Yawning Bread. 29 December 2009

Two oppositions, and why in the long run, they may not matter at all, part 2




In my previous article, I presented a diagram showing the ruling People's Action Party's (PAP's) credo, and the chief baskets of grievances behind dissent. Readers may therefore expect that the next step in this analysis would be to identify which opposition party represents which basket, and how.

But that would be to miss the big picture, for the chief driver of opposition politics today is a dislike, a visceral dislike, of the PAP's style. They hate the PAP more than they disagree with its policies. This is unlike, say, 40 years ago, when the differences were primarily programmatic, even ideological.

Hence, I should add the cloud "Dislike" to my diagram thus:

Having a visceral dislike of style as the main driving force has pros and cons. On the one hand, it means that there is little the PAP can realistically do to win over the opposition's core base. Hate, once engendered, is hard to dispel. On the other hand, it is difficult to grow opposition support so long as the rest of the voters do not share, as strongly, the same dislike. This probably accounts for the fact that vote-share for opposition parties tends to be stuck in the 25 40 percent range.

Opposition parties deal with this problem in two, not mutually exclusive, ways. The first is to try to fan hate, and hope more people come on board. The second is to sheath its emotive impulses, and work at selling reasonable-sounding criticisms of the PAP's policies, with the aim of convincing middle-of-the-road voters.

The problem with the latter is that it is hard work, and when one's chief motive in being in the opposition is visceral dislike, such work feels like a chore. It is made all the harder when policy think-tanks are virtually unheard of in opposition parties' ranks, making it nearly impossible to come up with coherent platforms that can withstand criticism.

(On that front, opposition parties have been lucky in that the PAP doesn't even bother to pick apart their manifestoes.)

Short of coherent platforms, parties commonly fall back on a staccato of criticisms about PAP policies and administrative bungles, which make for a few exhilarating minutes on the rally stage. This kind of rhetoric may also be useful for showing how "uncaring" the government is, which may win a few voters over, but they can only go so far with other voters who are a little bit more skeptical.

In the last general election, when I attended a representative mix of different parties' rallies, my conclusion was that the Singapore Democratic Alliance relied mostly on the "fan hate" strategy. Their rallies were often in pungent Hokkien, poking fun at the PAP, hoping in the process to raise some ire as well.

The Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) had a published manifesto, but perhaps due to an uneven slate of public speakers, their rallies were not much better than scattershot.

The Workers' Party had not only a meaty manifesto but military discipline over its candidates and speakers, each addressing a particular issue. They were the most determined to stay on script, and to sound like a serious opposition. Yet, today, nobody remembers what its manifesto was about.


I would suggest two reasons:

Firstly, a manifesto cannot be sold in nine days of campaigning. Most people attending Workers' Party's rallies would not even have read it, let alone digested it. Selling counter proposals and alternative ideas to a people is a long-term task, with a need for discussion during calmer times, and feedback channels to allow for fine-tuning.

It looks as if the Workers' Party is going to repeat the same mistake the next time, since we have heard little on the ideas front in the intervening years.

Secondly, for better retention in people's minds, alternative proposals have  to be reducible to a few key, overarching ideas. One of the best ways to do that is to make sure they are philosophically coherent. I don't think that is the case with the Workers' Party. Nobody can place where they stand today. Are they rightwing? Leftwing? Pro-laissez-faire? Socialist?

(Take Section 377A of the Penal Code. After months of debate in 2007, most Singaporeans formed a view on the matter. The Workers' Party failed to do so.)

One could argue that the Workers' Party is perceived as presenting a vision of a more compassionate society. It's a good starting point, but it is not enough. People are smart enough to know that (1) compassion costs, (2) compassion has winners and losers, and (3) there are limits. These need to be fleshed out.


Dissent is not the same as dislike, a distinction that opposition parties fail to make to their own cost.

One could say that in Singapore today, dissent drives our nascent civil society. Most people in civil society today disagree, sometimes strongly, with the policies and direction of the government, but they don't hold a strong dislike.

The failure of opposition parties to understand the nature of programmatic dissent, sticking instead to seeing politics and issues only through the lens of dislike, is one way of understanding why there are so few connections between opposition parties and civil society. They are on totally different wavelengths.


As an example of a successful effort, we have the SDP. Whether you agree with them or not, you know what they stand for in terms of civil liberties. Even if you are not able to pin down exactly what they have said on any particular issue, you know generally where their instincts are. That said, the foregoing comments should be restricted to issues of civil liberties; the SDP is far less successful with branding when it comes to the basket of Economic equity issues (see box at right).

The stock response from the Workers' Party for not having a philosophically coherent, programmatic alternative to the PAP is that, realistically, they are nowhere near forming the next government. In party leader Low Thia Khiang's words, their job is to be a "watch dog" to keep the PAP and the government in check.

This unfortunately perpetuates its problem. The only people keen on a watchdog are those who already dislike or are highly suspicious of the PAP. So you come full circle back to appealing merely to one's core base and no more.

And as I have argued before, to "keep the PAP in check" is a kind of cop-out. You still need to have a philosophically coherent position from which to criticise the PAP.

Take any issue, say the corporatisation of hospitals and the overhauling of how medical fees are paid or subsidised. You can criticise it from two different sides: it goes too far, or it doesn't go far enough. Which side is the WP going to come from?

Or take Transport Minister Raymond Lim's goal of getting 70 percent of trips made on public transport versus 50 percent currently, a goal that presages major squeezes on car owners and car use. Too little? Too much? Just right? What are WP's philosophical leanings on this?

How does one convince voters to see the WP as a watchdog if they don't enunciate a coherent policy preference? On the issues, say, of gay equality, censorship, independent judiciary, retirement incomes and medical care for the elderly, just to name some issues close to my heart, would I trust the WP to be a watchdog on my behalf if I don't know where their stand is?

* * * * *

Yet, there is plenty of room, given the PAP's policies and track record, to take a stand.

Despite its protestations, in many areas, the PAP does not hog the centre ground. Let's start with the basket of grievances on the left called 'Stress and pace of life'. The PAP believes that stress is good for you, which is a rather extreme view when you start to think about it. Policy consequences of this belief include:

  • Ever tougher school curricula and ever more elaborate streaming
  • Absolute minimum benefits mandated by the Employment Act 
  • Save for your own retirement and medical care; minimal help from the state 
  • Public housing policy predicated on 30-year mortgages, good luck to you should you be retrenched any time.

Surely, there is plenty of room for an opposition party to flag a different approach to each of these questions?


Why the SDP's economic message has no traction

In some ways, the SDP does itself a disservice whenever it wades into economic equity issues. I say this for a number of reasons: 

1. It sticks to slogans rather than present a clear analysis with a view to alternative solutions.

2. It translates these slogans too quickly into the street theatre of civil disobedience.

3. People therefore read the SDP's interest in economic equity issues as insincere, and merely as a means to wave another banner.

4. People are naturally wary of being used.

Of course, it is undeniable that Singaporeans generally are fearful of the consequences of participating in civil disobedience, but it is too convenient to label their failure to rush into the SDP's demonstrations as merely due to fear. Even if not afraid, it is still doubtful if anyone likes to be used by others.


Next, take the basket called 'Economic equity'. These grievances flow from the PAP's credo that there is a trade-off between growth and redistribution. Going for growth necessitates that we live with whatever inequality it takes to compete with the rest of the world.

Yet, this belief bears examination. The Economist magazine had a story, 26 November 2009, that pointed out that poverty and the Gini co-efficient (a measure of inequality) have fallen significantly even as Brazil's growth has blossomed, lifting the country into the ranks of BRIC group. What it took were determined policies to help the poorest.

I would also add that another country in the BRIC group, Russia, is an example of how a country can have both low growth and rising inequality.

In other words, it is debatable if the trade-off is as watertight as assumed, if the price for high growth must include obscene inequality. So here again, there is plenty of room for an opposition party to formulate alternative ideas.

Skipping the basket called communal issues -- because it's so thorny, it may need a whole article by itself -- to that labelled 'Civil liberties and social justice', once again, the PAP does not hog a centrist position. It stakes out an extreme authoritarian spot, leaving many Singaporeans unhappy. You would think that opposition parties would easily distinguish themselves by staking out contrasting positions, but only the SDP has done so.

* * * * *

To sum up, my point is this: There is plenty of room for policy debate among political parties. The reason there is such a poverty of debate in Singapore is because much of the opposition is motivated by a visceral dislike of the PAP's style, rather than from differences of opinion. Voicing dislike is emotionally satisfying; working out policy differences is a chore.

I cannot say enough to encourage opposition parties to dispense with the bad habit of cobbling together some programmatic ideas, just for instrumental ends, so as to appear like serious political parties armed with a platform at election time. Because the result of neglecting policy ideas till the last minute means they are neither philosophically coherent, nor sustained over time, nor enunciated with conviction -- the exception being SDP's civil liberties agenda.

It is important to accept that the majority of Singaporeans do not share the same dislike of the PAP. They may disagree with governmental policies (dissent) but so long as opposition parties have no better ideas to offer, dissent will not be married to dislike.

As the next general election comes into view, one should ask, if nothing changes in terms of opposition parties' habits, will their vote-share change?

Yawning Bread 





The siege model close to our hearts

I can hear a thunderous rebuttal to my Brazil example. This is a huge country with nearly 200 million people and plenty of natural resources. It's not relevant for comparison with Singapore, they'd say.

I wouldn't be so quick. The rush to dismiss mostly springs from what I call the 'siege model'. We think of Singapore being under siege all the time for example, we must excel GDP-wise or we die (or get conquered). No economic model suits us unless it calls for massive sacrifices for how else to reconcile economics with our belief that we are under siege?

Indeed, if one adopts a siege model, many PAP policies become self-evident. Sacrifice your leisure for the rat-race, accept inequality and restrictions on freedom. Store away our wealth for a rainy day via sovereign wealth funds, rather than promote a more consumption-led economy.

Is it possible, we should ask, that many opposition politicians too have bought into the siege model? And that is why they are lock-jawed, unable to present an alternative vision for Singapore?