A legislature that is national, not partisan

Democracies are said to be slow to make war. This was in full display last week, as the United States tried hard to get an international coalition to punish the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for allegedly using chemical weapons on its own people on Aug 21, killing 1,400. President Barack Obama could use his power as commander in chief to order military action against Syria. Instead, he is turning to Congress for support, despite knowing how hard-going it will be.

As many observers point out, the US is war-weary from a decade of war in Afghanistan and Iraq. Congressmen would still be smarting from having been misled by the George W. Bush administration into supporting a strike against Iraq in 2002. The rationale was to disarm Saddam Hussein of his weapons of mass destruction. (Turned out there were none.)

In Britain, Prime Minister David Cameron suffered an embarrassing rebuff in Parliament, with 285 MPs against and 272 favouring a motion on military action in Syria. In both the United States and Britain, legislative approval is not needed for military action, which is a decision for the executive.

In going back to the elected representatives of the people, the two leaders were no doubt swayed by a complex calculus of domestic political considerations, underlined by concerns about public support and international image.

At their heart, the decisions also show a commitment to democracy and stem from a respect for the people's voted representatives. For Mr Cameron, the decision meant a loss of political credibility. For Mr Obama, it entails risk.

And for all concerned, many hours of work: going through reports of evidence of sarin gas use, de-sensitising them of compromising detail while presenting them intelligibly, hours of briefings and discussions, and hours of parliamentary debate.

But that is the price of democracy: debate, delays and, sometimes, even the demise of policies. Is it a price worth paying?

Every society mulls the benefits. When there is a war where speed is of the essence, the time delay required to seek consensus becomes more obvious. But in many other policies of a more day-to-day nature, the same trade-offs have to be made: Make a fast decision for efficiency or take time to get buy-in. Those options are particularly pertinent for Singapore, even if we hope not to be dragged into a war situation.

For a long time, Singapore has prided itself on being a country where leaders can act swiftly without being slowed down by fickle public opinion. The need for speedy decisions is a justification by the People's Action Party (PAP) for its insistence that it has to remain the dominant party in Singapore.

It has not defined what constitutes dominance, but its near-total control of Parliament (81 out of 87 seats) means the Government can make laws and policies speedily with every expectation of carrying them out. PAP leaders have been talking recently about the need to "get the politics right" in Singapore. But what constitutes the right politics from its point of view?

Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam expanded on how to get the politics right in an interview in April: having policies that are made for the long term, communicating policies well, and having MPs with heart who serve on the ground. He also said the PAP aimed to be a dominant party, but wanted to be dominant without dominating all areas. From past comments by PAP leaders, it is clear that a dominant PAP is at the heart of its idea of right politics.

The problem with this vision is really that: a vision. Unlike in the past and despite its dominance in Parliament, what the PAP wants is no longer always what it will get. This is because the people's will, that fickle thing, has come much more into play since 2011 when voters gave the PAP just 60 per cent of the vote share, and rejected a five-member PAP team with four people of ministerial calibre in favour of two opposition leaders and three unknowns.

The PAP may want to be the dominant party but how long it remains so depends on the people and on the growth of the opposition. There are signs that compared with the past when PAP leaders viewed the opposition as time-wasters and a distraction from the real job of making policies, some now view a stronger opposition as a healthy development for Singapore.

Mr Tharman said in the same April interview: "Part of a healthy political system is one with a decent opposition presence in Parliament and outside, and a responsible opposition."

He did not define what a "decent" threshold might be: one-tenth, one-fifth, just shy of one-third of Parliament? Nor is it certain if many senior PAP leaders would agree wholeheartedly with him. But the truth is that the PAP is likely to have to live with a stronger opposition presence in Parliament whether it likes it or not.

The PAP will increasingly have to decide whether it wants to use every means in its power to push through policies it considers good for Singapore, or whether it should face up to and learn to deal with public opinion better.

Whether it is population planning, foreign worker inflow or health-care reform, it has to decide if speed is of the essence, or if there is virtue in taking time to debate and get buy-in. One good way to start is to engage the legislature more meaningfully.

This means taking elected MPs - regardless of political party - into confidence more, giving better quality information and justifications for policies, and treating MPs as truly representatives of the people empowered to make law.

In the United States, two leading Republicans in the House - Speaker John Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor - have pledged their support for President Obama, a Democrat, when Congress votes this week on military action.

This is a fine moment in US bipartisanship. To be sure, American democracy has major faults, with political gridlock holding even the budget to ransom. Lobbying and political funding are also travesties of social justice. But at least among elected representatives there is respect for each other's roles. Imagine if that were to happen in Singapore: A prime minister on the brink of a major initiative goes to Parliament to seek approval, and the two top opposition leaders rally their colleagues in support.

Then we would have a PM who truly respects democracy and the people's elected representatives, and an opposition who takes the national, not partisan, view. Then Singapore would truly have got its politics right. Whether or not the PAP is dominant.

muihoong@sph.com.sg

 

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