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GE2020: What distinguishes the parties?

Kirsten Han
Kirsten Han
6 min read
GE2020: What distinguishes the parties?

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What do all the parties stand for?

This one ah, very good question.

Political parties are introducing candidates left, right, centre, but what are their policy positions? This is arguably more important than who the candidates actually are, since the majority of voters in Singapore live in GRCs and won’t get to vote for individuals, only party slates. And, given the Party Whip system, it’s important to pay attention to party stances on issues, since their members might be required to vote according to the party line regardless of their personal views.

I’ve been asked about how the different parties compare with each other: what separates them in terms of party platforms?

Unfortunately, politics in Singapore doesn’t quite work this way. Very often the discourse just stops at “PAP” and “not PAP”. There are some characteristics (of opposition parties) that will come to people’s minds:

  • The Workers’ Party is the only one with a toehold in Parliament, and is seen by many as the most credible opposition party. They have strong on-the-ground outreach, and it’s early days, but their digital marketing is getting kudos this year too.
  • The Singapore Democratic Party is the one most known to be aligned with human rights activists and political activism, although that’s also been used as a weapon to demonise their leader Chee Soon Juan (who, with other SDP members, used to participate in protests like the Tak Boleh Tahan). They actually launched their campaign in February 2019, and have been consistently pushing their policies (see below).
  • The Progress Singapore Party is the new kid on the block that seems more established than it is because its leader Tan Cheng Bock was a long-time PAP veteran, and now they have Lee Hsien Yang too.
  • There are also a bunch of smaller parties that, as far as I can see, have largely come about because Political Uncle (or Auntie, but let’s not kid ourselves, it’s usually Uncle) #1 could not get along with Political Uncle #2 and so left one party to start his own party, only to fall out with Political Uncle #3, who would go on to start a party…

It’s precisely because their party platforms don’t seem particularly distinct that I said in a previous issue that some political parties shouldn’t exist — there’s no reason why there shouldn’t be more consolidation, and perhaps that might happen soon enough. Singaporeans First has announced their dissolution, which, in my view, is the best thing the party has ever done.

One thing that you might have heard in Singapore is that we’re not into ideologies because we’re “pragmatic”. But what does pragmatism mean? Check out this comic explainer.

Compare and contrast

I’ve been keeping an eye out for party manifestos, but so far have only seen the one from Singapore Democratic Party, alongside articles on their policies. I hope the various parties put out their manifestos soon — it’s important to have one easily accessible document for voters to consider!

In the meantime, some civil society groups have gone ahead with their own assessments of the various parties. First up, I must highlight the amazing work of Greenwatch, an initiative by SG Climate Rally and Speak for Climate, to put the climate crisis on the agenda during this election. They’re going to be doing a scorecard assessing party manifestos in relation to climate policies — until the manifestos are out, you can take a look at their scorecard for the government. And remember to check out their policy brief: the full version, and the easy-to-read version.

Heckin’ Unicorn, a Singapore-based queer brand with adorable enamel pins, has put together a post covering what different parties and politicians have said about LGBTQ rights.

Sayoni also has a scorecard for politicians in relation to LGBTQ issues, but many — including myself — have pointed out that their conclusions are incredibly problematic,  because there is no analysis of power, and the bar is so, so low. The main sticking point that people have pointed out is that Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam has come out on top with the best “A” grade because he’s met with LGBT groups, and has said that violence against LGBT people isn’t acceptable. While it’s good that the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act now protects LGBT people from religiously-motivated violence, the fact remains that PAP ministers like Shanmugam are in a position to do much, much more than just talking about how LGBT people shouldn’t be physically assaulted (which, honestly, we should be expected as the bare minimum a person should say).

How do we judge the different parties?

When thinking about the different parties’ proposals and policies — such as calls for the suspension of GST (SDP) or unemployment or redundancy insurance (SDP and WP), among others that we’ll see when manifestos are out — we should again keep power dynamics in mind. How potentially powerful will X or Y party get? How many seats are they contesting? How likely is it that their proposed policies will actually get implemented? If it’s not very likely, then how should we evaluate and judge the party?

This is not to say that we shouldn’t hold all parties accountable for the proposals that they’re making — all parties should have their feet held to the fire and be able to substantiate what they say. And any party that wades into gutter politics should be dragged from Tuas to Pasir Ris. But we should also be realistic about what to expect, and the ones who are most likely to be the most powerful should be subject to the most scrutiny. (That whole “with great power comes great responsibility” thing lah, you know.)

Parties that do not have full access to information about Singapore’s financial circumstances — such as how much we have in the reserves, for example — will be limited by how much detail they can go into. It might also not be super helpful to get really hung up on the nitty-gritty details of a party’s economic policy if that party isn’t even contesting enough seats to get anywhere near the possibility of forming a government; with the chances of them being able to bring in their policies wholesale at 0%, it’s much more likely that what they’re proposing will be the starting point of negotiations (assuming they even get into Parliament in sufficient numbers for it to be a negotiation), rather than the end result.

There’s also a difference in the roles and functions of the Government and the Opposition. While the party (or parties, if there’s a coalition) in Government will be expected to deliver on policies, the role of the Opposition is to push for deliberation and negotiation, so that proposals are properly scrutinised and debated, and the Government is held to account. And if we have a diverse and pluralistic population, it would make sense to have a legislature that is also diverse and able to ensure that a range of concerns and perspectives are addressed.

As a voter, what I would like to know is what values and principles guide each of the parties, so that even if the details might end up changing because of debate and compromise, I know what they will place at the core of everything they do. Do they have a rights-based framework that would influence their approach to all issues, or are they more paternalistic? Do they believe that there needs to be more intervention to reduce inequality, or are they more free market people? Will they stand up to speak for LGBT rights or migrant workers’ rights, because it’s central to their beliefs of fairness and justice? Just saying “we want a compassionate Singapore” doesn’t mean anything.

It’s still kind of early, given it’s not even Nomination Day yet, but there’s also not much time left before Polling Day, so we should be hearing more from the candidates and parties in the coming days. Until then, we’re waitin’ on those manifestos…

Greenwatch — in your neighbourhood!

(This is a message from SG Climate Rally and Speak for Climate.)

Neighbourhood Greenwatch is a community for climate-concerned voters of the same constituency to connect with one another, learn about climate issues during the 2020 election season and candidates’ stances on them, and organise collective action to push candidates to make ambitious climate commitments.

More people = more attention paid to climate issues, and in this time of crisis, we cannot wait any longer to put climate change high on the political agenda.

To join, fill up the form here.

Please help me spread the word about this newsletter!

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