Show me the policy

Let it never again be said that the opposition only knows how to complain and throw stones at the PAP without coming up with proposals to better Singapore.

Singapore Democratic Party

There’s a quiet political undercurrent in the news. The Opposition is eying the Tampines Group Representative Constituency.  The Reform Party is gaining new members. Prominent blogger joins the Workers’ Party. There’s talk of elections in mid-to-late 2010. Political parties are forming their election strategy.

Pardon me if I’m not excited.

Politics: the art of making decisions in a group. Policy: A plan of action. All politics must have policies at their heart. When it comes to government and national politics, these policies must be comprehensive enough to encompass the country, its trading partners, and quite possibly the world. Before the elections, people want and need to know what you intend to do, how you intend to accomplish them, who you are going to appoint to take charge of various affairs of state, when you intend to achieve your goals, where you intend to pay particular attention to, and why you want to implement these policies.

What are the policies of the ruling People’s Action Party? Conscription, primacy on economic growth, high-tech military, mandatory death penalty for certain criminal offenses, partnership with as many countries as possible, tight control of the media — and these are just the ones coming out the top of my head. How does the PAP intend to accomplish this? Rule and enforcement of law, attracting foreign investment, investing in local technology companies, warm foreign policy, establishment of agency to oversee media. Who does the PAP want to carry them out? You need only look at the Cabinet and heads of the Civil Service. When does the PAP intend to accomplish them? Look at the white papers and speeches the Government produces; you’ll find timelines there. Why does the PAP intend to execute these policies? Improve national security, increase quality of life, punish and deter criminals, reduce tension and improve cooperation in the region, prevent rumours and nonsense from eroding the reputation of the PAP and the Government.

How do we know all this? The Government and the Party have repeated these policies through the media, speeches, press conferences, and most lately in blogs and on the Internet. We all know what the PAP stand for; we need merely read a month’s worth of newspapers.

But what about the Opposition?

Not one Opposition party to date can provide an updated, comprehensive political manifesto. Not one Opposition party has published anything on any media that lets a citizen know, at a glance, what the party stands for on any given subject. Not one Opposition party seems keen on rectifying this. What is published on the Internet does not come close. The most comprehensive one out there is by the Workers’ Party — for 2006.

And even that is flawed. Here is one example, regarding the controversial Internal Security Act: “The Internal Security Act, which provides for detention without trial in cases of alleged subversion, should be abolished…In cases of alleged terrorism, the government should be enabled by a dedicated anti-terrorism law to make swift arrests and detain suspects without trial.”

So what is the difference between the ISA and the WP’s proposed dedicated anti-terrorism law? One can argue that the ISA is used against spies, traitors and ‘subversives’ while this new law is aimed squarely at terrorists. Fine — so how are you going to define ‘terrorist’? What are the mechanics of this new law? What are the checks and balances? Who can authorise these detentions? How do I know that the party won’t define ‘terrorist’ as someone it disagree with, that these arrests can occur without a warrant, that these detentions are indefinite, that I will not be tortured if I were arrested? Without specifics, there are doubts.  The government has taken steps to remove doubts where practical to its politics: the ISA contains all the necessary provisos to answer these questions on first glance. When the average citizen weighs his doubts of an unproven Opposition versus what he knows of the ruling party, there is little doubt whom he will vote for.

Nor is it very difficult to come up with a law. When I was 17 years old, I participated in an impromptu debate on the topic of detention without trial against 17- and 18-year-olds. In an impromptu debate, you have exactly one hour to prepare your speech. That means one hour to work out the policy, draw up your arguments, make sure everyone is on the same page, anticipate and pre-empt your opponents’ arguments, and prepare your speech. In that one hour, the opposition team produced a policy on preventive detention that included checks and balances, mechanisms, limits of authority, and other such considerations — in addition to everything else it had to do as a team. Three 18-year-olds could do that in less than an hour; a political party with months, if not years, to work could surely come up with something equal , or superior, to the work of teenagers.

Apparently not. Says much about the Opposition, doesn’t it?

Statements of principle are not policies. The former merely says what you believe in. The latter tells people what you want to do. Take this paragraph from the 2006 WP manifesto:

Ministers’ remuneration should be benchmarked internationally against the political office of developed countries. Their remuneration should also take into account all associated benefits (e.g. benefits-in-kind) under the total remuneration or total employment costs (“TEC”).

What does that mean? Are we going to benchmark against Britain? Maybe the Vatican?  Without explanation, elaboration, or facts and figures, it is very easy to twist, misinterpret or outright ignore statements in a manifesto. No specifics, no policy. Period.

The other Opposition parties are no better. Here are some examples.

Singapore Democratic Party:

  • Establishing a free and democratic political system.
  • Building a free market economy driven by the people, not the Government.
  • Developing a more equitable distribution of income and wealth.
  • Ensuring that the CPF system returns the savings to the people.
  • Freeing the media.
  • Reforming the education system.
  • Fostering a caring and pluralistic society.

This is the entirety of its policies. No elaboration, just statements. So, questions: What do you intend to do to build a ‘free and democratic political system’? Does it mean abolishing every other political party and restricting politics to candidates from the Party like the Soviet Union? What does ‘reforming the education system’ mean? Replacing Social Studies with a subject that lionises the SDP’s struggle and condemns the PAP to the ash heap of history? And just what is a ‘caring and pluralistic society’? We will have an extensive social security network for you — you just need to be rich, Christian, conservative, and Chinese? I don’t know. And if I don’t know, why should I vote for you? People tend towards certainty, and they are certain of what the PAP stands for. But not necessarily the SDP.

Reform Party:

The current model of economic growth founded on cheap labour is obsolete and has not benefited the vast mass of our people.

Proof? No proof, then it is only an assertion.

Examine the introduction of a genuine national health insurance system and basic state pension.

Just what does this mean? Table a motion in Parliament to do this? If so, then the Reform Party is expected to take the lead by articulating this system — before it enters Parliament, or else spend time and energy doing this instead of other matters. Articulating such a system means defining the system of payouts, laying out the organisations responsible for carrying this out, understanding and explaining the economic burden and implications…for starters.The RP cannot reasonably expect the Government to do this when it rejects all forms of social security out of hand. Therefore, the party needs to do most of the work by laying out such a system before it is proposed in Parliament. And the RP needs to win popular support for this for it to have a chance of passing in Parliament. I have yet to see this in the local media, and I didn’t even know this existed until I looked at the RP website. Expecting people to look up what you stand for is ludicrous; you have to tell people what you believe in, or risk misinterpretation and ignorance.

Singapore People’s Party:

There shall be at least 8 years schooling for every child and when the economy is further strengthen 10 years schooling shall be made compulsory for every child. There shall be no IQ tests, tests for streaming at the third year and the sixth year of a pupil’s schooling. Our view is that IQ tests are subjective and do not serve any useful purpose and should not be used. Streaming of a child at an early age is educationally unsound and socially wrong. A child’s mental development at that tender age is not fully developed and he must not be subjected to such humiliating tests. Such tests can do irreparable damage to a child. The harm done will manifest itself in later years by his anti-social behavior. Therefore we condemn the PAP education policy of persisting in streaming a pupil in his third and sixth year of schooling.

This is the most elaborated policy provided by the SPP.  Note this:

Streaming of a child at an early age is educationally unsound and socially wrong. A child’s mental development at that tender age is not fully developed and he must not be subjected to such humiliating tests. Such tests can do irreparable damage to a child. The harm done will manifest itself in later years by his anti-social behavior.

Are there any studies that link perceived poor performance in streaming examinations to ‘irreparable damage’ and ‘anti-social behaviour’? If yes, quote and hammer home at every opportunity. If no, then this is assertion and will be ignored in the long run.

How one frames the manifesto is also very important. For example:

The pupil shall also be aware of production techniques in the factories and plants and to learn to work with his hands and respect the dignity of labor.

Take note of the phrase ‘the dignity of labor’. I don’t know about the SPP, but this evokes the specter of Marxist labour value theory and raises the ghost of communism. Try selling this to people who have been indoctrinated against communism from birth through education, media and life experiences…which, by the way, is the majority of the electorate.

All of the above do not even consider the silence of the Opposition. Take the hue and cry over Section 377a. Where was the Opposition? What did the Opposition have to say about it? The Workers’ Party kept very conspicuously quiet on this affair.

What is the Opposition’s stance on India, China, Europe and the United States? How about arts and culture? Maybe its views on counselling and rehabilitating most or all criminals? Should the police continue to carry Tasers? What about autism tests for children, and support for confirmed autistic people? Perhaps the integration of the military, police, and intelligence services to combat terrorism domestic and foreign — the latter meaning deploying Singaporean soldiers, police officers and intelligence agents overseas on counterterrorist missions?

Silence.

Show me your policy — and I mean real policy, not general statements and condemnations. Tell me what you stand for. Give me time to think about your policy, compare it to other politicians, discuss it, and think about it. Allow me to debate you on politics, and be prepared to change your mind if I can prove you wrong. This is politics 101 in a democratic society. And the Opposition has failed.

Right now, the Opposition parties needs to figure out what they stand for. This means fleshing out policies, instead of statements of principle. This means facts and figures, implications of policies, mechanisms to execute policies, and costs. If any Opposition party has a manifesto — and by that I mean something that could theoretically be passed into law the next day — then it needs to release the manifesto now. After that, it needs to gather feedback, discuss with people, revise the manifesto, and release it again. This means holding press conferences, posting policies on a single page on the official website, spreading the word through social media and media events, holding forums to discuss policies, inviting the public to write in, debating them with the people and the Government and rival parties, thinking about what to discard and what to keep and what to insert, and integrating the manifesto with the overall political strategy. This process takes months to work out, if not years. The WP’s biggest mistake in 2006 was releasing the manifesto when the GE campaign begun — there was just too little time for the entire country to digest such a weighty document.Had the WP released the manifesto earlier, the outcome could well have been different — but we will never know.

The Opposition parties need to sell people on their ideas, their strategies, their manifestos — and listen, and adapt. Otherwise, the Opposition can never hope to win an election, or even reduce the PAP’s stranglehold in Parliament. Instead, the Opposition will collectively be remembered as the aristocrats of Singapore’s complainers and PAP criticisers, and nothing more.

Show me the policy

9 thoughts on “Show me the policy

  1. One possible manifesto could be simply: to price the new HDB flats within 10-30% markup of the transparent costs for native Singaporeans. Resale flats to be more strictly governed with respect to new citizens or PR’s. Family units will come first in the following social objects: lower priced COE, ERP, cars, parking, flats, food and power bills. Single people will pay the same as now, and not subjected to a penalty raise in costs.

  2. Hi KAM,

    A manifesto should answer the following questions:

    1. What do you intend to do?

    2. Why do you intend to do it?

    3. How do you intend to do it?

    4. When do you intend to do it?

    5. Where do you intend to do it? (if applicable)

    6. Who is going to do it? (if applicable)

    The best the opposition has done is answer the what, and maybe a bit of why. On the other questions they are silent. That is my main problem. I can say that you have the beginnings of a manifesto — but just the beginnings. You need to answer the above details before you do have one.

  3. You have fallen into the trap of “show me your policy” and “something that could theoretically be passed into law the next day”. I submit to you that holding any party to this standard is misguided.

    Politicians set the policy direction and then rely on the civil service to come up with most of the nuts and bolts of implementation. It is fair for a government-in-waiting to campaign on its policy directions without being prematurely prescriptive in the finest details of policy implementation. That can wait until they are elected and form the government, and then they will work with the civil service to fine tune the proposed implementation in line with the government’s current policy direction.

    Two points to note:
    1. The opposition PAP, when it was in opposition from 1955 to 1959, did not prescribe the level of policy that you envisage. Few political parties anywhere in the world do what you expect.

    2. The successive PAP governments since 1959 did not set down their full policy implementation to the fine details either. We can clearly see that many of PAP’s current policies continue to have consultations that span months before they are implemented, and even then, many more months and years to phase in the implementation. Examples abound: CPF Life, subsidies for PRs and foreigners in education, health, etc. The Thomson MRT line announced in 2009 is only expected to come in place by 2018, and we still have no idea where the stations will be located to this day – because the actual implementation details take years to work out.

  4. I would agree with you that it is difficult to hold any political party to the kind of standard espoused here. That being said, I am quite leery of manifestos that do little more than explain the general thrust of policy direction, and skeptical of manifestos that contain assertions instead of fact. The former case does not instill confidence that the politicians have a plan, while the latter case suggests that not enough thought has been put into the matter. I would also think that, realistically, any political manifesto should at the very least be more substantial than what 3 18-year-olds can come up with in an hour — which is not the case, it seems, for at least one party.

    It’s fair to say that while the people can do without the ‘finest details of policy implementation’, they should at least know what the candidates are campaigning for and what they should reasonably expect if the government-in-waiting becomes a government, or gains a larger presence in Parliament — and preferably have a chance to figure out the pros and cons of voting for a party versus another.

    Above all, though, the main message of this post is that the Opposition has to let people know what they stand for beyond soundbites for the media. As it stands, I can’t find very many examples of political parties letting people know what they stand for in the media, outside websites, indoor meetings (WP’s YouthQuake), and certain outdoor events (SDP’s protests come to mind). It was in this spirit that this post was written; on this I might think we agree to a greater or lesser degree.

  5. I’m not sure why everybody thinks that you vote for the Opposition because you want them to form the government. Personally, I think none of the Opposition parties now can form a decent government. I think the PAP would be a far superior government. Furthermore, on balance, I agree more with the PAP’s ideology and policies. However, I will still be voting for the Opposition.

    Why? Because I want more Opposition MPs in Parliament to scrutinise PAP policies and voice alternative opinions. I want to whittle down the PAP’s parliamentary majority so that it will stop being so arrogant and start being more responsive to the people’s wishes. I want to make it more difficult for the PAP to change the Constitution (while we theoretically have a Constitution, in practice it is no different from any other piece of legislation, since the PAP can easily muster the 66% vote to change it).

    So, don’t be fooled by the PAP into thinking that in elections, you should vote for the party that has the best policies and will form the best government. That is false. It is perfectly acceptable to prefer the PAP government and yet still vote Opposition because you want more checks and balances in the legislative process.

  6. Locke,

    It’s perfectly reasonable to use that rationale as the basis of voting. This post is not about why or how a person should vote, rather why the Opposition cannot form an effective government or even present a significant challenge to the incumbent in the long run. Without a well-known and defined policy, I think no opposition party can win the confidence of enough people to become a contender in local politics in the long run.

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