Non-Partisanship: Politics Without Punishment

Posted by Tan Kong Soon & Karen Yeo under Public Forums on 28 January 2000

Non-partisanship has been a regular feature in the discourse on civil society and politics. As an idea and platform convenient for political mobilisation, non-partisanship has served to create leverage for expression and articulation of alternative views and ideals. By being non-partisan, one can have more room to manoeurve on sensitive yet crucial issues on the basis of independent, autonomous representations without fear of reprisal from the establishment. Thus, it is no wonder that "non-partisanship" has become such a wide-appealing term within academic, socio-cultural and political circles. However, is it really right to say that non-partisanship carries no costs or risks at all? Extrapolated to the political stage, can non-partisanship still claim to be politics without punishment?

While non-partisanship has always been welcomed over the direct nature of partisanship in politics, the idealism of non-partisanship is glossed over by the realism of pragmatic politics. Non-partisanship can be a double-edged sword - as a catalyst for the political education of the masses; and as a barrier to the maturation of pluralism within party politics. There arises then a paradox of non-partisanship: participation with responsibility versus mere politicking. Faced with the necessitating need to take sides on issues of contention, how will non-partisanship justify its position in the political game to effect the desired outcome?

It is with these conflicting ideas in mind, that this forum was convened by the organisers to explore alternatives to political participation without political costs and whether non-partisanship as politics without punishment, is but a myth. The four distinguished speakers sitting on the plenary panel are all committed and passionate members of civil society. They have contributed to non-partisan politics in their individual fields and are more than qualified to share their views on this topic with the participants.

The proceedings were off to a start by 7.05pm as the 50-odd participants streamed into Rm 507, 5th floor of RELC building. Seated on the panel were guest speakers Mr Goh Chong Chia, Mr Zulkifli Baharudin, Mr Daniel Chew (chairperson), Ms Eleanor Wong and Mr Chia Shi Teck. Following an introduction of the speakers, the third POLITICS 21 forum jointly organised by Think Centre and Socratic Circle, was then declared opened by Mr James Gomez.

James Gomez Director, Think Centre

James kicked off by speaking on a new "vertical take-off" for civil society in Singapore. In addition to the existing volcabulary on socio-politico developments, he implored the audience to look up into the sky and be prepared to take-off as a new window of opportunity opens on the civil society landscape. Citing the S21 programme, the liberalisation of financial and telecommunications markets and initiatives by Roundtable and Socratic Circle to revise constitutional clauses, he reminded us of the challenge of a "vertical take-off" in the light of wavering bureaucratic control and apprehensive political governance. Think Centre is currently studying the Public Entertainment's Act in preparation of a proposal to review certain policy and administrative guidelines that check the articulation of civil society views.

Given the above developments, James remarked that in this climate of change, civil society will "take-off" in the form of separate blocs at different rates as opposed to a singular bloc at once. He pointed to the different sets of interests, the varying willingness to contribute as active citizens and the extent of engagement in policy development as reasons. Different alliances will be formed for different causes and will shift across issues and time. He added that in this globalised world, international and regional networking would affect alliances tremendously.

James emphasized that this civil society take-off will impact local politics and the ruling party has to acknowledge that the opposition has its own window of opportunity to make up for lost grounds. This take-off will affect the roles of all political parties as there can be no stopping like-minded individuals from the take-off if they are serious about politics. In conclusion, he added that we have reached a cross-road where civil society holds the key to further re-invention and liberalisation in the form of this "vertical take-off".

Daniel Chew Chairperson, Socratic Circle

Daniel took over the rostrum next and proceeded to set the tone for this forum. Noting that non-partisanship emerged as a favourable form of political expression that allowed participation by active citizens who did want to be politically involved, he raised the hindsight of non-partisanship stunting our political structure and diminishing the need for credible opposition. He also posed queries of why people preferred non-partisan politicking; whether non-partisanship is justified realistically; and what impact it had on Singapore politics to invoke the audience's thoughts on the topic tonight.

Addressing the topic of discussion, Daniel cited the examples of the Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP) Scheme and non-partisan civil society groups like Roundtable, Socratic Circle to illustrate existing non-partisan movements as well as to pay tribute to their outstanding contributions. Before handing over the session to the guest speakers for their speeches, he wondered aloud how BG Lee Hsien Loong's call to openly engage government in debate would affect the future of non-partisanship in civil society, in party politics and the definitive role of ordinary citizens.

Goh Chong Chia Nominated Member of Parliament

Mr Goh started off by citing the PAP's monopoly of power from December 1965 to October 1981 where there were no opposition in the government. While the truly democratic process required some form of check-and-balance to work, there were also other institutional mechanisms that can effect policy developments and changes. Though there are grassroots organisations suited for this function, for example RCs, CDCs etc, these organisations remain government-linked and only serve to preserve and consolidate the ruling party's power. In his opinion, non-partisanship is not about politicking or lobbying, but of taking up any one issue and following its development conscientiously. There need not be allegiance to any sides or alliances with others involved in such a brand of non-partisanship.

To him, a politician can never claim to be non-partisan as he is obligated to pursue the interests of his electorate or along party lines. Whether is it a lone voice or a cacophony of voices, such a voice can be very effective against any establishment. He cited the living example of Nelson Mandela's role in apartheid South Africa to drive home this argument. No matter which contexts we are talking about, all great ideas started off small.

Turning to his experiences thus far as a Nominated Member of Parliament, Mr Goh remarked that the present political system with NMPs is only transitional. He foresaw the surfacing of more opposition parties in the government in the future and this would alleviate the need to have NMPs around. He raised the possibility of a system where there would be more than one House of Parliament with the development of a Lower House vis--vis the existing unicameral settings. This Lower House would be made up of representatives elected by the people to further protect their interests and safeguard their privileges as the Upper House of Members of Parliament would be preoccupied with state affairs.

Addressing the topic for tonight's forum, Mr Goh posited that politics is not a game without punishment, but of a game with pain. Ending his speech on a light-hearted note, he remarked that if politics came attached with pain and punishment, he and those in politics would be sporting wounds and scars already.

Zulklifli Baharudin Nominated Member of Parliament

Mr Zulkifli began by stating that politics has been punishing. There was punishment for the opposition instituted by the PAP and punishment for the PAP itself from within. The opposition's position per se exposes it to PAP's strategies to deny its access to government while the new wave of evolution through massive infusion of new blood into party ranks, was due to the punishment for PAP's slide in support. He also remarked that while PAP made it difficult for people to join politics, it has made joining opposition politics all the more difficult and punishing.

Turning to the topic for tonight, Mr Zulkifli clarified that party politics is different from civil society in the sense that the former is definitely partisan while the latter is non-partisan. Noting that it was not PAP's business to bring civil groups into the political fray, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) were at liberty to decide their roles in politics. One major advantage of NGOs was that they embodied certain values and belief systems that are universal, which boosted their universality, influence and appeal to the masses. Civil society therefore, is made up by small groups of people with similar values and goals who can then become larger constituencies. Different constituencies were then, preoccupied with different agendas.

Next, Mr Zulkifli dwelled on partisan politics and said that the opposition would be affected more than PAP. In particular, he highlighted the difficulties of advancing opposition's cause given narrow arena in government. Moreover, the municipal duties of an opposition MP would impact only his constituents while voters in PAP wards were unaffected. Unless some opposition party can devise huge programmes to counter that of PAP's, it will be very hard to displace PAP since it has delivered the social goods and economic performances so far.

Mr Zulkifli noted that non-partisanship would play an increasing role in politics though serious, committed activists would still need to join a party to make greater progress vis--vis being a NMP or part of civil society. He doubted how much non-partisanship can affect party politics but pointed out the large milling ground of individuals interested in politics yet steering clear of partisanship. Concluding that party politics would stay robust, it would be increasingly hard to define OB markers and manage political discourse in future as people got more organised and articulated their views.

Eleanor Wong Author, Lawyer

Ms Wong commenced by candidly proclaiming her status as a non-NMP and that she had not prepared a comprehensive speech for delivery. However, she expressed her agreement with what has been said by Mr Goh and Mr Zulkifli earlier. From her point of view as an outsider to politics, non-partisanship would thrive with different levels of political leadership. A true democracy need not be a two-party system as our Singaporean system demonstrated, through the accomodation of practical changes. She conceded that PAP has been a good party with pragmatism at coopting useful ideas and good people from the masses. She commended the government for inculcating good citizens and developing a functionally substantial, vocal yet cooperative civil society.

Besides, it was unnecessary to change the present situation as status quo need not be necessarily bad. Ms Wong questioned that in the long-run functionally, if practical changes would take place in practical areas, would we need more of non-partisanship. In her opinion, non-partisanship was more of politics without pain rather than politics without punishment. Pain need not be necessarily bad as she recounted the maxim "No pain, No gain". Summing up, Ms Wong noted that the political developments in Singapore would be favorable and she did not foresee major changes in party politics as a counter to non-partisanship.

Chia Shi Teck Ex-Nominated Member of Parliament MD, Heshe Holdings

Mr Chia opened his speech by giving a personal insight of politics. Since his teenage years, he had been schooled in the importance of values such as justice and self-righteousness, resulting in his frequent letters to the Forum Page, various ministries and state departments. Recalling how he was incepted into the pioneer batch of NMPs, he briefed on how some of his proposals and ideas were adopted during his stint with the Feedback Supervisory Committee in the 1980s.

Candidly speaking of his experiences as a NMP, he had incurred the wrath and criticisms of many government and state officials with his forthright and unabashed views as he stressed on his prerogative to write-in. He also read out excerpts of his correspondences with various Cabinet Ministers ranging on issues like starting a Youth and Sports Ministry, admonishment of population planning resulting in present upsurge in foreign talent, cautioning the Suzhou Industrial Park developments and highlighting the sensitivities of government's latest investment in Indonesia.

Mr Chia continued to outline institutional constraints of the bureaucracy (eg. over-empowering key high-ranking positions) and shortcomings of the government (eg. failure to recognise policy failure) which he had notified the Cabinet on. He admitted that the NMPs had no mandate from the electorate and were mere implements of the ruling party to assuage the lack of opposition in the government. This was also one of the reasons that prompted him to stand for elections as an Independent candidate. He detracted further by pointing out the intergenerational immobility of the heartlanders vis--vis the international mobility of the cosmopolitans.

Finally returning to the topic of non-partisanship, Mr Chia reiterated that politics came with pain instead of punishment. The NMP scheme had been a limited attempt at non-partisanship in politics but it did serve the citizenry well in certain aspects. As time ran out for his lengthy address, he conceded that the non-partisan NMPs would gain more credibility and respect with the mandate of the people.

Question and Answer Session

Like previously, there was no intermission after the panelists had concluded their respective addresses. The forum was then immediately thrown open to the floor for the question and answer session.

Limit Government Role

Mr. Liu, an engineer, stood up to fire off the discussion. He pointed out that if the government could place OB markers, why should there not be OB markers placed by the people for the government? The engineer felt that the government should not be too involved in areas like the business sector but concern itself more with the physical development of the society whilst recognising that Singaporeans must and can think for themselves. He also suggested that the NMPs consider forming a group among themselves to contest the general elections.

Mr. Goh Chong Chia from the panel replied that role of the NMP, in his view, is its ability to effect the signal to change as the government sometimes do not see them.

Following up on Mr. Goh's words, Mr. Zulkifli Baharrudin was very clear with his position that Singaporeans must be engaged whether in party politics, opposition or non-partisan. They must stop wanting and waiting for others to act on their behalves.

Ms. Eleanor Wong, on the other hand, noted the difficulty in opposing the government, ie. the People's Action Party (PAP). The problem being that the PAP had started off as a socialist democratic party but over time, it has evolved into an all-inclusive party for the people. Inevitably, there will be specific trends or policies that we may disagree with but it is tough for people to bring about a cogent way of arguing against them. She further added that the PAP has done very well for itself having achieved so much. The party also has the "uncanny ability to reinvent itself" as it is clearly aware that it cannot continue to go on the old route. This is where civil society comes in and this can be attributed to a slowly growing receptiveness on the party's part.

Mr. Chia Shi Teck, too, agreed that the PAP has always been able to self-rejuvenate yet he argued that NGOs and civil society lack the mandate. He suggested that NMPs be elected nationally and not constitutionally to serve a term of five years as the current system of a two-year term was simply too short a time for the newly elected NMPs to learn the ropes. Such a system would be similar to having a second house in the parliament.

This exchange was interesting as moments later, a member of the audience voiced out that there was too much discouragement all around for the public to air their views. And the constant baggering of the oppositional line is part of this problem.

Aftermath of An Expired NMP Term

Michael Roston, an exchange student and a member of the Political Science Society in NUS inquired about what an NMP should do when his or her term has expired after the two years.

Mr. Baharrudin said that we should make use of the space provided. However, at the end of the day, it boils down to the very fact that the NMP has got to make a decision either to join the PAP or opposition if s/he wants to pursue a political life.

Another participant also commented on Singaporean's reluctance to speak up or criticise, as everyone is merely waiting for the other to do something as they are generally governed by their selfishness. Thus, from a pessimistic outlook, they are not interested in getting involved in civil society or politics unless a drastic event unexpectedly occurs like finding their CPF completely wiped out. Despite the pessimism, he still optimistically believes that civil society can take off.

Mr. Baharrudin said that the general trend of people in stable societies is that most are normally unwilling to take a plunge as they do not wish to rock the boat. However, he noted that politics will always be punishing here and in other countries. Hence, don't expect buffers or comfort should you enter the political arena and oppose the ruling party.

Drawing from his own experience, Mr. Chia agreed that politics will always consist of pain by illustrating that as an independent candidate, he felt squeezed in between as the opposition believed that the PAP had planted him and vice versa. He further questioned whether there is such a role for people who are by and large contented with the government but not entirely satisfied with the policies. Basically, people want honest feedback. He also added that checks and balances are required in a system, citing Japan's ruling LDP as an example of unchecked corruption which has led to a drastic fall in confidence level amongst the Japanese. People should not be overly optimistic or pessimistic, he cautioned, as the PAP no longer has exclusive control over the media especially with the proliferation of net users, and technology has helped to achieve just that.

To Remain Non-Partisan or Join Politics

At this point, James Gomez invited the panelists and audience to reflect on whether non-partisanship perpetuates the status quo. He pointed out the major criticism levelled at non-partisanship is that its appeal is limited mainly to the elite or cosmopolitans while the working class is looking for real changes and some hardball opposition. As politics is about representation, he questioned whether Singapore has such a system in place which gives representation to all.

Mr. Goh replied that since different views will always exist, thus, for a government to work, we must have a system that can take on the governance of the whole country. Mr. Baharrudin stated that politics in Singapore is free and fair as people can choose not to vote for the candidates they do not want elected. He also claimed that the PAP has been far more successful in bringing people into their fold than civil society, and there will not be any real change since people will continue to overwhelming vote for the party.

Ms. Wong also agreed that the status quo, by and large, is the status quo as people have freely chosen to maintain it. Being an NMP does not mean being non-oppositional or uncritical even though to a certain extent, it does denote being somewhat on the opposing camp. She, however, felt that an NMP would become less effective if s/he joins politics, therefore, it maybe better off staying non-partisan.

Mr. Chia disagreed, suggesting the idea of elected national MPs. Currently, NMPs cannot vote on budget and constitutional issues but should they have a mandate, they can then help further improve the country.

However, the idea of preserving and even experimenting the enlargement of non-partisan representation was not widely shared by the audience. Yaw Shin Leong felt that by going into elections, NMPs might stifle the growth of a mature, democratic society. His point was further emphasised by another who felt this would only perpetuate the NMP system fuelling populace dependency. He urged organisations like Think Centre to help people realise that they need a mandate. With the maturing of civil society, alternative political ideas will emerge.

However, Mr. Chamberlain from the American embassy argued that he could not see different interest groups here emerging in a way that they can aggregate themselves or even into an opposition. Individuals no doubt will tend to think more but only as individuals and the was the dilemma in Singapore.

Gillian Koh, a researcher at the Institute of Policy Studies, also questioned whether electing NMPs will only be strengthening the present one-party, more inclusive system. Civil society like the Green Party in many countries is about formulating ideas and testing them, and allowing people to get together to discuss them. Ms. Wong contends that there is the possibility of running the risk of having too many interest groups, and picking and choosing among them. She found the concept of National MPs fascinating but proposed the model of proportional representation with a sceptical belief that it will not find favour in Singapore.

Mr. Goh also disagreed with the empowerment of NMPs instead believing that the system will change and an alternative government will emerge someday. Adding on, Mr. Baharrudin said that the best thing is for NMPs to introduce to people what politics consist of by using moral persuasion for they should not act as a counterbalance to political parties. On the final note, Mr. Chia again reiterated that mandate is the key.


With the forum drawing to a close, James Gomez, Chairman of the forum and Director of Think Centre, summed up the event by thanking the panelists and floor members for an interesting discussion. Throughout the session, many valuable comments and ideas like elected national MPs, upper house and interest groups came up despite some confusion over the terms "nominated MPs" and "national MPs". Although each speaker agreed that politics in itself is punishing, they generally differed in their opinions of empowering NMPs.

There was, however, a general consensus that Singaporeans have to stay engaged be it in party politics, opposition or non-partisan. Overall, the forum was successful in that it is probably the first to publicly highlight and bring to attention the sticky issue of non-partisanship and its impact on the political development of Singapore. It was clear that non-partisanship is unlikely to replace the need, demand and development of political opposition in the Republic. At best the idea of non-partisanship is a transitional one.

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