“Opposition” parties in Singapore somehow think they have a role to play in politics and/or nation-building. They’ve come up with grandiose visions of being a “check-and-balance” to the PAP govt, coming up with “alternative” policy proposals to make the country better, even becoming an “alternative” govt to the PAP.
The truth is? Practically none of these roles make sense. And even if they did, could they fill these roles, in their weak state? Who are they kidding?
Let’s analyse these roles and see why they are deluding themselves– and misleading voters.
As “check and balance”
Vote us in to check the PAP, they exhort us! But do the parties really understand what check and balance mean in a democracy?
In democratic countries, power is split across different institutions so that no single institution has unfettered power. Some of these institutions are political and some are not, hence they can act as a check and balance against one another.
An example is the US, where power is divided among the President/Administration, the Senate and the Congress and the Courts (incl. the Supreme Court justices who are confirmed by the Congress and can sit on the bench for life). In the UK, power is again split among the Judiciary, the Executive and the Legislature.
The real function of a check and balance is that one should have the power to reverse the decision of another institution. For instance, the US President can veto a bill from the Congress; the Congress can also refuse to pass legislation proposed by the President; and the Supreme Court can declare a law unconstitutional.
The Opposition does not figure in any of this, because the idea that one political party serves as a check on another political party doesn’t make sense!
Because you can’t trust politicians, right?
No one has ever claimed that the Opposition is part of a “check and balance” structure, even in countries such as US or UK, where the Opposition is a force to be reckoned with.
So how does the “Opposition” in Singapore believe that they can take on such a role, esp since they are so much weaker than any other opposition in democratic countries?
Vote us in to be a watchdog, they say. But what’s a watchdog?
“Watchdog” implies somebody who can raise an alarm but cannot do anything directly about a situation, although the alarm bells can prompt actions by others who can correct the situation.
In democratic countries, the role of the watchdog generally falls on an independent press, which can expose wrongdoings of all parties, but does not have any powers under the Constitution to stop any wrongdoings.
The press watches the other institutions of power and are thus sometimes referred to as the Fourth Estate.
The Opposition, in the strictest sense of the word (ie limited to only parties who hold seats in the House) are far more than “watchdogs” because they have legal powers to block what the Govt proposes, to the extent of bringing down the Govt in a no-confidence motion if necessary.
Thus they legitimately should aim to be more than “watchdogs”. And in any case, the real watchdog (ie the press) is supposed to watch over everybody- govt and opposition alike, and even the Courts and the Legislature.
So I really do not see why the Opposition (in the strictest sense of the word) should be “watchdogs”. One does not need a seat in the House to raise concerns, sound alarms or uncover wrongdoings. Temasek Review and The Online Citizen are doing a damn good job of calling attention to unsavoury activities, perhaps even more so that the two Opposition MP’s, whose publicity is very much curtailed by the state-controlled media.
Outside of the alternative media such as TR and TOC, political parties such as SDP and NSP are also doing a damn good job of criticising the PAP, even without seats in the House.
So if I can get a free watchdog service without having to pay for it through my vote, why should I vote for other parties?
Lets be very clear about this. We want watchdogs. We love watchdogs. But watchdogs do not need to be voted into Parliament to be watchdogs. All it takes to be a watchdog is tenacity and alertness.
If we vote you into Parliament, it’s because we want you to change things, not just cry wolf.
So please, you need to be more than a watchdog if you want us to vote you in.
To provide political competition to the PAP
Competition is as essential in politics as it is in business, so goes the manifesto of one party. Vote us in because we can provide alternative policy ideas to the PAP which will force the PAP to come up with better policies for Singaopreans.
Do you think Labour exists in the UK to provide “alternative” policies and proposals help the Conservatives make better policies?
Do you think Microsoft exists to provide competition to Apple so the latter can improve their products and make life better for Americans?
If all you want is just to propose alternative ideas, you can write to REACH, or take part in public consultations, or write to ST Forum page.
No need to spend tens of thousands running for election and run the risk of libel suits, right?
To become an “alternative” Govt
Now we’re talking. They want us to vote them so they can be an alternative Govt.
This is where the Opposition starts to get the plot… Except for the key word “alternative”.
Do you hear about Labour wanting to be an “alternative” Govt to the Conservatives? Or the Republicans wanting to form an “alternative” Administration?
No, they all only want to be in power!
If you want to be in power, just say so! If you want to form a Govt, just say so! Why call yourselves an “alternative” govt?
“Alternative” carries a negative connotation, as in “alternative” lifestyles, “alternative” music, etc. which implies that one is out of the mainstream.
“Alternative” also implies one is not the preferred choice, meaning subconsciously you’ve already ranked yourself behind the PAP.
Maybe that is the reality on the ground, because the Opposition is so small and weak. But put yourself in the shoes of voters. Why should they choose anything other than the best choice there is out there?
If you really want to serve the country, you should be the best the country has to offer.
If you really want to be in power (regardless of whether you are the best), you should fight for every vote like you deserve it. Not ask for votes because you are an “alternative”, “check and balance”, “watchdog”, etc.
To be there in case the PAP stumbles
They want us to vote for a strong opposition so they can be there, just in case…
Whoa! This is the most unkindest cut of all!
By definition, to be there for us just in case the PAP stumbles logically implies:
(a) You will never get your day in the sun if the PAP doesn’t stumble.
(b) You don’t need to be there if the PAP doesn’t stumble
(c) You are basically just an insurance policy.
Have you ever heard Labour or Conservative asking voters to buy insurance by voting them?
Have you even heard the Liberal Democrats or even the Greens do so?
This is the worst possible excuse for an Opposition politician!
You should be there regardless of whether the PAP stumbles.
You should be there because people believe in you and support you, not because people want to have someone else, just in case.
Because the purpose of politics is not to be someone’s backup, and most especially, not to be your political opponent’s backup.
It is also not to be an insurance policy for the people, in case the PAP turn out to be a flop.
It is to be out there doing your best to get into power, regardless of what your opponent does.
The Real Role of the Opposition
By definition, parties which do not have the numbers, either by themselves or in concert with other parties, go into Opposition.
Their role is not really to oppose the Govt per se, it’s to represent their voters and to advance their voters’ interests.
So the Greens will always vote in favour of policies which support the environment. And Labour is supposed to advance the interests of workers. And so on.
So if the Govt proposes a Bill on recycling but hurts workers, you can bet Labour will oppose it but the Greens will support it (although they’ll want to make the Bill stronger), so they’ll vote with the Govt though they’re in Opposition.
On the other hand, if the Govt proposes a Bill that is good for workers but bad for recycling, you can be sure the Greens will oppose it, although Labour may be persuaded to support it.
In other words, the only role a political party has, whether in power or in opposition, is to advance their constituents’ interests.
I hope the political parties in Singapore will understand this…. eventually.
Thus, there is really no role for an Opposition, per se, in Singapore or in any other democracy. The term “opposition” is really a misnomer, as it conjures up visions of opposing for the sake of opposing.
The only aim of political parties should be to serve the people, which they can best do by getting into power and delivering on their election promises.
But if you cannot get into power, don’t talk about being a watchdog, a guard dog or even a poodle. Don’t talk about being someone’s check and balance, or someone’s insurance policy, or even as an alternative Govt.
The only role you have in opposition is to advance your voters’ interests, and to serve them to the best of your ability by running your Town Council well.
Politics in Singapore cannot be simply pro-PAP or anti-PAP, Govt or opposition. It’s too important to be just that.
Politics is about advancing your voters’ interests. Parties should not exist because they want to oppose the PAP, but because they genuinely believe that their political philosophy is the right one for the country. And people should not see only PAP and opposition, but see every party for what it stands for and what it has to offer.
I hope both voters and political parties in Singapore will understand this, eventually.