If anything has changed, it has changed for the worse. Choo Zheng Xi & Khairulanwar Zaini.

TOC Analysis: PM’s gambit is manufactured dissent par excellence

Choo Zheng Xi / Khairulanwar Zaini

In chess, a gambit is an opening move which sacrifices a minor piece for a stronger strategic position later in the game.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s recent changes seem to have answered the opposition and the public’s calls for more checks and balances in the electoral system, while not changing the calculus of power in the hallowed Halls of Parliament.

Increasing the number of Non-Constituency MPs to nine, and entrenching the NMP scheme, further undermines Parliament as a representative legislature elected by the people.

While pragmatists will welcome the mere fact that these developments will provide at least eighteen non-ruling party voices, the tweaking comes at little political cost to the PAP – entrenching its dominance while throwing a sop to those who wish for a stronger opposition presence.

It is also a move of remarkable cynicism, sacrificing the principles of electoral democracy on the altar of the People’s Action Party’s (PAP) ritual of longevity.

More opposition MPs – but less opposition?

This ritual has been performed before. The men in priestly white took the knife to electoral democracy by introducing unelected Non-Constituency Members of Parliament (NCMPs) in 1984 and Nominated Members of Parliament (NMPs) in 1990.

The argument from a position of democratic principle is this: the NCMP scheme creates a second tier of representatives that have more electoral authority than unelected NMPs but less electoral authority than full MPs. This dilutes the influence of Parliament.

Currently, both NCMPs and NMPs are barred from voting on matters pertaining to constitutional amendments, public funds, votes of confidence and presidential impeachment.

This makes a mockery of the purpose of Parliament. Constitutionally, legislative power is vested in Parliament, including the power to amend the Constitution. Parliament will now include 18 members with emasculated powers to influence legislative outcomes.

The sad conclusion is that the purpose of the increase in NCMPs is to provide the citizenry with the theatre of political jousting without the substance of actual influence.

More farcically, the expanded NCMP scheme would allow opposition MPs with paltry vote counts to enter Parliament. The NCMP scheme originally began as a “best loser” scheme, its rationale has now been stretched to accommodate the ninth next worse losers.

This runs the risk of stretching the credibility of both the NCMP scheme and Parliament too thin. If the changes were in place in 2001, Wong Hong Toy’s Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) team would be eligible to send an NCMP to Parliament with a paltry 20.26%, and Ling How Doong of the SDP would have a seat in Parliament with 21.48% of the vote.  

Strategically, the biggest winner of the move will be the PAP. It can now offer the assurance of at least nine opposition MPs in Parliament, so people can be encouraged to vote for the PAP without fearing that alternative voices will not be heard in Parliament.

The enlarged NCMP scheme is a half-measure that deprives the opposition of its raison d’être of being a check on the government – one of their perennial campaign platforms.

Slanted political playing field unchanged

The political theatre the expanded NCMP scheme can potentially provide is a convenient palliative for other grossly slanted aspects of the electoral playing field.

Before we feel gratitude at Mr Lee’s promise to reduce the number of six person GRCs, we need to re-examine the dubious legitimacy of the whole scheme in the first place. Its original rationale of ensuring minority representation has slowly evolved into allowing PAP Town Councils to achieve economies of scale while diluting the democratic principle of one-man-one-vote.

Should we give thanks for a half-attempt to return our democratic rights?

From the proliferation of Group Representative Constituencies (GRCs) to unfair electioneering requirements, like a hefty election deposit, the opposition finds itself fighting on electoral ground favoring the incumbent. 

Furthermore, there remain other impediments to the fledging opposition: a state media that is establishment-pliant and susceptible of reporting unfavorably (or not at all) of opposition developments, and online electioneering rules that curtail political parties’ ability to disseminate its platform on the Internet.

A fairer political and electoral framework means that the growth of the opposition occurs in tandem with the spirit of greater political liberalization, maturity and discourse – and not due to the arbitrary benevolence of the ruling party.

It is at best inconsistent that the government deems it fit to lower the bar of Parliamentary entry criteria for best opposition losers rather than evening out the electoral playing ground for strong opposition candidates to have a fair fight against the PAP.

If the government was concerned about increasing the quality of debate, it will be more prudent to ease its electoral shenanigans so that the discerning electorate can elect good opposition voices with the ability to articulate the views of the people. 

Failing the fairness criteria

The mantra of more opposition presence is not an end in itself, but as a means to develop a robust system of check and balances and to create a more representative, inclusive and accessible political structure in Singapore. This should be the true end point of the process of political liberalization.

The PAP can afford to be bold and magnanimous with these gestures – because they stand to win the most with these increased stakes. By allowing the token nine opposition members, they accrue the benefits of depriving the opposition of a major campaign platform while staking a claim on the moral high ground of liberalization.

Right thinking members of the public should see this exercise as the farce that it really is. If anything has changed, it has changed for the worse.

Coming next on TOC: What the changes might mean for the opposition parties.