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.