Monday, 22 December 2014

50 years on, still no clear political alternative

By Sanjay Perera, Published The Straits Times, 20 Dec 2014

AT THE recent party conference of the People's Action Party (PAP), the possibility was raised of it not forming the government after the next general election.

This brings to mind former foreign minister George Yeo's two-word Facebook post after the ruling party lost the Punggol East by-election in January last year: "Whither Singapore?" This came after the May 2011 election when the PAP received its lowest votes in a general election since independence.

In this context, it appears intuitive that here is an opportunity for opposition parties to explain why they should run the country. Yet, none is making a claim for the leadership mantle other than trying to increase the parties' parliamentary presence.

But what if all seats are contested again in the next election, and a large collage of candidates from opposition parties are voted in?

How is the country to be governed if its fate pivots on a sizeable number of oppositionists, but none or few of them are ready to hold office? Singapore faces a peculiar phenomenon where there is talk of challenging the PAP but no party or candidate stands ready to take over the government or be prime minister.

Instead, the opposition is gingerly treading between assuaging those angry with an influx of foreigners and not straying too far from the PAP's way of trying to maintain economic growth and social stability. For the most we are presented with "PAP-lite" with some choice rhetoric thrown in.

It is not that the opposition does not offer alternative ideas that challenge the PAP's, but that the ideas need to come across as representing a countervailing force to the grip of market forces on the economy.

Within the PAP itself, some have recognised that fundamental change is needed. Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam stated that the Cabinet's centre of gravity has shifted to "left-of-centre". It may not be clear yet what this means exactly but there are forays in trying to soften the potential for a property bubble through increased stamp duties in buying residential property, and a Pioneer Generation Package in the form of subsidised health care and Central Provident Fund top-ups as recognition of the contributions of first-generation Singaporeans.

However, as Singapore approaches its 50th anniversary, no clear political alternative exists.

The PAP is right to start looking left politically, but what is surprising is that the opposition largely offers piecemeal policy alternatives - if any one of them attempts a vision it is a repetition of what they have been saying for years and is but a variation on a theme of Singapore's current capitalist paradigm.

Key aspects of what the opposition seem to offer include reduced defence expenditure (Singapore Democratic Party or SDP), tightening entry of foreigners into the labour force (Singaporeans First Party, National Solidarity Party), a minimum wage (SDP), encouraging smaller firms and private enterprise and attempts to dismantle government-linked corporations (Workers' Party to some extent, and SDP).

But voters want more insight into the ideas of the opposition.

Should military conscription be reduced even further or halted altogether and by what timeframe?

By how much should the intake of foreigners be curbed? What precisely is the ratio of foreigners to locals that firms should follow? What exactly should the minimum wage be and how is it to be adjusted for inflation? What happens when GLCs are dismantled and what good is this to us if ownership falls into foreign hands?

A comprehensive vision of moving the country to the left and thereby reassert socio-economic balance allows effective claims for a minimum wage, more government intervention in the economy, a sharper interest in the welfare of the needy and raising taxes upon the wealthy to help social expenditure: but the opposition presents a hodgepodge of ideas that may well force them to dip into the state's financial reserves to fund programmes - something that is anathema for the most part and for good reason. Without a hinterland and anything substantial to fall back on like natural resources, a principal resource for Singapore remains its accumulated reserves.

Then there is also the question of whether at some point Singapore may have to consider merging back with Malaysia to ensure its long-term sustainability.

The point is that there are no able leaders from the opposition who can unify it or provide a clear direction for the country. Neither is the opposition abundant in leaders honest enough to tell Singaporeans that whoever they vote for, there are challenging times ahead.

Voting the PAP out or trying to form a coalition is one thing - but what are the answers to a failing capitalist paradigm and the challenges of managing foreign policy issues in an increasingly difficult geopolitical environment?

It is undemanding to wax lyrical about freedom, democracy and whatnot, but it is quite another matter when the reins of government are in one's hands. Singapore needs leaders who can offer clarity of vision and genuine integrity of purpose, and who have the ability to make difficult decisions and, when needed, uncompromisingly tough moves.

The writer, a Singaporean, has worked in the navy and media, taught at tertiary institutions and is the editor of Philosophers For Change, an online journal dealing with alternative socioeconomic paradigms.

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