The Shift toward Deliberation

Throughout much of Singapore’s history, the PAP government has prided itself on consistently attaining electoral support of the majority. In spite of this, the government continues to be plagued with accusations of authoritarianism. The situation invites us to ask the question: Does this electoral support reflect a form of political representation that truly captures the opinion of the people?

The political theorist Hanna Pitkin offers two useful categories for thinking about representation. The first can be referred to as paternalistic representation, or the transfer of decision-making power from the people to the government. Pitkin writes: “The more he (the representative) sees interests as objective, as determinable by people other than the one whose interest it is, the more possible it becomes for a representative to further the interest of his constituents without consulting their wishes” (Pitkin, p. 210). This form of representation assumes the greater knowledge and ability of the government to enact policies. In its extreme, it takes the form of authoritarianism. The second can be referred to as consultative representation, or the grounding of decision-making power in the people. Pitkin writes: “The more a writer sees interest […] as definable only by the person who feels or has them, the more likely he is to require that a representative consult his constituents and act in response to what they ask of him” (Pitkin, p. 210). This form of representation assumes the agency of the people, and sees the government playing only a supportive role. These two categories occupy opposing ends on the spectrum of political representation. Given Pitkin’s categories of representation, where should Singapore be located?

The Prevailing State of Representation in Singapore

The sociologist Chua Beng-Huat writes that majority support “[…] has rendered to the PAP government a high degree of political legitimacy as a ‘democratic’ government with an impressive majority, thus reinforcing its perception of having done the right thing by the people, regardless of how harsh its policies may have been” (Chua, p. 190). The PAP equates election by majority vote with free reign over deciding what should be done. Clinching the majority vote thus becomes the PAP government’s authorization to act as it wishes, as it assumes a transfer of decision-making power from the voter to the government. Singapore’s narrative of “government knows best” is hence reflective of paternalistic representation, since it exhibits the same characteristics of the authoritative decision-maker that Pitkin describes.

The task of this article is to suggest why the PAP government is in dire need of moving toward consultative representation. It will then examine its current efforts for including its citizens in the decision-making process, before suggesting how such nascent consultation can be taken further to shift Singapore away from its paternalistic tendencies.

Does Government Know Best?

Despite the PAP government claiming to represent the people and having their electoral support, its policies continue to incur the wrath of its citizen body. This is due to its self-identification as decision-maker, which has forced it to endure a reputation teetering on authoritarianism. The clearest case of this can be seen in how the government continually places economic interests above individual interests of the people. It claims that the development of a prosperous economy must remain a priority. The lucrative thing to do becomes the right thing to do, and the PAP government considers itself innocent as long as the numbers on its gross national product rise.

For example, manpower policies to increase the influx of overseas labor became central to the government’s practices in the 1980s. Yap Mui Teng writes: “The Economic Committee appointed by the government in 1985 to study the causes of Singapore’s first recession recognized that it was unrealistic for Singapore to be rid of unskilled workers and recommended that they be allowed in on a ‘revolving’ basis while efforts should be made to retain skilled workers” (Yap, p. 224). A link was thus drawn between foreign labor and economic growth. This seemingly innocuous connection became the source of many grievances in the citizen body. Singaporeans complained about unwarranted competition with foreign workers, resulting in many becoming unable to secure jobs that they claim were rightfully theirs[1]. Continued criticism of the government today centers on the actual mechanisms in foreign labor policy. Jeremy Han, a Singaporean business analyst, comments: “Reversing foreign labor tightening, to me, should be a sectorial question rather than a national one. This is because different industries have different needs, and Singapore does not provide manpower adequately across all sectors, thus policy makers could adopt an industry specific approach rather than a blanket policy”[2]. Details of foreign labor distribution have thus been examined and found wanting by business leaders in the citizen body. Beyond concerns of the details behind such policies are questions about the very relevance of foreign labor itself. Jake Maxwell Watts reports: “there is a growing consensus among officials and economists that Singapore’s economy has outgrown its developing-world model to the point where to ensure growth the island needs to focus on innovation and less on foreign labor”[3]. Singapore’s flourishing economy in the 21st Century thus questions the necessity of a foreign labor workforce. There is therefore great evidence of dissent among the citizen body despite clear quantifiable support of the PAP government.

The Necessity of Consultation

The government’s proximity to paternalistic representation explains this tension between the majority vote and dissent from the citizen body. The PAP transforms the support it receives from Election Day into the permission to enact policies that it deems to be correct. Yet overwhelming public dissent surrounding economic policies suggests that people beg to differ as they continue to express the unspoken response: “on the contrary, we know best”. It is hence clear that paternalistic representation has become insufficient for Singapore, as the citizen body grows increasingly intolerant of the PAP government’s top-down attitude towards constructing policies. The PAP has to make efforts to shift itself away from the extremes of paternalism and foster an environment of discussion and response. Consultative representation is thus needed to fill the gap of citizen voice and feedback that paternalistic representation chooses to ignore.

A New Hope

It is therefore an encouraging sign that the PAP government is beginning to express a greater desire to obtain feedback from its people. Dialogues and conversations all signal the government’s will to listen to the citizens speak. Initiatives such as Singapore 21 in 1999[4] and Remaking Singapore in 2002[5] were designed to tackle pressing issues by increasing public participation in national affairs. The most successful of these initiatives was Our Singaporean Conversation (OSC), a series of public dialogue sessions, which was announced by the Prime Minister at the National Day Rally Speech in 2012[6]. OSC was a series of dialogue sessions that aimed to create opportunities for greater voice from the citizen body. It was split into two phases. The first phase involved open-ended conversations to generate diverse views and ideas. The second zoomed in on the issues that emerged from Phase One[7]. The initiative was well received by many Singaporeans. Dr. Kenneth Paul Tan comments on OSC: “The dominance of committee meetings and top-down forums in previous exercises gave way to peer-to-peer engagement through creative, less hierarchical, and skillfully facilitated forums that made every effort to stimulate imagination and not to close off discussion, no matter how tempting it might have been to do so” (Paul Tan, p. 3). OSC’s ability to foster open dialogue were improvements in relation to previous attempts in public engagement as it broke away from the entanglements of bureaucracy and hierarchy in previous initiatives and created fresh forums of discussion.

OSC can be seen as the PAP government’s efforts to move toward consultative representation. Chua writes: “At present, in spite of its overwhelming elected majority in Parliament, the PAP government appears to be responding to the pressure from the ground and moving towards greater consultation and participation in the formation of national consensus and national interests” (Chua, p. 192). It is a relatively novel change in the PAP government’s attitude towards its citizens when it opens its policy-making doors to the public and allows individual citizens to put forth opinions about what should be done.

Taking Consultation Further

The PAP government has thus made efforts to move toward consultative representation. However, this rapid breakaway from paternalism brings the potential danger of turning consultation into an end, thereby betraying the original goals of benefiting and improving the lives of citizens. The current attitude of OSC paints this picture with its focus on listening but not appropriately capturing. Melissa Khoo and Yee Lai Fong comment on OSC practices: “A key intent was that people should leave the dialogue feeling that they had been heard, and had benefitted from hearing the views of fellow Singaporeans”[8]. While these goals are well founded, insufficient controls are in place to fully craft a coherent picture of the public opinion. The OSC thus seems to be an incomplete initiative. Mass public consultation does not automatically bring policies that fix social problems and elevate the national good. Should nothing be done to translate the current series of dialogues into viable policies, OSC could run the risk of stagnating into routine bureaucracy. Citizens will eventually find themselves talking to a brick wall. How then should consultation be conducted to refine opinions in a way that produces policies but does not distort what the mass public wishes to convey?

This is an issue in deliberation that the political theorist James Fishkin coins as “The mirror and the filter” (Fishkin, p. 15). Fishkin uses these metaphors to describe two ways of representing public opinion. The “mirror” reflects the actual public opinion of the masses, complete with the errors, biases and delusions produced from the sheer density of the population. The “filter” produces the refined, deliberative representation of public opinion that can be harnessed by the government for policy construction. The inherent danger in filtering is its potential to spill over into misinterpretation of public opinion. Fishkin writes: “The conflicting images suggest a hard choice between the reflective opinion of the filter and the reflected opinion of the mirror” (Fishkin, p. 15). The challenge of consultation is to strike a balance between the two, such that mirroring does not turn into distraction, and filtering does not turn into distortion. To achieve this balance, Fishkin proposes Deliberative Polling.

This method of consultation creates a microcosm of the citizen body, allowing for focused deliberation without sacrificing the reflection of actual opinion. Fishkin writes: “The participants turned up by random sampling, who begin as a mirror of the population, are subjected to the filter of a deliberative experience” (Fishkin, p. 26). The process involves a randomized selection of citizens engaged in further discussions and conversations moderated by experts. The process allows them to “overcome apathy, disconnection, inattention, and initial lack of information” (Fishkin, p. 26). They thus emerge better informed of the social issues in their country. Exposure to other disadvantaged members of their community also generates sympathy with those outside their social class. This microcosm is hence capable of putting forth opinions honed by deeper discussion, which bypasses the shortcomings of the larger population that prevented it from fully expressing itself. Allowing consultation to take place within a microcosm thus allows for extraction of public opinion that is informed, distilled and focused. By cutting out a small, manageable sample of the population, the “mirror” is retained, yet the “filter” is allowed to sharpen opinions and form useful deliberation.

How can Singapore implement Deliberative Polling?

Fishkin’s method of Deliberative Polling can be used to take OSC to a higher stage of citizen engagement and participation. The mass of public opinion the PAP government receives through its dialogues and sessions need to be further honed to produce a microcosm of the citizen body that is manageable and comprehensive. In line with Fishkin’s Deliberative Polling, Phase Two of OSC should have a follow up “Focus Group” session, comprised of 12 to 15 participants. They should be selected from the same pool of citizens who attended the initial OSC sessions. This microcosm should only be formed following Phase Two, such that it would discuss issues that have already been determined to be relevant to the public. All participants should be provided briefing materials that contain up-to-date information on issues discussed in Phase Two, and controls should be kept in place to ensure a safe space for all participants to present their views. Policy experts and government leaders from the OSC committee should moderate this Focus Group session in order to gain a better sense of how opinions morph following deliberation. Surveys on the same issues raised by Phase Two should then be collected following this Focus Group session. These are measures that ensure the deliberative experience from OSC produces a public opinion that is refined and informed.

OSC has served as a reassuring step in the direction of consultative representation, and reflects the PAP government’s genuine intentions to hand substantial power over to the people. Further efforts to galvanize deliberation are thus crucial to ensure Singapore does not backslide into its paternalistic impulses. Only then can it truly be government by the people.

Reference List

  • Pitkin, H.F. (1967) The Concept of Representation, Berkeley: University of California Press.
  • Chua, B.H. (1995) Communitarian Ideology and Democracy in Singapore, London: Routledge.
  • Fishkin, J.S. (2011) When the People Speak: Deliberative Democracy and Public Consultation, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Ong, H.H., Ong S.F., D. Ho, Chew H.M., Lee M.K., M. Chen & S. Driscoll. (2015, Sept 6). GE2015: 5 things about the fourth night of election rallies on Sept 5. The Straits Times. Retrieved from http://www.straitstimes.com/politics/ge2015-5-things-about-the-fourth-night-of-election-rallies-on-sept-5
  • Estaura, K.G. (2015, Nov 2). Should Singapore ease up on foreign worker limits? Singapore Business Review. Retrieved from http://sbr.com.sg/economy/exclusive/should-singapore-ease-foreign-worker-limits
  • Watts, J.M. (2015, Sept 3). Singapore Election to Test Shift on Immigration? The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved from http://www.wsj.com/articles/singapore-election-to-test-shift-on-immigration-1441262953
  • Paul Tan, K. (Oct 2013 – Jan 2014). Our Singapore Conversation: Telling National Stories. Global-is-Asian, 19, 1-3.
  • Khoo, M. & Yee, L.F. (2014). Redefining Engagement: Lessons for the Public Service from Our Singapore Conversation.Ethos, 13, 7-17.
  • Yap, M.T. (2014). Chapter 10: Singapore’s System for Managing Foreign Manpower. In R. H. Adams, A. Ahsan, (Eds.), Managing International Migration For Development in East Asia, World Bank Group

[1] Note. From “GE2015: 5 things about the fourth night of election rallies on Sept 5” by Ong, H.H., Ong S.F., D. Ho, Chew H.M., Lee M.K., M. Chen & S. Driscoll, 2015.

[2] Note. From “Should Singapore ease up on foreign worker limits?” by K.G. Estaura, 2015.

[3] Note. From “Singapore Election to Test Shift on Immigration” by J.M. Watts, 2015.

[4] From “‘Singapore 21: Together, We Make the Difference’ is Launched”, 1999, Retrieved from http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/history/events/66f2445b-43c1-407a-a3e8-a89083d6f868

[5] From “Remaking Singapore Committee is Formed”, 2002, Retrieved from http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/history/events/17594f70-1a95-4ea8-b209-02104059a140

[6] From “Prime Minister Lee’s National Day Message 2013”, 2013, Retrieved from http://theindependent.sg/prime-minister-lees-national-day-message-2013/

[7] Note. From “Redefining Engagement: Lessons for the Public Service from Our Singapore Conversation” by M. Khoo & Yee, L.F. (2015).

[8] Note. From “Redefining Engagement: Lessons for the Public Service from Our Singapore Conversation” by M. Khoo & L.F. Yee, 2014.

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

This website showcases our reflections.

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

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