Thursday, May 25, 2006

A Little Critical Help For The Opposition

During the GE 2006 period, many Internet sites questioned the objectivity of the mainstream mass media and criticised the PAP’s arguments.

Their independent reports on election rallies constituted ballast, to offset the perceived partialness of the mainstream media towards the PAP. But ballast is, by necessity, weighted to one side. I won’t say more here, beyond that if the mainstream mass media was pro-PAP, the Internet sites were anti-PAP.

In attacking the PAP’s arguments, these Internet sites provided points for the Opposition to pick up. But scrutiny and criticism of an argument are also a service because they help to enlighten the proponent on where his thinking may have gone wrong. They allow him to go back and re-think. He may, if he still believes in the case, rebuild it and come back with better arguments.

From this perspective, the Internet criticism of the PAP was a service to it: feedback for it to improve itself. There is little doubt, for instance, that criticism of its strategy with James Gomez (not just on the Net) contributed to it toning down its efforts on this front. Conversely the failure of the Internet sites to criticise Opposition arguments adequately was a disservice to it. A pity because these sites were obviously sympathetic to the Opposition.

So here I’d like to offer some criticism of the Opposition; a service which is ballast for the disservice done to it elsewhere, in the hope that if it wants to continue with its case in several areas, it will come back with better arguments.

There was clearly much which the Opposition could have argued better and I pick 3 areas in which I found it most wanting: Economics, GRCs and the Existence of Opposition.

At the one rally I attended, the speakers advocated a minimum wage and a “Singaporean first” employment policy, without giving details of the benefits. But what if we have a minimum wage, another country didn’t and could do certain types of work at a cost below our minimum wage? Where would our jobs go in this age of globalisation? These were among the questions not dealt with.

Yet another suggestion was that certain sectors of the economy should be nationalised. This, too, came with no support . I’d imagine that the case for the nationalisation of a sector must be made points about the efficiency, and cost-effectiveness of nationalised sectors. In addition, some evidence must also be given, to show the disadvantages (inefficiency, cost-ineffectiveness) should the sector be in private hands. A bare statement that prices have gone up since privatisation is insufficient, since they may have gone up anyway in nationalised mode.

Suggestions made without adequate support fail to score points (if that was the intention). They fail to convince but, in fact, open the proponent up to attack. My guess is that the Opposition candidates involved would not have been able to answer the questions about minimum wage or substantiate the claim that nationalised was better than private.

Another topic in which the Opposition failed to convince was the Cost of Living. The message was that it had gone up under the PAP. But not only was there no clear proposal on how to keep costs down, but also no clear idea what Cost of Living was and how it was related to Standard of Living. I’m no economist, but there must be a link between the two; and I believe (unless someone corrects me) that the two move up, or down, together.

In a simplistic example, Dr Tan wants to have a better car, so he charges $2 more per patient. He buys the better car and enjoys a higher standard of living. Mr Lim, the hawker, finds medical costs rising, and charges 50 cents more for his plate of noodles. Now he can afford better medical care. But Dr Tan now has to pay a bit more for lunch…

As citizens, both Mr Lim and Dr Tan demand better roads, better community facilities, parks and a clean, green environment. So the government goes out and hires better road designers, puts in more and better-run facilities as well as gets PhD horticulturists. These citizens now enjoy a better standard of living but alas, the experts hired (not necessarily local) to give them this would rather work elsewhere if you didn’t pay them what they could earn (or more) elsewhere. And so costs go up.

So what was the Opposition complaining about, and what was it offering? A Swiss Standard of Living with a Third-World Cost of Living? How is this going to be achieved? These were never explained.

Raising efficiency and productivity is one way to keep costs in check while affording a higher standard of living. If Dr Tan found a way to see more patients without compromising quality – perhaps if he had a computer database so that he could spend 1 minute rather than 10 retrieving records – he would be able to see more patients, and earn more, without raising charges. And get that car. But if those complaining about a high Cost of Living knew this, they did not show that they did.

My observation, given cases like these, was that the Opposition was weak when it came to matters where a good grasp of economics was required. It would do well to familiarise itself with the economics behind the ideas that it floats, and show that it understands them well. For, apart from the dire consequences of getting the economics of a proposed programme wrong (jobs, livelihoods) one reason is that should they come into power, they would have to deliver on election promises.

Many years ago, I was abroad where a national election was about to take place and I asked a business leader what the difference would be between the two main political parties, once one of them was in power. He said that whatever they said during the campaign, they would face the same issues once they took office. Issues such as creating jobs, international competition and the demand for higher standards of living together with lower costs. There was a narrow choice of viable options open to them to deal with these issues, given economic realities. In short, very little difference.

So if the Opposition wants to propose alternatives to the PAP’s economic programmes, it should study such alternatives carefully and offer only the ones that have a solid foundation and which they can explain clearly.

GRCs were introduced several years ago with the stated reason that they would allow for the representation of minority races (I disagree with the way both words are used commonly in Singapore, but they are handy here). The size of the GRCs then grew with subsequent GEs, and a couple of Opposition-friendly Constituencies were absorbed into GRCs. The Opposition complained that GRCs made it tough for it and the PAP said it was not its duty to make it easy for the Opposition.

In GE 2006, the complaints from the Opposition about GRCs continued. The Worker’s Party, in its manifesto, called for their abolition. The Opposition also held that it was not true any more that people were voting along racial lines.

It is quite clear that a big GRC – one comprising 7 or 6 candidates, surely, and the one comprising 5 or 4 candidates, maybe – does in fact place a hurdle in front of the Opposition, which has found it hard, especially in the past, to put up teams. Big GRCs which deny the Opposition a chance to field candidates will also, by this fact, disenfranchise citizens by denying conditions in which they have a choice.

But do smaller GRCs have a role in Singapore in ensuring minority representation? I believe this question was not considered carefully enough by those calling for their abolition. The question here is whether people are still voting along racial lines. It is a factual question, for which there is no answer in the form of hard published data. However, there is enough evidence that race does matter, to some extent.

While the individual citizen’s vote is secret, a Constituency is broken up into smaller blocks, in which contesting parties (Opposition included) can discern voting patterns. Hence, when the PAP says that people do vote along racial lines, it is likely that this has some empirical basis.

There is also other evidence. Take the fact that in all the SMCs, both the PAP and the Opposition fielded Chinese candidates. Both camps were unwilling to risk fielding an Malay, Indian or Eurasian candidate; they knew that that voting patterns did not favour a minority candidate.

Taken together, it is safe to assume that race still plays a part when Singaporeans choose their MPs. That being the case, would it not deny racial minorities representation if we had only SMCs and the seats were all occupied by MPs of one dominant race? How would that help avowed multiracialism?

Another argument against GRCs which some have made is that racial representation is not necessary: someone of one race can look after the interests of another race. Hence they conclude, GRCs are not necessary. But the point is not that one needs to be of a certain race to serve that race. It is that voters are voting according to racial lines. They want to see someone of their own race among the national leadership. They may feel that only such leadership can understand and look after their interests, and it is irrelevant that this is a mistaken view.

Race-weighted voting also means that if two men, of Race A and Race B, are both able to rise above race but B is the better candidate, B may yet not get elected if the constituency they are contesting in are dominated by Race A. Which is a pity because the better man would have lost.

The issue, then, is not whether we should have GRCs, but the number of such GRCs and their size. Sure, one can argue for other mechanisms to ensure multiracial representation, but the usefulness of GRCs as the mechanism we have now for this cannot be denied.

One main PAP line has been that opposition makes for ineffective government; that Singapore needs “strong” government to deal with issues of the day. This is Political Science 101 stuff of hung legislatures and parliaments deadlocked in debate, unable to move quickly and firmly to solve issues.

Another main line has been that the PAP can provide opposition within it ranks. There were also suggestions recently that the Whip could be lifted, for instance, if a PAP candidate was selected in an Opposition-held Constituency.

Meanwhile, recognising that there is a desire for some real Opposition, the PAP has also tried to create some artificially, through the NCMP scheme.

My main aim here is to look at Opposition positions. Hence I shall not deal with the PAP arguments save to say briefly why they are not demolition-proof. With 82 out of 84 seats, the “effective government” argument is weak. “Effective” government that is be quick and decisive because it dominates, can also be wrong. Meanwhile the line that the PAP can provide its own Opposition is weakend by the exercise of the Whip, and contradicted by the fact that the party has gone on and created the NCMP scheme.

Meanwhile what positions have the Opposition taken? It has asked for voter support to carry it to Parliament so that it can check the PAP government and provide a balance to its power. It has said it wants to give people a “voice” in Parliament. In the recent GE, the Worker’s Party – the biggest of the opposition parties – emphasised giving people a “choice”. This presumably, is an alternative to the PAP and its programmes.

But why do having “checks and balances”, a voice in Parliament and choices – which can be summarised as having a plurality of views in Parliament – matter? After all, the people, with their votes, don’t seem to want to check the PAP beyond giving the Opposition 2 SMCs; don’t seem to want to give the Opposition a bigger voice or to want more choices.

Without doubt, plurality is a vital ingredient in a democracy and if people don’t understand this enough, here’s where the Opposition has its work cut out for it: to explain in simple terms, why more plurality is needed. I started out with the aim of criticising the Opposition as a service; but now tip over to giving some positive help by pointing to where the foundations can be found for good arguments for the need for Opposition: here.

Why am I tipping over? Two reasons. First, have you ever watched a debate in which you knew the counter to an argument but which the debater seemed to have missed? Or watched a TV game show in which you happened to know some of the answers but in which the player didn’t? You almost wish you were there, but you aren’t. Well it’s a bit like that watching the Opposition putting its case across. I itch, so I scratch.

Second, I tend to sympathise with the underdog.


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