Whither democracy?

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At WP Youth Wing’s Youth Hangouts yesterday, we discussed the topic of democracy. We had a very encouraging turnout from mostly polytechnic and university students. Diverse views were shared but we all agreed that the objective of democracy, or any political system, must be to improve the welfare and happiness of citizens, not to pursue some esoteric ideological objective. I observed that increased political competition, with more opposition MPs in Parliament, gives citizens greater “bargaining power” over the government. This was clearly evident after 2011 when the number of WP MPs increased more than four-fold: the PAP government introduced an unprecedented raft of social welfare policies to win back the support of the people.

We discussed recent statements coming from government affiliates that Singapore may be more efficient as a one-party dominant state, that internal contestation within the ruling party suffices and that Singapore’s “unique” circumstances necessitate practices that deviate from democratic norms.

I shared my views about the oft-raised spectre of “gridlock” should there be too much political competition. Gridlock, whereby legislation cannot get passed, can only happen if (1) neither party has a majority in parliament and (2) the parties are working solely in pursuit of partisan interests rather than the good of the country. Singapore’s parliament currently has a super majority of government MPs: 83 PAP vs 9 WP, with 9 NMPs (who are technically “politically-neutral” but almost always vote with the PAP). Most laws require only a simple majority (i.e., currently 51 MPs) to pass. Even if WP were to win one or two more GRCs in the next elections, we would have only 14 MPs — hardly enough to even block constitutional amendments (which require a two-thirds majority).

On the second point, one participant asked me: If one day the opposition were to make significant gains in numbers, would we cause gridlock? I could not say with absolute certainly that there won’t be gridlock but WP’s track record as a parliamentary opposition is that we have supported all legislation that improves the welfare of the people, and only opposed bills that were, in our opinion, designed to give the incumbent regime a partisan advantage. In any case, not all obstruction of legislation is necessarily bad. If there is a sinister piece of legislation that hurts Singaporeans, wouldn’t you want your MP to oppose it?

Nevertheless, I emphasised that it is important that voters choose only high-quality MPs at elections, and do not simply cast protest votes.

I also shared about the importance of having strong and independent institutions, a diverse and independent media and a valid system of checks and balances on the government. In good times, it’s easy to overlook their importance. However, should the governing elites turn rogue, can we confidently say that our current institutions will be able to stand up to power and say “no”, like they do in more developed democracies?

Another question from a participant that stood out to me was: If things are going well now, why should I care about the composition of parliament and the state of our democracy? My answer was that political institutions and political parties cannot be built overnight. We will rue the day if the current governing party were to lose the confidence of the people and a group of political greenhorns or a populist demagogue were to top the polls and take over the reins of government. Much better to start building up the capacity and capability of a credible opposition party now, than to scramble when it’s too late.

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