Keeping the debate constructive

Politics is under siege around the globe. The car bomb attacks in Iraq that seek to stop its journey to democracy represent regressive threats from without. But politics is no less threatened, from within, by the disillusionment, cynicism and apathy that characterise swathes of electoral behaviour in the advanced democracies. Such threats are holding hostage the inclusive calling of politics as a means of uniting citizens around their fundamental and abiding interests.

In calling for constructive politics, President Tony Tan Keng Yam underlined in Parliament the need for politicians here to debate in ways that are useful or beneficial to citizens. This implies avoiding self-indulgent posturing and point-scoring dissension, and remaining focused on improving the lives of people. However, when even what constitutes constructive politics is a matter for debate among political leaders, many might well be left thinking that more work lies ahead in forging an understanding on how best to ensure that politics here remains in the best interest of the people.

Clearly, constructive politics means politics to some public purpose. That purpose ought to lie in the success with which ideas and visions are transformed into pro-people policies that are implemented with the same industry with which they are crafted. To do this requires the Government and other stakeholders to weigh suggestions and proposals for change, whatever their political provenance, and subject them to public scrutiny against the "big picture" background of Singapore's most compelling interests. For debate to be meaningful, participants need to be clear and consistent, allowing for changes in view when the facts change, but not simply when it is politically expedient to do so. Integrity, in standing for a belief and sticking to it, will be critical. All sides can make a difference if they join the debate over material points of policy, offering viable alternatives, probing assumptions and making trade-offs explicit. For citizens, participating in constructive politics means not saying "yes" uncritically and not saying "no" out of adversarial habit either.

Since politics is an evolving process and not an achievable state of perfection, constructive politics will always be a work in progress. In the final analysis, politics is a way for citizens to win collectively, no matter which argument prevails in a debate, when good decisions are arrived at. Singapore is privileged because good governance and strong institutions allow debate to take place in a thorough and vigorous manner without the ructions that afflict other nations. Singaporeans will lose collectively if the process is vitiated by creeping narrow interests, dishonesty or spurious arguments.