Any opposition is good opposition

Parties with overwhelming majorities in parliament face no formal barriers to enacting party policy. Without opposition partaking a serious role in government, eventually the state and party become unanimous. I do not argue that the unity of party and state is inherently bad. The outcomes of party and state unity cannot be said to always be constructive or destructive to the sovereign’s goals. However, I argue that if one is not satisfied with all the outcomes of party and state unity, then one should not continue to support the majority party in the state. To not continue to support in this case would mean exercising a personal political decision. Typically in democracies, the citizens are able to exercise their personal stake in politics (at the most basic level) through voting in elections (Mill, CHVIII). So, Given a democratic state under single-party rule I argue that if an individual disagrees with even one major party decision or state policy, then their disagreement is best channelled through voting rather through other informal democratic mechanisms.

First, I will give brief account of the People’s Action Party’s (PAP) power and elaborate on the context of Singapore’s informal democratic mechanisms. Second, I will show why there is an ethical imperative to vote for the opposition. This ethical imperative relies on the idea that reducing support for the single party’s agenda will allow the legislative agenda to reshape itself. If citizens exercise their individual vote as an indicator of their desire for political change, then they are going to be closer involve in the legislative process. This would produce more deliberation among both the parliament and among the polity. With more deliberation, both the majority party and their opposition will better consider citizen’s opinion when elections roll around, as to contend for their favour.

Evidence

Two problematic factors in Singapore form the basis of the ethical imperative that we arrive at in the latter half of this essay. These two problematic factors are: First, The legislative agenda in Singapore is advanced almost entirely by the PAP, with no safeguards to ensure citizen input. Secondly, the opposition in Singapore is perceived as weak (Tham, 2014). Their low numbers in each election contribute to their perception by Singaporeans as being unfit for office. Because they do not stand a likely chance of governing or even partaking properly in governing, they do not field a competitive legislative agenda.

The PAP has won every single election with an outright majority since independence. Indeed, opposition parties did not even fill a seat in Singaporean parliament until 1981. While the tactics that prevented opposition entry into parliament have an insidious history, the reality is that we have seen since the 1980s a decline in the invincibility of the PAP’s electoral success. Opposition parties now have opportunities to gain seats in parliament, and are doing so, but not at an increasing rate. The core problem is this: since the PAP still holds an absolute majority, the opposition party can pose no real contest. Voters in Singapore have regularly willingly voted for the PAP to retain absolute power because they believe in entrusting the rights of governing to benevolent leaders who will look after them – ‘The extensive control is not only justified but constitutes the basis of “good government” as growth ensues. Within this logic, the PAP considers itself to have disposed of its duty to Singaporeans more than adequately.’ (Huat, 188.) As Singapore’s survivalist tendencies dissipate, and anxiety over successful statehood diminishes, the PAP has been forced to engage the public in their top-down decisions, contrary to their governing style in the post-independence period. ‘Floating public consultation’ (Huat, 190) for legislative decisions has been done mostly in an informal process, and mainly through the fourth estate (public feedback on state-tied media). This entire process, while deliberative, is outside the formal democratic mechanisms which constitute Singapore as a democracy. As ordinary citizens begin to lose total support for the PAP, the PAP then sets the agenda for how citizen opinion may be fed back to them. It is difficult to locate the avenues in Singapore for citizen feedback and participation in local politics. This is problematic as it does not always endorse citizen opinion in shaping legislation and limits participation of the citizenry. I then mean to say their participation is involvement in the legislative process, even if indirectly.

For example, the Population White Paper (PWP) faced little formal opposition in parliament because of the little amount of physical opposition in parliament. Yet, anyone can remember the controversy that caused among the polity (Yahoo Newsroom, 2013). In my view, it seems as if strong opposition to government decisions in Singapore is heard outside of parliament. Strange, considering we might have expected in a parliamentary democracy that citizen opposition are able to effectively channel their disagreement through formal opposition parties. So why then, does opposition to the PAP never make it to parliament?

The answer is the is the state of the opposition (our second problematic trope to address). Singapore serves as an example where no opposition parties field public policy mandates as part of their platform because none of them expect to govern. An opinion piece on Singapore’s middle-ground online platform The Online Citizen reads: ‘In some constituencies, I am puzzled as to why voters there will vote for the opposition… If they are voting for opposition because they are anti-pap, that is worse reason to vote for them than the former as this allows opposition parties to gather free votes without putting much effort.’ (Andrews, 2017)

This is a common trope in Singapore politics. Summed up, why vote for the opposition if they are not good enough? This seems like a logical train of thought. If opposition parties are not fit to govern, then why elect them to government? Huat suggests that votes for the opposition is a dissent vehicle to limit overreaching power of the PAP. ‘As oppositional votes constitute protests against the PAP, their increasing volume stands a concrete indictment of the absence of consensus,’ (Huat, 194).

I believe they are effective at this, and are a suitable vehicle for dissent from single-party power to be channelled into. However, this dissent acts as more than just a thumbs-down to the PAP. Straits Time opinion editor Chua Mui Hoong suggests ‘strong opposition provides checks and balances on the ruling party,’ (Chua, 2015).

While there are many more reasons for why the Singaporean polity may vote for the majority or the opposition, we can see the gripes that come with this decision. Huat’s view suggests that opposition votes are fuelled by dissatisfaction with the majority policy. Chua suggests that voters might have a strategic goal in mind in limiting PAP power. It seems we are unlikely to find an example of a voter casting their vote for the Worker’s Party because of their competitive policy platforms.

Ethical Imperative

I then argue against this common thought. If a voter finds PAP policy disagreeable, then their vote against them by voting for the opposition is not lost as a protest vote. The Singaporean voter’s relationship with opposition parties is a charge where the voter is to blame. Opposition parties cannot begin to field proper policy platforms until they have a power wedge against the PAP. If the voter finds in themselves a desire for change from the status quo, angry forum letters to the Straits Times or other passive responses ignore the formal process which has been set up for political change: elections. The citizen, dissatisfied with the PAP, has a responsibility to vote against the PAP. The effect created by this is two-fold. First, a symbolic gesture of dissent towards the PAP (especially with mandatory voting) is a direct communication of dissatisfaction. But it need not stop there, the second effect is that voting for an opposition party grants them more parliamentary weight. The citizen that votes opposition should make a conscientious decision about their democracy and exercise their individual desire for alternative government policy. The logistical challenge is expected – how will we transform a weak party into a contender for a real opposition? By putting them in a position to contend, of course! The small opposition parties in Singapore would of course attract talent and field competitive policy platforms given electoral support. In order to field competitive agendas, they will have to capitalize on the Singapore’s polity desire for a challenge to the status quo. We need not look far to expect a natural change from minority party to challenger party given the resources. The first resource however, is electoral support. This electoral support does not need to manifest in a love for the Worker’s Party, but simply a dissatisfaction with the PAP. The process by which the minority party picks up on that dissent should be natural.

Currently, citizens remain largely disengaged from the legislative agenda. In a parliamentary democracy, parties must contend to best channel the will of the people. Where there is no contest, the people may find no formal ways to channel their will. The elevation into parliament of opposition parties sends a signal to both the PAP and opposition – there is a desire for difference. Subsequently, the parliament then must work together to find agreeable solutions, as both parties represent the views of their citizen stakeholders.

The ethical imperative is thus one where we remove the veil of futility. Two possibilities exist why the PAP remains popular electorally – either the opposition parties are weak because they inherently are inferior to the PAP (‘the opposition is worse than the PAP’ as us who have grown up in Singapore have often heard) or voters do not see societal change as possible through opposition agenda. Both examples rely on the idea that there is dissent and a desire for change in Singapore, which I believe is well documented (Huat, 189, Andrews, 2017).

Objection

My imperative allows both the PAP and opposition to better channel citizen interests. I must be suggesting that people vote for the PAP out of fear, or out of a lack of desire for individual political participation.

Response

My imperative holds both to be true. It is well documented that Singaporeans have an inherent distrust about the fairness of voting, especially when the PAP is directly linked with the institutions that govern our lives[1] (Ismail, 2015). Secondly, my ethical imperative only applies to those who wish to see legislative change but cannot find the channel to exercise it. Apolitical Singaporeans or those who are happy to entrust their life to their benevolent Confucian leaders do not fall under the imperative. Yet, we need not look far to see this trust will be increasingly rare in the generations that will inherit Singapore (Tham, 2017).

 

Works Cited

Andrews, Matherson. “Where Is the Opposition?” The Online Citizen, 9 Sept. 2017, www.theonlinecitizen.com/2017/09/10/where-is-the-opposition-2/.

Beng-Huat Chua (1995) Communitarian Ideology and Democracy in Singapore, London: Routledge, 184-202.

Chua, Mui Hoong. “Is a Stronger PAP or Stronger Opposition Better for S’pore?” The Straits Times, SPH, 19 Jan. 2016, www.straitstimes.com/politics/singapolitics/is-a-stronger-pap-or-stronger-opposition-better-for-spore.

Ismail, Jamal. “The Fear Perpetuated by the Urban Myth about Voting in Singapore.” The Online Citizen, TOC, 19 Oct. 2015, www.theonlinecitizen.com/2015/08/18/the-fear-perpetuated-by-the-urban-myth-about-voting-in-singapore/

JS Mill (1861) Considerations on Representative Government, Chapter 8, http://www.gutenberg.org/files/5669/5669-h/5669-h.htm#link2HCH0008

Tham, Yuen-C. “Opposition: Are They Ready?” AsiaOne, 3 Nov. 2014, www.asiaone.com/singapore/opposition-are-they-ready.

Tham, Yuen-C. “Singaporeans More Liberal, Feel Less Fear: DPM Tharman.” The New Paper, 21 Sept. 2017, www.tnp.sg/news/singapore/singaporeans-more-liberal-feel-less-fear-dpm-tharman.

“4,000 Turn up at Speakers’ Corner for Population White Paper Protest.” Yahoo! News, Yahoo!, 16 Feb. 2013, sg.news.yahoo.com/huge-turnout-at-speakers–corner-for-population-white-paper-protest-101051153.html.

[1] See “The Fear Perpetuated by the Urban Myth about Voting in Singapore.” By Jamal Ismail

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At Yale-NUS College, we are thinking about ideals of equality and democracy, and how they relate to practice, in Singapore and in the wider world.

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Articles were originally submitted as course papers for Professor Sandra Field’s classes Contemporary Egalitarianism and Democratic Theory.

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