An Enlightened Indonesian on the Singapore Elections

After almost a year living in Singapore, I probably went on one of the longest bus ride I’ve ever been in here, from Bukit Timah to Hougang, just to see an opposition party rally for the upcoming Singapore Elections on the 7th of May. Some Indonesians might be cynical that Singapore is not even a democracy, since everything is controlled by the government, and how the people’s voice through media and the freedom of expression is very limited. However, after seeing with my own eyes on how an estimated 15,000 people turned up for the rally, on the contrary, I think Indonesia could learn a thing or two from Singapore on democracy.

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After almost a year living in Singapore, I probably went on one of the longest bus ride I’ve ever been in here, from Bukit Timah to Hougang, just to see an opposition party rally for the upcoming Singapore Elections on the 7th of May. Why do I even bother to come, since I don’t vote anyway? Well, I went to the rally in order to fulfil my curiosity, to see what Singapore ‘democracy’ is really like. The reason why I put the quotation mark on the word democracy, is because some Indonesians might be cynical that Singapore is not even a democracy, everything is controlled by the government, and how the people’s voice through media and freedom of expression is very limited. However, after seeing with my own eyes on how an estimated 15,000 people turned up for the rally, on the contrary, I think Indonesia could learn a thing or two from Singapore on democracy.

Upon arrival at the rally venue at about 8 PM, I could hear groups of people cheering from afar, and almost everyone on the bus got out just to come to the rally. It was an open field next to an HDB complex – Singapore’s solution to public housing – and to my amazement it was filled with a lot of people, several hundreds, if not thousands. Aunties and uncles, blue collar and white collar workers with their crisp shirt and fitted pants, the young and the old, they were all there.

There were no dangdut singers, no one giving out free t-shirts or rice boxes (you even have to pay for the party’s newsletter and flags). They simply came to listen to the speakers who spoke in English, Mandarin, Tamil, Malay – showcasing Singapore’s multiculturalism – with their rhetorics and manifestos, trying to persuade their votes.

Me and a couple of friends went up to one of the HDB flats to see the overview of the scenery, and more or less it looked like this:

An estimated 15,000 showed up for the Workers' Party rally. (Yahoo! photo)

The rally that I attended was of the Workers’ Party, one of the seven political parties contesting in the 2011 Singapore Parliamentary Elections. Singapore’s single house parliament has always been dominated by the ruling party, the People’s Action Party (PAP), since 1959. In the last 2006 election, they won 82 of the 84 seats, leaving only 2 for the opposition.

This year, many are eager to see whether the opposition can gain more seats, although analysts say the chances are very slim. Opposition parties make a good case on why opposition, or “co-drivers” are needed, because a good political system is sustainable when a checks and balance system is in place. However, opposition parties must also make a case why voters should vote for them, coming up with programs and policies, rather than just saying that the current ruling party is not doing their job.

Singaporeans vote for individual MPs through the Single Member Constituencies (SMC), or vote for parties in Group Representation Constituencies (GRC), which consists of 4-6 MP candidates. When I asked a Singaporean on whom they are voting, a very candid response was that they would like to see more opposition, but at the same time they would also like a credible candidate representing them in the parliament – and this is usually from the ruling party. From what I know, the PAP has been able to get good candidates for their party, they attract the best talents and often groom them since they were young.

I’ve heard of Singaporeans who relies on their MPs to get their voices heard, because it is their duty to represent and listen to the constituency where they came from. The reluctance of Singaporeans voting for the opposition, is that some of them don’t want to lose their current MPs who belongs to the PAP. Of course, MPs who don’t care for their constituency, will not get voted again and that’s where the opposition stands a chance.

It’s common sense, but it’s often overlooked at in an indirect-democracy system. The people select the best candidates to represent our voices in the parliament, or in the case of Indonesia, we’re supposed to select the best candidates to be in DPR and DPRD. We’ve been bickering so much on how the DPR and DPRD in Indonesia is filled with nut-jobs, but who voted them in the first place? We did.

We’re partly responsible for putting those people in parliament, and that’s why voting matters.

Next Indonesian elections, we better make sure that we know whom to vote, rather than simply voting for the political party. Last elections we voted a wild card and as a result, the whole DPR ended up nothing more than a circus. We don’t even know who’s in the coalition or who’s in the opposition or whose interests do they represent, but I’m betting it’s not of the people of Indonesia.

As I was enjoying my ice potong sandwich that was sold in the opposition party rally, I looked around at the animosity and the eagerness of the people there, and concluded that, well, Singapore is indeed a democracy and the people are not apathetic at all. No matter how imperfect the democracy might be like some Indonesians see it, it has an efficient government and working policies. In my view that is much better than a system who focuses too much on the procedurals of democracy and resulted less in the end.

*Photo courtesy of Yahoo! Photo

Correction: previously it was written that GRCs consists of 3-6 MP candidates. Huiwen have corrected me that this year the smallest GRC have a number of 4.

9 thoughts on “An Enlightened Indonesian on the Singapore Elections”

  1. Nice piece Fika. Here are some of my comments:

    Many hold the view that that the Singapore government controls everything. This is, in my honest opinion, a rather reductionist and stereotypical perspective. The situation on the ground is often more nuanced – while our traditional media is not ‘free’ as measured in countries with a liberal democracy, there is a proliferation of alternative views online (a classic example being The Online Citizen), and citizens always know where to go to look for the credible sources. Interestingly, online media has played a large part in pushing ‘freedom’ for traditional media, especially in the 2006 elections where citizen journalists such as the TOC team posted pictures of massive turnouts of Workers’ Party rallies at Hougang (similar pictures to what you have in your entry) which were not reflected in the newspapers, and much criticism was levied against the traditional press. The ‘check’ by the public and resultant backlash against the newspapers actually spurned a greater coverage of the political affairs.

    On the GRC system – it has been criticized (notably, by Professor Thio Li-Ann) as unconstitutional because of its ‘package deal’ approach – i.e. you want a heavyweight minister in Parliament, you vote the young ones in too. You can see this in the composition of each GRC ward which typically has at least one heavyweight MP who is a minister, at least one veteran MP, and newcomers – numbers varying. Thio argues that young MPs ride on the ‘coat tails’ of the senior heavyweights to be ‘sent’ in to Parliament (in the present election, people have raised this most avidly in the case of 27 year-old Tin Pei Ling fielded in Marine Parade GRC, helmed by ex-PM Goh Chok Tong). As the opposition is often unable to amass sufficient manpower to contest in GRCs (this election contest is unprecedented), the GRC system has been critiqued as an effective tool of entrenching PAP power by allowing wards to go uncontested.

    Alongside with this, people have questioned the utility of a GRC – the stated rationale for the system being to (i) ensure minority representation by requiring at least one member of the minority race (either Malay, Indian, Eurasian) to be fielded in each GRC, and (ii) economies of scale in town council administration. However at the end of the day, all Parliamentarians have to toe the party line in voting – which begs the question of how (i) is fulfilled.

    On PAP, its selection process is very stringent, but they often pick from the same talent pool, which largely comprises top officers from the public service who have had exposure to many different sectors in the ministries, grassroots volunteers, top performing individuals in the private sector etc. This selection process is internal and opaque.

    On your last para, I think the definition of democracy is an extremely fluid and varied one, and the level of democraticness varies in each political systems. Clearly many see that Singapore’s system doesn’t measure up to Western definitions of democraticness. I however see no credence in such comment, because Singapore’s system is sui generis and in my opinion rightly so. For such a small country to be run efficiently and nimbly, I genuinely believe it needs a strong, dominant government. After studying the systems in the US, Canada, Singapore and (very cursorily) the EU, I do see quite clearly that Singapore needs a political system fashioned out of its demographics, not one borrowed from Western conceptions. It might be closer to a ‘benevolent and efficient dictatorship’ than a ‘Western democracy’ if you were to put it on a spectrum. The greatest danger to this dominant one party system, however, is countering decay that happens from within. That’s where the role of the opposition supposedly comes in, to ensure that (i) the government is connected to, and listens to the voices on the ground and (ii) to sustain robust debate over policies in Parliament. For instance, it is true that the decision to allow for liberal immigration influxes over the past years went largely undiscussed – and we see the ramifications because the ambient carrying capacity of public infrastructure is limited – roads, public spaces etc have a limited carrying load. So yes, the Singaporean electorate is caught in a dilemma which is aggravated by the GRC ‘package deal’ approach.

    Democracy is the least of the evils insofar as it allows for checks and balances on the government. As you rightly pointed out, the features of democracy are alluring, but the crucial concern lies in ensuring that this institutionalization of checks and balances does not impede the political administration for every country. What Singapore needs are parliamentarians who can get the work done, and not merely talk.

    *NB: In this election, the smallest GRCs have a team of 4, not 3. 🙂

  2. Thank you for the generous reply, Huiwen.

    I actually do not want to go to the nitty-gritty of the GRC system in Singapore’s Elections, as I believe it will take more than a blog post to analyze that. Besides, I am sure a real Singaporean like you would be more knowledgeable on the issue other than an outsider like me. So thank you for commenting on the GRC system.

    Two cases that I’d like to point out of this year’s PAP GRC ‘mistakes’ that I observed, one is on the decision to nominate 27-year-old Tin Pei Ling (dubbed as Singapore’s Sarah Palin) that you’ve mentioned earlier, and second is on the 39-year-old from nobody-to-MP nominee Chia Shi Liu in MM Lee Kuan Yew’s ward that goes uncontested.

    Indeed, my purpose of this writing is to point out that it’s less the importance of achieving ‘democracy’, which is often graded in the western notion of democracy, but more to focus on what is the result of this system – whether the government is able to deliver the public goods to its people. This is often lost in the thought process. I completely agree with you, it’s not only Singapore, but Indonesia also needs politicians who can get their work done and not talk only.

  3. did you see the election result today? i guess by now you will understand why some Indonesians might be cynical that Singapore is not even a democracy.

    1. Singaporeans have voted and it’s no surprise that PAP won. They do have some better candidates compared to the opposition – and if Singaporeans believe that, then they will vote for the PAP. If they don’t, they’ll vote for opposition. For example, it’s a historical moment when Workers’ Party won Aljunied GRC, beating PAP and they lost two of their ministers at the same time. Isn’t this a part of democracy?

      I actually question whether Indonesians truly know what democracy is. It’s not just elections and the number of political parties in the parliament – which is only the procedural part of it.

  4. No, the results are not at all surprising given the laws that put real obstacles to the development of an equally competent and capable opposition, the electoral system and the gerrymandering which further skews the playing field and the conservative, cautious nature of Singaporean society. All of this, of course, on top of a relatively materially affluent society and a PAP reign that has produced visible results. Nothing in the least surprising.

  5. Many thanks for the writings, guys… I found them very helpful.
    I just remember what Rupert Murdoch said when he expanded his media business to Singapore. He stated, most Singaporeans prefer prosperity to press freedom, just as most Chinese prefer economic success to ability to choose their own leader. With that Murdoch was questioning the credo that press freedom is just what most people need and a must for a prosper society–which is the final objective of democracy or any other system. And, in my opinion, the question is indeed relevant to many countries including Indonesia.

  6. Press freedom vs. economic prosperity is a false dichotomy, a red-herring…In fact, those countries with the most free press are precisely those that are most economically prosperous.

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