We get the opposition we deserve

“Inter Pares” (among equals) argues that what they call the “Roy Clique” is a threat to Singaporean democracy. This clique is named for the blogger and opposition cause celebre Roy Ngerng, who has allegedly accused the Prime Minister of mismanaging CPF funds, by analogising it to the discredited leadership of City Harvest Church.[1][2] According to Inter Pares, the ‘clique’ have harmed democracy in two ways. Rather than improving political discourse, they have polarised political opinion. And by changing people’s opinions, they may force the real political opposition to reposition themselves. I’ll respond to each of the points in turn. I think the piece reveals a mindset that is so formed in the establishment mould (uncritically accepting ideas about national unity, political polarisation, the function of electoral contestation, and the role of the opposition), that even when it intends to be impartial and critical, it isn’t.

Inter Pares thinks that Mr Ngerng and friends have contributed to polarisation. But polarisation happens along a spectrum.[3] In this case, this is a spectrum defined by a party that has sat squatly in power for the last half-century, however legitimated it might have been by electoral procedure. And this same party has reshaped the foreign and domestic media’s incentives to provide commentary, by applying unique defamation laws totally divergent from the practice in the rest of the world (Sim 2011), and by passing the Newspapers and Printing Presses Act which imposes a similarly unique ownership structure on SPH. The regular institutions that make democracy possible in other places, by advocating competing legitimate interests, are either weakened (the opposition, civil society, trade unions, and the media) or subscribe to a thin, procedural vision of democracy that defers to Parliament and the Party (the judiciary [4]). According to former AG Walter Woon in 1991, “we effectively don’t have a constitution.” So what would pass in most countries as fair comment, within the context of robust democratic institutions, is seen as polarisation here. And that is not Mr Ngerng’s fault, but something set up in the system.

In any case, I would be happy to revise my opinion if Inter Pares can find a single survey that supports their empirical claim—that Singaporeans may conflate Mr Ngerng and friends with the entire opposition, and therefore turn against the opposition. But I think and hope Singaporeans are smarter than that. The very existence of multiple opposition parties, and the electoral success of the Workers’ Party relative to other parties, suggests that Singaporeans are capable of telling apart political positions. If I am wrong, and Singaporeans really cannot tell the difference between a card-carrying political party member and a random blogger, then we have bigger things to worry about than democracy—and frankly, in that situation we would deserve the opposition we get. In short, I wouldn’t worry about people not being able to tell who they support.

Inter Pares also argues that Mr Ngerng is going for “the anti-establishment crowds,” which are “the opposition’s natural supporters and vote base.” So they worry that Mr Ngerng’s political rhetoric will force the opposition to either go along (go to the political extreme), or stay the course (middle ground)—both options costing them votes. Well first of all, voting is compulsory in Singapore, and the anti-establishment vote by definition isn’t going to the establishment, so the savvy opposition move is to stake out defensible policy positions just as if Roy Ngerng had not shown up.[5] If the opposition don’t recognise that, they sure as hell don’t deserve my vote. Besides, as I’ve pointed out earlier, democracy is more than just elections. And most importantly, I think the duty of being an opposition party has not changed post-Roy. The opposition may have to step up their communications to contend with the bloggers, but it was their job all along to come up with consistent ideologies and coherent manifestos. This job is the same whether or not spoilers like Mr Ngerng exist. In other words, I wouldn’t worry about the opposition having to move on the political spectrum.

One good thing that’s come out of the whole shitty affair is that the Ministry of Manpower has heavily stepped up its public communications—ads in the papers and on the MRT being the most visible. Tell me: when was the last time did an ordinary citizen hold an entire Ministry to account, as Roy Ngerng did? The government is supposed to be answerable to its citizens. Let me flesh this out just a little more: democratic government exists for the good of the people. One of its duties is therefore to convince the people that its policy programme is indeed in their interests. This is not distracting the attention of the government or diverting its energies from decisive action, as our political leaders have sometimes put it—rather, in the absence of a legislative opposition that can properly check the government’s powers and force it to reflect on its policies, the people have to perform that function. This is democracy in action.

I get the impression that Inter Pares does want a robust opposition in parliament. They ask: “are [sic] the people you support could [sic] potentially risk our democracy?” But I have to ask—what democracy? Sudhir Vadaketh pointed out two months ago that Mr Ngerng’s misaimed critique comes in part from a deeply asymmetrical, unbalanced environment for ordinary citizens in terms of data; and that the intellectual environment in which we develop is hardly conducive to cultivating skills of savvy political argumentation. In practice, we do not have political equality with the political leadership. And if you think you were never meant to enjoy political equality with your superiors (they are, after all, ‘leaders’)—wake up from your self-imposed tutelage! Why would anyone think their own views, interests, and aspirations so inferior? This is not the hallmark of a democracy.

Neo, Jaclyn Ling-Chien and Yvonne CL Lee. 2009. “Constitutional supremacy: Still a little dicey?” pp. 153-192 in Evolution of a Revolution: Forty years of the Singapore Constitution. Thio Li-ann and Kevin YL Tan, eds. Abingdon, UK: Routledge-Cavendish.

Sim, Cameron. 2011. “The Singapore Chill: Political Defamation and the Normalization of a Statist Rule of Law.” Pacific Rim Law & Policy Journal 20(2):319–353.

[1] I write ‘allegedly’ because it’s been a long time since I read the blog posts, and at this moment I am only reporting the conclusion that a reasonable person would draw from the reporting around the whole affair—not the ‘facts’ as asserted by either side.

[2] Anyone notice the parallel between this and the bunch of people sued for defamation when they compared the government to the scandal-hit NKF back in 2005? This included the SDP and the Far Eastern Economic Review.

[3] Forgive my rusty physics knowledge and mixing of metaphors; I’m talking politics here.

[4] See for instance Neo and Lee: “the case of Taw Cheng Kong reveals the weakness of the courts as an effective constraint on the legislative and executive powers. This arises largely from the courts’ deference to political wisdom which impacts upon their fidelity to the Constitution, in particular, the protection of fundamental liberties. As a result, the courts have taken a legalistic view of the Constitution and adopted a strong presumption of constitutionality” (2009, 175) and “the courts have generally deferred to Parliament on matters of social policy” (ibid., 176).

[5] In an election, one could argue that it could be better to spoil one’s vote than vote PAP and support their continued entrenchment if it came down to it (e.g., if someone like Gilbert Goh stood in one’s constituency).


One comment

  1. Outstanding post. I hope singaporeans are as discerning as you say, able to sniff out the random blogger from the real opposition politician.

    To me, ngerng has raised awareness, but I’m not sure how much impact his activism can make on policy change. The government, while having to come forth to explain themselves to counter him, is not exactly making huge shifts in CPF policy.

    If I can summarize the situation on what I think is the case now, is that singaporeans are quite receptive to voting more opposition into parliament. The dilemna is whether we think opposition should be someone like ngerng. And the govt knows that. They know that while they have to respond, they need not bow down to him at all because of the polarising figure that he is.

    End of the day, I’m waiting to see what plays out with the roy clique.

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