The Punggol evolution?
As expected, the Punggol-East by-election has generated much excitement. The four-cornered fight, involving the People’s Action Party (PAP), Worker’s Party (WP), Singapore Democratic Alliance (SDA) and Reform Party (RP), has many questioning the wisdom of three opposition parties entering the fray as it would split the so-called “Opposition vote”.
The Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) even earlier proposed a collaborative effort with the WP that would see both parties backing a single SDP candidate. If the candidate was victorious, the WP would run the town council.
Criticism of a four-cornered fight as well as of the SDP’s proposal, however, raises some rather pertinent questions about the evolving democracy in Singapore, which I think warrant serious discussion. I contend that the Opposition parties should not be castigated but that, rather, the four-cornered battle should be viewed as a positive step in the evolution of Singapore politics.
A vibrant democracy should welcome diverse electoral participation and competition. It should focus on the election of the best possible candidate, not encourage the pooling of resources merely to prevent the election of another.
Singapore’s various opposition parties, many still in the process of finding their feet, must compete at every available opportunity, constantly testing themselves and in the process learning valuable lessons. Their standing back, merely so that the “Opposition vote” is not affected, would not bode well for democracy or its development.
A FALSE DICHOTOMY?
Let us also evaluate this notion of the “Opposition vote” that we seemed to have come to accept, as part of a dichotomy in which only two options exist: The incumbent and “an Opposition”. A vote should not be rendered down to simply a choice between the two, especially when many parties are present in the picture.
Instead, a vote should be presented to the party that offers the best plan to the people. This battle of ideas and platform would spur the parties to learn and grow with each election. If as individual voters we do not accord each party the honest opportunity to convince us of its suitability, how can we expect a competitive and mature democracy?
No doubt in Singapore, much like in any other democracy, there are stalwarts who will consistently vote for their favourite party regardless of other factors. My point stands, however, that there seems to be a popular tendency of viewing all opposition parties as a collective, as evidenced by the idea that they should band together or else give way to one party and thus avoid dividing the vote.
The preoccupation should not be with offering competition to the incumbent – it should be with determining which party and candidate has the best campaign platform.
The residents of Punggol East have been accorded a unique opportunity. In this election, they can aid the evolution of Singapore politics by listening to the rallies with an open mind regardless of prior inclination or predisposition. They can listen without bias and pick the party they judge best for their constituency.
The party that succeeds will have a few years to prove it is worthy of the people’s faith, while the others, more importantly, get to reflect and rebuild their plans and strategies. This opportunity to evolve would not exist if they did not compete.
We are a generation tasked with engaging in a widening space of political openness. Thrust upon us is the joyous burden of nursing a political culture in its infancy, and how we do it will reflect the nature of our politics for years to come.
Pravin Prakash is a political science graduate of the National University of Singapore. He currently tutors at NUS and runs the social commentary blog, The Social Swami.