Public apathy worrying

Seah Chaing Nee
The Star

Most switch off when the topic switches to politics. They find it more prudent to make money than risk careers opposing the government.

Dr Geh Min has never voted in a general election since Singa-pore became a self-governing state 50 years ago.

The former president of The Nature Society, who mentioned this in a seminar, said that non-participation in the voting process was depriving Singaporeans of diversity and choice.

The story of Dr Geh, a nominated MP, is not unique. It is shared by more than half the electorate.

These non-voters were not disenfranchised, but merely the casualties of a regular feature in Singapore politics – the election walkovers.

During the last four general elections, an average of 54% of Parliament seats were uncontested.

In 2006, voters in 37 wards out of 84 constituencies were mere spectators.

Earlier, in 1991, 1997 and 2001, the percentages of walkovers against total contested seats were 50.4%, 56.4% and 65.4%, respectively.

Why is this economically advanced city so backward in political development?

Public apathy is one reason. People prefer making money than going into politics, let alone risk their careers by opposing the government.

Realising this, the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) offers large financial inducements to attract top candidates, something no opposition party can match.

There is, however, a bigger reason. It is the government’s history of crackdowns on political opponents and laws that make it tough for the opposition to fight – let alone win – an election.

Some political tinkering may be in the offing.

It comes as Singapore marks its 50th year of existence as a modern state since Britain granted it self-government in 1959 under Lee Kuan Yew.

It is a historical landmark. Last week, national TV began running parts of a documentary called A State of Mind that depicted its journey to the present.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced the changes that could result in a bigger election turnout and a greater opposition role in Parliament.

Compared to past practices of building obstacles, the new measures are a refreshing and encouraging development.

The most significant is the reduction of the Group Representation Constituency (GRC), which is a major cause for the poor election participation.

The number of single wards will be increased from nine to 12 (the demand is for all of them), while multiple-MPs constituencies will be capped at five instead of the present six.

Another is an increase in the number of non-elected MPs (NCMPs) from three to nine in the event of a poor opposition showing.

This means that, for example, if the opposition were to win only three seats, six of its best losers could go in as NCMPs – but without being able to vote on major issues.

The GRC system was started in 1988 with the first three-candidate GRC aimed at ensuring minority representation in Parliament. It groups three stipulated wards into one by adding up their votes.

The fear 20 years ago – not without justification – was over the possibility of Chinese voting along racial lines and keeping out Malay and Indian candidates.

Since then, it has moved some distance away from this aim as GRCs began to expand from three to six MPs.

Each expansion spelled more gloom to opposition politics and more PAP candidates were declared winners on Nomination Day.

In 2006, Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong admitted that the system would help new PAP candidates to win.

The changes are unlikely to alter the political landscape. The ruling party continues to outgun the fractious opposition.

Although the recession-hit electorate has of late displayed unhappiness over a series of mistakes and unpopular decisions made by the PAP, there is no sign of mass disaffection.

The cloud of apathy and lack of public interest in cooperating with it, however, can be very damaging to the nation after Minister Mentor Lee is no longer around.

Despite its history of past achievements, surprisingly not many of the ruling scholar-class elites are particularly liked by the public.

After a generation of top-down government, many Singaporeans are apathetic and have little interest in the government or what it does.

A survey conducted by a body affiliated to the government found that:

■ Some 63.4% of Singaporeans knew little or nothing about the Constitution and the organs of state.

■ Two-thirds, or more than 66%, of Singaporeans believed that they had little or no influence at all on national issues.

■ A whopping 92.7% had never given feedback to the Government, and 94.9% had never written letters to a newspaper.

■ And 94.5% don’t know what it’s like to sign a petition.

Institute of South-East Asian Studies fellow Terence Chong said most Singaporeans tend to automatically “switch off” when it comes to matters related to politics.

Letter writer David Cai suggested that the government had an image problem and should take stronger measures to shed its totalitarian image.

Unless this was done, people would continue to feel marginalised, disenchanted and estranged from decision-making, he added.

Singaporean Faye Tan, a 37-year-old mother of two, admitted to a reporter that she did not know who her MP was.

“I’ve never met him before. Unless you have issues, you probably won’t bother to find out,” she said.

Political scientists view the disinterest as a worrying development for this young nation.

“For a strong nation, government and people must work together to compete with the world and stay on top of world problems, especially in security.”

His second thought: “Will this public apathy make Singapore easy meat for a foreign predator?”

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