New Singapore poll rules: Are they for real?

March 22, 2010
Singapore Democrats

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Maxwell Coopers
Free Malaysia Today

Politics is the art of the possible and that certainly seems to have taken on an art form in Singapore.

In sweeping changes proposed for next month, the tiny city-state’s dominant political party, the Peoples’ Action Party (PAP), is proposing amendments to the country’s constitution that will dramatically increase the number of opposition parliamentarians in its legislation.

The new changes according to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong carried by a Straits Times news report is to, “generate more robust debate, improve policy formulation, expose PAP MPs’ to the cut and thrust of the debate and demonstrate what the opposition can and cannot do”.

That the idea is to generate more robust debate can be greeted as a triumph for the nation’s long suffering political opposition.

But that any rate is only a ‘maybe’ because as they say, the jury is still out.

It is soon to cheer because as political watchers would be wont to concur, the analogy of the PAP dominated government allowing for a Singaporean version of the British soap box in a perceived exercise of free speech in 2002 came with various impediments.

That conceivably may just be what the proposed new changes to the election laws portend too, observers believe. 

To be sure, never in the country’s history since self-government in 1959 has the PAP shown such magnanimity. That is commendable to say the least.

Now, here’s why

Not only is it recommending a permissible increase in the number of Non-Constituency Member (NCMP) seats to 18 – which will amount to one-fifth of parliament – the proposed changes will also be about entrenching the Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP) novelty first introduced in the early 1990s. 

(The NCMP idea first introduced in 1984, allows the highest polling opposition candidate a seat in parliament. But he/she is not allowed to vote o defence and finance bills)

In a seismic move, it will also allow political parties to partake in online election advertising.

Just what suddenly led to a re-drawing of the contours of political discourse is beyond many but a few commentaries and developments bear scrutiny.

In his confirmation hearings before the US Senate ambassador designate to Singapore, Daniel Adelman said that if confirmed, he would push for greater political pluralism in the city-state.

“Make no mistake, currently Singapore is not a multi-party democracy and I intend, if confirmed to use public diplomacy to work towards greater press freedoms, greater freedom of assembly and ultimately more political space for opposition parties in Singapore to strengthen Singapore into a multi-party democracy”, Adelman told chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last month.   

It is unrealistic given the record of the fierce defence of its sovereignty over the years, that Singapore would have paid any heed to foreign statesmen telling her what to do.

But with the United States, the dynamics are ‘different’ as Washington is the Republic’s largest trade partner and the somewhat guarantor of its security.

Political survival

Yet there is no denying that Singapore’s leaders if anything are astute political masters.

Nary has a day gone by when they do not have their pulse on developments hither and thither and none more than the rout Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) suffered last year at the hands of the Democratic Party of Japan.

Like the PAP, the LDP was well entrenched in the nation’s psychosis as an indispensable purveyor of its peoples’ welfare, well-being and security.

It ruled for as long as the PAP now holds the reins but unlike the PAP, the LDP ignored the subtle messages from its voting constituencies to frame its policies to placate concerns of the young.

That’s the pitfall the PAP is anxious to avoid. Be it gerrymandering or otherwise, the name of the game is political survival.

And to do that, the PAP has no lack of talent.

Maxwell Coopers is a freelance writer based in Singapore.