First World & Insurance

It seems the Workers’ Party is hammering a key message in the coming elections: 1) “First World Parliament” and 2) “Political Insurance”.

Earlier this year, Low Thia Khiang concluded his budget speech with this:

As this may be one of the last sittings of Parliament before it is dissolved, I wish all Singaporeans well. I also wish to see a first world parliament in the making when we reconvene in this house after the coming General Election.

I think many people miss this important hint which he has dropped. Their campaign slogan, released today, turned out to be “Towards a First World Parliament”. In last week’s televised political forums, in both the English and Mandarin version, the WP representatives emphasized the need for an opposition (and specifically the WP, I presume) to act as a check on the PAP government. I believe the WP has a coherent message for the elections, and it is a good sign their campaign will be as consistent and also well-organized.

But what exactly is a “First World Parliament”? What is “First World”, anyway?

The “First World” used to describe the bloc of countries aligned to the US, the “Second World” is allied to the USSR, while the “Third World” is supposed to be non-aligned countries, usually those which have just attained self-independence. Ideologically, the First World band of countries have capitalist economic systems and multi-party democracies. Obviously what the WP wants is for Singapore to achieve multi-party democracy. Ironically, the so-called First World countries, with the exception of a few, aren’t doing well economically or even politically. Look at the US, and its near-breakdown of government as the Democrats and Republicans wrangle over the budget.

But I’m quite sure the First World label will resonate well with many S’poreans. This is due to Lee Kuan Yew’s autobiography, From Third World to First: The Singapore Story: 1965-2000. It is quite impossible for S’poreans NOT to hear of this much-parroted phrase, that S’pore leapt from Third World country to the First World within a generation. I find this extremely familiar, drummed in by school and the media. The WP is tapping on this rather smartly; that though S’pore has First World living standards, our political system is still Third World. Some might be persuaded, though I’m unsure if this forms a large number to swing votes to the WP.

Low has also talked about ‘insurance’, that a critical mass of WP MPs is required so that they can start to form an alternative government. I think what he said makes some sense, by comparing the political system to insurance.

Students of economics will understand the insurance market faces a few problems of information asymmetry i.e. one party knows more than the other. Similarly, a democratic political system faces these problems too. For instance, adverse selection. Voters are unable to tell if the candidate or party can carry out his or its promises. They can look at their track record, of course, but there’s no 100 percent way to see if that candidate or party can actually perform if elected. In the extreme scenario, voters choose to spoil their votes because they don’t know who is good enough. But voters are likely to choose the ones who have some track record, familiar to them etc. And the PAP on both counts make them the default winner; it has experiences in governing and it is known by every S’porean.

That might be a problem with Tin Pei Ling. There’s even an online petition to get her contest in a SMC, proving that some S’poreans are skeptical of her ability as a potential MP. The GRC system worsens the adverse selection problem, because inexperienced PAP candidates are taken under the wings of more experienced MPs or ministers. Voters might be skeptical, but they do not have choices to vote against the inexperienced candidate, as that might mean voting against the entire team, which consists of experienced MPs or ministers they might prefer. The GRC system distorts the choices which voters should have to exercise their votes.

Secondly, the problem of moral hazard. When the govt targets 6 million as the eventual population mark for S’pore, the govt does not bear the full consequences of this decision – the people does, good or ill. A democracy easily suffers from moral hazard, because elected representatives do not necessarily bear the consequences of their actions, giving them the tendency to act for their selfish or narrow interests. Examples abound in the world. Some legislators in the US seem to think China is bent on taking over the American economy, while the fact is that Chinese businesses have created jobs for Americans as well. They are beholden to the interests of groups which support them, not ALL Americans which they are supposed to represent.

Similar to the GRC system, a one-party state in S’pore (the PAP believes there is insufficient talent for more than one party in Parliament), worsens moral hazard. Without any checks, the PAP might in the future enact bad policies, and the PAP would be sheltered from these repercussions (in the short term, at least).

Hence I can see the logic of the WP and other opposition parties’ desire to check the dominant party. That is to ensure S’poreans do not one day receive the bad effects of bad policies by the PAP.

But there are still nagging questions to be answered, assuming most of us agree on the premise that there should be “checks and balances”.

1) One-party state too much, should have two-party state?

2) Or multi-party state with governing party and 3, 4 opposition parties?

3) Go further, by reforming S’pore’s first-past-the-post system to that of a hybrid with proportionate representation? (FPPS usually results in one party with the majority of seats, one or two strong parties and the rest nothing; PR tends to produce coalition or minority govts)

Personally I’m inclined to believe a two-party system will evolve in S’pore, because of our historical context and geographical and demographic situation. It is not unusual to see cities with a dominant party for a long period of time, and S’pore is a city-state. Furthermore, the FPPS does not produce multi-party democracy well. A two-party system with the ruling PAP and a strong WP, and other weak opposition parties, seems to be on the evolutionary track of S’pore’s political development – we’ll know in the elections, I guess.

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