Values, culture and trust for Constructive Politics

Below is the full speech by Mr Low Thia Khiang, MP for Aljunied GRC and Secretary General of Workers’ Party for the debate on President’s Address 2014 in Parliament (26th May 2014).

Mdm Speaker,

When Parliament first opened after the General Election in 2011, the President in his address noted that our politics was becoming more diverse and open and the composition of Parliament reflected this. He said this was positive for Singapore and advised that only by getting our politics right and keeping it constructive and responsible would Singapore make progress.

The President, in his address to the same Parliament in May 2014, devoted a section of his speech to “Upholding Constructive Politics”. The President advises that the vigorous debate in this house should continue but we should not allow our differences to pull us apart and we should move ahead as one united people.

 

Constructive Politics

Mdm Speaker, Yes, this is what the Workers’Party and I believe. This is the thought behind getting every candidate of the Workers’Party to recite the National Pledge at the end of our final rally in General Election. It is to remind us that despite our differences, we are all Singaporeans. The recitation of National Pledge has now become a tradition of the Workers’Party.

Politics comes in many shapes and forms. One can describe politics by adding different adjectives in front or at the back of the word “politics”.  In the President’s address, the phrase “constructive politics”is used, I assume to be contrasted with “destructive politics”. To me, in whatever way “politics” is described and coloured, it is still politics.

To me, what is important is the outcome of the political process. Here, what the President has described as the desired outcome of Constructive Politics is moving ahead as one united people. We must all remember constructive politics does not happen by the order of the government, nor does it happen through a national conversation or public consultation.

To achieve the outcome of constructive politics in a diverse and open society like those in mature democracies and to nurture an environment conducive for it requires much effort, and everyone across society has their part to play. There are three aspects to this: political values, political culture, and impartial institutions trusted by the people.

 

Political Values

Inculcation of political values needs to be undertaken in the young who have fresh minds. I suggest we take a hard look at the National Education syllabus in our schools. National Education should enable students to understand their rights and obligations as citizens in a democratic society as well as the values and concepts associated with democracy. These can include knowing and respecting the Constitution; understanding how the political system empowers the People to make decisions and to take responsibility for the decision made; and also inculcating values like mutual respect, tolerance and diversity, as well as human dignity.

The youth are the future masters of the country and the political leaders of tomorrow. I believe Singapore will be a more stable and mature democracy if Singaporeans are in possession of democratic values, which will be the DNA enabling us to move ahead as one united people and mitigate against the worry expressed by the President of gridlock and paralysis in the hurly-burly of politics.

 

Political Culture

The people should speak and decide via the ballot box what political culture we want as a country, and politicians must be aware of what political culture we are building through our style of political engagement as well as our actions.

If the people continue to support a government party that uses high-handed tactics against its political opponents, we are endorsing a bullying political culture. If the people support a governing party that uses governmental resources, including civil servants, to serve its partisan goals, we are condoning the abuse of political power as an acceptable culture.

Similarly, if you support a political party which believes in overthrowing the government by taking mass political action against the government regardless of the laws and proper channels to change things, you are building a culture of lawlessness. If you support a political party conducting its political engagement with a habit of playing racial politics and mud-slinging and launching personal attacks on its political opponents, you are building a thug political culture. If you support a political party with the habit of fixing its opponents, you are breeding a political culture of fear.

While all politicians play a role in building a political culture through political engagement, the government, is the dominant player of politics in Singapore, and plays a significant role. Using differentiating measures in policies to punish people who voted for the opposition breeds a culture of divisive politics.

It also used to be said that the political incumbent has no obligation to level the playing field, that might is right, and that the political incumbent has the right to use all legal means to remain in power because everyone will do it if they are the incumbent. This is building a self-serving political culture.

 

Building Institution of Public Trust

There is weakness in every political system, which could potentially result in the political gridlock and paralysis the President is concerned about. One such concern I have is the Elected President system which is unique to Singapore. I am concerned that the efficiency of the government can be paralysed by the President exercising his “blocking power”if the elected President and the government do not see eye to eye.

To avoid gridlock and paralysis, it is critical for us to build institutions of state that the public trusts. There are two examples showing why building institutions that the public trust is important. Nearer to home, we have an Asean member, Thailand, that is in political gridlock today. I believe the political gridlock could have been avoided if the Thai King decided to play an active role to defuse the crisis, as he had done in the past. He is a constitutional monarch with largely ceremonial and symbolic powers, but he embodies the spirit and values of Thai society. Most importantly, his past behaviour of acting in the interest of the nation has been consistent over a long period of time, and has won the respect and trust of the Thai people.

Next, let us look at the United States Presidential Election of 2000 where the “Florida Vote Recount” episode threatened to derail political stability in US with its political system’s history of more than 200 years.  US was in political gridlock for weeks until the Supreme Court of US made a ruling declaring George W Bush as the winner. Although the ruling was not without controversy and not all were happy with it, the US was able to move on from the political crisis without damage. This is because the people of the United States trusted their Supreme Court as the final interpreter of Constitution and respected its rulings.

However, building such institutions is not easy. Public trust can be eroded very quickly due to political gaming, as seen in many countries when political infighting unravelled the efforts to build them. Building such institutions is the obligation of any responsible government, and entails whole-of-government efforts to protect these institutions from being perceived as political tools of the government.

The key to the success of such institutions is Public Trust, not government trust. Therefore, the institution must be seen to behave impartially and to be above politics. Such consistent and predictable behaviour over a long period of time will gain public trust to enable them to play a stabilising role in a political crisis.

 

Strengthening Our Political System

Mdm Speaker, the sub-title “Upholding Constructive Politics”in the President’s speech is glaring to me.  It is an expression of a direction of the government’s priority in its work plan to Parliament. This is unprecedented in President’s Address since I entered Parliament in 1991.

I believe some will be cynical of the real meaning of Constructive Politics due to recent government actions.  For instance, media convergence regulations extended the individual licensing regime for print newspapers and TV broadcasters to online news sites; this could result in a loss of valuable political diversity when online news commentary sites run by passionate and dedicated volunteers decide to shut down rather than be subjected to onerous licensing requirements. This smells of Compliant Politics and not Constructive Politics.

However, it takes time for the establishment and citizen activists to internalise and put in practice constructive politics and to cultivate the thought as a norm for consideration in the decision making process. I am of the view that bitter and negative experiences of citizens participating in politics, such as being detained without trial and becoming bankrupt, hamper us from moving towards constructive politics. We should also bear in mind that making personal attacks during political engagement does not help us to “come together again”.  Instead, the attitude of “live and let live”despite our differences and unhappiness with each other will help us to move ahead as a united people.

As we approach 50 years of nation building, I am happy to note that we have made political progress in strengthening our political system. Our political system today is more competitive and the government is more responsive to the people. This augurs well for the future of Singapore as the geopolitical environment around us is becoming more dynamic, and the younger generation of Singaporeans are becoming citizens of a globalised world with diverse views.

 

Conclusion

The younger generation of Singaporeans today is better educated and the internet connects us to the world instantly. Hence, the expectations and horizons of Singaporeans today are very different from the older generation; they expect better standards befitting a first-world Singapore not only in terms of hardware like physical infrastructure and efficient services, but also software like quality of life, as well as in politics and government responses.

Therefore, this is a timely realisation of the government to put in efforts to enable a more robust political process, to cultivate political norms and to build an environment for constructive engagement in politics to safeguard the future of Singapore.