What have 39 sessions of parliamentary debate taught us about the Opposition? 

singapore opposition

Last month, Parliament convened for the final time this year. And after 39 sessions of parliamentary debates, one thing has become crystal clear. Singapore still has some way to go before reaching democratic nirvana.  

That is so because our Opposition has revealed itself as lacking in conviction and credibility. Or even creative new workable ideas. 

Whose interest do they represent? What vision do they have for this nation? The answer is not always clear, especially when the Opposition seems unable (or unwilling) to differentiate between politics and governance. As a result, as we have seen often overseas, they end up harming the people and the country they claim to represent, hence diluting the purpose for which it exists.  

The unhinged duplicity of the Opposition

If history has taught us anything, it is that politicians who ride on populist policies to gain power end up inflicting irrevocable harm to very people they are supposed to work for. In the last few decades, we have seen once-great nations plunged into long-term decline, besieged by economic and social woes because their leaders were dishonest about trade-offs. This swift and unforgiving reversal in fortune is why the PAP find itself frustrated by the Opposition’s rhetoric on major issues such as housing and the Goods and Services Tax (GST)

During a debate at the start of the year, we saw the Progress Singapore Party (PSP) repeat ad nauseam the merits of their housing scheme. Their landmark proposal involves selling flats without accounting for land costs, which will be clawed back when the flat goes on the resale market. Elegant in its simplicity, the ‘solution’ is practically the policymaking equivalent of instant gratification, if not irresponsible, fiscal and reserve management.  

Unfortunately, discounting land prices to cut costs comes with a litany of fine print, something the PSP is keen to downplay. What happens when Singaporeans need to sell their flats but cannot afford to pay the deferred land costs? Are we proposing that families stay in the same flat forever without considering changes in their circumstances? Finally, in the rush to press the reset button, has PSP considered what will crashing home prices do to the market in which 90% of Singaporeans are homeowners? Besides, how will Singapore maintain its reserves without increasing taxation elsewhere? 

When pressed, the PSP had no answer, choosing instead to sweep these concerns under the carpet and accuse the PAP of mischaracterising their policy. Was it a case of wilful ignorance or manipulative deceit? Nobody knows for sure. But what we do know is that Singaporeans are being led to, blatantly and callously, pawning away their future. 

In what has to be one of the most egregiously irresponsible pieces of policymaking, the PSP has proposed a solution in which the ultimate beneficiary is themselves. By preying on the anxieties attached to housing and selling a dream instead of reality, the PSP has gaslighted Singaporeans into an option where an entire generation will pay the price.  

A pair of ‘flip-flopping’ politicians  

A second concern regarding the Opposition is their contradictory stand on things. While politicians have to be responsive to ground sentiments, that does not give them carte blanche to literally say anything that suits them to gain political points. Yet, time and time again, the Opposition has flipped-flopped its way through parliament. 

At the core of this is the changing tunes of the Workers Party (WP). Is public housing affordable? One WP MP Louis Chua could not make up his mind. Resembling the strange case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, further probing reveals that while the analyst in him believes they are, the politician within does not. We have seen them before in the past with their flip-flopping stances on immigration when they call for opposing targets just to capture the populist votes. 

Moving on to the GST, WP dropped a bombshell on all of us when one of their MPs said, “We accept the reality of a GST at 7%, and it is something we don’t oppose.” 

It had taken nearly 30 years for the WP to begrudgingly accept that the GST is a crucial source of revenue. But since then, they have shifted their goalposts, moving from objecting to the GST per se to zeroing in on the 2% hike. The shiftiness is befuddling, while the absence of honesty is frightening. Ultimately, in an attempt to please the electorate, WP has betrayed itself as a party confused about what it stands for. 

The PAP has always been willing to shift its position and respond with major changes in public policy. But the problem with some naysayers is that they have conflated two things – the fundamentals behind policymaking vs the policies themselves. The former is what the PAP have no intention of changing, which is a resolve to be transparent and truthful always to Singaporeans about trade-offs and never shy away from hard decisions even when it is politically costly.  

Ruthless attempts to incite and divide

Finally, ill-thought-out policies and flip-flopping politicians aside, the most troubling aspect of the Opposition is their tendency to incite division rather than build common ground. Like importing foreign issues into domestic politics? Or demand an end to the Group Representation Constituency (GRC) at the expense of minority representation? The intention behind crafting such motions is less than pure. Outwardly, it might look like a gallant effort to improve political discourse. In reality, it hints at a desire to provoke and push Singaporeans towards the false hopes of identity politics for self-gain. 

It is possible that the Opposition feels that the end justifies the means as long as they can win support. But the thing is, nothing justifies the end if it means creating a polarised world that thrives on discord and distrust. Contrast this with the PAP’s vision for the future – building a kinder and more inclusive society. Now, is that not something more hopeful we ought to work towards? 

The need for quality vs. quantity  

As Singapore society matures, so has the allure of having an Opposition act as a system of checks and balances and provide alternative ideas. However, we must not accept quantity over quality in haste to buoy the number of Opposition members. 

Over the past year, we have seen how ill-conceived policy ideas mooted by the Opposition have threatened to derail the peace and prosperity Singapore has worked so hard to achieve. By simplifying matters with populist policies, they have managed to drown out sensible solutions to complex problems

Meanwhile, an obsession with political showmanship has driven the Opposition to seek out non-existent problems at the expense of solving current challenges, turning parliamentary debates into a long-drawn and tedious affair. In playing politics (and excelling at it), the Opposition has gone against the essence of good governance. One that the PAP has fought for decades to build a country for the ages

Therefore, in the absence of a responsible Opposition, we must be wary of shapeshifting politicians more interested in power than progress. That is because as much as “for country, for people” might make for a catchy tagline, it remains an empty promise if policies and actions fail to align to improve the lives of Singaporeans, now and in the future. 

Photo Source: Parliament of Singapore via Facebook