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"Having opposition voices does not mean better governance," PAP member insists.

“Democracy need not involve the presence of an opposition,” says PAP member

The following is an article written by Xu Kaixian, a member of the People’s Action Party’s Paris Ris West Branch. The article was published in the latest issue of Petir, the PAP’s newsletter. The views are his own and TOC does not support them. We publish it here for discussion. (Also, visit TOC Facebook for "PAP penetrating into tertiary institutions - via the back door.")

Petir Jul/Aug 2009

That essential journey

The proposed changes to the electoral system will see at least 18 participants in the House who will not be from the ruling party. There will be nine opposition MPs (including Non-Constituency MPs) and nine Nominated MPs (NMPs).The NMP system will also be permanent.

I hadn’t anticipated such a large increase in possibly opposing voices in Parliament.

I’ve always been sceptical about Western-style democracy, which advocates democracy as a panacea for all problems. Democracy is probably the best existing political system and all countries should adopt democratic ideals. The question is the type of democracy they should have.

Currently, any deviation from Western-style democracy is denounced as authoritarian. But should that be the case? Wouldn’t it be better if each country practised a democracy which best suits its situation? Is there really a need for democracy in Singapore to mirror the West’s?

Going by a dictionary definition, democracy is a system in which the governing power is vested in the people, who exercise this power directly or indirectly through a system of representation usually involving periodically held elections. As such, democracy need not involve the presence of an opposition.

The fundamental reason people think it is better to have opposition voices in Parliament is for these opposition elements to act as a check on the government on behalf of the people.

If this is the case, wouldn’t it be more efficient if people were directly involved in the governing and decision-making process? Wouldn’t having referendums on major decisions more accurately reflect the true desires of the people rather than having more opposition voices in Parliament?

The recent suggestion by Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong for Singaporeans to be more involved in Town Councils is a better move in this direction. In such a situation, people would have direct control over what they want improved in their neighbourhood, without anyone having to second guess.

For this reason, I am cheered that the NMP system is going to be permanent. Being independent members of the public with no political affiliations, NMPs are often more able to contribute more effectively because they are free from political baggage.

They may not feel obliged to serve the people, but their opinions would be reflective of segments of the population. And by stepping forward, they are clearly motivated to help build a better Singapore for Singaporeans.

Why am I so sceptical about opposition parties? The fundamental question is whether the presence of more opposition voices represents a better and more efficient democracy. After all, as long as a ruling party is focused on its continued survival, pragmatism will drive it to act in the interests of the people and the country.

Having a vocal opposition or a regular switch of power to another party does not automatically translate into better policies for the country and more effective governance. If it did, the United States would have reformed its healthcare system long ago.

It is still trying to do so, as the ruling Democratic Party is critical of the proposals of President Barack Obama, a party member. Indeed, the two do not see eye to eye on several issues, indicating that having a party dominate government does not guarantee that its leader has an easy time in office.

In fact, with the elimination of the partisan tensions and incentives to milk political mileage, lawmakers should surely have the space for genuine and meaningful debates about the best policies for a country because there is no need for politicking to gain political points.

The presence of more NCMPs raises the possibility that the quality of political debate will be lowered. After all, parliamentary debate is one of the best avenues for a person to build up credibility as a politician who cares for and fights for the people, and so there is the danger of participants opposing proposals for the sake of it and to gain political mileage.

Theoretically, having more opposition voices translates into more effective governance, but the reality is often the converse. The debates in the US Congress highlight this: Most Republicans refuse to budge from their party’s position regardless of the merits of reforms proposed by the Obama administration.

Evidently, having opposition voices does not mean better governance and hence, more satisfied people.

Politics is a cruel zero sum game. If an incumbent is incompetent, he will be voted out. If the opposition is simply not good enough to get into power on its own merits why should it be given a hand and a say in Parliament? And how can such representatives claim they are acting in the interests of the people?

The proposal to increase the number of non-ruling party voices in Parliament is a shrewd one, as it caters to the preferences of the people. The current tensions in Iran are a reminder of the perils of ignoring such preferences. However, will people appreciate such micromanaging?

It is clear that a country’s political system needs to evolve as people’s aspirations and needs change. It is a journey that every country has to take, especially a young nation like Singapore.

The writer is a member of the Pasir Ris West branch.

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Read also: Current system lacks accountability - Gilbert Goh.

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