Role of opposition: More than just an alternative party

By Ghui

After years of staid Parliamentary sessions, things have finally livened up. Hot button issues such as immigration, the over stretched transportation services and various scandals related to Members of Parliament from both the People’s Action Party and the Workers’ Party have been debated in bona fide fashion.

While still tame compared to many more mature democracies, this is a very significant step forward in the Singapore political sphere. Prior to this, and certainly for as long as I can remember, the outcome of any parliamentary session was always a given. Apart from the long-suffering Chiam See Tong, the PAP overwhelmed parliament to the extent that Singapore became the only country in the world to introduce the concept of Nominated Members of Parliament (NMP) so as to create some semblance of an opposition party. The proviso that such NMPs were picked by the PAP dominated government logically limited the effectiveness of such NMPs.

Fast-forward May 2014 and we now have an unprecedented number of opposition MPs. Add to that the NMPs, the advent of the Internet and a far more exacting public, and parliamentary debates are attracting more attention than ever before.

While a quantum leap has been made by Singaporean standards, this is by no means spectacular when you compare us to other countries in the developed world. It is important to bear that in mind when we evaluate the political landscape of our island state. While much has been accomplished, even more still needs doing.

As years of single party domination grew, Singapore faced a bigger problem than that of boring parliamentary debate – it faced the issue of complacency and stagnation. Competition always keeps one on his toes. A democracy, if it works to its full potential, should do just that to ensure that our elected government keeps to the highest possible standards.

Certain members of the government have disagreed that the presence of opposition parties has contributed to the robustness of parliamentary debates.

Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC MP Gan Thiam Poh, a first-term PAP MP, said that he had received feedback that PAP backbenchers “sound more like the Opposition, (while) the Opposition sounds more like the PAP”. “Everybody has been speaking out candidly and constructively,” he said.

He also added “Quite often they (the Opposition MPs) also agree with the Government policy. But at times when they don’t agree with the policy, we hope they could provide better alternatives.”

Let me break down the fallacies of this line of reasoning. First and foremost, opposition parties are an essential part of the checks and balances that must exist to ensure accountability.

In just 3 years since the watershed GE 2011 results, our little red dot has been rocked with all manner of accountability related scandals. The fall out from the Michael Palmer debacle, the Little India riots and its handling and the CPIB corruption scandal are just a few examples of a much larger pool.

We cannot ignore the potential links between these revelations, a more active online press and a record numbers of opposition MPs, which has led to more vigorous debates on issues. No matter what naysayers might claim, the presence of a relatively stronger opposition has led to more accountability.

Secondly, opposition parties are crucial to ensure that Singaporeans get the best possible service from their elected representatives. They are not there to protest for the sake of protesting – that would be counter-productive. The fact that opposition party MPs have agreed with certain policies and sounded like the PAP only goes to show that they are not interested in a game of tit for tat. Surely that is a good thing? I fail to comprehend why Mr Gan gave this a negative spin.

By Mr Gan’s admission, “everyone has been speaking candidly and constructively”. This, to my mind, is a giant step forward for Singapore’s political development and seems at odds with his implication that the opposition parties have not come up with better solutions when they disagreed.

Hri Kumar on fence-sitting (image from Cheyenne)
Hri Kumar on fence-sitting (image from Cheyenne)

The “better solutions” argument is certainly not new. Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC MP Hri Kumar Nair has also previously criticised the WP for sitting on the fence on hot-button issues, such as not taking a stand on lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transsexuals. At a recent round-table discussion organised by The Straits Times, he repeated the criticism and argued that the WP has failed to take a stand on many issues.

This is certainly missing the point. As already mentioned above, a key role of an opposition presence is to ensure that Parliament does not become a mere rubber stamp to pass through a party dominated agenda. By countering and questioning certain government policies, the opposition parties have been fostering debate thereby leading to more thought and innovation. Opposition parties do not necessarily have to come up with the best alternative solution in order to constructively criticise a particular policy. By facilitating a thought provoking session, which leads to refreshing solutions, they are already doing their part.

Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC MP Janil Puthucheary, for example, proposed free travel on public transport before peak hours to change travel patterns and alleviate congestion woes, a suggestion that became reality after the Government rolled out a free pre-peak travel trial, which was recently extended for a second year. Had the opposition parties not vociferously raised this issue, would this have come about?

Besides, isn’t it a little rich for Mr Hri Kumar to criticise the WP for sitting on the fence regarding LGBT issues? Lest we forget, it was a certain leader of the PAP and our PM who uttered these memorable lines in relation to section 377A: “Why is that law on the books? Because it’s always been there and I think we just leave it.”

More competition has also been fertile training ground for politicians. Tanjong Pagar GRC MP Chia Shi-Lu has stated that he had learnt a lot from the debates, including how Cabinet members craft and deliver their replies to questions tabled by MPs.

As our opposition candidates grow and learn, they will no doubt be able to come up with the “better alternatives”. But overall, I would say that in just three short years, they have already made invaluable contribution and undeniable in roads. To say otherwise sounds a little bit like sour grapes.

Main image from The Straits Times, by Desmond Wee.

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