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Thoughts on Singapore politics going into a possible election year

government policyBy Jeremy Chen

General Elections have to be held in Singapore by January 2017, but commentators have been speculating that 2015 will be the year given the ramp up in government communication about the introduction of MediShield Life, changes in housing policy, the Pioneer Generation Package and other policy initiatives.

Yet Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has commented that Singapore’s next General Elections will not necessarily be when “everyone is expecting it”.

As Singapore enters a possible election year, I would like to share some thoughts on politics in Singapore. Firstly, I’d like to talk about policy innovation and raising awareness of problems. In particular, I believe there is a need for a balance between the two in order for Singapore to progress. Secondly, I would like to raise the question of whether Singaporeans should consider independents as possible political representatives.

Policy innovation and raising awareness of problems

The first step to improving a bad socio-economic situation is to realise that problems exist and to diagnose them. The next step is to develop alternative policy solutions that reduce/eliminate those problems without introducing too many additional problems. The next step is concurrent rigorous debate, revision of policy ideas, and finding a political consensus. Finally, the consensus solution is implemented.

Necessarily, there are standards associated with being a proper “alternative policy solution”. An honest “solution” must be implementable and describe in reasonable detail how it might be implemented. As such, statements such as “raise wages” and “less GLCs, more SMEs” alone do not constitute alternative solutions (especially the latter).

A checklist for policy alternative desiderata might include:

  • A description of the problem to be solved
  • A statement of the proposed measures and how they solve the problems
  • A discussion of the effects of the alternatives, such as groups that benefit and groups that lose out
  • A discussion of how the policy will be financed in the long run (long term fiscal sustainability)
  • A road map with sufficient detail to establish implementability

TOChealthcareforumTraditionally, the steps have been the predominant domain of the Singapore civil service. Public officers have identified problems (through metrics or feedback), proposed solutions, discussed them and eventually rolled them out. Given any reasonable (global) benchmark, it should be acknowledged that they have been rather effective at them.

However, the Singapore public has, for the most part, been fixated on the first step, and attempts to raise comprehensive policy alternatives have received limited attention. This might be attributed to “there is a problem” being the lowest common denominator of agreement.

However, I believe that the deeper reason is that it requires very little effort to get angry and a lot more to do something about it.

When they have been put forth, comprehensive policy alternatives have had a positive impact. For example, in 2012, a detailed alternative healthcare plan presented by the Singapore Democratic Party had, at the very least, incited the population to start relooking the adequacy of their medical benefits and consider, even demand for the alternatives presented. This might have, in turn, led to discussions within the Singapore government on MediShield Life.

When a critical mass of people is engaged in discussing and developing policy alternatives, progress follows. We should resist the urge to stop at “raising awareness” and endeavour to take the next step, developing viable alternatives.

Singapore political parties logosParties, independents or both

Gang warfare and patronage are among the oldest of human institutions. In a global context, consider how internecine acrimony and the desire to “save face” by “not losing” has been the friction that has held back policy progress in nations around the world. Compounding that, note how negative externalities for the general population have been created due to patronage benefits given by political patrons to their clients.

Except on the campaign trail, there are few economies of scale associated with political parties. On the other hand, the problems associated with institutionalised internecine warfare and patronage are substantial. This leads to the question of whether political parties are desirable and whether Singapore politics should include a larger fraction of independents contesting for Parliamentary seats.

Independents do not need to toe a party line and are always free to vote by their consciences. They are also free to dynamically associate with (and dissociate from) each other for larger scale community projects or for policy development. While inter-party competition often ends up in destructive mudslinging and dirty play (e.g. “dirty ceilings” and “dirty” paperwork procedures), competition between independents arguably has a substantially greater “positive-sum” character.

The separation between independents means that there is much less to gain from tearing another independent down than from building oneself up by an equal amount. This means that competition between independents is more likely to take the form of trying to be better representatives. This is healthy.

Unfortunately, the economies of scale on the campaign trail that make it difficult for independents to contest. Party recognition is a difficult thing to get past. The First Past the Post system also makes it impossible for voters to fully state their preferences (i.e. to indicate all the candidates they believe will represent them well), which disadvantages independents.

As food for thought, Singaporeans should consider whether having more independents would make for a healthier political climate in Singapore and, if so, how the people might work to shift Parliament to have a different balance of parties and independents.