HDB should be neutral and stop playing politics

The HDB should stop letting itself become a political tool of the ruling PAP.

I am glad to learn that the opposition held wards of Hougang and Potong Pasir will finally be getting lift upgrading for their HDB blocks. This is a long overdue measure for the residents of the two constituencies, which have been strongholds of the opposition since 1991 and 1984 respectively.

Singaporeans will recall that on the eve of the polling day in 1997, then-Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong warned voters that opposition estates risked becoming “slums” if they continued voting out the PAP. Thus started a pattern of Third World pork barrel politics of the ruling PAP, which culminated in the 2006 election when PAP candidates Eric Low and Sitoh Yih Pin boasted that caretaker National Development Minister Mah Bow Tan had promised the two wards a total of $180 million for upgrading if residents voted for the PAP.

Fortunately, voters were too sophisticated and principled to fall for the PAP’s dirty tactics of using taxpayer money to advance their partisan political ends. Hougang and Potong Pasir voters proved that they could not be so easily swayed by money and election goodies by re-electing Mr Low Thia Khiang (Workers’ Party) and Mr Chiam See Tong (Singapore Democratic Alliance), the former with a record high winning margin.

Continue reading “HDB should be neutral and stop playing politics”

Revamp the role of MPs to attract potential ministers

The Straits Times did an Insight piece about PAP MP Hri Kumar’s controversial proposal of having nominated (non-elected) ministers. They quoted some comments I made on my previous blog post:

For administrative aspects, there are already people like the permanent secretaries heading the various ministries, he notes.

The view is shared by IT consultant Gerald Giam, a founding member of the socio-political blog The Online Citizen.

He writes on his blog that ministers need to have the common touch; they need to be people who can empathise with ordinary Singaporeans.

‘If we open the doors to this segment of society to lead us, we will be fishing from the wrong pond. We will, in the long run, attract the wrong sort of people to lead our country – people with a different set of values and motivations,’ he says.

Mr Giam, Mr Siew and Dr Tan all say that a parallel cannot be drawn between Singapore’s parliamentary system and the presidential system in the United States, where the Cabinet is made up of people who are appointed, not elected.

Some friends have expressed to me publicly and privately that they in principle support the idea of non-elected ministers because some ministries (e.g., finance) need “technocratic minds”. However, I still maintain my disagreement with the idea.

Continue reading “Revamp the role of MPs to attract potential ministers”

ST Forum: Political changes must win over younger citizens

This is an excellently argued letter by Mr Michael Wee from today’s Straits Times, which deserves to be repeated here.

Political changes must win over younger citizens

Straits Times forum, 21 May 2009

TUESDAY’S report, ‘New strategies for a new world order’, on the President’s speech to Parliament hinted at what might be, to some, political liberalisation.

Given past precedents, any change made to Singapore’s political system will certainly be implemented with caution.

Such changes must be sufficient to overturn the cynicism of younger voters who want greater involvement and participation in the political process.

Where parliamentary politics are concerned, the best litmus test for any reform to the current group representation constituency system is its ability to elect a Parliament whose composition more closely reflects political parties’ percentage of votes.

Based on the last general election, the Workers’ Party garnered 16.34 per cent of the votes, but it holds only one of 84 seats in Parliament.

In Britain, which also uses a similar first-past-the-post system, the opposition Conservative Party holds roughly 31 per cent of parliamentary seats, which reflects the 32.3 per cent of the popular vote the party obtained.

Ambiguous or seemingly half-hearted attempts at reform will only further increase scepticism.

The People’s Action Party (PAP) should accept the possibility of greater opposition party involvement and acknowledge that other parties can also bring in a fresh generation of political leaders in their own right.

If the PAP can still be elected with the same resounding confidence even after meaningful reforms to the political system, it will certainly win over more fully the younger generation of voters.

Michael Wee

New polling districts announced

From the Straits Times (Feb 18th):

A DAY after the announcement that the register of voters will be updated, the Government Gazette has now revealed that changes have been made to polling districts.

The latest change – which is to ensure that each polling district has the optimal number of voters – was set out in a 144-page notification on Wednesday in the electronic version of the Government Gazette.

In the previous three general elections, the time-lag between the release of changes to polling districts and the release of the Electoral Boundaries Report has ranged from 19 days for the 2001 election, to six months for the January 1997 election.

The general election followed after the boundaries report.

View the Government Gazette announcement here.

Parliament reports: More bloggers needed

On 6 Feb, I took half day leave from work to attend Parliament while the Committee of Supply (COS) debate was going on. Earlier that week, I had posted on my Facebook status: “Gerald taking leave to attend the Committee of Supply debate in Parliament this week”.

A certain NMP-cum-blogger (whom I won’t name ;-)  commented, “You’re gonna be kinda bored”.

It turned out to be quite interesting actually, though not quite as interesting as the day that this NMP and Opposition leader Low Thia Khiang were sparring with PAP MPs over the Jobs Credit Scheme.

I sat through about 5 1/2 hours of “debates” — or rather 5 hours of prepared speeches and half an hour of actual Q&A. There are lots of interesting things that happen in Parliament that do not get reported in the media. My report is here. Koh Choong Yong has his own account here, which inspired me to blog about my own informal observations.

During the COS debate, backbencher MPs (i.e., those who are not Ministers) get only 1-5 minutes to ask their questions. The Ministers get 45 minutes to 1 hour to respond! And their responses are always long speeches prepared by their civil servants, delving into the history of the policy and how wonderfully it has worked for Singapore, but usually giving short shrift to the question that the MP asked.

The more interesting parts are the Supplementary Questions that take place at the end of the debate for each Ministry. These are additional questions that the MPs can pose to the Minister in response to the answer he had given. On the day I attended, Grace Fu, the Senior Minister of State for National Development, failed to answer a question by Low Thia Khiang (WP-Hougang) about why Hougang Town Council wasn’t given ample warning before blocks of flats in Hougang were torn down. In her fluster to justify herself after Mr Low asked his Supplementary Question, Ms Fu blurted out that her ministry doesn’t even know 7 months in advance of redevelopment plans.

I’m sure this didn’t get reported in the mainstream media, and I suspect that will be expunged from the Hansard — the official Parliamentary report. But I heard it and I jotted it down immediately.

It’s also interesting to observe the behaviour of MPs. The Chinese-speaking MPs always take a full bow to the Speaker when they enter or exit, while the more “kentang” ones (i.e., those with a more Western outlook) sometimes just nod their heads.

After the mid-session break, I requested for a seat in the gallery behind the Cabinet ministers, as I was previously sitting on the other side. This was when I noticed that one minister walked in with a lot of reading material. He proceeded to read them while the MPs were making their speeches. The words on his paper were so large that those in the gallery could have probably read it with the help of a pair of binoculars. From the paragraphing, it looked like a policy paper, but it didn’t have single words stamped on the header and footer (i.e., “CONFIDENTIAL” or “SECRET”). In any case, even if I read it (which I didn’t), I couldn’t reveal it as that would be a violation of the Official Secrets Act. I think our Ministers should be a bit more discreet about displaying their reading material.

One thing I still don’t understand is how votes take place in Parliament. Typically the Speaker will pose to the Members, “All in favour say ‘aye’…all opposed say ‘nay'”. Then without anyone raising their hand, the Speaker immediately announces, “I think the ‘aye’s have it, the ‘aye’s have it.”

Huh? Maybe MPs indicate their ‘aye’ with a wink to the Speaker. Or maybe there’s some electronic voting system that I can’t see. (I didn’t see any buttons or wires.) In any case, I think it would be good if the votes of the MPs be published, so that citizens can scrutinize them for their voting records, as is done in other democracies like the US.

I hope more bloggers would take a trip down to Parliament during future sittings. There’s much more than meets the eye than what you read in the papers or watch on TV. Perhaps we should have a bloggers’ roster for Parliament sittings, so as to get maximum coverage for the benefit of all Singaporeans. ;-)

Is Singapore ready for a non-Chinese PM?

This is an article sent by a friend of mine to the Straits Times, which they declined to publish.

———–

15 November 2008

Is Singapore ready for a non-Chinese PM? Why or Why not? What do you think is holding us back?

I’m 61 years old and I still remember very clearly. At that time (60s/70s/80s) there were no extra efforts required to get the various races to mix and be friends with each other, whether in school or in the neighborhood.  Even while I was serving in the SAF, we did not need to be told who we should visit and when.  We were never made to realize who is a Chinese, Malay or Indian.  We were just friends and never thought of the race issue.  Why?  Was it our school system?  Was it our parents?  Was it the manner in which the government delivered the multi-racial, multi-religious message to us?

Why is it that after 43 years of nation building we have to be constantly reminded who we are (i.e., Malays, Chinese or Indians).  This is still clearly stated in our Identity Cards.  The authorities need to make sure that there is a balance in every aspect of life in Singapore; from racial balance in housing estates to the GRCs.  When the festivals come we need to be told that we should visit each other and find out more about each others’ cultures.  We even need to have an interreligious and harmony day in school and at various national levels.  We need to organize visits to each others’ festivals.  What will it be next?  How have we come to this?  Why have we come to this?  These I believe are the core issues

That is why I feel that it will not be made to happen…..never on its own, surely not by design anyway.  It is not going to happen in my lifetime for sure.  I feel that we need to find answers to the simple questions and correct what is going wrong.  Why we cannot go back to the 1960s and 1970s, with regards to racial and religious harmony?  When will we be told that we are Singaporeans.  What are we doing wrong?  How can we correct this?  Then, we can ask the question, “Is Singapore ready for a prime minister who is not Chinese?”

Just because it has happened in the USA it does not mean that we need to find answers to the same question.  I feel that the question is too early for its time.  I fail to understand the purpose of it.  Is it just another rouse, to make us imagine that there is some possibility however remote it might be?  Let’s not kid ourselves.  The majority will continue to rule; however the socioeconomic and geopolitical dynamics will help to maintain its own checks and balances.

My answer would therefore be a clear NO!!

Ajit Singh Nagpal

AIMS report shows the way forward

The government-appointed Advisory Council on the Impact of New Media on Society (AIMS) released its long awaited report this morning.

Firstly, I would like to publicly commend Mr Cheong Yip Seng, the AIMS committee and its secretariat for a very well-researched, well-thought through and balanced report, and for the very consultative approach they had taken throughout the past 18-months.

When I first heard about AIMS when it was first launched, I thought to myself, “That’s it, now the government is going to use this committee to justify their clamping down on the Internet.”

I’m glad AIMS has proven me wrong. Although I still feel they have been a tad too conservative politically, I think their proposals, particularly the ones on political content can be said to be “one small step for the government, one giant leap for Singapore”.

The AIMS report can be viewed at www.aims.org.sg. The committee proposed the eventual repeal of Section 33 of the Films Act, which bans party political films, and recommended tightened disclosure requirements for Section 35, which currently gives “the Minister” the right to ban any film that he deems to be against the public interest. This is a bold step forward, which I hope the Government will accept. In fact, I hope they go one step further to repeal both those laws.

The AIMS report also contained unedited letters from the public and corporations in response to its consultation paper. I was quite amused how many members of the public appeared to have overreacted to AIMS’ proposed liberalisations. Many letters focused on how liberalisation will lead to an erosion of morals.

Let me say that as a Christian, and a professed social conservative, I am the last one who would want to see any erosion of our nation’s moral fabric. However I agreed with AIMS that, with respect to the Internet, education will serve as a better safeguard of morals than regulation. The thrust of AIMS’ proposed liberalisations are actually in the political sphere. In this aspect, I am strongly in favour of liberalisation, because our country is lagging far behind our peers in the developed world.

It will take me a while to go through the 224 page report to give my comments. But in the meanwhile, the following is my feedback to AIMS’ consultation paper released a few months back. Since the final report is quite similar to the consultation paper, many of my comments still apply to this report.

————-

23 September 2008

Mr Cheong Yip Seng
Chairman
Advisory Council on the Impact of New Media on Society

FEEDBACK TO AIMS’ CONSULTATION PAPER

1 On 29 August 2008, the Advisory Council on the Impact of New Media on Society (AIMS) released a consultation paper to gather feedback from the public on its proposed recommendations to the Singapore Government on engaging new media.

2 This paper is my feedback to AIMS’ consultation paper. They are my personal opinions and do not necessarily represent the views of any groups or organisations that I am affiliated with.

3 The responses are grouped according to the chapters in AIMS’ consultation paper.

Chapter 1: E-engagement

4 There needs to be a paradigm shift in the Government’s thinking regarding e-engagement. As a general approach, instead of pouring money and resources into only building its own online platforms (e.g., REACH portal), where it tends to only preach to the choir, the Government should venture out to engage the “unconverted” on the latter’s turf. This was rightly pointed out in AIMS’ paper.

5 The Government may need to be selective about which areas it ventures into. The vast majority of bloggers who do not write about political issues would not appreciate it if a government official posts a comment “correcting” them for inaccuracies in their blog postings. However there are a few serious political bloggers who would appreciate a response to their ideas and suggestions, even if it comes in the form of a robust rebuttal from the Government.

6 Government representatives could respond by posting a comment on a blog post, or contributing full article response to the same blog. Serious blogs would be happy to grant the right of reply to the Government or any other party.

7 It would be preferred if politicians and government officials engage in their “personal” capacities — meaning there is no need to parade one’s full designations, titles and ministries when posting a simple comment on a blog. Blogosphere is an egalitarian society where the quality of one’s ideas counts more than the titles one carries.

8 Civil servants should be allowed to comment on policy matters outside the purview of their ministries, as long as they do so in their personal capacity and they do not divulge classified information. They should not be required to seek their permanent secretaries’ approval before speaking or writing to the media (including online media) on matters that does not directly concern their ministry.

9 The Information Ministry is already actively monitoring blogs and Internet forums. The Government should acknowledge some of the good ideas that are generated online, instead of constantly implying that serious political discussion is absent from the Internet.

10 E-engagement, if executed selectively and sensitively, could cause bloggers to be slightly more circumspect in expressing themselves on their blogs. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Internet experts have highlighted that “people are more polite when they know you are listening” .

11 The Government should consider issuing press releases, releasing embargoed papers or speeches to citizen journalists, and inviting citizen journalists to cover press conferences and official events. Credible socio-political blogs could be issued press passes like the Malaysian government did for Malaysiakini and other online media.

12 This is a good way to encourage citizen journalists to firstly, report rather than simply comment from a distance; and secondly, to provide fairer and more balanced coverage.

13 Ministers and senior officials should not be reticent in granting interviews with credible online media if asked.

Chapter 2: Online Political Content

14 Section 33 of the Films Act, which bans “party political films” outright, is an ill-conceived and unnecessary law. Various arguments have been put forward by the Government in support of the law. Most centre around the possibility of a “freak election” result due to a “scurrilous” video being released a few days before Polling Day.

15 There is no evidence anywhere in the world of an freak election result simply due to a false and malicious video being released in the last few days of campaigning.

16 Any falsehoods or misrepresentations can be dealt with using the existing Penal Code, Sedition Act or Defamation Act. Furthermore, with its unfettered access to the mainstream media, the Government can easily refute any false allegations, even if they are made at the eleventh hour.

17 The goal of keeping election costs down can continue to be achieved by current election laws which limit the amount a candidate is allowed to spend on each voter.

18 In addition, the Parliamentary Elections Act could be amended to require any party political films to clearly state the sponsor of the video, as is required in the US, Australia and other developed countries. This will provide viewers a frame of reference to judge the partisan nature of the video.

19 Most importantly, we should not underestimate Singaporean voters’ ability to discern what is true and what is false and malicious.

20 AIMS has proposed a compromise “blackout period” whereby no new political videos can be released during the election period. A blackout period will take things back almost to square one. It will hamper political parties’ ability to communicate with the electorate during the most critical period when voters are making up their minds.

21 Even if there is a blackout period or if Section 33 remains on the statute books in its entirety, there is nothing stopping someone from uploading a “scurrilous” video to YouTube (or any of the dozens of video sharing sites). The fact that it is “prohibited content” would make it even more attractive to watch.

22 While I applaud AIMS’ attempt to push the boundaries by proposing a relook, and possible repeal of the law, I believe that anything short of a complete repeal of Section 33 of the Films Act would be disappointing to many thinking Singaporeans.

23 Separately, Section 35 of the Films Act (Minister may prohibit possession or distribution of any film) should be also be repealed. This is an omnibus law which gives the Minister absolute discretion in banning a film. If left in place, it would render any repeal of Section 33 meaningless. It should be noted that Section 15 (Prohibition and approval of films for exhibition) already empowers the Board of Film Censors to ban films.

24 I fully agree with AIMS recommendations regarding Internet election advertising and removal of the registration requirement in the Internet Class License Scheme.

25 In addition, election candidates and political parties should be allowed to solicit and accept donations over the Internet without overly stringent requirements to verify the identity of donors.

Chapter 3: Protection of Minors

26 Requiring ISPs to provide filtering in the form of Family Access Networks (FAN) on an opt-out basis is better than nothing. However FAN could give a false sense of security to parents who think that filtering provided by ISPs is going to filter out all undesirable content.

27 In fact, FAN cannot filter out a very large portion of undesirable content. At the same time, it could end up filtering content that the adults in the family may wish to view. For example, adults doing research on terrorism, drug abuse or gay issues could encounter blocked pages when using FAN.

28 It is much more effective to encourage parents to install Internet content filtering software on their home PCs . While PC-based filters do not filter out everything, they provides several advantages over FAN:

a. Access logging. Parents can view all the websites that their children access by checking the logs recorded by the software. If the child knows his parents are monitoring what he is surfing, he is much less likely to access sites he knows are out of bounds to him. Some software packages are able to email the daily log reports to parents.

b. Designating access time. Most filtering software allows parents to set the time in which the Internet can be accessed.

c. Auto lock out. The software can be configured to automatically block Internet access to the child if undesirable websites are accessed too many times.

d. Turning off filtering for adults. Parents (who have the password) can turn off filtering and logging so that they themselves can have full access to the Internet.

29 All this requires training for the parents. For parents who are IT savvy enough or are willing to learn, this provides the best method of regulating children’s access to the Internet and preventing them from accessing undesirable material.

30 For other non-IT savvy parents (who make up the vast majority of parents), there needs to be a concerted programme of parental education and awareness building.

Chapter 4: Intermediary Liabilities

31 I fully support AIMS recommendations in Chapter 4.

Summary

32 The following is a summary of my proposals:

a. Engage Netizens on their turf, not the Government’s.
b. Issue press passes and press releases to serious socio-political websites.
c. Allow civil servants to blog about policy issues.
d. Allow online political donations.
e. Completely repeal Sections 33 and 35 of the Films Act.
f. Encourage parents to install filtering software on their home PCs.
g. Educate parents on the use of such software.

33 I hope AIMS will consider these proposals in its final report to the Government

* * * * *

Submitted by:
Gerald Giam

Having a capable alternative party is in the national interest

Voices Editor
TODAY newspaper

Dear Editor,

I refer to the report, “Adversarial two-party system not for S’pore” (TODAY, November 17). Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong felt that the two party system cannot work for Singapore and that we are much better off with one dominant party.

Mr Lee’s familiar argument is that because we are small and lack talent, if we split our talent into two groups, we will end up with “two second division teams”. This is akin to saying that it is better to put all our eggs in one basket, than to have two baskets with fewer eggs each.

I disagree.

While few would argue that the PAP has performed commendably over the past 40 years, past performance is no guarantee of future success, as investment advisors always caution.

Mr Lee said that if ever the PAP becomes ineffective or corrupt, many opposition parties will spring up to take on the Government.

Therein lies the danger: If the PAP ever becomes corrupt, there will be absolutely no time for a viable alternative party to suddenly “spring up”, since political organisations take years to build up credibility. Furthermore, a corrupt government with firm controls on the levers of power will tend to use that power to entrench itself, stifling any potential opposition from arising. This is because their corrupt leaders will know full well that they will face prosecution if anyone else takes over the government.

Singapore may then be left in a disastrous situation of having a bad government with no capable alternatives.

For a small city-state like Singapore with little margin for error in governance, this could spell an unrecoverable decline leading to our very obsolescence as a nation.

It is therefore in the national interest for a well-organised, competent and morally upright alternative party to emerge, so that should the PAP falter, there will another party to take over the reins of government at the next elections and ensure that our country continues to prosper with interruption.

Obviously I do not expect support for an effective alternative party to come from the PAP, since it goes against its partisan interests.

However, I hope more Singaporeans will realise that greater political competition can produce not just better governance now, but improved stability for our future as well.

Regards,
Gerald Giam

This was published on 19 Nov 08 in TODAY.

Minority PM issue: Let’s drop this ‘not ready’ nonsense

I’ve been following with interest the debate about the issue of having a Prime Minister coming from a minority ethnic group.

For me personally, the issue is quite black and white: I would vote for a leader based on the merit of his ideas, values and leadership qualities. But if it is a choice between two equally good candidates, one Chinese and the other from a minority race, I would likely vote for the minority because I feel it would reflect well on us as a colour-blind nation.

Some time back, I asked an older Chinese Singaporean if she would vote for a non-Chinese PM. She simply stated that whoever is PM would tend to champion the rights of his own race over other races. Whether this was her realist assessment or her personal prejudice, I don’t know. But I suspect it is indicative of the way a lot of people — and not just Singaporeans — think: If I’m from the majority race, a PM from my race will defend the rights of all Singaporeans, but a PM from other races will only take care of ‘his own people’.

Put another way, we the majority race always treat other races equally, but minorities only defend their own kind. This is flawed and self-righteous thinking.

Who is to say that a Chinese PM will not champion the rights of Chinese over other races? Many would argue that this is already happening. The discrimination of Malays in the armed forces and the disproportionate resources pumped into mono-ethnic SAP schools are prime examples.

Ultimately I am persuaded that it is not Singaporeans who don’t want a non-Chinese PM, but the PAP leadership which chooses their Secretary-General.

The fear of the opposition

I happened to sit next to an older relative at a wedding dinner recently, when our conversation turned to politics.

My relative wondered why I had not followed my parents to Australia, and mused that he was considering moving there too. When I asked why, he cited the fear of political instability in Singapore.

That remark surprised me since Singapore is seen by many to be one of the most politically stable countries in Asia. We have had no change of government – violent or otherwise – since 1959.

When probed further, my uncle said he feared the opposition taking over in a freak election. I assured him that given the current state of the opposition, the PAP government will not be under any threat of losing an election within his lifetime. More importantly, I told him I trust Singapore voters to be wise enough not to vote a lousy party into power.

He countered by pointing out that even when the opposition had fielded “criminals” and slipper-wearing candidates, they were still able to garner 20 to 30% of the vote.

I explained, from my limited knowledge of electoral sociology, that in every election, there will be at least 20% of voters who are hardcore oppositionists and will vote for anyone who ran against the ruling party candidate. In Sembawang GRC where I live, 23% still voted for the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) team sans party chief Chee Soon Juan, even though it was running against a relatively strong PAP team helmed by the likable and Chinese-speaking Health Minister, Khaw Boon Wan. That was the largest margin of victory for the PAP in that election.

However the gulf between 23% and 50% — the latter being the percentage necessary to win a seat outright — is huge. Even in the most closely contested constituency of Aljunied GRC in the 2006 General Election, the PAP’s 55% win against the Workers’ Party would be considered a landslide in most other democracies. Consider the UK’s Labour Party, which won the 2005 election with just 35% of the popular vote. Put in this perspective, the PAP’s 66.6% overall percentage in 2006 was a blowout victory.

My uncle admires the PAP for what they have achieved, not just for Singapore, but for him personally. Growing up in a one-room flat, and now living in a private apartment, he has seen a dramatic improvement in his standard of living over the past 40 years. He reserved stinging criticism for some of his peers who “live in bungalows” and are still so ungrateful as to grumble about the government.

I cautioned him that past performance is no guarantee of future success, as investors always say. Just because the PAP has governed well in the past, does not mean that it will continue to do so for eternity. My uncle agreed that no country has had a particular party govern forever.

In the short term however, he was supremely confident that the PAP’s recruitment process will ensure that only top-notch candidates are presented in each election. In contrast, he said, the opposition was happy to take anyone who had a degree and was willing to pay the election deposit, even if they had no “track record”.

“What is your definition of a track record?” I asked him. Many of the new PAP MPs don’t exactly have a very long resume either. Nevertheless, he was sure that with the many interviews they had undergone with party leaders, coupled with the background checks, PAP candidates would definitely meet the necessary criteria for political leadership.

I asked him if he would consider voting for a non-PAP candidate if he or she were more “qualified” than the PAP candidate.

After initially saying he would, he later reasoned that it would be impossible for an opposition candidate to be as qualified as his PAP opponent. Firstly, the PAP’s recruitment process would throw up only the best men in the country. Secondly, anyone worth their salt, who genuinely desired to serve the people and make Singapore a better place would join the PAP instead of the opposition.

He was of the view that a capable person would be “out of his mind” to join the opposition, and that people who joined the opposition did so only out of self-interest or ulterior motives. Why else would someone want to oppose such an “excellent” government? Apparently, joining the opposition in and of itself indicated a character flaw.

He dismissed the possibility that some principled individuals joined the opposition because they could not see themselves joining the PAP due to fundamental disagreements with the latter’s style of governance. He also did not see the price many opposition members paid for their political beliefs as worthy of much respect.

Our heated discussion went on and on. In the end it was time to go home and we had to agree to disagree.

What the opposition fails to see

While I was slightly dismayed to hear these words from an educated senior citizen like my uncle, I have no doubt that he represents a significant constituency of citizens who have a “rags-to-riches” story to tell.

His point of view is particularly instructive for our opposition.

From my past conversations with many opposition members, I get the sense that many of them joined because they felt a need to “check” the ruling party — nothing else. And many of them think that just because they are not the PAP, and they shake a few hands and show up on Nomination Day, voters will choose them over their rivals.

This is a recipe for defeat — again and again, election after election.

What they fail to see is that the “swing” voters (i.e., those who may vote either way on Polling Day and who effectively decide the outcome of an election) are largely voting for a party to form the Government, not individuals who merely snap at the heels of the PAP behemoth.

Therefore, to win their vote, the opposition parties have to prove to these voters that they are competent and honest enough to lead the whole country, not just their ward, and will not end up flushing half a century of progress down the drain.

The opposition has two crutches that it always falls back on: One, that the unlevel political playing field created by the PAP makes it impossible to mount any significant challenge to it; and two, that good people do not step forward to join their parties.

These are both true to a great extent, but it should not stop the opposition parties from improving themselves internally, so as to present a more professional face to the voting public.

People want to hear different, and better ideas from the opposition on how to run the country, not just gripes about every little fault of the PAP.

It is not unusual that many Singaporeans hold the opposition to a higher standard than they do for the ruling party. After all, the opposition has no track record of successfully running a nation, and therefore has to prove they are twice as good as their PAP opponents before they will earn the vote.

It is my hope that our opposition will shift to a higher gear soon, and that more good men and women will join them. The next election is due by November 2011. With the economy heading south, it is likely that the Prime Minister will call for an election much earlier than that (since a poor economy generally favours the PAP over the opposition).

Time is running out, and the people’s hopes are slowly getting dashed. Can the opposition turn things around and dispel people’s fear of their success?

This article was first published on The Online Citizen.