Sunday 30 June 2013

Can there be a change of tone in political debate?

The recent episodes show the difficulty of 'constructive politics' playing out in reality
By Andrea Ong, The Straits Times, 29 Jun 2013

RECENT episodes involving the Workers' Party have highlighted the dilemma it faces as the leading opposition party in Parliament.

Last weekend, the WP issued a statement on the haze, pledging its readiness to "support the initiatives of the Government in responding to the haze" and welcoming the Government's efforts in protecting vulnerable Singaporeans' health and safety.

The statement was in classic WP style: it struck a moderate, considered tone and came a few days into the game, showing the deliberation that had gone into crafting its stance. Meanwhile, WP MPs and helpers worked quietly on the ground, visiting constituents and giving out its own supply of masks to those in need.

The WP response to the haze was in sharp contrast to its aggressive stance in two recent clashes with the Government over town council management - the headline-hitting dispute over hawker centre cleaning in Aljunied GRC and the rates the town council pays its managing agent.

Both spats, which played out almost back-to-back over two months, saw a flurry of statements from the WP and government agencies. Barbs were traded by both sides on localised and specialised details, right down to the types of scaffolding used in hawker centre cleaning.

And yet for both its quite differing responses to the haze and on town council issues, the WP has received flak. On the former, some critics felt it had been too muted and should have been more critical of the Government's response to the haze. On the latter, some felt it became too caught up in strident public debate.

Several tensions are at play here for the WP: between being more and less vocal and critical, and between focusing on local and national issues in public debate.

These are challenges the WP will continue to face after over two years of being the opposition party with the largest presence in Parliament and managing a town council which has grown to be one of Singapore's biggest.

But the recent events also hint at a need to rebalance the discourse between the WP and the People's Action Party (PAP). Is there scope for both sides to dial back on squabbles over localised issues and engage in more debate on bigger-picture policy issues?

In a speech at a dinner for retiring PAP MPs after the 2011 General Election, former minister Lim Boon Heng said: "Our future depends on how our party and the Workers' Party perform. What posture will each take? Will we have constructive politics, or negative politics? If we have constructive politics, then Singapore can be better off - if debate leads to more robust policies. If the engagement is destructive, as is the inclination in most democracies, then Singapore's prospects dim."

But the recent episodes show the difficulty of "constructive politics" playing out in reality - and the responsibility for that must be borne by both parties.

In the case of town councils, it was regrettable that an epochal parliamentary debate on their political nature trailed off into a spat over managing agent rates and dollars and cents.

The hawker centre saga ended in rhetoric more befitting of election rallies, with WP leaders charging the National Environment Agency (NEA) with being politically motivated and Environment and Water Resources Minister Vivian Balakrishnan suggesting that the WP was being untruthful.

Both cases could have been resolved by private discussions or by simply laying out the facts and trusting in the public's judgment.

But underlying both disputes is the fact that both the PAP and the WP are acutely aware that much of the opposition party's scorecard for this term of government will depend on how it runs the estate in its constituencies, especially since managing a GRC is still fresh territory for the opposition.

In the past, WP chief Low Thia Khiang had also been highly protective of municipal issues to do with his Hougang ward. These issues, such as upgrading for his constituents, formed the subject of some of his fiercest battles in Parliament. Now, the stakes are even higher. That is perhaps why both sides have been particularly aggressive on matters to do with town council management.

On the other hand, the WP increasingly faces public expectation to speak up more on national issues. And so, when it seeks to strike a constructive note on matters such as the haze, it is faulted for not being critical enough.

Hence, while it may be desirable to adjust the volume on aspects of political discourse, whether this can be done is another matter. One question is whether the WP will be allowed to do so.

Indeed, there appears to have been a shift in the PAP strategy towards opposition wards. Rather than using upgrading and other carrots to showcase the benefits of electing a PAP MP to run one's estate, the PAP is now directing the spotlight squarely on the WP itself and its capabilities.

In fact, one overlooked point from the debate on town councils in May was National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan's subtle signal of the end of upgrading being used to create an unlevel playing field for the opposition.

This year, for instance, the WP town council has been given three upgrading projects - the maximum given to other town councils. Said Mr Khaw: "Why would the PAP want to hurt the interest of residents in Aljunied and alienate them? How could we hope to regain Aljunied if we did this?"

The move is welcome. But it also means the WP can no longer bank on playing that particular card. It should be prepared for greater scrutiny of how it runs its town council and ensure its actions are beyond reproach. And it should rethink how it manages the situation if there are lapses.

The hawker centre saga turned around when Mr Low entered the scene. He asked all parties to move on and pledged that the town council would continue to work with the NEA. In response to whether he would go down to talk to affected hawkers, he would only say on the record, "Whatever it is, the town council will have to do what is necessary".

But it is understood that he privately visited one Bedok North market several times last week to speak to the hawkers. The town council went ahead with cleaning that market this week, but changed its plans to suit the hawkers' original request. This is characteristic of Mr Low's "less talk, more action" style - but such moves should have been done earlier, before the spat turned ugly.

For the PAP, it should also watch against overkill or the perception of being a bully in wanting to press home its arguments. The recent municipal disputes, for instance, did not seem to leave any party the winner as the public started tuning out due to the amount of detail swamping them.

As well, the WP needs to decide: What does it mean to be a responsible, rational and constructive opposition - its oft-declared goal - and how far does it want to push the boundaries?

It will have to balance public expectation against the risk of playing to the gallery while ensuring that it does not lose its strength of relating to the ground.

Personally, I felt the WP's response to the haze was a good demonstration of constructive politics. It was an attempt to present a united front to the public and the world amid a national crisis, while taking concrete steps to care for constituents.

There will be chances enough to question and critique the Government's response in the upcoming Parliament sitting. Parliament is precisely where the WP can up its game, to be sharper and have a stronger stance on alternative policies it puts forth.

But others will feel differently.

The WP will thus have to gauge: What do most Singaporeans want to see in the opposition?

Still, it takes two hands to clap. Whether political discourse can shift to a more constructive national tenor will depend on how much both parties want to do so.

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