Relooking Representation in Singapore’s Non-Electoral Institutions

“How about postman? Postman you open or not? For Singapore Post?” Minister of Parliament, Ong Teng Koon, suggested sincerely to food delivery riders at a Meet-the-People Session.[1] Following the overnight ban of Personal Mobility Devices (PMD) on public footpaths, livelihoods of over 7000[2] such riders have been severely affected. While many have come to criticise the government for its hasty ban on account of the lost livelihoods, many were also pleased to have public footpath safety restored as PDM related accidents have claimed lives. The PMD saga which unfolded since has offered a unique opportunity to relook descriptive representation in Singapore’s non-electoral institutions.

As Philip Pettit argues, democracy is meant to orient the government to only the common, recognisable interest of its people.[3] For democracy to be able to do that, it requires two dimensions that correspond to electoral and non-electoral institutions respectively. The first dimension is authorial where people through electoral institutions ensure that the implementation of policies advance only common, recognisable interests.[4] Elections give authorial control to the people by allowing them to select representatives who compete with each other through different policies. In the process of competing, candidates propose policies that advance these interests as the electorate votes accordingly. Equally, if not more important to a democratic system, and particularly in the Singaporean context where the People’s Action Party enjoys a single-party dominance, is the editorial dimension which allows policies to be scrutinised, that give people the power of contestation against policies that are not in the common, recognisable interests of all people[5]. This editorial dimension is conceived of in terms of non-electoral, depoliticised institutions that provide contestatory power through procedural, consultative and appellate resources.

Barring criticisms of Singapore’s electoral institutions aside, the PMD ban raises more serious questions about non-electoral institutions, particularly that of the consultative and appellate resources. The People’s Action Party has pride itself as a party with its ears on the ground, and this is arguably evidenced by weekly Meet-The-People Sessions held by parliamentarians with their constituents as well as various other community-focused advisory bodies that are formed and consulted on policy issues. This maps nicely onto Pettit’s conception of the consultative resources which the people have to edit and scrutinise the policies of government. However, given the backlash after the PMD ban, the government’s approach to consultative apparatuses have clearly proven ineffective. That is not to say that consultative resources are not valuable for decision making in governance, but rather, that the consultative approach by the government has loopholes.

Paying Attention to Minority Interests through Descriptive Representation in Non-Electoral Institutions

In July 2015, the Active Mobility Advisory Panel (AMAP) was set up by the Land Transport Authority (LTA) to “propose a set of rules and norms for active mobility”[6] and since its formation, the panel has been involved in every regulatory decision that the government has made concerning PMD. The panel comprises of “14 representatives from key stakeholder groups, such as seniors, youth, grassroots, cyclists, motorists, and users of personal mobility devices”[7]. AMAP in its advisory role on active mobility did conduct focused-group discussions and an online survey with 5000 respondents.[8] Such public consultation efforts by the government are laudable, however, specifically concerning the PMD ban, the government appears to have lapsed in its consultation with the people. Despite AMAP’s efforts, it remains that 7000 food delivery riders were left displaced with livelihoods lost after the PMD ban. Why was this so?

Firstly, a review of AMAP[9] and its larger advisory role quickly reveals that it was only concerned with the majority interest of public footpath safety, which PMD potentially threatened. As such, most of its consultation with the public focused on regulating PMD and ensuring safety without key engagement with PMD riders themselves. This in itself is a lapse in the whole public consultation process where the body meant to allow for minority voices to challenge and scrutinise policies only accounted for majority interests. A further problem arises. As a result of the prioritisation of majority interests, the panel aimed to be substantively representative of different key majority stakeholders regarding public footpath safety – seniors, youth, cyclists. While the panel included one PMD representative, Mr Denis Koh, Chairman of Big Wheel Scooters Singapore (BWSS), an online community of PMD users, it failed to capture the full range of minority interests. PMD users are arguably a key stakeholder in the regulation of  PMD, as they will be most adversely affected by the ban, even if they only hold minority interest. There are at least 100,000 licenced PMD users[10]in Singapore and only 1 representative on AMAP. Among the 100,000, at least 7000 are food delivery riders whose livelihoods are tied to their ability to use PMD. Yet, they were neither substantive nor descriptively represented on the panel.

In this instance, the government has succeeded in providing a full range of representatives for majority interests but not for minority interests. This is why when LTA announced the ban, it was met with such huge backlash. Its public consultation only consulted majority interests represented by majority stakeholder representatives. As such, a case for minority representation can be made for improving the public consultation process, and more specifically, descriptive representation. As Jane Mansbridge argues, descriptive representatives are representatives who have shared experiences with the constituents they represent.[11] While Mansbridge argues for descriptive representation in an electoral setting, her argument can be transposed onto non-electoral consultative resources because the reasoning behind having descriptive representatives are similar in both contexts. If AMAP or any other such advisory body is meant to conduct public consultation and heed majority and minority interests alike, it must be capable of truly representing both groups. Descriptive characteristics are valuable in minorities representation because representatives can be relied on to act in the way minorities themselves would when their uncrystallised (or even crystallised) interests are at stake and communicate more effectively with one another.[12] Beyond just descriptive representatives, Mansbridge highlights the importance of representing minority interests of a full and diverse range, which the government also failed to do in this instance.[13]

While AMAP had one PMD representative, he was not descriptively representative of the food delivery riders and could not represent the full range of PMD rider interests. As AMAP conducted its focus group discussions, nation-wide online survey and reviews, it lacked the descriptive representatives to crystallise and protect interests of food delivery riders, amongst other groups, such as retailors. When the editorial dimension of democracy fails, is when false positives start to arise, where the implementation of polices do not advance the common, recognisable interests of all people.[14] Food delivery riders with their livelihoods tied to PMD hold a particularly precarious position in PMD regulation and deserved representation. Furthermore, the socio-economic demographic of food delivery riders already put them at minority risk for being underrepresented or under-supported in society.[15] Coupled with the nature of their work being, free-lanced or based upon short-term contracts – resultant of a new and growing class of gig-economy workers – which puts them at risk of being unprotected by existing labour laws[16], they are even more vulnerable and deserving of representation in the preservation of their livelihoods. Perhaps their interests could have been substantively represented by non-descriptive representatives, but as witnessed in the unfolding of events after the PMD ban, none of the substantive representatives recognised or captured their interests before the ban. The difficulty in seeking out such minority group interests is duly acknowledged but precisely commands that they are found and consulted. Descriptive representation offers a chance for the non-electoral institutions in Singapore to perform the function it so desperately needs to. To give people the power of contestation against implementation of policies that are not in the common, recognisable interests of all, to stop Ministers of Parliament from making such mistaken, almost unempathetic statements.

Other Tangible Benefits from Descriptive Representation

While minority interests have to be consulted when implementing policies, it is inconceivable that policies will always affect all groups equally. LTA took the stance that safety on public footpaths overwrote any other concern. Whether this is a justifiable position, is not relevant to this discussion. However, if decisions regarding the common, recognisable interests of the people have to be made and, that these decisions would certainly affect particular groups more than others, then descriptive representation in non-electoral institutions ensures that the concerns of these particular groups are accounted for. This produces the effect of ensuring that affected groups do not feel targetedly disenfranchised.[17]Relating this positive effect back to the PMD ban, if food delivery riders were consulted and had descriptive representatives they could count on, it is possible that the ban would not have received such estranging backlash.

Incidentally, the ex-post redresses of the government for these food delivery riders could have been ex-ante. A $7 million PMD trade-in grant for food delivery riders was instituted and the option of engaging NTUC’s Employment and Employability Institute (e2i) for riders interested in other employment options were announced 4 days after the ban.[18]As Pettit argues, the procedural and consultative resourcing would reduce the need for appellate contestation, that is trying to reverse policy decisions already made by government through courts and tribunals.[19] In the Singaporean context, appellate contestation almost never occurs or succeeds. This could be taken as a sign that policy implementation has always been in the common, recognisable interests of the people and that procedural and consultative apparatuses have fulfilled their editorial functions. Simultaneously, it is also true that not all policies are implemented perfectly as seen from the PMD saga. However, given the ex-post ban actions of the government, they are undeniably responsive to criticisms and feedback from the people. While this responsiveness can be perceived positively, with the envisioned descriptive representation enabled public consultation model, government ex-post implementation responsiveness can be transformed into active, deliberative consideration of all stakeholder interests during policy formation, ex-ante implementation. The descriptive representation envisioned in the non-electoral consultation resources will improve the editorial dimension of democracy in Singapore and allow firstly, majority and minority groups a voice against any dominant PAP rhetoric and secondly, allow more effective governance through implementation of policies that advance only common, recognisable interests that have been scrutinised by the people.

[1] Jewel Stolarchuk, “PAP MP Asks Desperate Food Delivery Riders Whether They Want To Take Up Jobs As Singpost Postmen,” The Independent, November 14, 2019, http://theindependent.sg/pap-mp-asks-desperate-food-delivery-riders-whether-they-want-to-take-up-jobs-as-singpost-postmen/

[2] “$7 million E-Scooter Trade-in Grant to Help Food Delivery Riders Switch to Alternative Modes of Transport,” News Release, Ministry of Transport, accessed November 22, 2019, https://www.mot.gov.sg/news-centre/news/detail/7-million-dollars-e-scooter-trade-in-grant-to-help-food-delivery-riders-switch-to-alternative-modes-of-transport

[3] Philip Pettit, “Democracy, Electoral and Contestatory” in Designing Democratic Institutions: Nomos XLII, ed. Ian Shapiro and Stephen Macedo (New York: NYU Press, 2000), 114.

[4] Pettit, “Democracy, Electoral and Contestatory,” 114.

[5] Pettit, “Democracy, Electoral and Contestatory,” 119.

[6] “LTA Sets Up Active Mobility Advisory Panel,” News Room, Land Transport Authority, July 30, 2015, https://www.lta.gov.sg/content/ltagov/en/newsroom/2015/7/2/lta-sets-up-active-mobility-advisory-panel.html

[7] Land Transport Authority, “LTA Sets Up Active Mobility Advisory Panel.”

[8] Adrian Lim, “Expert Panel Seeks Views On Rules And Speed For Cyclists And PMD Users On Footpaths,” The Straits Times, April 2, 2018, https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/transport/expert-panel-seeks-views-on-rules-and-speed-for-cyclists-and-pmd-users-on

[9]“Composition of Term 2 of the Active Mobility Advisory Panel”, Land Transport Authority, accessed November 22, 2019, https://www.lta.gov.sg/content/dam/ltagov/getting_around/active_mobility/rules_public_education/rules_code_of_conduct/pdf/amap.pdf

[10] Toh Ting Wei, “E-Scooter Businesses May Suffer Losses Of Up To $1.5 Million, Retrenchment And Closure With Footpath Ban,” The Straits Times, November 9, 2019, https://www-straitstimes-com.libproxy.yale-nus.edu.sg/singapore/transport/e-scooter-businesses-may-suffer-losses-of-up-to-15-million-retrenchment-and

[11] Jane Mansbridge, “Should Blacks Represent Blacks and Women Represent Women? A Contingent “Yes”,” The Journal of Politics 61, No. 3 (August 1999): 629.

[12] Mansbridge, “Should Blacks Represent Blacks,” 641-46.

[13] Ibid,. 636.

[14] Pettit, “Democracy, Electoral and Contestatory,” 123.

[15] Yuen Sin, “New Poll Highlights Concern Over Gig Workers’ Prospects,” The Straits Times, November 17, 2019, https://www-straitstimes-com.libproxy.yale-nus.edu.sg/singapore/manpower/new-poll-highlights-concern-over-gig-workers-prospects

[16] Editorial, “Gig Economy Not A Solution For All,” The Straits Times, November 23, 2019, https://www-straitstimes-com.libproxy.yale-nus.edu.sg/opinion/st-editorial/gig-economy-not-a-solution-for-all

[17] Pettit, “Democracy, Electoral and Contestatory,” 131.

[18] Ministry of Transport, “$7 million E-Scooter Trade-in Grant to Help Food Delivery Riders Switch to Alternative Modes of Transport.”

[19] Pettit, “Democracy, Electoral and Contestatory,” 122.

Bibliography

Books

Pettit, Philip. “Democracy, Electoral and Contestatory.” In Designing Democratic Institutions: Nomos XLII, edited by Ian Shapiro and Stephen Macedo, 105-144. New York: NYU Press, 2000.

Journal Articles

Mansbridge, Jane. “Should Blacks Represent Blacks and Women Represent Women? A Contingent “Yes”.” The Journal of Politics 61, No. 3 (August 1999): 628-65.

Newspapers

Editorial. “Gig Economy Not A Solution For All,” The Straits Times, November 23, 2019. https://www-straitstimes-com.libproxy.yale-nus.edu.sg/opinion/st-editorial/gig-economy-not-a-solution-for-all

Lim, Adrian. “Expert Panel Seeks Views On Rules And Speed For Cyclists And PMD Users On Footpaths.” The Straits Times, April 2, 2018. https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/transport/expert-panel-seeks-views-on-rules-and-speed-for-cyclists-and-pmd-users-on

Stolarchuk, Jewel.  “PAP MP Asks Desperate Food Delivery Riders Whether They Want To Take Up Jobs As Singpost Postmen.” The Independent, November 14, 2019. http://theindependent.sg/pap-mp-asks-desperate-food-delivery-riders-whether-they-want-to-take-up-jobs-as-singpost-postmen/

Toh, Ting Wei. “E-Scooter Businesses May Suffer Losses Of Up To $1.5 Million, Retrenchment And Closure With Footpath Ban.” The Straits Times, November 9, 2019. https://www-straitstimes-com.libproxy.yale-nus.edu.sg/singapore/transport/e-scooter-businesses-may-suffer-losses-of-up-to-15-million-retrenchment-and

Yuen, Sin. “New Poll Highlights Concern Over Gig Workers’ Prospects.” The Straits Times, November 17, 2019. https://www-straitstimes-com.libproxy.yale-nus.edu.sg/singapore/manpower/new-poll-highlights-concern-over-gig-workers-prospects

Websites

Land Transport Authority. “LTA Sets Up Active Mobility Advisory Panel.” News Room. Last modified July 30, 2015. https://www.lta.gov.sg/content/ltagov/en/newsroom/2015/7/2/lta-sets-up-active-mobility-advisory-panel.html

Land Transport Authority. “Composition of Term 2 of the Active Mobility Advisory Panel.” Accessed November 22, 2019. https://www.lta.gov.sg/content/dam/ltagov/getting_around/active_mobility/rules_public_education/rules_code_of_conduct/pdf/amap.pdf

 Ministry of Transport. “$7 million E-Scooter Trade-in Grant to Help Food Delivery Riders Switch to Alternative Modes of Transport.” News Release. Accessed November 22, 2019. https://www.mot.gov.sg/news-centre/news/detail/7-million-dollars-e-scooter-trade-in-grant-to-help-food-delivery-riders-switch-to-alternative-modes-of-transport

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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.

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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