TOC International is our new column and is made up of a group of Singaporeans who are currently living, studying or working abroad. From countries such as the United Kingdom, the United States, Australia and China, they’ll write about their experiences, thoughts and observations about life away from Singapore. TOC International is headed by Donaldson Tan, in London.
Jason Lim / TOCI Writer
As a Singaporean working in China, I meet a lot of Chinese locals who are interested to know more about Singapore. Many were curious about how and why a small country such as Singapore, which is without any natural resources, can be so successful. To this, I answer Singapore has a good, clean and efficient government. The PAP government, which has led Singapore since independence, has done an excellent job in transforming Singapore into a modern city state. Do we not all mutter the same reason word-for-word to explain Singapore's success?
Opposition in Singapore and China
Some Chinese commented that both Singapore and China adopt the one-party system, but this is not true. Singapore is a dominant-party state, where weak and ineffective opposition exists. While Singaporeans have the right to vote for the right and best government, choices are limited because the rise of any opposition is often marked by a quick dismissal, usually caused by bankruptcy, defamation suit, etc.
There are also systematic constraints in Singapore that curtail Singaporeans' choices on political parties and access to opinions on politics and public policy. These constraints include the climate of fear, the ruling party's monopoly on ascertaining public interest, limited freedoms of association and speech, incomplete data and statistics published by the government, and no free press. Dr Bryan Caplan (Associate Professor in Economics at George Mason University) made a very startling discovery, when he visited Singapore's Civil Service College as a Consultant in November 2008, that the public's opinion hardly matters in policy making.
On the other hand, China is one-party state whereby the Communist Party of China (CPC) is and will always be the only political party in power. Contrary to popular opinion, 8 opposition political parties actually exist in China, but they cannot participate in parliamentary elections. The close ties between the CPC and these opposition political parties date back to prior to the Chinese Civil War whereby these political parties pledged political and financial support to the CPC against the Kuomintang (KMT) which had outlawed them.
The opposition political parties form the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), along with other special interest groups such as trade unions, business associations and ethnic organisations, which make recommendations to the National People's Congress (the Chinese Parliament) and the State Council (the Chinese Cabinet). The Chinese Opposition today are in fact lobbyists and key members of the opposition political parties are usually installed in important positions under the Chinese Administrative Service and the Chinese Judiciary.
Voting in Singapore and China
The Singapore electorate currently consists of 14 Group Representative Constitutencies (GRC) and 9 Single Member Constituencies (SMC). Each GRC or SMC is contested in a plurality voting basis, otherwise known as winner-takes-all. Though the government has assured the public that their vote is not traced and voting is supposed to be secret, the serialising of our votes remain a concern for most Singaporeans. This is especially so for people who work in the government sector. The question remains at the back of many Singaporeans' minds: “Will I be penalised on my work if I vote for the opposition?”
Drawing the boundary lines for GRC and SMC just months before the election is certainly in the favour of the ruling government. GRC and SMC are constantly regrouped, and the MPs of the ruling party will know exactly where they should build the rapport but not the opposition. This is largely caused by the Election Department, which falls under the purview of the Prime Minister's Office, setting rules in favour of the ruling party. In other estasblished democratic countries, the Election Department is an independent non-partisan body which does not side any political parties and their role is primarily to ensure a smooth and fair election.
In China, there have been direct elections since 1978. Instead of multi-party contest in a multi party democracy, a one-party system has multiple factions contesting. All candidates are CPC members but they represent different factions which are associated with different key CPC members in the CPC politburo. Election in China is multi-layered. The ordinary man can only elect their representatives at the county (a village or a few small villages) or municipal (town or small city) level.
A large city may consist of a handful of counties instead. The elected representatives are collectively known as the local People’s Congress. Each provincial People’s Congress in turn will elect a team which will represent the province at the National People’s Congress, which is the highest legislative body in China. The President and vice president are elected by the National People's Congress for five-year terms.
Most political scholars criticise this - that intra-party politics dominates the layers between the County-Municipal levels and Provincial-National levels. Therefore, the Chinese feel helpless when it comes to having a say in running their own country. They are also not less apathetic than Singaporeans when it comes to national politics. In Singapore, while we are able to elect our representatives to parliament to a limited extent, intra-party politics dominates too in deciding who the Cabinet will be.
Taking Matters into Perspective
Singapore is a democratic country. We have the right to vote for our leaders. But, do we really have this privilege? The media, which is controlled by the government (same as China) often publish news pertaining to opposition in a negative light. Access to political opinion is restricted while public debates of government policies are not taken up by the various mainstream media in Singapore. Therefore, in most cases, many Singaporeans either make uninformed choices during the General Elections or to resign to walkovers in their constituencies..
Th PAP continues to be our government and make themselves the highest paid civil servants in the world (even with the recent pay cut, they are still the highest paid in the world). Even though they may have made some blunders along the way, examples - Mas Selemat's escape or Government linked - Temasek and Shin Corporation investment fiasco or the losses at Singapore-Suzhou industrial park or even the recent mini bonds or town council sinking funds, they are all small blunders and they continue to be our government.
Unless we have a free press and open debates on politics and government policies, majority of Singaporeans will remain detached from the political environment and not take charge of their ownership of Singapore. Political apathy may be good for maintaining stability of a country, but too much of it can be bad for the country, especially when there is nobody to sound out the alarm or contribute a solution when Singapore is heading towards disaster.
Singapore politics is not really different from China's in many aspects although they differ in details. In effect, both Singapore and China has an electorate which feels helpless with regards to the political situation and they are too resigned to deal with authorities or political figures. The helplessness is further compounded by the question of whether political opposition in Singapore or China truly represent alternative voices of the people and whether they are effective in influencing any government policy.
About the author:
Jason graduated with BSc (Hons) Business with the University of London, and have been working in various parts of China including Shanghai and Guangzhou for the last 3 years. Being a Singaporean, he is particularly interested in Singapore politics. Disappointed with the apathetic attitude towards politics of many Singaporeaans, he feels that “we a need a political revival in our country. We need to have a stronger say and stand in running of our country, this is what a true democratic country should be.”
If you are Singaporean and overseas, and would like to contribute to The Online Citizen, we would like to invite you to join the new TOC International group of writers. Send us an email at [email protected] .