Thoughts on...

Posted by Michael Roston under Opinions on 1 February 2000

An independent opinion paper by Michael Roston.

When considering political matters, an academic political scientist or analyst must always consider this one overwhelming truth; if s/he identifies an outcome in a political system before politicians do, the politicians probably are not doing their jobs correctly.

For the political scientist tends to examine the trends in polities, and these trends tend to have a more empirical focus, considering much more concretely what has been more than they can ever adequately consider the highly abstract 'what will be'.

So in Singapore, where it sometimes seems like only the academic political discourse can operate in a mostly free, unfettered fashion, we would expect public discourse to follow an analytical path as well, because it has not been proscribed, the 'OB' markers have not been put up around the examination of the minutiae of Singapore's political institutions.

For it is not so naughty to wonder what little modifications could be made to improve a system that is seen as mostly beneficial by most parties involved. Perhaps the PAP government prefers things to be this way. More than being exceptionally successful in the business of politics, they have become so skilled at anticipating political demands and outcomes that they can modify the system enough so its empirical features are far more interesting to the public than features that could come to be in a far off future of substantial systemic reform.

This tendency for a mostly academic consideration of political reforms may have been exhibited at the Politics 21 Seminar entitled Non-Partisanship: Politics Without Punishment, hosted by the Think Centre and Socratic Circle on the evening of 28 January 2000. The matters under consideration by the four panelists and 50-some audience-members concerned neither hard and fast policy issues nor systemic reforms of the Singaporean state.

Instead, a more or less singular question was under consideration: have the movements by the PAP government to open up more space in civil society for nonpartisan participation in the political sphere actually succeeded? Perhaps a related, less explicit question was the truthful consideration of what would truly result from any of this success? The answers alluded to, possibly by accident, may have been more than the panelists intended.

Nominated Member of Parliament Chong Chia Goh led off the proceedings with some meditations on why the inability of the opposition to form itself into a viable political force for change required an alternative, and that nonpartisanship was the key.

Mr. Zulkifli Baharuddin, another NMP was quite adept in pointing out the possible implications of the successful institutionalization of the NMP feature for the political opposition; they'd either need to articulate a coherent political vision, or they would lose ground and position to the NMPs.

Ms. Eleanor Wong, an attorney, expressed her belief that it was difficult for any opposition to truly oppose a government which is quite good at painting itself in purely pragmatic terms. To oppose them would almost require one to present one's self as unpragmatic, and this is why nonpartisanship makes for a much better form of policy criticism.

Finally, Mr. Chia Shi Teck, while managing to fall off track in many ways did succeed in making a valuable point early on in his speech; frequently, the more concrete suggestions of the NMPs have been mocked by true elected members and ignored by the press, thus pointing out some of the realistic limitations of the system.

Most interesting, however, were the parallel suggestions that emerged in the speeches of both Mr.'s Goh and Chia: the notion that perhaps it was time to create a new structure within the parliamentary system to further legitimize the kind of role that the NMP was supposed to exemplify.

Both men, though seeming to come from different perspectives and political persuasions seemed to agree that perhaps some sort of second house should be added on to the present Parliament which could adequately add guidance to the legislative process. The specifics seemed to vary for both men; while Goh's vague outline seemed to include a true upper house to be constructed above and beyond the present Parliament, Chia's more concrete proposal encompassed a group of specific interest-representing, nationally-elected MPs who would be nonpartisan and have a role both in and outside the present Parliament.

What was most interesting about their idea and the crowd's response was the way that many people seemed highly concerned with the specifics of this system, and less with the framework it encompassed. The audience seemed to ask more questions about whether or not such a group would adequately represent a variety of interests that the MPs may not adequately consider at this point.

Missing from the discussion, though, was a consideration of how much of a change such an upper house would really bring to the present system of legislating. More than the efficacy of its interest representation, it cannot be doubted that a brand new bicameral configuration for the nation's legislature would have the effect of vastly altering the power relations between Parliament and populace.

Instead of examining this highly normative concern, the discussion was oriented almost entirely in the area of the efficacy of such a system, a far more empirical concern. If the OB markers truly exist within the system of governance at present, than it would seem that the public discourse on systemic reform really concentrates more on political science than political framework.

Mr. Zulkifli's speech, though presented quite calmly and without much pomp, seemed perhaps to be the most provocative of all those given during the seminar. His presentation did the best job of engaging the notion of 'politics without punishment,' by answering in the negative to the supposition; while not punishing necessarily to the Government or the NMPs themselves, opposition MPs would be presented with a much more daunting task of maintaining their relevance in the legislative arena.

After all, the NMPs can say anything without having to oppose the PAP in the process. Zulkifli may have meant that this process would force the opposition to choose a more coherent ideology to attach themselves upon, one which would engage the PAP's stance far more directly. However, such an outcome seems much less likely than another one alluded to by Mr. Chia when he noted that if the NMP system would create more people with his orientation towards reform, it was unlikely that the system would last for long.

Indeed, Zulkifli himself noted that given the four years an NMP presently has to make an impact, some sort of political activity will follow the time of service - he specified the potential for identification with either the PAP or the opposition. But this is almost self-refuting, if the purpose is to create a nonpartisan structure; how would the system ever create a new opposition to the present governance? Instead, as was noted frequently by Mr.'s Goh and Zulkifli, there was something transitional in the NMP scheme. But the transition that may in fact result is one in which more people are brought into the PAP's policy apparatus, people who are happy to be there. Again, we see the theme of policy modification emphasized far more in the proceedings than the desirability of altering the relationships of power within the present system of governance.

During the discussion of the creation of an upper house, the matter of the public mandate became important and heavily considered. It cannot be denied that the NMP lacks a wide public mandate. While the NMP is nominated from within the polity, the NMP need not ever worry about being voted for or against by a public by whom the member is held accountable.

This matter of the public mandate itself seemed to be the most unconsidered by all of the panelists - after all, despite calls for reform in a number of structural fashions, exactly what forms of communication should exist between the public and the nominated member of parliament were under-considered, perhaps glaringly. Concern over such a feature within the nonpartisan system seems like a highly urgent matter. While reformers like Mr. Chia desire a wider range of transparent interests to be represented, even in his own scheme, the best he seemed able to present as evidence of his communication with members of the public was that his office received a good number of faxes.

But when the NMP is envisioned as a conduit for moderation of Government points of view without being direct opposition, murky lines of communication with a wide range of constituencies could only sandbag any meaningful improvement of governance within the present system, or the transitions imagined by the panelists. It was the last area of the discussion which seemed to dwell upon structural changes without considering whether the structure itself is truly desirable.

The Politics21 seminar on Nonpartisanship was certainly important. Proof that salient issues were being raised was demonstrated by the feedback given in the question and answer session from a wide range of audience members holding a variety of backgrounds and political points of view. While we can consider this discussion to be productive, we must not ignore what this forum was really about: the features of Singaporean political culture and the desire for their evolution.

Calls for reforms by panelist and audience alike demonstrated that reform and evolution of political thinking are not missing from Singaporean public discourse. There may be too much of a consideration of institutional reform in this evolution, unfortunately, to the extent that it clouds out sincere meditation on the political philosophy underlying Singaporean institutions. For those who desire a significant change from the current era of governance, it is to this matter attention must now be drawn.

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