Saturday, April 30, 2011

Ministerial Responsibility, the PAP and the General Elections

We are in a rather curious position in Singapore whereby the General Elections this year could become a referendum on the performance of individual Ministers.

There exists in Commonwealth countries and more particularly in the United Kingdom, the convention of Ministerial Responsibility. The basic premise of the convention is that Ministers are individually accountable to Parliament for their personal conduct, the policies they device and the failures of their respective Ministries. This accountability manifests itself in the form of Parliamentary scrutiny and questioning and often calls for Ministers to demonstrate such responsibility and accountability by resigning from their posts. This would often depend on the severiity of the Ministerial failing.

Three ministers in Singapore could be said to be in line to be held accountable for policy failings or mismanagement: Wong Kan Seng, Mah Bow Tan and Vivian Balakrishnan. Their respective failings in terms of the Mas Selamat escape, the Housing issue and the YOG budget could have been occasions for some blood-letting in countries like the UK. Ministerial resignations may have been in order based on the constitutional concept of Ministerial responsibility.

In Singapore, the 3 Ministers have escaped unscathed. Given that the PAP has an overwhelming majority in Parliament, it is virtually impossible to operate some sort of Ministerial responsibility convention in Singapore. But, Ministerial responsibility in countries like the United Kingdom is a practice that evovled from political pressures rather than a rule that was created for deliberate and consistent enforcement. Given that we are following the Westminster model of government in Singapore, one might expect the convention to apply here as well. However, the political reality of one party dominance has meant that Ministerial responsibility is not a concept that is alive and well.

But, given the way that the election battles are shaping up and the way that opposition teams in the GRCs are angling their arguements, I wouldn't be surprised if Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC, Tampines GRC and Holland-Bukit Timah GRC results represent a form of referendum on the performance of the Ministers. The opposition parties have not been pushing on such an agenda. Nevertheless, it is clear that in many of the rally speeches, the YOG budget, the Mas Selamat escape and the affordability of housing has become a constant refrain.

Assuming the voters are listening carefully and getting the relevant access to information, the aforesaid three GRCs could be turned into a battleground to assess and deliver verdicts on the performance of the 3 ministers. I don't see such a concerted strategy to raise direct Ministerial accountability to the electorate as a GE issue. Some speakers have called upon Ministers to answer for their failings. This is being used as a method of highlighting the fact that the high and mighty PAP has its own flaws and failings. But, the opposition parties could convert the general election agenda into an opportunity for the voters to judge the performance of individual ministers.

Afterall, the PAP has been using the GRC system to scare voters that if they vote out a GRC team, they would lose a Minister. Well, there is nothing stopping us then from considering the election as an opportunity to carry out a performance appraisal of the Minister concerned and throw him out if he has underperformed or made mistakes or his ministry has committed grave errors. The GRC is won on the strength of a Minister. On the strength of a Minister, unknown, untested, inexperienced individuals enter into Parliament. Why can't we then sack the entire GRC team if the Minister has failed in his functions?

Ministerial Responsibility can be ensured by a voter backlash. The opposition parties could ramp it up over the next few days and turn the election in those three GRCs into a referendum. That would be interesting.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Graduating from a Spare tyre to a co-driver to a slap on the face!

I must say that Low Thia Khiang is really good with his imagery. His driving analogy started sheepishly by likening the opposition to a spare tyre. But, the truth is that in political terms an opposition should not merely be a spare tyre. I would characterise the parts of the vehicle as procedural safeguards in the system of governance.

Shanmugam was quick to pick up on the analogy and pointed out that in fact what the opposition wants to do is to become the co-driver. But, the analogy came unstuck. He suggested that the co-driver would tussle for the wheel. Wouldn’t that be unsafe for both the driver and the co-driver? Why would the opposition want the country to crash? That would be suicidal.

So, Low Thia Khiang’s rebuttal at last night’s rally using the same analogy was simply brilliant and to really add sting to it he threw in a slap.

"Bear in mind that just putting on a safety belt and hope that the driver will drive you to your destination is not enough. A co-driver is essential, especially as road gets tougher to navigate. The co-driver is there to slap the driver when he drives off course or when he falls asleep or drives dangerously," said Low Thia Khiang reminding us that we are all in the car together.

As the analogy has progressed from a spare tyre to a co-driver, I find that correspondingly more and more people that I speak to are not merely unhappy with the PAP. Many are willing to put their votes where their mouths are. Come the 7th of May 2011, the PAP could be in for a rude shock.

Could the co-driver become the driver?  Wishful thinking.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Low in Aljunied: Masterstroke or Fatal Mistake?

Low Thia Khiang, looking like a brilliant general, gave a press conference after filing his nomination papers at Aljunied GRC. Nobody expected him to venture out of Hougang SMC. That’s his fortress. That’s where he has built up loyal support. His decision to cross over to Aljunied GRC has caught everyone by surprise.

This decision could turn out to be his masterstroke in what many of us are expecting to be a watershed election for the opposition in Singapore. If we assume Potong Pasir to be a safe zone and Hougang to similarly be a safe zone for the opposition, this huge gamble by him to cross over into Aljunied could finally win a GRC for the opposition. That would be 4 seats from Aljunied for a minimum of 6 opposition MPs in Parliament. It would inflict a major defeat on the PAP even though, to be honest, it in no way breaks PAP’s overwhelming control of Parliament. We would perceive this to be a major defeat because losing that GRC would involve the loss of two Cabinet Ministers. In the words of Low Thia Khiang, it would teach the PAP a lesson.

But, everything could go awfully wrong for the opposition. Chiam See Tong did not do particularly well in the last election at Potong Pasir. The margin of victory is one that the PAP could easily overhaul if Potong Pasir residents don’t view Mrs Chiam to be as dependable as her husband. Similarly, if the Hougang voters were more captured by Mr Low’s charisma than the Workers’ Party’s agenda, then Hougang could be lost too.

Aljuneid GRC was the most closely fought battleground in the last election in 2006. In its previous incarnations as Eunos GRC and Cheng San GRC, that part of Singapore has been a breeding ground for strong opposition support but always falling short. At every election, the boundaries have been redrawn for that region and any serious assault by the opposition has been neutralized. The closest outcome was 49.11% for the WP in the 1988 election when it was Eunos GRC. In the last election, the WP obtained 43.91% of the valid votes cast.

Based on the boundaries as redrawn for this election it is clear that 7 precincts have been moved out from Aljuneid to Ang Mo Kio GRC. These could have been areas with large opposition support. 6 precincts from Marine Parade GRC have been moved into Aljuneid GRC. This could neutralize opposition support. In the end, it could be a close fight and the WP could end up losing.

Such a scenario is not improbable and our Parliament might go back to where it was 30 years ago when all seats were occupied by the PAP before JBJ broke into Parliament in the 1981 Anson by-election. That is the doomsday scenario for the opposition. But, it is a scenario that does not bode well for the future of our country. It is extremely unhealthy for so much of pent up frustration to exist on the street and have no voice in Parliament. (And for God’s sake, NCMPs don’t count as a voice when they lack the powers of an elected MP.) It is quite likely that there would be a sizeable swing against the PAP of anywhere between 5% to 7% of the popular vote. Such a swing could translate into 40% of the popular vote in the country to the opposition. That, arguably would be 40% of the citizen population being disenfranchised.

The Workers’ Party gamble could go awfully wrong for the opposition as a whole. Although I hear a great deal of chatter online and on the ground that appears to express dissatisfaction, I do not think that we are going to see a massive swing in the popular vote of about 10% to 15%. Based on the previous election in 2006, the opposition only managed to get about 30% to 35% in most of the constituencies. They had a good showing in Aljunied. But, that was it. So, barring a huge electoral swing, one would not imagine the opposition scoring a win in any other GRC. Perhaps the single member constituencies could throw up some new opposition members. Perhaps not.

That’s my nightmare scenario. Let’s try the slightly more probable outcome.

Due to prevalent voter dissatisfaction, there is a 5% to 7% swing in the overall popular vote. Potong PAsir and Hougang remain with the opposition. Aljunied falls to the WP. Another 2 or 3 SMCs fall to the opposition. Likely candidates for that: Yuhua SMC, Whampoa SMC and Mounbatten SMC. So, there could be 10 opposition MPs in Parliament.

The best case scenario for the opposition would be that they capture Choa Chu Kang GRC, West Coast GRC, Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC, Aljunied GRC, Tampines GRC, Holland-Bukit Timah… That would be 29 seats from GRCs alone. To me, that would be the ideal result to get a sudden leap into a first world parliament. That number would prevent unilateral constitutional amendments.

Well… Let’s see how things unfold. There are plenty of first time voters and plenty of young voters. This election is not going to be easy to predict.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Gridlock? In the Singapore Parliament? – That’s a red herring

Ms Indranee Rajah made a rather curious assertion in the course of her attack on the WP’s slogan to create a First World Parliament. She wants to convey the impression that with a strong opposition in parliament, policies may be blocked. This is echoed by the Law minister Mr Shanmugam as well. He says that what WP really wants to do is ‘to block constitutional amendments. They will also block other policies they disagree with.”

I’ll leave aside the main bone of contention in the to-and-fro between the WP and the PAP over WP’s slogan. But, an impression being given to the electorate is that a first world parliament as envisaged by the WP would involve the opposition effectively blocking government policies.

Let’s get this clear. If the PAP won 50 seats in this election and the opposition gets the remaining 37 seats, then any Bill tabled by the PAP will still get passed because it has the simple majority. No policy proposal is going to be blocked as the PAP has a majority. The gridlock scenario in the US is unlikely to happen here as our system is modeled on the Westminster Parliament.

Any government of the day is only formed because it has a majority in Parliament. Even in the event that there is a hung Parliament, a minority government or a coalition government must demonstrate the support of the majority in Parliament. Therefore, during any Parliamentary term where the ruling party has a majority, it is always able to implement all its policies. In fact, in the UK context it has even been asserted that the near complete fusion of the Executive and Legislature is the efficient secret of the British Constitution. The efficiency is a result of the fact that a government elected through a Parliamentary majority has the legitimate expectation of implementing its policies and in fact has the sufficient numbers in Parliament to be able to do so.

So, on the assumption of my earlier example of PAP winning 50 seats and the opposition getting a sizeable 37 seats, the opposition will not be able to cause the kind of gridlock that arose in the US. What the opposition will be able to do is to prevent Constitutional amendments from taking place. With 50 seats in Parliament, the PAP would not have a 2/3 majority and they would need opposition consent before amending the constitution. What is wrong with that? It is good to have an effective check in Parliament to prevent frivolous, partisan, imprudent, negligent or self-serving constitutional amendments from taking place.

So, if any PAP minister or candidate were to raise the gridlock issue if there is a sizeable opposition in Parliament is either naïve about the constitutional matters or is ‘throwing smoke’.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Singapore GE 2011: 7 May

So, here we are. Parliament has been dissolved. Polling day is on May 7.
5 years on from the last elections, there is something in the air. The country is stirring in a way that is unusual. There is more coverage about the elections in the mainstream media. The MSM is not exactly neutral but it is definitely not taking as harsh a stance as it used to in relation to the opposition. There is still the indication of partiality in the way newspaper and television reports are slanted. PN Balaji noted recently that there seems to be a certain openness in the MSM. He used the term Orchid Evolution. It is kind of catchy. I wonder if it would catch on.

People seem restless. The number of people defending PAP fiercely seems to have dwindled. More people appear to express unhappiness. The single biggest grouse appears to be immigration. Ironically, whilst I am happy about the anti-PAP sentiment that seems to be growing I am not exactly thrilled about immigration as the reason for this backlash.

These foreigners who work amongst us and live amongst us are trying to make a living and to support their families either living back home or living here. The lax immigration policy can possibly be blamed for causing wages to be depressed. But, I hope that it is not an anti-foreigner mentality that is driving much of the anti-PAP sentiment. The last thing we need is an opportunistic xenophobic campaign by the opposition to be the basis of a serious assault on Parliamentary seats.

If we were to vote for candidates to have a broader representation in Parliament, so be it. If we were to vote for candidates to break PAP’s almost complete dominance of Parliament, so be it. If we were to vote for candidates because we believe that they propose better policies than the PAP, so be it. If we were to vote for candidates to pave the way eventually for a viable alternative government, so be it. But, to vote for opposition simply because of an anti-foreigner sentiment reeks of xenophobia and is all the more ridiculous in a nation made up almost entirely of the descendants of immigrants.

That said, I must admit that many of my friends and relatives seem genuinely excited at the chance to vote. For some it is the first time since the 1980s. For some it is the first time ever. But, with the growing chorus of anti-PAP sentiment and the interesting accumulation of talent by the opposition parties, I can’t help but feel that our expectations of an election upset is growing tremendously. I just hope that on the day after polling day we don’t come crashing down to the ground with a resoundingly disappointing outcome.

Singaporeans have complained before. Singaporeans have been vocal before. But, too often they have been cowed to submission by the irrational fear that their vote is not secret or the threat of losing material benefits in their housing estates.

Your vote is secret. Cast away that fear. Vote in the long term interest of the nation and set aside your narrow selfish interests and greed. The time seems right. Vote wisely.