It has been just over a year since I joined the Workers’ Party (WP) as an ordinary member. I must say that the past year has probably been the most exciting and eventful year of my life, and there is every indication that the year ahead will top that. Although I declared months ago in the “About Me” section of my blog that I am a WP member, this will mark my first full blog post about my involvement with the opposition.
I wasn’t always an opposition supporter. I have no history of oppositionists in my family and most of my friends and teachers from school days knew me as someone who always followed the rules and did not question authority. Many, therefore, have expressed surprise that I have taken the plunge into opposition politics.
I first got interested in current affairs during my undergraduate days at the University of Southern California in the United States in the late nineties, where I majoring in electrical engineering. Although the level of political apathy on campus was still high compared to that of previous generations of students, it was enough to help me to see that what happened in the political realm had a huge impact on everyone’s life, including my own.
I brought my interest in politics back to Singapore when I returned in 1999 to serve my National Service. Back then, I used to think that being part of the PAP government machinery was the only way to effect positive change in Singapore. This was a reason why I made a drastic career switch from my first job as an IT consultant to work in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) in 2005. It was also why I had volunteered for more than seven years as a youth leader in South West Community Development Council, which I have since resigned from.
Ironically, it was during my time in the civil service that my eyes were opened to the reality that Singapore needs a stronger opposition in order to ensure better governance for our future generations.
The civil service is generally a very well-run organisation, with many intelligent, competent and committed officers at all levels of the hierarchy. As a political desk officer in MFA, I had the privilege of interacting with a diverse array of officials—fellow policy officers, protocol officers, management support officers, permanent secretaries, ambassadors, ministers, and officers from other ministries like the Ministry of Trade and Industry and IE Singapore.
I made a number foreign visits during my stint in MFA, usually staffing ambassadors and ministers in small delegations. This gave me an opportunity to have lots of personal interaction with them and get a sense of how they thought about issues away from the glare of the media. I remember occasionally even getting into debates with them, sometimes over the PAP’s lack of commitment to democratic principles and fair play. During one such debate, over drinks on evening in a foreign capital, I recall the wife of the ambassador turning to my director and telling him, half in jest: “Don’t suppress that idealistic spark in him!”
Fortunately my director didn’t suppress my idealism, not that I displayed much of it after that—it is generally not career enhancing to have a reputation for being too idealistic in the Singapore civil service, where hard-nosed pragmatism is a prized asset. But I realised that despite its efficiency and professionalism, the civil service can only help fulfil the political objectives of the party in power. It cannot change those objectives, because it has neither the power nor the mandate to do so. Policy directions are set by politicians in the ruling party. (By policy directions, I’m referring to issues like whether or not Singapore should provide a universal social safety net for needy Singaporeans, not whether the Public Assistance grant should be $360 or $400.)
My friends in the PAP tell me that it is more effective to change Singapore from within the PAP than from outside. I believe that changes to the finer details of policies are possible from within, but fundamental changes to the way the country is governed can only come if the top echelon of leaders in the party either radically change their mind, or are replaced. Neither is about to happen anytime soon.
The pace of change from within will be too slow to meet the challenges of this fast moving world. Our country cannot afford to allow our competitors to pass us by or for our income divide to reach dangerous levels, while we wait for some senior gentlemen at the top to pass from the scene.
The need for an effective opposition
The PAP has conditioned Singaporeans to see the political opposition as a destructive force in society. They routinely accuse the opposition of “playing politics”, engaging in “unconstructive criticism” and “opposing for the sake of it”. These are very untrue and damaging characterisations.
In the United Kingdom, where we inherited the Westminster Parliamentary system from, the official title of the largest alternative party is “Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition”. This implies that the opposition opposes the government—“Her Majesty’s Government”—and its policies, but not the state, as represented by the monarch.
Even while the PAP remains in power, there is a useful role for the opposition to play. The opposition can use its platform in Parliament to apply pressure on the government to change policies which are not serving Singaporeans well. As much as the PAP wants to portray itself as impervious to public pressure, the reality is that when they know that there is a real threat to their support at the next elections, they will have to bow to public pressure built up by the opposition.
This is the beauty of genuine political competition. Just like how commercial competition forces businesses to work harder, become more efficient and provide better services to woo their customers, political competition will force the ruling party to focus more on bettering the lives of all Singaporeans in order to earn their votes.
I joined the WP because I believe Singapore needs an alternative leadership that is capable of taking over the reins and steering our country to its next level of development, should the PAP stumble. This will ensure that Singapore will continue to prosper and thrive even without the PAP in power. I believe the WP has the potential to be that alternative government in the future, and I want to play my part to contribute to its growth and development. I hope to be able to help my party sharpen its policy proposals and broaden its outreach to Singaporeans who are not usually interested in politics.
I am under no illusions that the road ahead as an opposition activist will be long and fraught with obstacles, not to mention minefields. Many who have gone before me have paid a heavy price for their ideals. Some have lost everything they had, except their dignity. All Singaporeans are heavily indebted to these heroes, whether or not they realise it.
I hope I will not have to suffer political persecution like these heroes did, but I know many things are beyond my control. I therefore ask my friends and readers for their prayers and support, as I take my first of many steps in this long march towards building a better Singapore for all Singaporeans.
Dear readers, thank you for all your kind comments and words of support. My team and I cannot fight this fight alone. We need YOU! Please click here to find out how you can join me in this cause.