Monday 2 June 2014

Time for the Workers' Party to grow up

It must go beyond 'checking the PAP' and offer serious policy alternatives
By Chua Mui Hoong, The Sunday Times, 1 Jun 2014

The Government announced on May 21 that it would take over bus assets and change the operating model of bus services. It will design bus routes, set service standards and contract them to private bus companies.

It was a major change in policy. Given the dissatisfaction over public transport, and its potential as a lightning rod issue against the Government, I looked out for what opposition parties would say.

It was a rather futile wait.

The Workers' Party didn't say much. In Parliament during debate on the President's Address last Monday, Non-Constituency MP Gerald Giam merely observed that the change was being made, and added a line: "We have yet to see whether service quality will improve under the new bus contracting model and whether fares will continue to rise as the same rate as now."

The Singapore Democratic Party had one commentary from a member of its youth wing but didn't develop a party position.

The National Solidarity Party is the only one which has issued a more substantive response.

In 2011, it had called for a "route licensing scheme" under which companies bid for licences to run bus services along routes.

The Government's planned scheme looks a little like it, but for one critical difference: The NSP proposal would have bus operators owning the fleet of buses, whereas the Government opted to take over ownership, and just have bus companies run the bus services.

Since the announcement of the Bus Contracting Model (BCM), share prices of the two bus companies have gone up. Foreign operators are also keen to enter the market, noted the NSP in a statement last Thursday.

These are "all signs pointing to the fact that the current public transport operators expect to reap a handsome profit under the BCM scheme, without bearing sufficient risks for running the business", said the party.

I can understand the thought behind the NSP's question, which is one taxpayers may wonder about too: How to ensure that the BCM doesn't end up becoming a sweetheart deal for ComfortDelGro and SMRT, the two bus companies, and other new operators?

The NSP hasn't even got into Parliament, but as a voter, I appreciated its attempt to engage on serious issues of the day.

In contrast, the Workers' Party has seven elected MPs and two Non-Constituency MPs in Parliament. It's the leading opposition party, since no other has even one elected MP. It has said it can't form the government yet - but can be its "co-driver".

But its position on policy issues is sometimes hard to fathom. This explains the PAP's increasing frustration as ministers and MPs try to corner WP leaders into declaring their stand on a host of issues, as a look at Hansard records of Parliamentary proceedings will reveal.

Hence the exchange over whether the WP did "flip-flop" on immigrant growth, calling for zero growth in foreign workforce one year, and lamenting tightening curbs on foreign labour in another.

On ministerial pay, too, observers will recall that it has suggested at various times to peg ministers' salaries to the bottom 20 per cent earners, and then to the pay grade of a senior civil servant.

Ducking tough questions on policies was a good political move in the past, when all you needed to get into Parliament was the ability to connect with voters and promise to speak up for the people.

In today's political climate, however, that is patently inadequate.

There is now no shortage of people and views critical of the Government, online and offline. Within Parliament, Nominated MPs also speak up on pet issues, including once sensitive areas such as civil and political rights.

The WP thus has to be clearer about its stand on policies that matter to people.

Its 2011 manifesto contains its political and policy prescriptions. Some of its MPs individually are active in speaking up in Parliament.

But as a party, the WP has been remarkably reticent on the significant and rapid policy shifts undertaken by the Government since 2011, which has seen a broadening of subsidies from the low- to the middle-income in areas including home-based care, health care, preschool fees and education.

The WP's value proposition has to evolve from one of checking the PAP government, to one where it offers a credible alternative to the Government. Realistic Singaporeans will cut the WP some slack as it's a small minority party in Parliament, with six of its seven elected MPs serving only their first terms.

But as a political party, it has been around since 1957. Leader Low Thia Khiang has been in Parliament since 1991.

It's time the WP grew up.

In political science theory, parties can be said to be vote-seeking, office-seeking or policy-seeking. A party can seek all three, or move from one to the other at various times in its development.

Parties seek to win votes to get into Parliament. But vote-seeking is instrumental - a means to an end. Winning a seat in Parliament must be for a larger purpose.

Typically, this is so the party can form the government. A party intent on doing that is said to be office-seeking.

A party that starts as vote-seeking may portray itself in a more extreme way (lobbying for more jobs in the Jurong area, say, to win Jurong voters). But if it is office-seeking, it will have to appeal to a broader group to secure a majority and form the government. Fighting for jobs in Jurong won't endear it to voters in Bedok. So the party has to change its behaviour.

If it doesn't have enough seats to form the government, it can still seek to influence policies. It may seek alliances with like-minded parties to form a coalition. Or it may simply want to present its policy proposals as an alternative, for the longer-term aim of seeking office.

But to do so, a party must first develop policy proposals.

It seems to me that the WP has remained stuck at the vote-getting stage. It has managed to win over voters in two single-member wards and one group representation constituency. In the next election, it has every likelihood of wresting a few more seats from the PAP.

But winning more seats is meaningless unless a party has a policy agenda in mind. Politics is fought not for politics' sake, but to make people's lives better. The ultimate change is, of course, in government. But by the WP's own reckoning, it isn't ready. A good interim measure is to work harder at developing policy proposals and communicating them honestly.

The Government will, of course, hammer the WP if its policy suggestions are impractical, or if the WP's MPs flounder in Parliament. But many more voters watching will give the WP credit for trying, for being honest, for admitting mistakes, for revising and refining policies.

And the WP itself will learn from the process.

Remaining a party that seeks to win votes by promising to do that vague thing called "check the PAP" is easy. Developing a party with serious policy alternatives is tougher.

But for the sake of competitive politics in Singapore, the WP should grow up to take on that challenge.

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