January 25, 2013
Democracy and Singapore: The Ps and Qs
by Devadas Krishnadas(01-24-13)
These elections have spanned all the available political levels, from municipal to government (the General Election) and State (the Presidential election). Over this period, the Government has reformed Ministerial pay, restructured the bureaucracy with the formation of new Ministries to bring greater focus onto social issues and initiated the ‘National Conversation’.
It could be said that the PAP has continued in political campaign mode from the General Election in May 2011. By all these measures, the past year and half has been the most concentrated period of political activity Singapore has experienced since the 1960s.
Given the contrast between the intensity of political activity in the recent period over the preceding three decades, how are Singaporeans coping?
On the face of it, they are coping well, even seemingly feeling a sense of growing self-confidence in their relations with the Government. This is a rebalancing of the power distribution necessary to maintain the functionality of democracy in fact as well as in form.
Democracy is a function of responsibilities. It cannot exist unless there is respect for the law, there is respect for political process and all concerned are invested in it. I will make some observations about what this means in practice. I refer to these as the Ps and Qs of democracy.
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong should be applauded for calling the by-elections in Hougang in 2012 and now in Punggol East. It is notable that there have been several occasions over the past three decades where seats have been made vacant for various reasons without a by-election being called.
The Prime Minister has risen above political convenience to ensure that the greater national interest is being served, by ensuring political legitimacy in representation for the voters in the affected constituencies by moving swiftly to call by-elections. Against the back drop of legal questions on the Prime Minister’s discretionary powers in the matter of by-elections, he has chosen to take the higher road and set in place a process by precedent.
Our political past has been characterised by politics by exception. This is to say that political action took place periodically, with every election, and then lapsed with equal suddenness.
Even if we leave aside the elections of the recent period, we can note that several issues of public concern, from municipal (urban redevelopment in communities) to national (population augmentation) have been the subject of intense public debate through various mediums. Thus, politics today is the norm.
While this should be an expected part and parcel of a vibrant democracy, we should be concerned of the risk of engaged politics stymying effective policy. It should be noted that in a fully functioning democracy the axiom that the electorate gets the government – and by extension the policies – it deserves is more true than not.
Ensuring the quality of political action is a perennial effort. There is no settled state where we can say we have arrived. It will always be a furious dog paddle to stay afloat on a sustaining sea of politics and not drown in it.
To skirt this risk the citizenry, the Opposition and the PAP need to make adjustments. The citizenry must be able to manage expectations in the balancing their personal levels of comfort and the broader national-level concerns. The disturbing but not unnatural trend towards ‘NIMBYism’ or ‘Not In My Backyard’ is a perfect example.
The Opposition must restrain itself from taking opportunistic political advantage of such episodes to attack the Government unless they take issue with the central premise of whichever is the emanating policy. And, if they do, they have a political obligation to provide not just an alternative, but a better idea.
The PAP on its part has the untidy task of government. It must listen but also stick to its guns if it has decided upon a policy for the greater good. This it must be prepared to do even at the cost of some votes. Unless it has this discipline, it will surely risk losing many votes. This is because of its cherished reputation of being willing to make the right choices for the nation even if they are hard ones, and even at political cost to itself.
Until the General Election of 2011, only a fraction of Singaporeans actually participated in the democratic experience. This is because the Opposition contested only a small number of seats.
However, in GE2011, almost all the seats (82 out of 87) were contested. Consequently, the greater proportion of Singaporeans played their part in determining the country’s political future through casting their vote. Many were doing so for the first time.
This is a most significant milestone. It satisfies the condition that for a democracy to be truly functioning, the greater quantity of citizens must be part of the process. There is every reason to expect that future elections will be similarly nearly fully or fully contested.
The credit for this positive trajectory in politics should be shared universally. The opposition candidates deserve recognition for the courage and gumption to step forward and the PAP must be acknowledged for contesting fairly and proving themselves responsive to the concerns of the electorate.
But most of all, the citizenry deserve high praise for actively, even enthusiastically, engaging in the political process.
A long road but a shared one
Singapore is not a City-State — instead it is a State-City. We are not too small to afford differences in views and even ideologies. But we are not large enough to permit those differences to divide us to the core.
We must be clear that our democracy serves us, and not us it. We must remind ourselves that we are, in the final analysis, one people, with common aspirations and shared limits — it is our collective political responsibility to ensure the success of each and every Singaporean.
For that is the only credible foundation for the political idea of Singapore. All other strategies should be considered expedient and secondary.
The political future is a long road and not always a straight one. But it is a shared one. Singaporeans must stay committed to the political project that is Singapore, a country with a short history and heterogeneous people, continually tossed about by larger events and yet, despite all this, still here, still fighting on together and still getting better, together.
It will be a great enough success, I think, if each generation of Singaporeans to come is able to say the same. — Today/www.themalaysianinsider.com
* Devadas Krishnadas is a social and political commentator. He was a Fulbright Scholar.