The politics of power and patronage

A Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) supporter waving the party flag as SDP secretary-general Chee Soon Juan (not in picture) speaks at the Chua Chu Kang stadium during a rally on Sept 3.
A Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) supporter waving the party flag as SDP secretary-general Chee Soon Juan (not in picture) speaks at the Chua Chu Kang stadium during a rally on Sept 3. PHOTO: AFP

The time has come to raise the bar for the opposition.

In the wilderness years from the 1980s through the 2000s, the landscape was so parched of opposition political talent, many Singaporeans figured that any opposition candidate was better than none.

But things have changed.

This election sees all 89 seats contested. The opposition now boasts quite a few pedigreed university graduates among its new candidates. From the Workers' Party, there is Leon Perera (Oxford) and He Ting Ru (Cambridge), and Dr Daniel Goh, a sociology professor. From the Singapore Democratic Party, there's the medical school professor Dr Paul Tambyah. They join candidates like Kenneth Jeyaretnam, Tan Jee Say and Benjamin Pwee, all Oxbridge graduates who had contested in past elections.

Individuals with strong academic and professional credentials are no longer deterred from stepping into the opposition fray. With more credible candidates to choose from, voters can then raise the bar to evaluate not just the candidate but the party he or she belongs to.

After all, an individual cannot do much in politics. He needs a political machinery, staff, and a large pool of volunteers. This is where a political party comes in.

A political party, before it forms the government, is judged for its performance in Parliament; and its performance as a party in whatever sphere of power it has.

As far as the the WP's Parliamentary report card goes, I think it is not bad for a party with MPs new to Parliament, most of whom had scant public service experience.

PAP secretary-general Lee Hsien Loong may characterise the WP as a tiger outside the House who became a mouse in the chamber, but the WP has delivered a riposte showing that its MPs raised more parliamentary questions per person than PAP MPs. Many Singaporeans will conclude that the WP MPs are working hard, even if the legislative impact of seven elected opposition MPs is minimal.

What about the WP's performance as a party, within its sphere of influence and power?

I am not just referring to the WP's ability to run an estate. As other commentators have noted, one does not need MPs to run estates; one needs estate managers to coordinate the cleaning services, the collection of rubbish, and the maintenance of lifts, lights and other amenities. And as the WP has pointed out, its performance in these has been rated on par with those of other town councils.

Beyond such estate management, a town council's affairs include management of financial accounts, and handling contracts, and issuing licenses and permits over common areas within Housing Board estates.

Political science theory tells us that political parties and candidates vie for votes in order to gain power, so they gain a share of the spoils: "Parties only seek votes to obtain either policy influence, the spoils of office, or both", as influential political scientists Wolfgang C. Müller and Kaare Strom have pointed out.

Spoils of office isn't as corrupt as it sounds: it refers to the ability to shape policies for the country; access to executive power via cabinet portfolios; as well as access to the "perquisites" of office, or the perks and benefits accruing to a position (like a waitress who gets tips or a company CEO with a private jet) .

In the end, politics is about power, competing for power, gaining it and using it.

All that talk about service, and helping people, no matter how sincere, is just a way to persuade people to hand over power to a political party so it can get down to action to make decisions, to lead, and to exercise power for the next five years.

Voters forget that at our peril.

For decades, many Singaporean voters who resented the all-powerful PAP's bullying of the opposition have used their vote to try to check the PAP's power machinery. WP chairman Sylvia Lim's warning at a recent rally that the PAP machinery is so pervasive, it can "eat you up", still strikes home. So does Mr Low Thia Khiang's lament - in his inimitable Teochew - that he has "loon" or tolerated, the PAP for too long.

At the same time, voters should also realise that the warning against handing power over to a party on the wrong track applies to the opposition, not just the PAP.

In Singapore, we are at a state of political development where one opposition party - the WP - is in a position of some limited power to enjoy the "spoils" of office at the municipal level - "spoils" in a non-corrupt sense as defined above - as they have the power to make decisions, collect fees for permits and licenses, and award contracts using public funds.

How a political party performs when it has that power of patronage at a municipal level, speaks volumes about how it might conduct itself if it ever becomes a party in power in charge of a whole nation.

I believe this lies at the heart of the PAP's deep unease with the WP, and is the reason why senior PAP leaders have refused to let go of the accounting and governance lapses surrounding the financial accounts and contracts of the Aljunied-Hougang -Punggol East Town Council (AHPETC).

I am sure they are aware that constant harping on these issues can turn off voters and backfire on the PAP. But the issue isn't just about the town council or its finances. It is about how a political party conducts itself in power, and its standards of governance, within whatever ambit it has.

As Nee Soon GRC candidate K. Shanmugam put it starkly: "Now, in the one place, in the only place that they were in charge, everything has gone wrong."

The sub-text is clear. If this is how the WP conducts itself with the spoils of power in one town council, can it be trusted with more?

Jurong GRC candidate Tharman Shanmugaratnam appealed to voters to understand the seriousness of the issue: " You know my personality, you know my views. You know that I've never been against the idea of an opposition in Singapore... So when I speak about an issue, it is because I'm really worried. It is not because I'm trying to put an opposition down or the WP down."

Not being financially trained, I am not in a good position to figure out, based on public reports, if AHPETC's problems are as dire as painted by the PAP, or as trivial as suggested by the WP.

It is however highly significant to me that a High Court judge Quentin Loh - who ruled against the government's request to appoint independent accountants to AHPETC - yet found reason to say that if AHPETC were a management corporation, it or its officers would be "exposed to the possibility of civil liability... or, in an extreme scenario, criminal liability."

Like many Singaporeans, I understand that the WP has it tough running a town council in opposition. I also sympathise with those who point out that the PAP with its MPs who sit on company boards, and its relationship with the People's Association and its network of grassroots volunteers - many of whom run businesses - are also enmeshed in a network of business-politics patronage and connections, some of which can appear self-dealing.

The difference is that when there is suspected wrongdoing, I think many believe the PAP will get to the bottom of things and account to people. Whatever its faults, the PAP retains that trust among voters.

The WP unfortunately has given the impression that its way of coping with charges of possible civil or criminal liability is to deny and deflect.

Singaporean voters cut opposition parties a lot of slack, understanding the difficult political terrain they operate in. But it's time to raise the bar, and demand more, when there is an opposition party already in power at the municipal level running town councils.

Like Mr Tharman, I believe having an opposition is good for Singapore. And the best way to ensure a stronger opposition takes hold in Singapore, is to start holding it to higher standards.