Analysis: Shifts in policy positions a given, but political parties need to be clear and accountable for changes
SINGAPORE — While stances over policies naturally change over time, political parties are expected to be clear about them and explain to the public the rationale behind such changes as part of being transparent and responsible, said political analysts.
- A political party's position on policies naturally change over time, but they are expected to be clear about them and explain to the public the rationale behind such changes
- The latest war of words between PAP and WP on this matter fleshes out to Singaporeans the kind of values espoused by the two parties
- Political analysts said these after recent exchanges between the two parties that were sparked by a commentary by PAP's Chee Hong Tat on April 25
- The analysts noted that party members had in the past drawn attention to how their rivals have shifted their positions on policies
- They added that the manner in which political debates are taken out of Parliament also matter
SINGAPORE — While stances over policies naturally change over time, political parties are expected to be clear about them and explain to the public the rationale behind such changes as part of being transparent and responsible, political analysts said.
The latest war of words between the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) and the opposition Workers’ Party (WP) may seem like a "storm in a cup" to some people, but it fleshes out to Singaporeans the kind of values espoused by the political parties and helps citizens decide on the kind of political culture it wants in the future, they added.
Political observers were speaking to TODAY on Wednesday (April 26) after the recent exchanges between PAP and WP over the latter’s changing stance on the Goods and Services Tax (GST), among other issues.
This was sparked by a commentary by PAP’s Chee Hong Tat in his party's blog, Petir, on Tuesday, where he said that he was "surprised" to hear WP’s Member of Parliament (MP) Leon Perera saying in the House that the party had accepted "the reality of GST at 7 per cent since 2018".
The opposition party issued a statement on Wednesday in response, saying that its stance had been clear all along and that it was "surprised" that Mr Chee did not rise to debate in Parliament if he was unsatisfied with replies from WP members then.
Analysts who spoke to TODAY noted that party members from both sides of the aisle had in the past drawn attention to how their rivals have shifted their positions on policies, adding that the manner in which political debates are taken out of Parliament also matters.
MAKING 'RESPONSIBLE' U-TURNS, EXPLAINING THEM
Analysts said that policies — and political parties’ positions on them — are expected to change over time given how circumstances may evolve.
In his post on Tuesday, Mr Chee traced WP's opposition to the GST back to 1994 when it was first implemented, and outlined how the party had opposed it again each time the GST was increased until the increment to 7 per cent in 2007.
He added that the opposition party "had never said they accepted the GST" until the debate in Parliament last Thursday.
WP in its statement on Wednesday questioned why the issue was being brought up only now.
It added that if the ruling party wishes to resurrect the Opposition’s positions from “15 to 20 years ago”, then the Opposition could also do the same for debate today.
"For example, has the Government explicitly reversed its stand on extending HDB (Housing and Development Board) upgrading funded by taxpayers to opposition constituencies last, a policy introduced in the 1990s?" the WP said.
"Was there a post-mortem and closure on that policy?" said the party, questioning whether reviving the issue for debate today would be constructive.
The WP was referring to an HDB upgrading policy introduced by then-Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong, who said during the 1996 hustings that estates “will be left behind” if residents vote for the opposition.
WP members had previously noted that national upgrading programmes have been directed to opposition-held wards in recent years, such as the upgrading of lifts.
Nevertheless, the issue of public funding for upgrading works in these estates remains a perennial one.
Law professor and political analyst Eugene Tan from the Singapore Management University (SMU) stressed the importance of parties explaining changes of policy for the sake of transparency and accountability.
“Not being open about a positional change in policy is not responsible politics and this applies to the ruling party of the day and all other parties,” he said.
“If they'd rather be secretive about it, then it is fair to question why they are acting so.”
He also said that a change in policy position should not necessarily be viewed as a U-turn, and it was "only proper and responsible" to shift positions if it is needed.
“Parties can decide how they want to go about declaring their change in position. But pretending there is no change is not an option at all,” Assoc Prof Tan added.
Dr Felix Tan, a political analyst at the Nanyang Technological University (NTU), added: “Parties will change track on issues depending on the changing circumstances unless we are to believe that society will always remain static.
“So, once again, let’s not be pedantic about it.”
Dr Mustafa Izzuddin, senior international affairs analyst at management consultancy Solaris Strategies Singapore, agreed that it was "crucial" for changes in positions to be communicated in a timely fashion "both in Parliament and to the domestic populace".
"Especially if a policy affects the lives and livelihoods of people, the public has the right to know if there is a shift in policy stance from both the ruling and opposition parties, as this is the responsible thing to do," he said.
Ms Nydia Ngiow, managing director for Bower Group Asia Singapore, said that it was unclear in this case if WP was really walking back on its previous stance on the GST.
"(However) the lack of communication, explanation or substantiation on the reasons for any change in stances on GST since 2018 highlights the party’s failure to provide a space for proper debate and discussion," she said.
DEBATING OUTSIDE PARLIAMENT
The analysts pointed out that this was not the first time the parties had taken note of their rivals’ change in positions over key policies or issues, or asked for them to be explicitly explained.
“The PAP is clearly pressing the WP to be upfront about its policy position on key issues and also urging it to take a position, rather than be ambivalent, on matters where it has consciously avoided taking a position (such as on Section 377A of the Penal Code),” Assoc Prof Tan from SMU said.
Dr Gillian Koh, deputy director for research at the Institute of Policy Studies, said that PAP had also pressed WP to explain its stance on the Non-Constituency Member of Parliament (NCMP) scheme when WP allowed its MPs to take up NCMP positions after the 2015 General Election despite its opposition to the scheme.
She also noted how WP chief Pritam Singh, during the debate on the President's address in Parliament on April 21, cited eight instances of WP's policy ideas that he said the ruling party had implemented to some extent.
“PAP says and acts to convey that it wants to set standards for politics in Singapore. WP spells out how it has done this in relation to coming up with alternative policies, and also constructive politics,” Dr Koh said.
The analysts said that it was natural for debates on hot-button issues to extend outside the House, but how this was being done was crucial, too.
Dr Koh said that when this happens, it is important for the public to not only pay attention to the substantive aspects of the debate, “but also why the procedural nuances of how Parliament operates are important and what those actually are”.
Recently, follow-up actions were being considered against Progress Singapore Party’s NCMP Leong Mun Wai for what he had posted on Facebook, but no action was taken after he removed contentious lines in the post.
In its statement on Wednesday, WP questioned why PAP chose only now to call out the opposition party’s stance on GST, if the ruling party had previously found it vague.
Assoc Prof Tan said: “There is no set rule on when one should have asked about a change in policy stance. In politics, timing is critical. Strategy matters as much, too.”
He added that Mr Perera’s comment in Parliament last week had given PAP the chance to amplify the matter.
NOT JUST A 'STORM IN A TEACUP'
Dr Tan of NTU said that political debates should be more forward looking, while SMU's Assoc Prof Tan acknowledged that the general public might view the war of words as “a storm in a teacup”.
“While there are serious matters amid the war of words, this is not going to be a game-changer. It will pass before long until the next clash comes round,” Assoc Prof Tan said.
Dr Koh, however, said that there are important things that can be gleaned by the public from the latest debate.
As the dominant party since 1959, PAP has been the “singular source of political socialisation”, and the party tries to set values in Singaporeans’ minds about what to expect of the Government and its agencies, as well as of political parties and politicians, she added.
“This debate helps the PAP reiterate what it expects, which in turn also suggests what Singaporeans can expect from it as it goes through the process of leadership renewal,” she continued.
“In responding, the WP is expressing what are its values, and helps us understand what we can expect of it as well.”
Ultimately, the general public would be able to see and decide for themselves what these values being expressed are, which party can live up to them, and whether those values can help Singapore achieve the political culture it desires.
Dr Koh added that the debate at this juncture is significant for two reasons, firstly "given the current, most challenging policy climate facing Singapore" in terms of the global economy, geopolitics and economic restructuring.
Secondly, she believes that the fourth-generation team of PAP leadership is also trying to stamp its mark.
"It will wish to spend some time to reiterate what are its fundamentals in terms of those political values, and will do it in ways that say, 'Singaporeans, do you think WP or any other political party can match up to us?'
"We expect those other parties to answer so that we can make that assessment."