Having Opposition MPs is bad for Singapore…

Or is it? One of the main reasons that PAP brings up to persuade why it is a bad idea to have opposition MPs is that that will lead to a gridlock in parliament. This was an idea that was pushed for aggressively in the last GE, where Ms Indranee Rajah wrote to ST Forum on 19 April 2011 to scare voters with the spectre of a gridlocked parliament. She asserted then that the WP sought to prevent effective governance, which will result in policies that would have benefited people not being passed. She then brought up USA to bolster her argument. While the PAP candidates did not raise the spectre of a gridlocked parliament as aggressively as in GE2011, there have still been such chatter amongst people, particularly from those who appear to be strident PAP supporters.

Will a multi-party parliament necessarily lead to ineffective governance and thus the doom of our nation? Will politics split our society asunder? On one hand, we have the examples of the recent politics in USA and Thailand as well as the long running political issues in India that seem to suggest that multi-party politics is indeed detrimental for a country. On the other hand, let’s not ignore the many other countries, which have multi-party parliaments and are able to still maintain governments that function smoothly. These include Norway, Denmark, Switzerland (whose standard of living we aspire toward), South Korea, and Israel. Of these examples, the last two are most interesting. Even with its multi-party parliament, South Korea has been able to pick itself up from the devastation of the Korean War and transform itself into an economic powerhouse with internationally recognized brands as well as project its soft power globally through its K-Pop and dramas. Israel exists in a region where most, if not all, its neighbours want to wipe it off the face of this Earth. If its government ever snarls up, if its government is ineffective and inefficient, would it still exist today? Yet Israel exists. And yes, it has a multi-party parliament. These examples show us that having a multi-party parliament does not necessarily mean the end of good government or that our standard of living will drop.

Some may say that things may not turn out as well in Singapore as they have in South Korea and Israel. Maybe our fate would be more like USA than South Korea, more like Thailand than Israel. I do not think so. For the following three reasons:

Firstly, our political parties are not really split across ideological lines. This is very different from USA, where the GOP is stridently and obstinately conservative and right-winged and the Democrats having to respond by being as stridently and obstinately liberal and left-winged. In Singapore, most parties are actually a strange mix of the political left and right (e.g. government needs to help, but individuals must remain as self-reliant as possible, encourage spirituality but government must remain secular). Mr Chan Chun Sing, in a speech to pay tribute to the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew, reminded us that Singapore must never forget its socialist heart. Indeed, in this year’s budget, we see that this socialist heart is beating very strongly. And that is why the opposition MPs, while expressing that certain aspects of the budget could have been different, spoke up to support the budget and, this is what’s most important, voted in favour of it. In fact, other than the Population White Paper, the opposition MPs have actually voted in favour on the motions that the PAP raises. The facts speak for themselves. Because our political parties are not split across ideological lines, it is possible for negotiations, fine-tuning and to work out policies that can be carried through parliament, even if there are different parties in it.

Secondly, Singapore society is relatively homogenous when it comes to politics. Yes, we are multi-racial, multi-religious and multi-cultural. Yes, our GINI coefficient implies that there is a wide rich-poor divide. But compared to the USA, where the political views of most Texans are very different from those of most Los Angelenos, or compared to Thailand, where the political views of the urban Thais are very different from those of the rural Thais, the difference in political opinions that Singaporeans have can really be considered to be minor. Similar to our political parties, we are not staunchly ideological. We have more common grounds than we care to believe. In fact, I believe that most Singaporeans agree on the broad directions for most public policies and can be persuaded to at least agree to give our policy makers time to work out the details.

Thirdly, Singaporeans have benefitted from a great education system. We have one of the highest literacy rates in the world. The ability of our students in Mathematics and Science are consistently ranked top in the world. This means that our education system has been quite successful in training our students to analyse information logically. This means that our population is relatively better than those in most other countries to be rational and discern what good policies look like. A democracy works best when the population is educated. Therefore, since our education system has been consistently recognized internationally as the best, it is reasonable to conclude that democracy is most likely to work in Singapore better than in any other country. It is therefore reasonable to believe that Singapore, with our much better educated citizenry can avoid the pitfalls that other countries had with multi-party parliament.

I am writing this post largely in response to some comments I got from my previous post about why I think we need to have opposition MPs. One concern is that nothing good comes out of organisations where power is fragmented across parties who hold comparable power and demonstrate a strong personal motivation to unseat other stakeholders in the organization, and that this typically leads to gridlock, at worst it leads to self-serving behaviour that sabotages organization goals. But Singapore is anything but typical. Many PAP politicians have kept telling us about how exceptional Singapore is. Why can’t we then reasonably believe that in this area of politics, we CAN be exceptional too? That we can have a multi-party parliament that works. I believe that because of the three reasons above, we can.


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