Thursday, May 28, 2009

A sizeable opposition now is an insurance policy for the future

An English friend of mine once remarked that there is a close link between the free market economy and the free marketplace of ideas. Just as the former is reliant on the unfettered exchange of goods and services and the natural forces of competition so is the latter reliant on competing viewpoints seeking attention and acceptance with the most rational or the most socially relevant (given the particular age and location) being pushed to the fore.

It is a case of survival of the fittest idea.

The quality of debate hasn't been stellar in Singapore (with the exception of signs of intelligence emerging via blogosphere). Insofar as Parliament is concerned, MPs haven't been accustomed to vigourous debate and I guess the sedate Parliamentary air can seep into the cells through some kind of osmosis and affect the logical faculties.

The Worker's Party leader Low Thia Khiang, made on Monday what I thought was a rather uncontroversial and straightforward observation about the need for greater opposition presence in Parliament to act as a check and balance on the PAP-led government. He was making the point that people would have no recourse if the ruling party were to abuse its power, trample on people's rights and become corrupt.

In response to Mr Low's assertion PAP MPs are reported to have raised some arguments. From Channelnewsasia:

"Indranee Rajah, Deputy Speaker and MP for Tanjong Pagar GRC, replied that the citizens of Singapore have the right to vote against the PAP, and said Mr Low's suggestion is unsound.

She said: "If that day ever comes, then the people are at liberty to vote out the PAP government and should do so in that situation.

"The premise of Mr Low's suggestion is flawed. He's really saying just in case PAP becomes corrupt in the future, then people had better vote for the opposition now.

"But if you apply the same logic, then the argument can also be made that if you vote in the opposition, then they may become corrupt in the future, so in order to avoid that, you might as well vote for PAP now." "

Ms Rajah's assertion (that when the PAP government does become corrupt in the future, the people of Singapore are at liberty to vote out the PAP) is rather surprising. Let us assume that we have the same power balance in Parliament in about 20 years time. Let us assume that there emerges clear evidence of corruption amongst a number of Cabinet Ministers of that future date. The people of Singapore decide to vote the PAP out of power. But, guess what. The opposition parties are weak and crippled by political impediments that currently exist and presumably would continue to exist at that later date. They are unable to field enough candidates and on nomination day the PAP gets a majority. Alternatively, the opposition parties manage to cobble together enough candidates and manage to deny PAP its majority and a coalition of opposition parties comes to power after the election. From a mere 2 MPs in Parliament, the coalition of opposition parties suddenly has let's say 50 MPs. These fresh Parliamentary faces would now have to figure out governance of the nation from scratch.

The problem with Ms Rajah's argument is that she expects to have a change in government the minute the PAP is corrupt. The presence of a sufficiently viable opposition in Parliament is so that if the existing government should become corrupt, the people have the choice of turning to an alternative that is waiting the wings and is ready and competent to govern. It is an insurance policy for the citizenry.

The reason why democratic elections present a better alternative to autocratic systems is because they allow citizens the opportunity to alter the persons exercising authority when the need arises through a stable process instead of causing a shock to the system. If a country had no elections to begin with, the only way that the citizens could alter the corrupt leadership is by popular revolution and other such drastic means. In a country that has an electoral process, the people are afforded the opportunity to replace their leaders peacefully and without placing undue stresses on the machinery of government. But, merely having the right to vote out the leaders is not going to ensure that there is no shock to the system. A key component of a viable and mature democracy is the presence of a competent and sizeable opposition in Parliament: an alternative that is waiting in the wings; one that can not only deliver peaceful change in leadership but can also govern from Day 1 (instead of coming in suddenly like a revolutionary government with popular backing but little experience and hence still constituting a shock to the system)

Ultimately, it is about having a system in place that will ensure peaceful and smooth transitions inspite of the individuals that pass through the halls of power. If citizens are to refrain from having any opposition in Parliament until something goes wrong with the PAP government, then it would be too late to attempt a complete overhaul. Such an attempt at overhaul would be equivalent to producing a revolutionary government with all the attendant potential problem that an inexperienced leadership could bring.

If in the next few elections, the opposition gets a foothold in Parliament, then in the long run they would be able to present that viable alternative to that hypothetically corrupt PAP 20 years down the road.

There is one other point to the presence of a visible and viable opposition. On the assumption that the ruling party becomes corrupt, who is to raise the issue in Parliament? Who is to exercise independant oversight? Of course, I can imagine that the retort would be that 1 opposition MP is sufficient for this purpose. Now that the PM has announced that there would be 9 opposition MPs (elected MPs and NCMPs), one could argue that these 9 could act as a check. The problem with this is that a small group of MPs would be ineffective in exposing corruption compared to a critical mass of opposition MPs.

Above all, a truly virulent Parliament that acts as the voice of the people is only possible through the diversity of views, ideas and arguments presented in public and debated vigourously. The weaker arguments will be exposed for the people to see and the more cogent ideas will come to the fore.

James Madison in the Federalist Papers once warned that when giving out political power we must bear in mind that 'enlightened statesmen will not always be at the helm'.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

A Good read from the foreword to Francis Seow's book

Only "objective" and "factual" political films please, we're Singaporeans: Lee's Betrayal of PAP and Singapore : Devan Nair

The Marxist Conspiracy of 1987 - revisiting a legal footnote

Five young activists have organized a gathering at Hong Lim Park to commemorate 21st May 1987. I’m glad to see that there are still many who recall the alleged ‘Marxist Conspiracy' of that era. I was 19 at that time and watched incredulously as a parade of tales emanated from the available media outlets.

There are so many things that we could recollect in relation to those days. Where were we? How did the news unfold? The general skepticism amongst many of us. I’d like to use this occasion to commemorate the day that our judiciary stood tall in the context of the rather limited legal role that it has in the review of executive action.

Chng Suan Tse v Minister for Home Affairs (1998) SLR 132
The case involved Operation Spectrum and the primary issue was over the court’s ability to review the Executive’s decision to detain under the Internal Security Act. It proved to be a landmark decision as the Court of Appeal chose to apply an objective test in assessing the discretion of the Executive instead of applying a purely subjective test as the courts had done in the past. Prior to this case, the position of the courts was to adopt a subjective approach as in the case of Lee Mau Seng v Minister for Home Affairs [1971] 2 MLJ 137.

What was the implication of the Chng Suan Tse decision? The Internal Security Act demands that the as a precondition to detention, the President be ‘satisfied’ as to certain matters. If the test was purely subjective as it was in Lee Mau Seng, there was little that a detainee could do to question the exercise of discretion. If the test was objective as propounded by the Court of Appeal in Chng Suan Tse, then it was possible for the court to assess at least whether objectively the President was ‘satisfied’.

The then Chief Justice, Wee Chong Jin stated in the judgment:
“In our view, the notion of a subjective or unfettered discretion is contrary to the rule of law. All power has legal limits and the rule of law demands that the courts should be able to examine the exercise of discretionary power. If therefore the executive in exercising its discretion under an Act of Parliament has exceeded the four corners within which Parliament has decided it can exercise its discretion, such an exercise of discretion would be ultra vires the Act and a court of law must be able to hold it to be so.”

It must be clear therefore that the boundaries of the decisionmaker’s jurisdiction as conferred by an Act of Parliament is a question solely for the courts to decide. There is also, as counsel for the appellant has pointed out, no ouster clause in respect of s 8 or 10 of the ISA. Adopting the objective test in respect of ss 8 and 10 of the ISA would also be consistent with arts 9(2) and 93 of the Constitution. Further, it is, in our view, no answer to refer to accountability to Parliament as an alternative safeguard. As Lord Diplock put it in R v IRC, ex p National Federation of Self-Employed and Small Businesses Ltd [1982] AC 617 at p 644:
It is not, in my view, a sufficient answer to say that judicial review of the actions of officers or departments of central government is unnecessary because they are accountable to Parliament for the way in which they carry out their functions. They are accountable to Parliament for what they do so far as regards efficiency and policy, and of that Parliament is the only judge; they are responsible to a court of justice for the lawfulness of what they do, and of that the court is the only judge

The Court went on to rule that:

"the President’s satisfaction under s 8 of the ISA and the minister’s satisfaction under s 10 of the ISA are both reviewable by a court of law as:
(1) the subjective test adopted in Karam Singh [1969] 2 MLJ 129 and its progeny can no longer be supported and the objective test is applicable upon a judicial review of the exercise of these discretions; and
(2) although a court will not question the executive’s decision as to what national security requires, the court can examine whether the executive’s decision was in fact based on national security considerations; similarly, although the court will not question whether detention was necessary for the purpose specified in s 8(1), the courts can examine whether the matters relied on by the executive fall within the scope of those specified purposes"

Of course, the story did not end there. Parliament duly amended the Internal Security Act in 1989 to nullify the effect of this case in relation to detentions under the ISA. By virtue of s.8B, the law on judicial review with regard to the ISA detentions was brought back to the position in 1971 and by virtue of s.8D the legislative change was to have effect in relation to any proceedings whether commenced before or after the amendment.

Law applicable to judicial review.
8B. —(1) Subject to the provisions of subsection (2), the law governing the judicial review of any decision made or act done in pursuance of any power conferred upon the President or the Minister by the provisions of this Act shall be the same as was applicable and declared in Singapore on the 13th day of July 1971; and no part of the law before, on or after that date of any other country in the Commonwealth relating to judicial review shall apply.
(2) There shall be no judicial review in any court of any act done or decision made by the President or the Minister under the provisions of this Act save in regard to any question relating to compliance with any procedural requirement of this Act governing such act or decision.
- Act 2/89 wef 30.1.89.

Commencement provision.8D. Sections 8A and 8B shall apply to any proceedings instituted by way of judicial review of any decision made or act done under the provisions of this Act, whether such proceedings have been instituted before or after the commencement of the Internal Security (Amendment) Act 1989.
- Act 2/89wef30.1.89.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Israelis Look to Obama for peace

It is often the case that one perceives a monolithic Israeli perspective as presented by AIPAC and other pro-Israel lobby groups in the United States. What is particularly ironic is that the press in Israel itself represents a broad spectrum of views and perspectives that one does not usually get to see through the filter of the global mainstream media.

I found the following article rather interesting for its analysis of the liberal perspective of the Israeli press.

Israelis Look For Hope In Washington
Mark Leon Goldberg - May 18, 2009 - 11:25am

As it happens, I am in Israel this week. And in Israel, all eyes are on Washington, D.C. as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visits the Obama White House for the first time. The meeting, however, has the potential to be somewhat awkward the Israeli Prime Minister has yet to endorse the "two state" solution.

Scanning the Israeli press today it is stricking to see the degree to which Israelis are depending on Obama to press Netanyahu to once and for all endorse a two-state solution. For a good chunk of the Israeli body politic, all hope lies with Obama. Ha'aretz has a three-fer of editorials today which all reinforce this same point.

The lead editorial in Ha'Aretz advises Bibi to "say 'yes' to Obama:"

Now Netanyahu must show he can set aside his ideological opposition to dividing the country and support for expanding settlements and, for the good of the state, strengthen relations with the United States and advance the peace process with the Palestinians and the Arab states.

The Israeli public expects him to adjust his political stances to international reality.

Gideon Levy calls for a "political U-turn by the prime minister," and see's the American president as Israel's "final hope."

Obama is the final hope: Only if he throws his entire weight into the process will anything in the Middle East start moving. Any American president could have long ago brought about substantial progress, first and foremost ending the intolerable Israeli occupation. But Obama's predecessors shrank from the task, preferring to yield to the Jewish and Christian lobbies and to engage in masquerades of negotiations leading nowhere.

And Zvi Bar'el says an endorsement of a two state solution

As Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu lands in Washington Sunday, he brings a valuable gift for U.S. President Barack Obama: new U.S. legitimacy in the Middle East. If Netanyahu says the right password at the White House gates - "two states for two peoples" - Obama will have his first Israeli political achievement. Then there will be no escaping attributing this ideological compromise to American pressure on Israel.

Bottom line: A nation turns its lonely eyes to you, President Obama