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Expressive Politics versus Instrumental Politics

By Chris Kuan

This refers to the on-line tit for tat between Workers’ Party’s Non-Constituency Member of Parliament, Daniel Goh, The Independent Singapore (TISG), Ariffin Sha and a host of others over Mr Goh’s objection of what he considered a xenophobic article in TISG.

From the comments the camp is divided into those who think TISG should exercise much tighter editorial control and those who think that articles, even rubbishy and xenophobic ones, should be published warts and all, usually that in the name of freedom of expression and all the nice sounding platitudes.

A friend’s comment seem to echo some of the concerns of the latter camp.

“Instead, a public furore has followed and really how will this benefit our common cause at the end of the day? The IBs and Pappies are having a good laugh and making lots of hay out of this.”

That is reasonable. However the audience is not IBs and Pappies but the middle ground voters – those who can be persuaded to vote against the PAP and “our common cause” badly needs them. The issue between the two camps lies in the two different and sometimes opposing approach to “our common cause”.

One which infer the latter camp is what the Economist’s Bagehot calls expressive politics. In the local context, this involves wrapping oneself with the symbols of such things as human rights, freedom of speech, etc, attending events and declaring positions, which means signalling things about oneself and one’s pet beliefs. It goes down well among the likeminded, perhaps too well.

The other Bagehot calls instrumental politics which infer the former camp. This involves positioning oneself to win elections so that one can wield power to change things and implement one’s ideas, even if this, in the Singapore context, require not making such a big deal about the nice platitudes of human rights, freedom of speech etc.

Expressive politics can be called idealistic and as such soothing to the soul and the mind. Instrumental politics can be called pragmatic or practical and as such higher ideals may be compromised. Expressive politics are easier to do, one don’t even feel the need to pander to practicalities like legal definition. Instrumental politics not so, for it involves making hard choices and doing ground work to win.

That Mr Goh’s post was the root of this tit for tat underlies the strand of instrumental and expressive politics among “our common cause”. His post can be read as coming from instrument politics. This is what the WP is about, be pragmatic, be practical and try to maintain and expand its toehold in Parliament if this means it is the “Wayang” or “Silent” Party on some matters (sometimes too much in my view). This of course infuriates some on the other side of the common cause who see this as betrayal of the ideals.

Not saying anyone should agree with me but given the dominance of the People’s Action Party (PAP), we need a lot of the middle ground voters to come over to “our common cause”. For that we need instrumental politics.

Bagehot was writing about the civil war that has erupted within the UK Labour Party – expressive politics pushed by its hard left activists in support of the party leader Jeremy Corbyn is now putting the UK in danger of being deprived of effective opposition with the vast majority of moderate MPs at risk of being de-selected or having to defect. This do not bode well for the indulgence in expressive politics, not least in Singapore.

I would rather do instrumental politics and be derided as traitor to high ideals, to win over the middle ground voters and give the best chance to effect change. Besides expressive politics appeal most to those already committed to vote against the PAP – that would not change much given the electoral mathematics.