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News Reports

De-constructing constructive politics

The trouble with constructive politics is the word “constructive’’. You can’t very well not be in favour of it. So everybody of whatever political stripe does homage to the President’s use of the phrase in his address to Parliament. But what it consists of is a different matter entirely. You see, you can put any kind of construction on what is constructive politics depending on your point of view and your agenda.

So to Workers Party, constructive politics cannot be of the “bullying’’ kind with the subtext that the PAP is a bully with unfair resources on its side. And the PAP talks about integrity because it seems to have found some kind of wrong-doing in the WP which it isn’t quite saying…Both sides are really being extremely constructive.

Now when the President spoke of constructive politics, he was talking about how we can’t let differences pull us apart such that we’d be gridlocked and paralysed. We all have plenty of differences of opinion and I’m betting that the differences will widen over time, whether of the political kind, over religion and sexual orientation or between new and old citizens. I would like to think that that’s what the President is talking about – about how the nation with so many differences will be able to say: let’s stop arguing, agree to disagree, move ahead on this – or move on to the next thing.

I was hoping to see Parliament discuss these differences and how to narrow them through informed discourse but it appears that the political parties are only vying to see which one puts Singaporeans first. They are talking to each other, not to the people.  

(I congratulate Mr Tan Jee Say for his brainwave of a name for his political party. I can’t wait to see how MPs will try NOT to use it in Parliament.)

Constructive politics means – and this is only my one cent opinion – that we can talk from different points of view in a civilised manner and still agree on the way forward. Unlike what Mr Low said, that constructive politics cannot happen “through a national conversation or public consultation’’, I happen to think they are useful tools to determine the will of the people, beyond voting every four or five years. I wish politicians and office-holders would refer more to the values and aspirations that have been distilled through the year-long Our Singapore Conversation when they make their speeches or policy pronouncements. Surely, they point to the light at the end of the tunnel and can be a basis for most conversations?

Okay, I have some personal constructions on what is constructive politics. One would be how it has to embrace an active citizenry, which includes  advocacy and not just volunteerism. I have often felt that the G would rather we shut up and just hand out face masks.  This is not constructive politics. Citizens want a say and have views too. To do this “constructively’’, they need access to information and proper responses – not cavalier descriptions of them as members of a “vocal minority’’.   

Of course, some of us put across our views in ways which are not flattering to either side of the political divide. The outer limit must, therefore, be the laws of defamation. I know this is one of “bullying’’ tactics thrown often at the PAP government but I cannot conceive of civilised discourse without some parameters. It’s hard enough to tell people that their views should be rational and based on fact not rumours. Surely, we can agree that we can do this without name-calling or disrespect.

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If the powers that be resort to defamation suits too easily, then they can expect their credibility to be eroded. But if they have a case, they should take it to court. Note that smaller beings can also take the powers that be to court. It will be an expensive undertaking but it should be weighed against the worth of reputation. Then, we have to let the judiciary do its work. The day we believe or are sure that the judiciary is the Government’s play thing is the day we (at least I) should leave the country.

There is another aspect to constructive politics that doesn’t seem to have been well-enunciated – the role of the civil service. We read often now in MSM about how civil servants should have their ear to the ground and implement policies with the people in mind. I am glad that I no longer hear what used to be said in the past – that civil servants should EXPLAIN government policies. I have never thought that was the job of civil servants. Their fate should not be tied to that of their political masters. They should remain faceless, not appear on TV talkshows or give so many speeches, so that they can remain above the fray should there be a… hmmm… change at the top. We need to trust that this institution will remain rock-solid and separate – not part of the monolith that is the PAP government.  

I am going to stop here because Parliament is still debating the President’s  address. Anyway, here’s to constructive politics!

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An ex-journalist who can't get enough of the news after being in the business for 26 years

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