On Public Morality, Political Capital, and Adultery

Let’s begin from an obvious premise: that despite its experience and political adroitness, the PAP has a limited amount of political capital. Both the 2011 General Election and the Punggol East by-election demonstrated that the PAP cannot simply bulldoze unpopular legislation like laissez-faire immigration policy without expecting significant pushback from the silent majority.

However, because Singapore is ruled by a single-party technocracy, the PAP benefits from the political latitude of perpetual establishment dominance. We have seen the PAP use this “insurance” to implement policies that were initially unpopular – the decision to set up two Integrated Resorts, for instance, was met with fierce opposition when it was first mooted in 2006. Similarly, many issues that we today accept as benign features of the status quo actually used to be highly contentious topics – the Abortion Act came under withering attack from the Catholic Church and Muslim communities when it was written into law nearly forty years ago. To take a more current example, every time the CPF Minimum Sum or withdrawal age gets raised, the government expands a little more political capital.

My worry is that the government has a track record of expending political capital only when it presents clear, quantifiable economic benefit. One can calculate, down to the nearest dollar, how much raising the CPF age of withdrawal will save the government in terms of social services costs. The building of the casinos was justified on the basis of it providing 35,000 new jobs for Singaporeans. Even a social policy like legalising abortion was framed in purely economic terms [n.b. the conclusion espoused in the linked article does not reflect my own]: (1) Overpopulation is a problem; (2) Babies born with severe defects have negative utility; and (3) Backstreet abortions are far worse. The PAP government is most comfortable when negotiating the minutiae of economic trade-offs and estimating marginal social utilities.

But when it comes to social issues that do not strictly intersect with pragmatism, the PAP is considerably less adept. Suddenly, the party absolves itself of difficult choices. It prefers to let public morality legislate, rather than to legislate public morality. The PAP claims that it merely wants social discourse to take its course, but this misses the point – the impact which governmental inaction has on social morality is just as profound as taking action. People point to established laws as confirmation of their pre-existing biases, and as a way to transmit these biases to their children. By scrupulously avoiding taking sides, the government implicitly takes the side of those who shout the loudest. And this is gravely concerning, because social harms are no less real than economic ones: A teenage boy verbally abused, and then thrown out of his house because he came out as gay to his traditionalist parents deserves the help of the state as much as anyone else.

Which brings me to former MPs Yaw Shin Leong, Michael Palmer, and David Ong. The PAP’s response to all three of their cases should be evaluated in the broader context of its inaction over the Madonna concert “controversy”, as well as the debate surrounding Section 377A. It is my belief that the government is pandering to populist (and conservative) moral sentiment, in order to generate political capital to implement unpopular national policies. The PAP probably saw former Hougang MP Yaw Sin Leong’s affair as an expedient way to attack the credibility of the WP, in a public show of political one-upmanship. And when Michael Palmer and David Ong were later revealed to be involved in similar personal indiscretions, their positions became untenable.

To be clear, I’m fairly ambivalent regarding this whole situation. I personally believe that an MP’s private life does not impact their ability to discharge their duties with integrity and competence, and hence should not lead to said MP resigning. However, I do think there’s some merit in the argument that many MPs do campaign on the basis of their private lives, and if you’re going on the campaign trail with your wife in tow, for example, there’s an implicit message that you’re a filial family man who will exemplify these values both at home and in Parliament.

What I’m against is the persistent governmental acquiescence to conservative viewpoints in society, so as to not scare off certain voting blocs. Instead of expending some political capital to fight much-needed battles on the moral front, the government instead uses the realm of public morality as a way to secure support for “more important” things. And this leads vulnerable minorities to bear the brunt of inaction: from single parents who desperately need more governmental welfare or the ability to purchase a HDB flat, to a transgender person growing up in a society which refuses to accept his gender identity. In exchange for the subtle, systematised oppression of the voiceless, we get to enjoy slightly higher GDP growth and more efficient government expenditure on social services.

Isn’t this trade-off great?

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