By Howard Lee
When you put a panel together to discuss something as divisive as the general elections, you might expect polar disagreements on issues, especially if the panel are from different political leanings.
And while that was partly true about the forum organised by current affairs website Inconvenient Questions – comprising political analysts Derek Da Cunha and Eugene Tan, veteran journalist PN Balji, former NMP Calvin Cheng, and chaired by Viswa Sadasivan – the one common thread that all of them could agree on was that our electoral system was in real need of reforms, if we wish to secure a future political landscape that is empowers rather marginalises voters.
The panellists and a very active audience brought up many topics for discussion. There was tacit acknowledgement that the politics of fear was still at play, even as that gives way to an increasingly confident electorate. There was also a consensus that greater transparency in the electoral process, from how the Electoral Boundaries Review Committee is convened and how the imaginary lines of constituencies are determined, which has been the butt of accusations about gerrymandering.
The topics even diversified into the significance of the protest vote and what it means to have more alternative voices in Parliament. Of particular interest was how the panel and audience discussed the role of Parliament and the need to develop greater political discernment among voters, when electing their Members of Parliament.
Throughout the robust and lively debate, I couldn’t help but feel two distinctive themes of discussion developing. The first theme is that Singapore is still a long way from progressing as a mature democracy with proper systems and checks in place to ensure a level playing field for politicians across parties.
Balji noted that, in spite of the various progress made in the last two elections, such as having more Single Member Constituencies, we have not progressed much – the barriers against opposition is still high, and mainstream media are still given an unfair advantage in coverage and during cooling-off day.
Cheng opined that “fairness” was subjective, but acknowledged that more could be done to improve the transparency in terms of how the EBRC made its decisions. The panel, nevertheless, felt that such transparency will go some way towards making the Committee, whatever its representation, more accountable to the electorate.
“We need to move away from a system where the ruling party has tremendous say,” said Tan, so that society can have a sense of fairness and do not feel marginalised.
The second theme that surfaced was the sense that a lot more needs to be done by politicians to engage Singaporeans to become more discerning voters who are active participants in the democratic process. Of particular interest was the concept of how politics might devolve into a showmanship contest, presumably evident in other mature democracies.
However, one participant noted that “voters hear with our eyes and think with our hearts”, and the changing political landscape with a younger electorate would mean that politicians need to mix both the bread and butter issues with the aspirational or “heart” issues that matter to citizens.
Indeed, Sadasivan opined that he was not against political personalities, to the extent that voters get to understand where they stand on certain issues. While the panel conceded that it was difficult to judge a politician’s character, a lot more can and should be done by politicians to help citizens assess both their aptitude and attitude.
“I want to know what their one big idea is,” said Balji, who felt that would-be candidates need to step up their game to show that they have what it takes to bring Singapore forward into the future.
As such, the audience felt that the nine days of campaigning was insufficient for citizens to get to know the people they are supposed to elect as MPs, and while a longer period between the Notice of Election and Polling Day would be useful, nothing beats having politicians voice out more every day.
Also, having live debates between candidates, particularly municipal ones where residents can get to better interact face-to-face with their MP-elects, or smaller sessions by independent media outlets, would go some way to better profile politicians and make citizens feel they are not just voting in a monolithic party.
If this IQ session was to be representative of some of the prevailing thoughts of political observers and citizens alike, my sense is that for both the themes identified, it will take more than the coming GE to resolve the nagging issues that are blocking Singapore from becoming a vibrant democracy.
Political unfairness is a long-entrenched mindset – some would even call it a meritocratic ideal instituted by the PAP – that the ruling party clearly has the means to undo. This is not only because it might be politically savvy for them to do so in the face of a stronger opposition, which risk them someday becoming the opposition. They have to take these steps because an increasingly discerning polity needs to grow beyond partisan politics and have more faith in a democracy they can call their own.
In this respect, I found the parting words of two of the panellists to be particularly enlightening in pointing the way forward.
Tan said that, no matter what the next election might deliver, he hopes Parliament would become the centre of politics in Singapore, where Singaporeans take a keen interest in policy debates. I surmised that he felt this would also then encourage MPs to rise to the challenge.
Balji then added that the concept of check and balance – a concept that opposition parties are now inclined to use against the PAP – should be extended outside of Parliament to media, think tanks, academia and civil society. I surmised that he felt this would go beyond making the vote the be-all and end-all in political participation.
Both ideals move beyond the spectacle of political show-and-tell, and puts true ownership of how we want our country to be run back into the hands of citizens.
If we are able to achieve these two ideals – or even start working towards them as part of our approach to the coming GE – Singapore might begin to have the first world democracy to match its much touted first world economy.