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Political gridlock or sterility, PM?

Howard Lee/

It would not likely be the last comment from the ruling People's Action Party leading up to the Presidential elections, but the latest comments from Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong just happen to strike a raw nerve.

For your benefit, here is the quote extract from the Straits Times (emphasis mine):

"We must have a harmonious political system where we make important decisions in the best interests of Singapore and Singaporeans and keep ourselves safe in this uncertain environment. We are too small to be able to afford impasse and gridlock, to have two sides blocking one another, so you can't move, you can't solve problems, you can't go ahead."

On the surface, it seems that PM is talking to the wrong people. For all the old motherhood statements PAP leaders have thrown out that rhymes with "if you want to be political, join a party and stand for elections", it is indeed strange, refreshing even, to find ourselves the sudden arbiters of political gridlock.

But the much-feared political stalemate that would freeze the decisiveness of our government is more likely than not, and like it or not, the result of parliamentary process. If anything, PM's latest statement should be directed at the Worker's Party, to whom goes the near-majority of... six out of 87 seats. The general elections are over, let the citizens' votes be final, and start work on governing, even if it means opening dialogue with WP to prevent them from blocking policies with a "house majority".

So why direct it at citizens? We are just ordinary folk who are trying to vote in a President with custodial powers only, right? Do we still get to vote executive powers into parliament, enough to cause concern of a political gridlock? At least not within the next four to five years, surely, enough time to align political differences to the common good?

If you haven't got my drift, here is the answer in your face. The comments were directed at us, because the looming Presidential elections are indeed turning out to be a very lively political contest that could easily lead to an unsettling position for the ruling party.

For despite all that has been said about how the President should adhere to the dos and don'ts of our Constitution, it is becoming more apparent that the President's powers extend beyond the lame-duck limits that the ruling party has taken great pains to chart out for us.

Of the four candidates running for the Presidency, two have clearly indicated a wish to go beyond what the Constitution defines, and instead take up what the Constitution doesn't. If you have a feel for punchy (often accused of being "populist") campaign slogan, you will make out who I'm talking about.

Can they deliver their promises? The better question is, why not? Despite their potential to be President, we need to realise that all of them are still citizens.

If I were to drop into your lap a petition to the government containing 10,000 signatures to protest a policy, what would you do with it? Duty bound as a citizen, you will make sure it goes to the appropriate government agency. The role of the President is no different, only that he does not need a written petition. In his daily interactions with people, he is the living petition, collecting signatures from every person he speaks to, and holding the elected authority to speak up on their behalf and transfer that petition to the right government authority.

The candidates who have promised to speak up for the people in this capacity are not over-reaching their Presidential rights according to the Constitution. There is nothing unconstitutional about speaking up for your fellow citizens. Representing them is not political activism. It is civil society, to which the President bears responsibility not just as a citizen, but as a citizen of citizens.

The ruling party must know this. Why, then, the concern that the President does not overstep his Constitutional authority, when in truth, none of the two who have vouched to push this boundary is really doing so? Ambitious citizens, yes, but Presidential renegades, no.

Yet there is no denying that the President is a meaningful centre of power to question and challenge the ruling party. Indeed, the political gridlock PM refers to is a lot closer to you and me, not as much about politics as it is about politicking. What PM is really warning against is public gridlock.

The consequence of this is not a stalemate in parliament, but the realignment of public opinion that could result in another trashing at the polls, greater than at the recently concluded general elections.

Imagine if the President, the highest office of the State, publicly demonstrates alignment with the people on an issue that is in obvious contradiction to the stand of the ruling party. Make that two issues. Or maybe, make that the entire principle of governance.

It will then become clear that the ruling party no longer has a clear authority to govern. We do not even need parliamentary chaos, sparked by party differences, for that to happen. We just need the President - the perfect embodiment of "one man one vote", the unifying solidarity statement that the ruling party would be too embarrassed to claim due to the GRC system - to show the people's unhappiness with the ruling party.

The PAP seems to have finally realised that, for all its years of attempting to manage public perception and expectations on the way it governs, policy does indeed have an effect on public sentiment, and Singaporeans are increasingly aware of the avenues at their disposal to make themselves heard. These avenues are not always spelt "T-O-C". At times, they are spelt "V-O-T-E".

Unfortunately, the ruling party's current track is nothing short of an attempt in vain at damage controlling the bruising received at the May 2011 general elections. Instead of taking responsibility for the trashing and implementing some real long-term policy changes, it attempts more "peace meal" tweaks that tried to gloss over glaring inadequacies. It then tries to putty over the already heated social divide by attempting a multi-step conditioning of the electorate:

Promote the "sanity" of a particular chosen candidate that is wholesomely constitutional.

Narrate a limit job scope for the President such that the chosen one becomes the logical choice of the people, ad the over-reaching ones become populists.

More fear mongering, such that the choice candidate is seen as a beacon for the "uncertain times" we are heading towards, never mind that they have persistently flagged out previously that the President should not be running the country.

By default deduction, anyone who does not fall into this mould, candidate or voter, becomes unconstitutional and unpatriotic. Cue PM's rhetoric about the need for political cohesion.

In so doing, the ruling party is attempting to define the Presidency, not take the word of the people's choice for it.

For rest assure that the chosen candidate will not represent the people. There is clear indication that every thrust of his candidacy is meant to agree with the ruling party, providing only token disagreement, if at all.

Our response, then, must be clear. Endorsing and voting for the choice candidate effectively means that we have voted away our right to have multiple channels of representation in public office. It will also be a clear mandate to the ruling party that we allow them full control of the governing process, first by granting them the majority in parliament, then by removing the effectiveness of the final guardian.

We do our future and the future of our children an injustice, if we do no take steps right now to define the political climate of this nation, a climate that should discourage the monopoly of power and ensure that public service, not politicking, remains the top agenda for any government, within which the Cabinet and Presidency are both included.