Keeping Singapore Politics Focused on Substance

Feb 06, 2017 at 10:25 am | Hits: 2183

By Chirag Agarwal

We recently bid farewell to a tumultuous 2016, where years of dysfunctional politics came to a head and led to the unlikely election of Donald Trump in the US and closer to home, Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines.

While Singapore has remained unaffected so far, politics around the world has changed and politicians everywhere need to address this rise of populism by finding new ways to remain engaged with and relevant to the masses. To do so, ideas need to be debated robustly, backed by the astute analysis of facts and figures.

A senior Australian bureaucrat once told me that Tony Abbott’s rise to become Prime Minister of Australia by “opposing everything and proposing nothing” when he was Leader of the Opposition set a disconcerting precedent for politicians vying for the top job in the country.

Such political bluster is dangerous and, unfortunately, increasingly influencing voters. Last November after the US presidential election, Oxford Dictionaries declared the adjective “post-truth” — which has been used to describe how objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion — as the 2016 Word of the Year.

Politicians are not celebrities

Daniel Kahneman, winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics, explained the psychology behind such decision making in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow. He argues that many of us use a substitution heuristic, which is a type of shortcut the mind uses to help us understand our immediate surroundings, by answering an easier question than the one that was actually posed to us.

Applied to a political context, when asked to vote, instead of answering the question “Would this candidate make a good politician?”, some of us instead answer the question “Does this candidate look like someone who would make a good politician?”

There is a difference. It means that instead of researching a candidate’s qualifications, experience and viewpoints to determine if they are fit for the job and aligned with our own political views, we simply ask ourselves the far easier question of whether the candidate matches our mental image of a politician.

This sometimes leads to the election of more charismatic candidates, regardless of their competence. It is worth noting that while the personalities of Donald Trump and Barack Obama are as different as night and day, both their election campaigns were nevertheless focused on the individual and high on rhetoric (albeit with very different messages) and had little discussion of policy.

Unlike a presidential system, a parliamentary democracy offers some protection against such personality politics. This is because, in a parliamentary system, it is the political party with a majority in parliament, not an individual, that gets to form the government.

But parliamentary democracies such as Singapore’s can be improved to keep the focus of politics on substance, by encouraging robust policy debate and bipartisanship, instead of getting distracted by grandstanding and politicking among politicians.

Fixing it before it is broken

Singapore’s Members of Parliament (MPs) have maintained a standard of decorum in Parliament, unlike other Westminster democracies where rowdy shouting matches that serve no real purpose often ensue.

However, Parliament is currently dominated by one political party. It is important, therefore, to find other ways to safeguard the concept that Parliament remains a place where ideas are contested and concerns of the general population are addressed.

I propose two changes that would encourage backbenchers and opposition MPs to play a larger role in shaping and encouraging public debate, and as a result, protect Singapore from the influence of personalities who may engage in “bluster politics”.

First, party leaders should encourage a certain number of MPs per cohort to work full-time in their role. Tin Pei Ling from the ruling People’s Action Party and Chen Show Mao from the Workers’ Party along with a few others have led the way in pausing their private careers to become full-time MPs. They argue that it allows them to dedicate more time to understand their constituents and have a better grasp of the issues they face.

Without the work and travel commitments of their day jobs, full-time MPs can dedicate themselves to work actively with think tanks, experts, non-government organisations, as well as the media to scrutinise government policies. This would be in addition to participating in parliamentary debates and conducting their regular Meet-the-People sessions every week.

Backbencher MPs currently come from a variety of backgrounds and add to the quality of debate by asking the Government incisive questions in Parliament. As full-time MPs, they would have more time to develop well thought out policy proposals of their own and perhaps play a more active role in shaping legislation through the introduction of Private Member’s Bills. One would expect this to raise the quality and accessibility of public policy debates taking place both inside and outside of Parliament, keeping the general public engaged with the issues of the day.

Second, all political parties should lift their party whips more often to allow MPs to vote freely on Bills. Ideally, all draft legislation — apart from Supply Bills which allow the Government to keep functioning — should be openly debated without their passage being a foregone conclusion.

Currently, the PAP government has a longstanding policy of only lifting the whip if the subject is considered to be a matter of conscience. For instance, the whip was lifted when changes to the Human Organ Transplant Act were debated in 2004. Meanwhile, the whip was not lifted for other controversial topics that were of much public interest such as the 2005 debate on the Integrated Resorts, the 2012 changes to ministerial salaries and the 2013 Population White Paper.

Such issues are never black or white and lifting the party whip would encourage more robust debates, with members of the public feeling that they have the opportunity to influence the outcome, through their MP. The Government would need to be more persuasive when advocating for a bill and at times would have to find a compromise in order to win over ruling party backbenchers and in turn the public.

Having a Singaporean populace which is educated in and engaged with the issues of the day is important especially with the country facing some economic headwinds. Citizens frustrated with the lack of opportunities or support must be able to follow and appreciate the complexity of developing sound public policy and shun populist politicians dreaming up easy solutions.

German sociologist Max Weber wrote in his seminal essay titled Politics as a Vocation, “He who is active in politics strives for power either as means in serving other aims, ideals or egoistic, or as ‘power for power’s sake,’ that is, in order to enjoy the prestige-feeling that power gives.”

Singapore needs to ensure that it continues to have politicians who strive for power as a means to an end, to improve the lives of their fellow Singaporeans, rather than as an end in itself.


Chirag Agarwal, a former Singapore civil servant, recently completed his Master of Public Policy and Management degree at The University of Melbourne and is currently working as a public policy consultant.

Top Photo from IStock.


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