Politics 101 (or what the PAP didn’t teach you about politics)

The PAP has been in power in Singapore for nearly 50 years. That is an amazing record for any country– democratic or otherwise– let alone any political party.

As a result, at least two generations of Singaporeans have grown up not knowing any govt other than a PAP govt, and thus have no idea how a real parliamentary democracy is supposed to work.

This is most obvious when Singaporeans discuss politics. They continually refer to PAP as the “ruling” party and everyone else as “opposition” when such references are clearly wrong. And the situation is not helped by the politicians themselves either, who refer to themselves as “opposition” politicians and talk about “opposition politics”.

For the sake of clarity, I offer the following guide to help readers understand basic politics in democracies.

Government

This refers to the group of Ministers who have been appointed to rule the country. The Govt is headed by the Prime Minister, who is selected by Parliament as the MP who commands the confidence of the majority of the Members of Parliament.

The Govt is not: PAP; PAP MP’s (ie those who are non-ministers); Civil servants/public servants, even high-ranking ones like Perm Secs; Officers of the law, even high-ranking ones like the Commissioner of Police or the Chief Justice.

The various people who carry out the day-to-day activities of the Govt are govt officials and employees, but they are NOT the Govt.

The Govt is NOT all-powerful. It is NOT above the law; indeed, the Govt has to obey the law scrupulously, which is actually passed by Parliament, not by the Govt.

The Govt and its officials cannot do anything unless it has powers under the law to do it.

Opposition

This refers to the party/parties in Parliament who are not forming the Govt.

While the Govt can act through the various ministries, agencies and organs of state, the Opposition has no power to do anything except pass or block motions in Parliament.

However, through its privileges in Parliament, the Opposition can question the Govt and vote on motions to force the Govt to act according to its wishes, including dismissal of the Govt thru a no-confidence motion should the Govt not meet its demands.

It is a huge mistake to call everyone else other than PAP “opposition”. First, to be in opposition, a party must actually be able to oppose the Govt in Parliament, and vote on a motion of no confidence in the Govt when necessary.

If a party has no seats in Parliament, or if it can’t vote on a no-confidence motion, it can’t practically oppose the Govt on any serious matter and thus it cannot be called an “opposition”.

Hence by today’s composition of Parliament (June 2010), only WP and SPP can be correctly termed “opposition” parties because they hold seats in Parliament but are unable to form the Govt.

Everyone else– RP, NSP, SDP, etc– can’t even qualify as “opposition” parties due to their lack of parliamentary representation.

Hence, it’s incorrect to say “I’m joining the opposition” unless you’re joining WP or SPP; and even then their status as opposition parties is not guaranteed; they could be thrown out at the next Election.

More importantly, people should not talk about “joining the opposition” because it creates a huge mental block. That is, that you’ve chosen to be a loser in politics, destined never to form the Govt. Because that’s what being in Opposition means: that one’s party lost the election.

You can be sure that David Cameron didn’t think of himself as joining the opposition when he joined the Conservative party; even though the Tories were in opposition for more than 10 years. Even Nick Clegg never referred to himself as joining the opposition, even though his party is so small it could never form the Govt by itself.

If you say you’ve joined the opposition, the message is that you joined because you want to oppose the PAP.

People join political parties to get into power. Opposing is for losers.

Thus it’s more accurate and less self-limiting to say that you joined WP/RP/SDP/etc, just like David Cameron and Nick Clegg. Because to join a political party requires that one subscribes to the beliefs of the party and hopes to see the party in power some day so that it can carry out the promises in its manifesto.

It’s also incorrect to talk about the “opposition” forming the govt; it’s an oxymoron- one is either in govt or in opposition. More importantly, “oppositions” don’t form govts; parties do. Hence it’s more accurate to talk about RP/WP/SDP/etc forming the Govt.

Role of Opposition

Prominent opposition politicians such as Chiam See Tong and Low Thia Kiang have said their role as opposition is to provide a check and balance on the govt, provide alternative policy proposals, and air the concerns of the people in Parliament.

This is an complete and utter misunderstanding of the role of the opposition.

Have you ever heard David Cameron (when he was in Opposition) say that the Conservative Party’s role is to provide a check and balance on the Labour govt, provide alternative policy proposals, and air the concerns of the people in Parliament? Or for that matter, Nick Clegg, whose party is so small he has no hope of forming the Govt himself?

Even a party like the Liberal Democrats has never said their role is to check the Govt, because that is not the role of an opposition.

The fact is that parties, whether in power or in opposition, exist to serve their interests and hopefully also for the voters who voted for them.

Thus, every time the Govt proposes something during a Parliamentary sitting, the Opposition will scrutinise it to see if they and their voters’ interests are compromised. If so, they will speak out against it and try to get it changed till they get an acceptable compromise.

Sometimes they win- the Govt backs down or is embarrassed in the vote when some of their own MP’s vote against the Govt- and sometimes they lose, ie ruling party MP’s close ranks and they lose the vote.

But you can be sure this is not being done in the spirit of “check and balance” on the Govt, it’s done in the party’s interest and to make the party look good in front of their voters.

Opposition parties also don’t go around making “alternative” proposals; all they do is criticise the Govt’s proposals and demand changes to please their constituents.

Of course, parties will discuss their policies and ideas at Election time when they publish their manifestos. But when have lost the election and they go into opposition, they don’t go around offering better alternatives to the Govt.

Three reasons: One, it’s the Govt’s job to come up with proposals to run the country, not theirs; Two, the Govt could actually steal their proposals; Three, the moral hazard issue– if the Govt actually adopted the Opposition’s proposal and it didn’t work, the Govt could then blame the failure on the Opposition.

As for airing concerns, yes politicians will make use of every opportunity to speak up on behalf of their party and their voters. But that is hardly the chief role of a politician. If all you can do is speak but can’t force any changes, you are a sorry excuse for an opposition politician.

Get it right, guys; Your real role of an Opposition is to fight for your party and your voters; to advance the interests of your party and your voters; to try to bring down the Govt asap so your party can form the next Govt.

Alternative

As in alternative govt, alternative proposals, etc

Some people believe it’s the job of the Opposition to be an alternative govt to the PAP, should it stumble one day.

This is delusional.

First, “alternative” carries negative connotations, ie second-best or backup.

In other words, do you want to be somebody’s alternative date if her boyfriend can’t show up?

Second, by adding the phrase “should the PAP stumble”, you’ve already conceded the high ground to the PAP.

As explained earlier, the role of parties in opposition is simple– to get out of opposition asap and to form the next govt.

Parties should not see themselves as second-best or backups to other parties.

Some people also think that their role as opposition is to provide alternative policy proposals to the PAP.

Again, “alternative” implies your ideas are second-best. Do you see David Cameron saying his party’s proposals are “alternatives” to Labour’s? Of course not. The Conservatives strongly believe that what Labour proposes is inferior to what they have proposed, and not even worthy of being called an alternative.

Freak (election) result

This is used by the PAP to refer to any election result other than the PAP being returned to power.

The term is completely wrong, of course.

Freak results have already occurred in Singapore for many years. No other democracy has seen the same party returned to power for more than 40 continuous years. This is completely against the order of things and is by any definition, a freak result.

It’s amazing however to see that Singaporeans actually accepted the PAP’s definition of “freak result” without thinking.

PAP

This refers to the largest political party in Singapore, which is currently forming the Govt.

PAP is NOT a synonym for Ruling Party. PAP is also not the Govt (only certain members of the PAP are in Govt), and although it is the most powerful and well-funded of all political parties, it has exactly the same rights as any other party under the Constitution.

Political party

This refers to any political party in Singapore, such as PAP, SDP, WP, RP, etc. Political parties exist to contest for power through democratic elections. Those who win elections are able to form the Govt; those who lose elections go into Opposition.

All political parties have the same rights under the Constitution, although many political party leaders see their parties as second-class parties to the PAP and openly refer to themselves as “opposition” parties because they can’t see that they will ever be in power.

Ruling party

This refers to the party currently forming the Govt. While the local media has continually used “the ruling PAP” as if those two words were born to be together, one should be very clear that Ruling Party is NOT a synonym for PAP.

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I hope the above has clarified what politics should be about rather than what the PAP and the state media have brainwashed the population into believing over the last 50 years.

I also hope those valiant and intrepid non-PAP politicians do not condemn themselves to a second-class political life by thinking and acting and believing that they are just “opposition” politicians who will never get into power. There’s no point in all the sacrifices, spending all the time and money to contest elections, and taking the risks of libel suits, if there is no chance of ever being in power.

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About politicalwritings

Someone who sees beyond PAP and "opposition" in Singapore politics. To understand more please see the Top 10 link below.
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6 Responses to Politics 101 (or what the PAP didn’t teach you about politics)

  1. Pingback: Daily SG: 22 Apr 2011 « The Singapore Daily

  2. bongkinchen says:

    This a very, very reasonable unbiased write-up. Thankyou.

  3. ben says:

    just to clarify, the government is not merely the sum of the ministers.
    the government consists of 3 branches, the executive, legislative and judiciary.
    so precluding the MPs or the Chief Justice from the government might be inappropriate.

    • Thanks. The three pillars of a democratic system are the legislature, which makes the laws; the judiciary, which interprets the laws; and the executive, which carries out the laws.

      The term govt to strictly refer to the executive. As you may recall when lee kuan yew handed over power to goh chok tong, his resignation letter to the president said, I offer my resignation and that of my govt. I recommend the appointment of goh chok tong, as the member of parliament who commands the confidence of the majority of the members of the house, as the next prime minister.

      The other institutions you cited are important democratic institutions vital for checks and balances, but they are not the govt per se.

  4. Tan Zhong Xian says:

    “The Govt is headed by the Prime Minister, who is selected by Parliament as the MP who commands the confidence of the majority of the Members of Parliament.”

    I believe this is not true, as under Singapore Constitution, Part V, Chapter 2,

    “Appointment of Prime Minister and Ministers
    25. —(1) The President shall appoint as Prime Minister a Member of Parliament who in his judgment is likely to command the confidence of the majority of the Members of Parliament, and shall, acting in accordance with the advice of the Prime Minister, appoint other Ministers from among the Members of Parliament:

    Provided that, if an appointment is made while Parliament is dissolved, a person who was a Member of the last Parliament may be appointed but shall not continue to hold office after the first sitting of the next Parliament unless he is a Member thereof.

    (2) Appointments under this Article shall be made by the President by instrument under the public seal. ”

    To digress, no doubt the person that ‘command the confidence of the majority of the Members of Parliament’ will most likely be the leader of the party with the most number of seats in the Parliament, President’s ‘judgment’ might differ from that of the majority of the MPs in the Parliament.

    In other words, even in a case where PAP loses the simple majority in the Parliament, and despite attempts for other parties to form a coalition, the President’s ‘judgment’ might result in a minority government by PAP. Not to say that it will not cause huge problems, but if the minority government cannot get ‘supply’, or loses a vote of confidence as the other parties are unwilling for it to lead the government, snap election will have to be called.

    If this scenario takes place, I posit that the stability-seeking population would once again stick to the model they know will work: A one-party state.

    • Thanks. But you have to read between the lines. The President cannot appoint anyone he likes. If Parliament does not agree, ie has no confidence in the man appointed by the president, then the Parliament can call a no-confidence motion which by definition will succeed.

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