The politics of immorality

The resignation of now-former Bukit Batok MP David Ong has generated an excess of political commentary, some more sensible than others (here’s looking at you, The Online Citizen). In many countries personal indiscretions would be overlooked (see France and Italy for but two examples). In many others, resignations for reasons of personal indiscretion would be unremarkable in the political sphere. But Singapore being a politics-starved polity, it’s not surprising that we latch on to what we can get. It’s not every day that we get to see a PAP-WP showdown (and, let’s face it, it will quite simply be a PAP-WP showdown, with other parties not playing much of a role), especially not one with such juicy parallels to be drawn with former Hougang MP Yaw Shin Leong’s expulsion from the WP for similar indiscretions back in 2012.

One popular interpretation from the online commentariat, including this blog’s regular writer Chinton, is that the PAP has “let public morality legislate, rather than…legislate public morality”. In Chinton’s words, “the government is pandering to populist (and conservative) moral sentiment, in order to generate political capital to implement unpopular national policies”. I think this is an overly simplistic view of how politics works, both in this instance and in others.

There are other factors that come into play. The first is simple mathematics. The PAP has many more MPs than the WP. Perhaps more importantly, it has a large talent pool from which to select potential MPs – far larger, anyway, than the WP does. Losing one, two, three or even four MPs to personal indiscretions is not a big blow to the PAP. It can easily replace them with candidates of similar quality and ability. The WP, on the other hand, is not so lucky. It has a smaller number of MPs and, more damagingly, a much smaller number of potential MPs of similar quality with which to replace them. The PAP can afford to lose Michael Palmer and David Ong; the WP can ill afford to lose Yaw Shin Leong. Again more importantly, the PAP can afford to disqualify candidates from its talent pool on the basis of marital infidelity. The WP cannot, if one of its top talents is found to have been unfaithful, do the same. And so it is in the PAP’s favour, at least for now, to promote a norm that politicians must be free of such personal indiscretions.

The second point is that people do not vote based on rational assessments of policy differences between parties. This is true of the most robust democracies in the world and it is true here, even if we wish it were not so. Hence, when Chinton writes that “an MP’s private life does not impact their ability to discharge their duties with integrity and competence”, this may be true, but it is also largely irrelevant. People are subject to analogic thinking – that is, if two situations appear linked in some way or form, then they tend to assume that the outcome in one situation is a good barometer for the outcome in the other, even when it is not (as an aside, this is one of the more popular explanations for the phenomenon of simultaneous mass revolutions as seen throughout history in 1848, 1989, and most recently 2011).

This sort of thinking is relevant in two ways here. First, between Mr Ong’s private life and his public office – the link, of course, is Mr Ong himself, and the thought goes that if he commits a breach of trust in his private commitments, then surely he would do so in his execution of a public duty as well. Thus, he becomes a liability to both party and government, and must resign. Second, and this is of more interest politically, a link is created between how the PAP deals with breaches of trust. In a situation involving a politician’s private life, the PAP acts swiftly to hold him to account – and even more importantly, the politician in question (Mr Ong) holds himself to account by tendering his resignation. The first word the public hears of any personal infidelity is as a reason for Mr Ong’s resignation and leaving the party. His exchange of letters with PM Lee is released. Action is taken swiftly, decisively, and transparently – plus, it appears that Mr Ong initiates the exchange. Contrast this with how former WP MP Yaw Shin Leong left office. Between the surfacing of allegations and his eventual expulsion by the WP, there is almost a month. In handling this matter of personal indiscretion, the WP was slow, indecisive, and eventually had to force its own member out.

Of course, how a party handles revelations of personal indiscretions by its members and how it actually governs might be only tenuously linked – that is an argument for another day. The power of analogic thinking is that because the PAP handled Mr Ong’s personal infidelity with such aplomb, and Mr Ong even held himself to account, it seems that the PAP will tackle any whiff of serious corruption or abrogation of public duties with equal alacrity, and that PAP MPs have the “moral fibre” to admit their wrongdoings. Conversely, the WP comes off looking as if its members are in need of policing it can scarcely be counted upon to provide. Simply put, how each party tackled a breach of personal trust is indicative of how each would tackle a breach of the public trust. Whether or not this is true is besides the point – it is entirely possible that the WP was engaging in proper investigations and considerations of all factors before making a decision on Mr Yaw, while the PAP simply decided to axe Mr Ong as quickly as possible. It is even possible that, as isolated incidents, the WP handled the matter better (although I doubt it). But from a political standpoint, the PAP seized on an ostensible moral failing in one of its members to paint the party as a whole as morally upstanding and effective. The WP failed to acquit itself anywhere near as well.

This is why it is simplistic to say that the PAP let public morality legislate, or that it simply pandered to what a conservative majority wanted. Quite apart from the fact that in ostensible democracies it is eminently reasonable for major parties to follow the will of a majority, conservative or not, in conducting internal party affairs, the politically salient aspects of the PAP’s actions have little to do with the outcomes being in line with conservative morality. A conservative majority would have punished any politician with personal indiscretions come election day. Thus, both the PAP and the WP have little choice but to “pander” to a conservative majority – in no sane political universe would either party, when confronted with a majority deeming the act immoral, attempt to convince the public that the act was moral instead. This is why the WP eventually expelled Mr Yaw, just as the PAP ushered Mr Ong and Mr Palmer out the door. The real point of interest is the manner of their pandering. When confronted with an act deemed immoral, the PAP moved swiftly to expunge the “immoral” character, while the WP dithered. Thus the PAP was strengthened by casting itself as vigilant and decisive against such immorality, while the WP was tainted by association with it.

When it comes to the politics of immorality, there is seldom much parties will do to change what is deemed moral or immoral. This is especially so when the matter is not one of legislation, which at least carries a powerful normative signal on right and wrong, but of internal party affairs. Parties will assess what the public thinks is moral or immoral, and eventually get rid of the immoral. To see this and claim that parties are pandering is banal; to consider how parties act to rid themselves of the immoral and then demonstrate themselves rid of the immoral is analysis.




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