares not be 10 – 15 percent lower?
Perhaps you remain sceptical. Will any of these things change just because we vote in more opposition members of parliament? After all, the PAP will still form the next government. Won’t they carry on as before?
No they won’t. Because if suddenly they realise that they have no more immunity, the psychology changes. They realise they have been put on notice by voters that the old ways of carrying on will not be tolerated, and going forward, they will have to pay more attention to the people, rather than to their own skewed priorities and self-interest.
That is the big, big thing we will all gain if the opposition gets a breakthrough at this election.
This is in addition to the fact that more opposition members of parliament means more brain power to question ministers and debate issues in the legislature. One or two opposition members can only do so much, especially as the number of questions a member can ask is limited by parliamentary rules.
However, if once again, the PAP ends up with 86:1 or even 87:0, their belief in their own immunity will only be reinforced. They will have every reason to tell themselves that even with widespread grouses, even with an opposition slate of high calibre, they will never be ousted from power.
Lee Hsien Loong says this election is a watershed. He is right.