The problem with more government – killing political competition

Singapore political parties logosBy Benedict Chong

In the previous article, we saw how the size of government had an inverse relationship with economic freedom.

In this article, we will look at how well the ruling party has done in entrenching its interests on the political front, hence limiting the political freedoms of Singaporeans due to the lack of a competitive opposition.

How the field is distorted to favor entrenched interests

Ever since the defection of over a dozen assemblymen (as MPs were called then) in 1962-3, the Singapore democracy has evolved into a party-centric system. An elected politician who wishes to leave his party hold an incredibly high chance of losing his seat.

Election deposits comprising up to half a year’s worth of salary for the average Singaporean hardly encourages participation in the electoral process. The government naturally asserts that such deposits deter frivolous candidates while maintaining the ‘integrity’ of the election.

The dynamics of a party-centric democracy and implementation of excessive election deposits would necessarily favour entrenched political parties such as PAP and WP.

To illustrate the injustice associated with election deposits, we simply need to review the election deposit that PAP placed in the 1959 GE, when they first swept to power. A mere $500, it was a far cry from the $16,000 required during the 2014 GE, even after accounting for inflation.

In Singapore, a typical government response to criticism of its policies would be to lift statistical data from other countries and draw comparisons. Singaporeans are subsequently shown how we as a country are far better off than these other unfortunate nations.

If we take a leaf from the government’s book and compare electoral deposits and reimbursement criterions of other commonwealth countries, Singapore is ranked amongst the top for all the wrong reasons.

In the United Kingdom for example, candidates are only required to put up £500, the whole sum of which is refunded if 5% of valid votes are recorded in favour of the candidate.

Article 155 of the Constitution of the Republic of Singapore (Image - Loy Zihao 2010, Wikimedia)
Article 155 of the Constitution of the Republic of Singapore (Image - Loy Zihao 2010, Wikimedia)

Ease of Constitutional amendments

Another less obvious tendency of the PAP dominated Parliament that diminishes freedom is the ease at which the Singapore constitution is amended. Since independence, dozens amendments were instituted to cater to State impulse.

In fact, the first ever amendment was itself a travesty as it made the constitution amenable by a simple majority, that is; 50% would suffice in rewriting the highest law of the land.

While this amendment was reversed in 1979, it was meaningless, given that the PAP had since established itself as the dominant party with an almost guaranteed two-thirds majority in a party-centric democracy.

Needless to say, the first amendment led to many more such as the institutionalization of GRC (Group Representation Constituency), NCMP (Non-constituency Member of Parliament), etc.

Even so, a constitution containing provisions such as that in Article 10(2) which states that “All forms of forced labour are prohibited, but Parliament may by law provide for compulsory service for national purposes.” can hardly be considered one when it so clearly violates a fundamental human right.

Another article, Article 149 of the constitution, aptly titled “Legislation against subversion” quoted from the attorney general’s webpage cites:

If an Act recites that action has been taken or threatened by any substantial body of persons, whether inside or outside Singapore —

(a)   to cause, or to cause a substantial number of citizens to fear, organized violence against persons or property;

(b)   to excite disaffection against the President or the Government;

(c)   to promote feelings of ill-will and hostility between different races or other classes of the population likely to cause violence;

(d)   to procure the alteration, otherwise than by lawful means, of anything by law established; or

(e)   which is prejudicial to the security of Singapore,

any provision of that law designed to stop or prevent that action… is valid notwithstanding that it is inconsistent with Article 9, 11, 12, 13 or 14, or would, apart from this Article, be outside the legislative power of Parliament.

Abolish ISAAny provision to detain without trial violates the most basic principle of human sovereignty and liberty. To see the constitution superseded with such ease is hardly befitting of a developed country boosting a highly educated population.

Yet, blame can hardly be apportioned to politicians alone if the electorate does nothing in terms of pressure via persistent feedbacks and if still insufficient, the ballot box.

Only when as a country, we become less infatuated with rat infestations, dirty ceilings and overpriced iPhones and more concerned with the personal liberties that have been surreptitiously stolen can the political process be affected positively.

What must be done

While the incumbent party certainly has no obligation to level the playing field, the use of public resources and official positions to distort political competition in favor of the ruling party is wrong.

Therefore, to resolve the political mess Singapore finds itself in would require immense political courage and determination by both real politicians and the electorate.

First of all, article 46(2) of the Singapore Constitution has to be repealed to enable political representatives to work for the people instead of party. This will set the path for true representative democracy to thrive.

While the PAP led government champions this Act, saying that it will discourage defections, it concentrates power in the hands of party leadership. Legislators of the incumbent party would be discouraged from challenging party sanctioned policies due to possible expulsion.

ballot_fThe GRC system should also be abolished to ensure politicians are elected based on capability to avoid the coattail effect. The official justification for the GRC system; - that is fosters minority representation is deeply ludicrous and possibly divisive. The government continues to discriminate Singaporeans according to racial groups.

Singapore has long progressed beyond the racial divide. For instance, when JB Jeyaretnam won his first parliamentary seat in the 1981 by-election, Anson voters were majority Chinese.

Perhaps the State should start treating people as individuals instead of identifying us based on race and religion. After all, the Constitution and more pertinently, the Singapore pledge expressly guarantees equality before the law. Affirmative actions imply that the rights of one group are more equal than another.

Next, election deposits should be calibrated to a value that will deter frivolous candidates while still enabling fair contest. The current amount of $16,000 is almost extortionary.

While election deposits may indeed be beneficial in curbing pointless contests, the value levied should surely lead to questions about the integrity and competitiveness of the election. This especially so when only candidates who receive more than 12.5% of valid votes are reimbursed the original sum, which is otherwise forfeited.

But most importantly, the ability of the executive branch of government to amend the Constitution at will must be curtailed. Articles within the Constitution so obviously violating the fundamental rights of humans must be immediately repealed.

The State tends to introduce a false dichotomy between security and freedom, often arguing that in order to be safe, we need to give up certain liberties. But by giving up our personal liberties to the State, we are actually less safe from the very entity we gave our freedoms up to.

Therefore, for any future amendment, a popular referendum must be conducted to give the people such amendments will affect most a say. The government will have to convince the populace about the need for amendment instead of having some pointless debate in Parliament and having the amendment bill pass anyway, with assenting votes from both side of the debate floor too!

Giving Parliament discretion at amendment leads to both abuse and misconduct, as seen by the excessive number of amendments already passed.

The importance of the Constitution can never be overstated. They provide the necessary checks and balances to unwieldy government. Allowing government to set rules for itself is akin to giving a kid the keys to a candy store. The tendency for abuse will always be there.

Do also read the other two parts in this series: