A constant refrain from the People’s Action Party (PAP) each election is that voters should give them a thumping majority. Having too many opposition members in parliament will mean that they get distracted and unable to govern far-sightedly. During the 2006 general election campaign, Lee Hsien Loong famously said, in the event that voters returned more opposition members of parliament, “Their job is to make life difficult for me so that I screw up and they can come in and sit where I am, here, and I am going to spend all my time — I have to spend all my time — thinking, what’s the right way to fix them, what’s the right way to buy my own supporters over? How can I solve this week’s problem and forget about next year’s challenges?”
More opposition means gridlock — goes this thinking. Singapore will revert to a city of slums.
As tiresome as this argument is, from the opposition-supporters’ side, there is an equally tiresome one. It is the constant call for opposition unity.
Firstly, it is not likely to happen. Secondly, it has no use. Yet, in one form or another, this yearning keeps cropping up. Time to put it under the microscope.
This call tends to come from a segment of the electorate that is angrily against the PAP. They can be called the ‘Anything but PAP’ crowd. Analyses of past voting patterns indicate that they are quite numerous, comprising 20 – 30 percent of voters. They can see that no individual opposition party has (yet) the strength to win a majority in elections on its own. Naturally, they believe that an alliance among them would maximise their chances, while three-cornered fights in constituency battles would be their worst nightmares.
For them, party platforms are not important. They just want the PAP out.
There are indications that this group tends to have more older voters, perhaps from an era when politics was one of Love the PAP or Hate It. Younger voters are more likely to be floating voters.
Despite the older age profile, and presumably the gradual shrinking of the cohort, I find it strange that this unrealistic hope continues to have such a high signature. Okay, perhaps not so strange since in Malaysia, the leading opposition parties have managed to come together under the Pakatan Rakyat umbrella, and what happens in our northern neighbour inspires many older Singaporeans. But it is also important to see that there are important differences between the political landscape there and in Singapore.
Differences from Malaysia
The two opposition parties with solid vote-banks in Malaysia are Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS) and the Democratic Action Party (DAP). They are both racially/religiously-identified, which makes it extremely difficult for either of them to grow beyond their identity-base. For this structural reason, it makes sense to go into a marriage of convenience through the brokerage of Anwar Ibrahim’s Parti Keadilan.
In Singapore, no opposition party has such a structural ceiling. In theory, every one of them should be able to win voters over purely on their platforms and programs without appealing to race or religion. The need to get into bed with other opposition parties, in order to reach a block of voters they cannot otherwise reach, is much less.
Also, if one war-games the likely ways future elections turn out, an alliance of opposition parties will show up as one of the worst paths to take. Yes, electoral pacts to avoid three-cornered fights makes sense (for now), but alliance, no. Hammering out a coalition pact takes up a huge amount of time and resources, which will be better spent working the ground. Inevitably, it will also dilute an opposition party’s message.
A future of coalitions
But more importantly, look at the pie chart at the top. That is a conceivable result from a future general election. The PAP fails to win a simple majority in parliament by a whisker. In such a scenario, what government can be formed? The ‘Anything but the PAP’ crowd may still dream of an alliance of all opposition parties, but seriously, the most likely scenario is for the PAP (shown in white) to search for a coalition partner among the opposition parties.
I would argue that such an outcome would best reflect the will of the people: they get a mostly-PAP government softened by the demands of coalition politics. The policies and priorities espoused by the chosen coalition partner gets a chance of implementation. Such an outcome may not satisfy the ‘Anything but PAP’ folk, but I can see many more Singaporeans welcoming it.
Here’s another scenario: In a post-Lee Hsien Loong period, the PAP splits despite having a slim majority because of either irreconciliable policy differences or personal ambitions. This is suggested by the diagram at left. Once again, coalition partners will be sought.
Of course, it will mean that supporters of opposition parties not chosen to be the PAP’s coalition partner get frozen out. But if they are effective in parliament, regularly critiquing policies and decisions from a consistent angle, they can win supporters over time for their point of view.
The rise of values politics
Recently, a political scientist drew my attention to something she had observed: increasingly, political debate in Singapore is driven by values — different values held by different segments. The two poles are what we can loosely term the ‘conservative’ and the ‘liberal’. However, we must use these terms with care and avoid importing American associations with these words, because the actual values people hold are quite specific to the Singapore context.
Each polar group is a mixed collection. In my view, the conservatives could be described as those who, somewhat turned off by recent directions Singapore has taken, tend to prefer a pullback to a Singapore of before, a time and place of more certainties. As they speak, you can hear between the lines a yearning for a more Malayan type of society (i.e. one with distinct Chinese/Indian/Malay communities and cultures, and somewhat romaticised race relations), moral order, family stability and economic security. A slower pace of change would be nice too. Globalisation and its effects — immigration, culture change, evaporation of community boundaries, a breakdown of hierarchies — feel threatening.
Liberals, also turned off by recent directions, tend however to prefer a push forward rather than a pullback. Like liberals in other countries, they value individual autonomy, choice, and respect for diversity. There is little hankering for the Singapore of old, in fact there is considerable welcome extended to the idea of a cosmopolitan, world-culture Singapore. They are less uncomfortable with change, messiness and ambiguities.
Where the two groups appear to be similar is in their criticism of the failure of PAP’s social policies, particularly, the very weak social safety net. Yet even here, I suspect that if one looks closely enough, the criticism by the two groups emerge from different sources. The conservatives see the PAP’s failure in this regard as a breach of contract. They expect to be looked after; it is their conception of how an orderly universe should work. By not providing, it is the PAP that is failing to deliver its side of the bargain. The liberals, for their part, see the PAP’s failure as a moral one.
Am I making too fine a distinction? I don’t think so. The difference between these two groups precipitates the moment we ask what rights and social safety nets should be extended to foreigners in Singapore. The conservatives will want a clear distinction between what is enjoyed by Singaporeans and what (less) is enjoyed by others, since it is Singaporeans who are parties to the contract. The liberals make much less of this distinction, because the moral case is not diminished since even foreigners are humans.
The point I am trying to make here is that when criticism of the PAP comes from at least two opposite directions, if not more, it won’t be fructuous to bleat on about opposition unity. Opposition parties will serve Singaporeans better by articulating clearly where they stand and what alternative policies they propose. That way we can have a genuine debate about what we ought to collectively do, rather than let politics remain hostage to our emotions about the PAP.