On Checks and Balances

“Why vote in more Opposition? All they do is check. We need more ‘doers’, not more ‘checkers’ in government.”

This is a very popular comment that I keep seeing on my social media feed. In the eyes of many pro-PAP supporters, an increased Opposition presence would only mean more gridlock and grandstanding in Parliament, making it that much harder for the PAP to actually govern properly. The United States and Taiwan will invariably be brought up as examples to illustrate the chaos that ensues when you have a multi-party democracy.

This completely misrepresents the role of an Opposition in a Westminster-style Parliamentary democracy, especially one with Singaporean characteristics. Many people see opposition parties like the Workers’ Party as a hindrance to policy-making; obstructionist parties which only oppose for the sake of opposing.

Perhaps this was true in the past, when the priority was to secure Singapore’s independence and propel our country into the developed world. Policy objectives were clear-cut and straightforward: ensure affordable, space-efficient public housing for all. Build up a defence force capable of guaranteeing our sovereignty. Attract foreign trade and investment to expand the economy. As a developmental, nascent nation, economic deliverables took precedence over civil liberties; because the latter could not exist without the former.

In this context, Opposition parties like the Barisan Sosialis and even the Workers’ Party were seen as a nuisance. The ruling PAP essentially functioned as an extension of the state machinery, clamping down on democratic freedoms in exchange for job creation, safe streets, and quality state services. It was a deal that most Singaporeans could get behind.

Times have changed. No longer are our concerns existential, nor are our targets self-evident. We are now part of a class of countries that can be considered to be at the periphery of national development: Fifty years ago, it was possible to play “catch up” with the First World, and incorporate the best parts of their developmental models within our plans.

Today, no one has solutions to the problems that we are facing; we can only hope to do better than our peers. Take population policy for example. The PAP saw that Japan’s fear of opening up to foreigners led to a shrinking population and stagnant economy, so we threw open our borders in the 1990s. And that in turn led to the reactionary xenophobia and depressed wages that we see in present-day Singapore.

Policy trade-offs are now subjective, rather than objective decisions. Should we accept slower economic growth in exchange for greater social equity?  France thinks yes, we think not. Should we redistribute educational resources toward the centre? Finland thinks yes, South Korea thinks not. Should we retain our progressive wage model, or a blanket minimum wage? The UK thinks yes, China thinks not. These are dilemmas that two equally intelligent people may completely disagree on. Nobel Laureate Paul Krugman, for instance, defends the viability of a minimum wage even though Dr Vivian Balakrishnan is convinced it won’t work based on conventional free market theory.

My argument is that decisions can no longer be made purely on the metric of pragmatism. We have reached the point where the way forward must also be illuminated by our beliefs. And here’s where the Opposition steps in, as a conduit through which people express their beliefs and aspirations. As ‘checkers’, therefore, the Opposition plays a vital role in constructive policy-making by pressuring the government to compromise on its proposals, so any decision is more favourable to all. In such a world, an Opposition could have pushed the government to adjust the Population White Paper’s planning parameters downward from 6.9 million.

Is this populism? In a way, yes. But let us not kid ourselves. The very essence of democracy is populist. The majority literally gets to determine who rules, regardless of their collective qualifications. The problem is not populism per se, but rather, bad decision-making. And I believe that it’s more likely for bad decisions to occur when the government is allowed to impose an objective lens on a subjective trade-off, without first having to consult and debate the Opposition.

Some might argue that, due to our geopolitical realities, Singapore has very limited policy options and hence an Opposition is irrelevant. Yet, these are often the same people who point to the PAP’s decisive shift to the social left post-2011 as proof of the government’s responsiveness and dynamism. Which is it, and why? You can’t argue that there is only one right path for Singapore to take, while at the same time argue that the PAP has changed for the better. Evidently, there is some latitude for movement, aided in no small part by our extremely competent civil service that is an invaluable buffer to our national security.

I accept that one could concede everything I’ve said thus far, but conclude that there’s still no need for a strong Opposition, because the PAP is more than capable of checking on itself, and adjusting its policy directions based on the social climate. There’s no doubt that the PAP has done an excellent job of ensuring incorruptibility and internal regulation – the recent Auditor-General’s report that exposed deficiencies in the People’s Association and the Workforce Development Agency proves this. But when it comes to party ideology and policy direction, it seems highly suspect that the PAP only rolled out big-ticket policies like the Pioneer Generation Package and SkillsFuture after losing Aljunied GRC in the 2011 election. Even when it comes to immigration quotas, one notes a sharp tightening of foreign work visas directly after population policy became a hot-button issue during GE11.

And even if the PAP does debate its own policies vigorously behind closed doors, this defeats the purpose of consensus through compromise. Think about it: If the sharpest, most persuasive attacks on proposed policies are kept within the party, written down only on classified minutes, then obviously Singaporeans will neither have the vocabulary nor the source material to critically evaluate policies for themselves. For all the government’s rhetoric that Singaporeans don’t know the whole picture and hence should not rush to conclusions, it is not our fault that the full story is never made wholly available. We need an Opposition to scrutinize policies on our behalf in Parliament, so we can choose whether or not to support the government’s ideas.

Ultimately, we need a stronger Opposition to help us shape our aspirations and dreams. Debate and disagreement need not be destructive; it is often critical in defining the kind of Singapore that we want to see. Perhaps the current slate of opposition politicians have some way to go before they can be a powerful check on the government – but there’s no doubt that their momentum is gradually building.


One Reply to “On Checks and Balances”

  1. Thanks for this, I think preventing the PAP from maintaining its constitutional supermajority is especially important too. In 1989 the Constitution was amended (with retrospective effect) to reverse the impact of the Chng Suan Tze judgement, and it is worrying to me that one single party retains the ability to do this again. In this election many comparisons have been drawn between the incorruptible PAP leadership and poor governance in Malaysia, but I think the biggest lesson we should learn from Malaysia’s experience is that a creeping authoritarianism which is acceptable under a decent leader (Mahathir) can very quickly become a system that keeps a poor leader (Najib) entrenched in power. The elected presidency does provide a check but its ability to do so is hampered because potential candidates for the office are first screened by an untransparent committee, the members of which can be unilaterally appointed by the same parliamentary supermajority that the PAP continues to enjoy. It was the seeming progress under Mahathir’s rule that disguised his many efforts to centralise power in the office of the prime minister, and I worry that the same might happen to us too.


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