An English friend of mine once remarked that there is a close link between the free market economy and the free marketplace of ideas. Just as the former is reliant on the unfettered exchange of goods and services and the natural forces of competition so is the latter reliant on competing viewpoints seeking attention and acceptance with the most rational or the most socially relevant (given the particular age and location) being pushed to the fore.

It is a case of survival of the fittest idea.

The quality of debate hasn’t been stellar in Singapore (with the exception of signs of intelligence emerging via blogosphere). Insofar as Parliament is concerned, MPs haven’t been accustomed to vigourous debate and I guess the sedate Parliamentary air can seep into the cells through some kind of osmosis and affect the logical faculties.

The Worker’s Party leader Low Thia Khiang, made on Monday what I thought was a rather uncontroversial and straightforward observation about the need for greater opposition presence in Parliament to act as a check and balance on the PAP-led government. He was making the point that people would have no recourse if the ruling party were to abuse its power, trample on people’s rights and become corrupt.

In response to Mr Low’s assertion PAP MPs are reported to have raised some arguments. From Channelnewsasia:

“Indranee Rajah, Deputy Speaker and MP for Tanjong Pagar GRC, replied that the citizens of Singapore have the right to vote against the PAP, and said Mr Low’s suggestion is unsound.

She said: “If that day ever comes, then the people are at liberty to vote out the PAP government and should do so in that situation.

“The premise of Mr Low’s suggestion is flawed. He’s really saying just in case PAP becomes corrupt in the future, then people had better vote for the opposition now.

“But if you apply the same logic, then the argument can also be made that if you vote in the opposition, then they may become corrupt in the future, so in order to avoid that, you might as well vote for PAP now.” “

Ms Rajah’s assertion (that when the PAP government does become corrupt in the future, the people of Singapore are at liberty to vote out the PAP) is rather surprising. Let us assume that we have the same power balance in Parliament in about 20 years time. Let us assume that there emerges clear evidence of corruption amongst a number of Cabinet Ministers of that future date. The people of Singapore decide to vote the PAP out of power. But, guess what. The opposition parties are weak and crippled by political impediments that currently exist and presumably would continue to exist at that later date. They are unable to field enough candidates and on nomination day the PAP gets a majority. Alternatively, the opposition parties manage to cobble together enough candidates and manage to deny PAP its majority and a coalition of opposition parties comes to power after the election. From a mere 2 MPs in Parliament, the coalition of opposition parties suddenly has let’s say 50 MPs. These fresh Parliamentary faces would now have to figure out governance of the nation from scratch.

The problem with Ms Rajah’s argument is that she expects to have a change in government the minute the PAP is corrupt. The presence of a sufficiently viable opposition in Parliament is so that if the existing government should become corrupt, the people have the choice of turning to an alternative that is waiting the wings and is ready and competent to govern. It is an insurance policy for the citizenry.

The reason why democratic elections present a better alternative to autocratic systems is because they allow citizens the opportunity to alter the persons exercising authority when the need arises through a stable process instead of causing a shock to the system. If a country had no elections to begin with, the only way that the citizens could alter the corrupt leadership is by popular revolution and other such drastic means. In a country that has an electoral process, the people are afforded the opportunity to replace their leaders peacefully and without placing undue stresses on the machinery of government. But, merely having the right to vote out the leaders is not going to ensure that there is no shock to the system. A key component of a viable and mature democracy is the presence of a competent and sizeable opposition in Parliament: an alternative that is waiting in the wings; one that can not only deliver peaceful change in leadership but can also govern from Day 1 (instead of coming in suddenly like a revolutionary government with popular backing but little experience and hence still constituting a shock to the system)

Ultimately, it is about having a system in place that will ensure peaceful and smooth transitions inspite of the individuals that pass through the halls of power. If citizens are to refrain from having any opposition in Parliament until something goes wrong with the PAP government, then it would be too late to attempt a complete overhaul. Such an attempt at overhaul would be equivalent to producing a revolutionary government with all the attendant potential problem that an inexperienced leadership could bring.

If in the next few elections, the opposition gets a foothold in Parliament, then in the long run they would be able to present that viable alternative to that hypothetically corrupt PAP 20 years down the road.

There is one other point to the presence of a visible and viable opposition. On the assumption that the ruling party becomes corrupt, who is to raise the issue in Parliament? Who is to exercise independant oversight? Of course, I can imagine that the retort would be that 1 opposition MP is sufficient for this purpose. Now that the PM has announced that there would be 9 opposition MPs (elected MPs and NCMPs), one could argue that these 9 could act as a check. The problem with this is that a small group of MPs would be ineffective in exposing corruption compared to a critical mass of opposition MPs.

Above all, a truly virulent Parliament that acts as the voice of the people is only possible through the diversity of views, ideas and arguments presented in public and debated vigourously. The weaker arguments will be exposed for the people to see and the more cogent ideas will come to the fore.

James Madison in the Federalist Papers once warned that when giving out political power we must bear in mind that ‘enlightened statesmen will not always be at the helm’.

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