Monday, July 28, 2008

Goh Chok Tong’s remarks on role of opposition raises many alarm bells

Written by Ng E-Jay, SG Politics
27 July 2008

Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong’s recent remarks on the role of the opposition in Singapore are certainly thought-provoking. But in my mind, they also raise many alarm bells which concern me deeply.

Goh Chok Tong was speaking about the role of the opposition at a National Day dinner in Hougang SMC on Saturday night (26 July). The following excerpts are taken from a CNA report entitled “SM Goh confident PAP will eventually win back Hougang” published online on the same night as well as a Straits Times article entitled “SM: Tweaks to system yes, but the core must remain” published on 27 July. My own comments follow each excerpt.

Goh Chok Tong said that Singapore’s political system must change to keep pace with an evolving society, yet there are certain things that must not change. “Whatever the refinements we may make to our political system down the road, some core principles must remain the same,” he said.

So what are those core principles that must remain constant? Goh Chok Tong said, “One, any changes must be fair to all parties and give them an equal chance to contest and win; two, they must not lead to democratic chaos and politics of division; and three, they must not put Singapore’s unity and harmony, growth and prosperity and long-term interests at risk.”

On the surface, Goh Chok Tong’s statement appears very reasonable. But let’s dig slightly deeper.

Firstly, is the current political system fair to the opposition? My answer is a firm NO. While the GRC system is ostensibly created to give minority candidates a level playing field, in reality it has put the opposition at a disadvantage because the opposition does not have the same kind of access to resources and manpower as the PAP. Over the years we have seen the GRCs get bigger and bigger, and now there are even monster 6-member GRCs. This is blatantly unfair for the opposition.

The Elections Department is still under the Prime Minister’s Office, and the PAP can redraw electoral boundaries at their own discretion. Electoral deposits have also increased to as high as $13,500 per candidate, which imposes a financial burden on opposition candidates who have to raise large amounts of funds just to contest in elections.

If the electoral system is to be made fair to all parties, then it must undergo serious reform.

Secondly, what does Goh Chok Tong mean when he says that political changes must not lead to chaos and politics of division? That to me is a very loaded statement.

Who defines what is chaos and politics of division? Is it the PAP themselves? If Singapore is to become a real democracy, then there must be open debate about political issues, and opposition parties must be free to contest and free to provide a robust challenge to the ruling party. Who decides what is fair debate, and what is divisive politics? It cannot be the ruling party that decides. It must be the people who decide through the ballot box as well as by speaking up individually.

It is high time that the PAP stops insinuating that free debate and competition has the tendency to degenerate into chaos and divisive politics.

More importantly, we should recognize that some amount of conflict will arise in an open society where people are free to debate on any issue, and this is not necessarily bad for the nation. If Singapore is to be a mature democracy, it must learn to handle such conflicts as they arise in a manner that does not involve repression or discrimination. The PAP must stop babysitting the nation if we are to grow up politically. More pertinently, the PAP must stop using babysitting as an excuse to further entrench its monopoly on political ideology.

Goh Chok Tong noted that the opposition parliamentarian for Hougang SMC since 1991, Low Thia Khiang, believes his job is just to ask questions and check the ruling party, but not to offer solutions to problems. The Senior Minister said this is a rather narrow view of the role of an opposition.

He also said, “Ideally, our political system should facilitate the emergence of a strong, effective government after every election and a responsible, constructive opposition. But no matter how you design it … there is no guarantee because it depends on whether good, honest and competent people come forward to stand for elections and the wisdom of the electorate when they cast their ballot.”

Again, this statement looks reasonable on the surface, but the question remains: Has the PAP been walking its talk?

There has been a gradual de-politicization of the electorate since Singapore’s independence, no thanks to the PAP’s repressive and authoritarian style of government that discourages free and unfettered dialogue about political issues and criticism of the PAP. To this day, the PAP Government is still winning defamation suits against political opponents, has a monopoly on the mainstream media which it uses to its advantage, and uses repressive laws that restrict the freedom of the people to assemble in public or speak freely. In this oppressive culture, the growth of the opposition is hampered, and people entering opposition politics sometimes have to pay a heavy price.

A responsible, constructive opposition is necessary if there is to be political plurality in Singapore. But the PAP’s definition of what is responsible and constuctive opposition is at odds with my own. The PAP’s notion of a constructive opposition is one that works within the system and always speaks with a moderate voice. This to me is not a constructive opposition, but a sham opposition.

A constructive opposition to me is one that dares to challenge the system where the system is flawed, and speak out vociferously against laws and rules that are manifestly unjust. An opposition that merely works within the system is one that will support the system rather than change it.

The sad reality is that the PAP Government has been slowly indoctrinating in the people its own notion of what constitutes a good opposition. But the PAP’s own idea of a good opposition is one that will merely provide token resistance to its policies, and further entrench its own power and preserve its political hegemony. Singapore needs political opposition that will challenge, not preserve, the PAP’s grip on power.

Goh Chok Tong also warned that democracy does not guarantee an effective Parliament. Citing Taiwan as an example to bolster his point, he said, “Taiwan’s democracy is more liberal than ours. But it has divided the society.”

My view is that Singapore has been economically successful, not because of the lack of liberal democracy, but in spite of it. There is no guarantee that state of affairs will last forever, and that is why liberal democracy has to be advanced in Singapore, so as to give Singapore citizens the right to self-determination and the ability to peacefully vote out an incompetent incumbent.

Democracy in itself will not bring economic success or cultural maturity to a nation. But we should stop attempting to pursue these at the expense of democracy, because it is unjustified in principle and increasing untenable in practice in the age of the Internet.