Monday 16 June 2014

Good policies hampered by bad politics

Govt and opposition need to engage more seriously on policies and political change
By Chua Mui Hoong, The Sunday Times, 15 Jun 2014

A Member of Parliament said this recently in Parliament, urging fellow politicians to work together to build a positive political culture: "Politicians must be aware of what political culture we are building through our style of political engagement as well as our actions.

"If you support a political party which believes in overthrowing the government by taking mass political action against the government regardless of the laws and proper channels to change things, you are building a culture of lawlessness.

"If you support a political party conducting its political engagement with a habit of playing racial politics and mud-slinging and launching personal attacks on its political opponents, you are building a thug political culture.

"While all politicians play a role in building a political culture through political engagement, the government is the dominant player of politics in Singapore, and plays a significant role."

All of this forms a point of view that responsible party leaders - and voters - would likely agree with. It would surely form part of what the Government wants to see in "constructive politics", which at its heart is about having a political system that will elect men and women of good character who can work together to come up with policies that are good for the people in the long term.

And yet, after that speech in Parliament, Workers' Party (WP) leader Low Thia Khiang - yes, he made those comments - was drawn into a heated exchange with the Prime Minister on constructive politics.

Mr Low's point was that a country's political culture matters. And what shapes that culture? The conduct of politicians, and from his viewpoint, especially government leaders.

In addition to that onslaught above, Mr Low interspersed his speech with further volleys: "If the people continue to support a government party that uses high-handed tactics against its political opponents, we are endorsing a bullying political culture.

"If the people support a governing party that uses governmental resources, including civil servants, to serve its partisan goals, we are condoning the abuse of political power as an acceptable culture.

"Using differentiating measures in policies to punish people who voted for the opposition breeds a culture of divisive politics.

"It also used to be said that the political incumbent has no obligation to level the playing field, that might is right, and that the political incumbent has the right to use all legal means to remain in power because everyone will do it if they are the incumbent. This is building a self-serving political culture."

The People's Action Party (PAP) will surely dismiss all of this as typical opposition politicking that is all sound and fury, but there will be those who will view Mr Low's comments - made during last month's debate on the Presidential Address - as depicting the PAP style of politics.

And therein lies the cognitive dissonance in the whole debate on constructive politics.

The PAP tries to take the moral high ground in this debate, depicting the opposition, especially the WP, as one that flip-flops on policy positions, or is disingenuous in ignoring difficult policy trade-offs.

The opposition - and a good segment of voters, I would venture - looks at the PAP's political tactics past and present, and wonders if those have any part to play in the constructive politics it is now calling for.

Those above the age of 30 will remember the votes-for-upgrading strategy which some see as examples of divisive, partisan politics, and the concerted attacks on opposition candidates' character at elections as examples of bullying.

By using such tactics in past elections, the PAP risked failing to connect with a generation of voters. Many of those in their 30s and 40s today who might have become keen supporters of the Establishment status quo and a solid PAP-voting bloc may have instead become disenchanted by the political process as they came of age. They witnessed one too many one-sided political battles.

Memories of the PAP's past tactics could be one factor continuing to fuel the rage that can be felt online against the Government today, when ironically it is trying so hard to win back support. Pent-up anger when unleashed is hard to channel into logical debate.

In the same way that the PAP's digs at the WP for its policy flip-flops strike home, the WP's description of the prevailing political culture in Singapore draws blood.

Two weeks ago, I wrote in this space that the WP should "grow up" to develop its positions on policy, as this would help it mature as a party - which would be good for Singapore. After all, if the WP develops its policy-thinking capability, and blossoms into a credible alternative party, Singapore's political future will be less worrisome.

Just as the WP seems flat-footed in policy proposals, so the PAP similarly seems clumsy in the art of politics. One commentator, consultant Devadas Krishnadas, summed it up pithily in a recent Facebook post, which The Straits Times ran an extract of: "While the Government emphasises policy thrusts, the public is focused on political trust."

Just as the WP's inability to engage seriously on policies keeps the opposition in its infancy, so too the PAP's inability to engage seriously on political change hinders the country's political maturation.

The Government has tried to set the agenda with its notion of "constructive politics". Aside from its supporters, others want to hear more of that - from the Government.

Will the PAP in the next election still try its votes-for-upgrading strategy and continue its creative redrawing of electoral boundaries?

Should there be constitutional changes to the political system? Is the Nominated MP system still relevant in the face of rising contestation? Should the bar be set even higher for presidential candidates?

On an even more serious note, how prepared is Singapore for a change in government, whether by design or accident? What does the Constitution say about coalition governments?

Of course, the Government may choose to busy itself with policy changes. And there are issues aplenty, beyond those of housing, transport and health care that already seize the Government: Should the Government continue to be the arbiter of morals in the arts? Why should housing and social policies be privileged towards married couples? Is it time to rethink the media regulatory model?

But the question is whether good policies can make up for bad politics - or the absence of any meaningful discussion of it.

The Government can ignore the topic of political change and talk about constructive politics. But that would be like ignoring the elephant in the room - but everyone can still see, hear and smell the elephant.

Elevate political discourse beyond credit-blame match
Mindset change needed to accept that narratives, contributions can co-exist
By Andrea Ong, The Straits Times, 14 Jun 2014

BESIDES flagging off the second half of this term of government, the reopening of Parliament last month also turned up the temperature and tempo of exchanges between the People's Action Party (PAP) and the Workers' Party (WP) by several notches.

The ruling party now appears to be going on the offensive, scrutinising the WP's words and moves and pinning it down on possible weak spots.

The latest salvo came from Senior Minister of State Indranee Rajah, who wrote a sharply worded Facebook post, titled The Art Of Claiming Credit, this week to criticise the WP for its statement on the MediShield Life review committee's proposals, saying the party's approach was to "claim credit; keep it vague; and call for more".

WP Non-Constituency MP Gerald Giam had welcomed the recommendations while noting that many of them had been voiced by WP MPs and Singaporeans.

It is not the first time that both parties have tussled over the issue of claiming credit, but the sharper tone of the recent exchanges also points to the strategy the PAP is likely to use in the second half.

The WP has tried to portray itself as a party with moderate, balanced views and which serves as an effective check on the PAP. It is, undeniably, a narrative that will appeal to the middle ground.

But the PAP is now attempting to turn that narrative on its head by charging the WP with opportunistically claiming credit while staying out of the fray by not taking a clear stand.

One could argue that such point-scoring over who should get what credit for positive policy outcomes is only to be expected of political parties fighting to dominate the narrative and mindshare of voters.

For instance, opposition parties have to show they have the ideas and ability to effect change if they are to establish their relevance in the political playing field. This is especially so for the WP, which has more to prove at the next elections compared to other opposition parties, given its parliamentary presence.

On the flip side, it is also to be expected that the PAP will not take this lying down as it views the WP as discrediting the changes it has put in place and the heavy lifting it has to do as the government in power.

To add another dimension to the dynamics of credit/discredit, the American political scientist R. Kent Weaver argues in an often cited 1986 paper that contemporary politicians tend to be more motivated by the desire to avoid blame for negative outcomes than to claim credit for positive ones.

He attributes this to the "negativity bias", where voters are likely to place more weight on the losses and grievances they suffer than any improvements to their state.

"In short, voters are more sensitive to what has been done to them than to what has been done for them," he says.

How does this play out in the Singapore context?

It would appear that opposition parties can kill two birds with one stone by claiming credit for policy changes, as that subtly shifts the blame to the incumbent party by reminding voters of its deficiencies and past grievances.

On the other hand, the PAP as the incumbent is affected most by negativity bias as it cannot avoid blame for policy missteps. By depicting the WP as credit seekers with no stand, the PAP can shift some negativity and blame to the other party.

However, I would contend that exchanges framed along the credit/discredit dynamic are not productive and may even leave all players, including the public, the poorer for it.

Besides the risk of people tuning out due to its predictability, such discourse also reduces politics to bean-counting over who can rack up the most credit while wiping out the other party's ledger.

While this is par for the course in politics, many MPs expressed their hope during last month's parliamentary debate that Singapore would develop its own brand of politics and not be mired in the sort of politics that has tripped up other countries.

Turning every policy debate into a credit and blame match seems to be an example of precisely what the MPs wish to avoid.

For instance, Professor Weaver's study, which largely applies to the US context, notes that the incentive to avoid blame comes at the expense of other motivations like making good policy.

One hopes that Singaporean politicians can rise above such Machiavellian urges.

Another consequence of such discourse is that the diversity and complexity of policy ideas will get lost in the sound and fury of political point-scoring.

For instance, the WP has articulated what it considers substantive ideas in health care, transport and education in adjournment motions, parliamentary speeches and its manifesto, but these efforts often get glossed over.

But the PAP Government's new policies and changes, even major ones like MediShield Life, also get at most brief acknowledgement from the opposition.

The PAP also has to manage the risk that too many attempts to discredit the WP may result in the perception that it is being heavy-handed. Or, as WP chief Low Thia Khiang pointed out in the parliamentary debate last month, people may see "a double standard of politics" where the WP is pressed to come up with alternative policies but is accused of claiming credit if the party says it is happy when these suggestions are implemented.

At the risk of inviting cynicism, I would argue that it is possible for both sides to elevate political discourse beyond a tussle over credit and discredit.

It has happened in the first half of this term, with ministers engaging seriously with the points raised by MPs from the PAP and WP alike in their responses to debates on the Budget and Bills.

Both the PAP and WP can also up their game by being more sophisticated and savvy in showcasing and communicating their ideas and achievements.

In her Facebook post, Ms Indranee spoke of how MediShield Life is the sum of the efforts of Singaporeans who took part in the Our Singapore Conversation, civil servants and the review committee.

"It is a live example of what many have called for - a collaboration between government and people, and government listening and acting directly on what it has heard," she said.

It is a potent message that generously shares credit with others, and it could have stood on its own without bringing in the WP.

On its part, the WP could speak up more on a broader sweep of issues and also consider beefing up its policy positions, such as by presenting updated ideas on its website according to policy themes rather than simply uploading its manifestos and speeches where messages can get dispersed or buried.

But beyond the parties improving their messaging, my wish is also for a change in mindset: to be comfortable with the fact that narratives and contributions can co-exist. After all, there is no monopoly on good ideas.

Parties should, therefore, do their best in gentlemanly fashion - and trust in Singaporeans' good sense to tote up the credit ledger themselves.

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