A test of maturity in the coming by-election

Vincent Wijeysingha

We have become habituated in our country to a binary form of politics: PAP or non-PAP. This should not surprise us given the longevity and ubiquity of the PAP.

The PAP has used many creative means to establish itself as the sole decider of Singapore’s path. It came to power on a democratic socialist platform of improving the people’s lives.

In the subsequent years, riding on Singapore’s natural advantages; its place in the global economy; the economic infrastructure bequeathed by the former colonial power; and geopolitical developments like the Vietnam War, it was able to deliver on its promise, in the process, augmenting and securing its position in the polity.

As its credibility expanded, whether through a belief in its fundamental rightness, a recognition of its electoral advantage, or a natural inclination to authoritarianism, it gradually moved to stamp its power on the nation through a series of autocratic measures; extinguish the political opposition; dis-establish alternative sites of policy determination; neuter the universities; and control press and broadcast. The message was clear: Take on the government at your peril.

Changed and changing

It was only the advent of the internet facilitating citizen journalism and online activism that enabled the people to express their views, create solidarities in NGOs and the political parties, and begin to hold government to account. The debacle surrounding the sale of a computer system to a company owned by former PAP Members of Parliament is a case in point.

And so in the second decade of the 21st century, as Singapore inches closer to its 50th anniversary of independence, politics is being repositioned and the government forced to play catch-up.

In such a changed – and changing – political landscape, it is no longer sufficient for the political theatre to merely oppose the PAP and wish for its immediate replacement, both in individual constituencies and in government.

When the socio-political discourse was founded upon the threefold dimensions of prosperity, stability and efficiency, the political argument did not seek to challenge the PAP’s policy hegemony. The political opposition would allow the PAP to continue to govern and opposition MPs would critique and refine government policy.

Where to, opposition?

This led to the endorsement of the so-called by-election strategy developed in the 1980s which was born of this impulse so as to assure the people that voting in as many opposition MPs as possible was sensible political behaviour since the PAP would be returned to government.

However the waters are choppier now. The economic environment is entirely different to what it was in previous decades; the political framework is more complicated; the socio-cultural construct vastly changed with influences, ideas and people coming from elsewhere; and global fundamentals shifting from the pre-war settlement in which the PAP’s philosophy was defined.

Citizens are no longer content that PAP governors appreciate the world in which we live, insulated as they are from the everyday concerns of the people. They must seriously ask of themselves if PAP policy, entrenched and reified over 58 years, can weather the storms ahead despite its erstwhile durability.

In the last few days, the government has announced continued poor economic growth and a technical recession. No new philosophy, no new approach has emanated from the PAP to deal with these problems, however.

The coming test

No doubt, the test of the PAP’s continuing ability to govern is a matter for the next General Elections to be held at the very latest by early 2017. But it is, in any case, within these parameters that the role of Members of Parliament should be tested. And that test will no doubt come to the fore when the Prime Minister decides to call the by-election in Punggol East.

Whichever parties stand for election in the Punggol East by-election, including the SDP which announced our intention last week, the question that must occupy the voters is not the tactical potential to simply replace an MP from the government with one from the opposition.

Rather, it is this: that the candidate should be elected who can be trusted both to represent the people’s views in the House and which, therefore, impose on him or her the concomitant ability to present alternative proposals which the House can debate.

The word parliament comes from the Old French ‘parler‘ which means to talk. It is the very function of civilised, modern government that policy determination, execution and review be covered by the most learned and erudite debate leading to the refinement of policy.

An MP equipped to serve both his constituents and the wider population of Singapore must be attended by two handmaidens: a backroom research base composed of competent experts and a series of policies able to counter the deteriorating status quo.

We should be under no illusion that a lone SDP Member of Parliament can change policy overnight. But policy cannot be improved, let alone changed, if we do not have these two prior resources that our MP can take to the House on our behalf.

But most of all, the policies of the parties which come to the nation’s congress must be underlined by a key factor without which no politician can claim an entitlement to serve the people: a basic compassion for the wellbeing of the people.

For without a value base to guide our Members of Parliament, politics becomes, in that memorable phrase, merely the art of the possible. The art of the necessary is rather what the people require.

The needs of our people are urgent and the needs of the nation imminent. No party can afford to wait until it has replaced the PAP before it begins to govern for then it would be too late. And no party can afford to proceed through the enterprise of government merely on the basis of a tactical calculation of converting PAP votes into votes for an alternative party.

A lone SDP parliamentarian, speaking from the backbenches of Parliament may also appear to have a very thin voice. But a voice that speaks from a position of compassion through a framework of constructive policy guided by competent research will begin a process of returning the nation’s government from its objective of entrenching  its own fortunes to one that puts the people’s needs before all other purposes.

A vote for an SDP candidate in Punggol East, a by-election as it may be, will be a vote for every single citizen of this republic.

Dr Vincent Wijeysingha is the Treasurer of the SDP and Head of the party’s Communications Unit.

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