16 September 2013

Chua Mui Hoong's "A Legislature That Is National, Not Partisan" Annotated

The Straits Times's opinion editor Chua Mui Hoong penned a piece entitled A Legislature That Is National, Not Partisan.

She asked, "Would the opposition here back a PM that in the House as Republicans have backed Obama?"

Below, I've annotated selected portions of her op-ed (in bold and italics).

President Barack Obama could use his power as commander in chief to order military action against Syria. Instead, he is turning to Congress for support, despite knowing how hard-going it will be.


In going back to the elected representatives of the people, [US president Barack Obama and British prime minister David Cameron] were no doubt swayed by a complex calculus of domestic political considerations, underlined by concerns about public support and international image.

At their heart, the decisions also show a commitment to democracy and stem from a respect for the people's voted representatives.

Ms Chua is contradicting herself. If President Obama, who has the authority to order military strikes on Syria, is turning to Congress for support, that is not a commitment to democracy. He is, as Ms Chua points out, looking for support.

The problem that President Obama faces was that he drew a very explicit red line when he said, "We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus. That would change my equation."

Having drawn the red line and having alleged that Syria's President Assad has used chemical weapons, President Obama's hands are tied. If he doesn't act, his words — or rather, his threats — would not be taken seriously in the future.
So, one way out is to pass the buck to Congress.
It remains to be seen what President Obama would do if the Russian initiative on Syria's chemical weapons fails and Congress votes against striking Syria. 
And for all concerned, many hours of work: going through reports of evidence of sarin gas use, desensitising them of compromising detail while presenting them intelligibly, hours of briefings and discussions, and hours of parliamentary debate.

But that is the price of democracy: debate, delays and, sometimes, even the demise of policies.

Is it a price worth paying?

As explained above, President Obama does not pay any price by asking Congress to sanction the strikes on Syria.
He might have to pay a price should he decide to proceed to strike Syria in spite of Congress's expected rejection of his proposal.

The PAP will increasingly have to decide whether it wants to use every means in its power to push through policies it considers good for Singapore, or whether it should face up to and learn to deal with public opinion better. Whether it is population planning, foreign worker inflow or health-care reform, it has to decide if speed is of the essence, or if there is virtue in taking time to debate and get buy-in.

The examples cited by Ms Chua — population planning, foreign worker inflow or health-care reform — are poor examples. Unless the PAP government has been caught napping — and even if it has been caught napping — these are issues that neither appeared overnight nor can be addressed over a very short time frame. Speed is not of the essence.

Even then, speed is not the issue.

The problem, as exemplified by the Parliamentary "debate" on Population White Paper — A Sustainable Population for a Dynamic Singapore, is that the PAP government thinks it knows what it is best for Singapore, irrespective of whether the people agree with it.

What is the point of a debate or discussion if, at the end, the PAP government says thank you very much for our comments, ideas and suggestions, it understands our concerns but it will still proceed (perhaps with cosmetic or minor changes) because it thinks it is good for the country, for us, our children and our grandchildren?

The crux is whether the PAP government, or any other party in power, is prepared to radically modify its initiatives or even abandon them, not whether it is prepared to debate and get buy-in.

One good way to start is to engage the legislature more meaningfully. This means taking elected MPs regardless of political party into confidence more, giving better quality information and justifications for policies, and treating MPs as truly representatives of the people empowered to make law.

Elected Members of Parliament are the elected representatives of the people, and for them to function properly, they must be provided with the requisite information to make informed arguments and decisions, irrespective of whether they belong to the ruling or opposition parties.

In the United States, two leading Republicans in the House - Speaker John Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor - have pledged their support for President Obama, a Democrat, when Congress votes this week on military action.

This is a fine moment in US bipartisanship. To be sure, American democracy has major faults, with political gridlock holding even the budget to ransom. Lobbying and political funding are also travesties of social justice. But at least among elected representatives there is respect for each other's roles.

The US example is inappropriate.

Although Mr Boehner and Mr Cantor are leading Republicans, they have limited power or influence. Neither gentleman can or will compel fellow Republicans to vote for or against any resolution. Not only that, neither gentleman will try to influence the other Republican members of the House of Representatives and it is up to President Obama to convince them. In fact, President Obama also has to convince the Democratic legislators, even though they are supposed to belong to the same party. Most political watchers believe that Congress will reject the resolution.

Ms Chua mentions the political gridlock holding the budget to ransom. The inability of Congress to agree on tax hikes and spending cuts, resulting in indiscriminate mandatory budget cuts even in defence and education, reflects poorly on the elected legislators. This stalemate affects the US economy and international standing and influence, and is by far more important and urgent for Congress to resolve than the military strike on Syria.

Imagine if that were to happen in Singapore: A prime minister on the brink of a major initiative goes to Parliament to seek approval, and the two top opposition leaders rally their colleagues in support.

Then we would have a PM who truly respects democracy and the people's elected representatives, and an opposition who takes the national, not partisan, view.

Then Singapore would truly have got its politics right. Whether or not the PAP is dominant.

Ms Chua did not cite any instances in which the opposition parties took partisan, rather than national, views on important issues.

The opposition Members of Parliament rightly voted against the Population White Paper, which they were convinced was not in the national interest. The Workers' Party agreed with the general policies outlined in PM Lee's National Day Rally 2013, subject to details and implementation.

Ms Chua hopes to see opposition leaders rallying their colleagues in support of a major initiative, but she does not see government leaders similarly rallying backbenchers, unless she does not envisage the government lifting the whip.

Ms Chua's conclusion is that we do not now have a prime minister who truly respects democracy and the people's elected representatives.

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