Wednesday, 8 February 2012

What opposition voters want: PAP II

Feb 5, 2012

In his new book, Breakthrough: Roadmap For Singapore's Political Future, academic Derek da Cunha analyses last year's General Election, during which a Group Representation Constituency fell to the opposition for the first time and the People's Action Party's vote share fell to a record low. This is an excerpt from the book:

One of the messages of GE2011 which has been in chime with previous elections since 1991 is that a large part of the electorate desires an opposition that does not differ too markedly from the People's Action Party (PAP).

The electorate wants an opposition that largely moderates PAP policies and does not attempt to initiate a marked change from the current form of governance. Too marked a difference from the PAP would result in some portion of middle-ground voters who voted for the Workers' Party (WP) in the 2011 election returning to the PAP.

Indeed, middle-ground voters appear to want incremental, and not radical, political change. Therefore, the WP's objective post- GE2011 has to be to continue to reach out to more middle-ground voters and attempt to achieve some dominance in that sphere of the political spectrum.

The WP does not need any reminders that only a small hardline segment of voters desires radicalism in opposition politicians and they also happen to be the most vocal, especially in online forums. That hardline segment of voters tends to cast the change they seek as 'positive change'. To them, slight changes to government policies or the nature of governance are insufficient and, therefore, not considered 'positive' as they simply help to shore up the status quo. This hardline segment of voters is not representative of the broad strain of voter sentiment.

Consequently, as long as WP MPs offer constructive and intellectually sound opposition to the Government in the period up to the next election due by 2016, they would have taken one of the steps to ensure their re-election. They would not fall into the trap of making missteps that provide the PAP with ammunition to discredit them.

Consolidating and cementing their relationship with residents in Aljunied/Hougang would be the other, perhaps more important, step for the WP MPs. Once these two steps are taken in parallel, the party would be in the position to not only retain its existing seats but expand its parliamentary presence.

Indeed, at a very basic level, the WP's ability to make further electoral gains might well be dependent on the extent to which it has competently managed the joint Aljunied- Hougang Town Council and dealt with municipal issues to the satisfaction of residents. This makes the old adage that, ultimately, 'all politics is local' all too apparent. Here, perceptions are everything and reputation that has been gained - whether for better or worse - may well determine WP fortunes elsewhere.

There is a view, articulated by some observers, that the WP may find its ability to entrench, if not expand, its parliamentary presence circumscribed if the PAP government were to change its style and tone, and modify its policies that make the differences between it and the WP minor. If that were to occur then the lack of obvious sharp differences between the PAP and the WP would lead to the return to the PAP of that portion of the electorate that moved towards the WP at the 2011 election, so the argument goes...

The author does not accept this view... Singaporeans, who by instinct are largely socially and politically conservative, essentially want in their opposition politicians a moderate version of the PAP, a party that they have had a considerable familiarity with and have been long accustomed to. That effectively would mean a PAP II.

'PAP II' would simply mean a PAP derivative that, in terms of governance and policies, is slightly to the political left that the original PAP has shown itself to be, especially in the decade preceding the 2011 election.

(What was perceived by many Singaporeans as the indiscriminate granting of work permits and employment passes to tens of thousands of foreign nationals that flooded into Singapore, from around 2006, could be said to be an example of the extreme policy stance of the PAP, some would argue.)

The main objective of many Singaporean voters - especially those who are in the middle ground - is the desire to have a parliamentary system that is not so heavily dominated by one political party. As long as there is another political party that has a significant number of parliamentary seats and is a moderate version of the PAP, or that moderates the PAP's policies, that would be sufficient for most voters. In that regard, even some of the staunchest PAP supporters could be moved to vote for such a party.

[I have doubts about the possibility of such a political "balance". In politics as in most arena, contestants are compared and contrasted against each other. If one is hard, the other must be soft, if one is conservative, the other must be creative, if one is black, the other must be a lighter colour, if not white.

The debate will be "PAP is this, but we are not." Not "PAP is this, we are a little bit like this, but in a good way."

Or it may be "PAP is this, but I think they are extreme. We don't think this is bad, but in moderation."

In time, the parties will polarised. Socio-psychological studies have shown that people randomly assigned to proposition and opposition teams in a debate eventually came to hold the positions they were randomly assigned to. What more people choosing to oppose certain political position of their own free choice?

Opposition parties cannot oppose the PAP without eventually being the ideological opposite. Or maybe "cannot" is too definitive. Perhaps "opposition parties tend to become the ideological opposite of the parties they oppose in the first place, even if they started out as trying to be the moderate voice"?

Or perhaps da Cunha is correct. As the opposition try to make and take the moderate ground, this informs the PAP that they need to moderate their stance, and so they take the moderate position. But what then does the opposition do? They will either accuse the PAP of co-opting their original stance, and thus acting without integrity, or they can claim victory for having pressured the PAP to moderate their original stance, and this scores political points for the opposition, which they can then hope to parley into fresh votes in the next election, for being an effective opposition.

This is clearly not the narrative the PAP want to provide. In fact the recent debate on the Minister's salaries saw the WP shift their position to one that is closer to the PAP original stance, and the PAP called them on it. Where is your integrity, they asked the WP. So in this case the WP moderated their stance, and was called on it, and may have lost political points for it.]

Moderating government policies would involve, among other things, relegating the state's role in the economy, moving away from the focus of enriching the state at the expense of citizens, and a de-emphasis on elitism and hierarchy in a society where citizens are showing a greater inclination to move towards more democracy and personal rights. In other words, placing citizens, not merely as a collective but as individuals, at the top of government concerns, is what a large proportion of Singaporeans want.

The book is on sale at leading bookstores at $24.61 (GST inclusive).

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