by Constance Singam
The other day I was at the AWARE forum on “Poverty has a women’s face”. I noticed as I have in the past few years the increasing number of young people who attend forums, discussions and raise questions about issues of concern.
Some of the questions that come up inevitably are “so what can we do”, “what can we do beyond just attending these forums?” The answer to that should be ‘get involved in the political process’ but that is the elephant in the room that nobody wants to talk about.
The more critical question to address, I think, is “What does it mean to be a citizen”? “What is my responsibility as a citizen?” Do I have the courage to do what is necessary to work towards a Singapore that I want to see?
The recent excitement generated by Pakatan Harapan and the involvement of civil society in political change in Malaysia has led some to ask about our own civil society and its capacity for action.
Skeptics will say our capacity for action is limited. But much as we may feel fearful, powerless and trapped in our uniquely Singapore system, we are not entirely without hope and scope for action.
One way to force changes in policies is via the ballot box. We did it in the 2011 General Election. And we can do it again.
The most important lesson we learnt in 2011 was that by voting for the opposition parties, we forced the government to make many policy changes, such as the introduction of the Pioneer package and changes in HDB policies.
Our vote is a very powerful democratic tool that we have as citizens. The PAP is dependent ultimately on the support of Singaporeans, and if enough voters signal their unhappiness with the PAP’s policies by voting for the opposition, the Men in White will have to respond.
What is stopping us from offering our support to opposition parties?
Some still fear that the ballot is not secret. I am embarrassed to confess that I succumbed to this irrational and idiotic fear one year and played safe and voted for the PAP.
The truth though is that it is logically and logistically impossible to determine how each Singaporean casts his/her vote. There are independent observers and opposition party members who closely monitor the counting of the ballots. There is no way anyone can work out who voted for whom.
Do we not vote for opposition candidates because we believe them to be less capable than the PAP candidates? This is what the PAP would like us to believe, and for a time there may have been some truth to this.
But in recent years we have seen a growing number of intelligent, credible and capable people joining the opposition parties and standing for election. These are men and women who easily match, and often surpass, the qualities of the average PAP candidate. They deserve to be taken seriously, and to be given a chance to be our representatives in Parliament.
Reading what people say in letters to the media and in their posts on social media, and listening to the questions people ask at forums, it is clear that many Singaporeans want change. Not change for the sake of change but because they genuinely feel a need for a bolder, fresher vision of the kind of Singapore we want. They are tired of being talked down to, of what is often a mercenary, contractual approach to the relationship between the state and its citizens. They worry too about the lack of vision, a lack of imagination on the part of a new generation of leaders about our future.
So how we do get the changes that we want? Well, we can try to convince the PAP that they need to listen to us. Another round of national ‘conversations’ has been promised (or threatened), and those of us who get a chance to participate in these can speak up and try to get out point across. But I can’t say that I am confident that we will be heard.
Or we can make the effort to pay closer attention to what the opposition parties are saying, and make our own assessments of the qualities and capabilities of the opposition candidates when the next GE takes place, and give them our vote. The key to having a counter-balance is in the hands of the citizens. It is up to us to use the key, to exercise our power at the ballot box.
Freedom to debate and to dissent is indispensable to good governance and for a democracy to function effectively, we need a diversity of voices in Parliament and a counter-balance to the government in power.
This was first published at Constance Singam's blog and reproduced with permission.