Leader of The Opposition

I read yesterday that MP Mr. Low Thia Kiang had refused to accept the title of “Unofficial” Leader of the Opposition.  Good for him and I fully support his position. Opposition – Singapore’s 10 letter Dirty Word.  Only here could “The Opposition” be a term which is unmentionable or in Mandarin, “jian bu de guang”.

Speaking to The Straits Times, Low said: “Let’s not kid ourselves. Either you have a leader of the opposition, or you do not have it. There’s no need to have an unofficial leader of the opposition.”

To ask Low to accept the title of unofficial leader is an insult and symptomatic of this government’s attitude to the whole concept of democracy and a two-party system. Let’s remember after JBJ was made an NCMP (and his view on how the PAP won Cheng San from him is clearly recorded) the NCMP salary was cut from 100% to 10% of a normal MP’s salary. This is more of the same.

In most democracies the leader of the leading Opposition party in the legislature enjoys not only a title but a special status and funding. In the United States for example, the title is of Minority Leader of the House or Senate.  Our government system is based on the UK system and there and in Canada the term used is, “Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition.” The reason the largest Opposition Party is given such an honorific title is to demonstrate that although those parliamentarians may be sitting the other side of the House and against the government seating it remains loyal to the Crown and thus the State.   It is possible nay absolutely necessary to be Opposition and patriotic.

In the UK, as well as holding a title, the Leader of the Opposition has been paid a salary above the MP’s salary since 1937 and receives almost as much as a Cabinet Minister. In addition he has the use of an office and an official car of equivalent specification. Opposition parties are also provided with funding for research and a staff so that they are not theoretically at a disadvantage compared with Ministers who have the assistance of the Civil Service. In Britain funds known as ‘short money’ are allocated according to the number of votes each Party gets at election.  Labour currently receives about £15,000 per seat plus £30 for each 200 votes plus £700,000 for the leader of the Opposition’s office. The leader of the Opposition his chief whip and two staff also receive additional salaries from public funds.

A similar arrangement applies in most other advanced or First World countries where The Leader of the Opposition may even have an official residence. Additionally, Leaders and shadow cabinet members have privileges not always granted to members of smaller parties. These include meeting with visiting foreign dignitaries being assigned to speak first after the government and receiving more time in question periods than other opposition parties.  Rather like some of the roles assigned our elected President. In fact our strong National desire for an official opposition and a check on the PAP was reflected in the recent EP election.

The Opposition in any First World nation or true democracy is official because it has a very real task. It has the responsibility of keeping the government in check. More importantly the Official Opposition maintains a shadow cabinet with MPs who often have the same portfolios as actual ministers. If the government loses the confidence of the House or the Official Opposition party wins a general election, the party is ready to become the government.  And this is why it is known as a ‘government in waiting’ which is a recognised and honourable role.

Back on the 6th September 1999 my late father had spoken on parliamentary democracy in parliament.  Those of you who are interested may like to read his speeches and writing which can be found on page 126 of “Make it Right for Singapore”

He starts his response to a government motion by saying,

“ Mr Speaker, Sir, did I misread the motion on the Order Paper? I thought we were going to debate parliamentary democracy. But we heard this afternoon, Mr Speaker Sir, hardly anything about parliamentary democracy. We have been treated to speeches after speeches of how good the previous Parliaments have been, how effective, how they have men of integrity and so on and so on but not a word about parliamentary democracy except, I must hasten to add for the speech from Mr Chiam See Tong from the Opposition bench.”

He goes on to suggest that the PAP congratulatory motion be re-worded to read, “…regrets the persistent attempts and measures of the governments since 1965 to impede the growth of genuine parliamentary democracy and urges the present  government to take such measures as may be necessary to facilitate the growth of genuine parliamentary democracy in Singapore.”

 It was this continued failure of Singapore to make any real headway towards a parliamentary democracy which prompted him 37 years after his political debut, to found the Reform Party to fight specifically for constitutional reform. I can’t imagine what it has been like for Low the last 20 or 30 years. I have found myself defending my view that they term Opposition is an honourable and vital one for only three years now and it is exhausting.

In 2009 in an interview with Today Paper I was quoted as saying my aim in standing was to normalise democracy.  Late in GE 2011 Mr Low stated that his aim was to “institutionalise democracy.”  That may sound like the same thing but the two are different albeit working towards the same end goal. By ‘normalising ‘ democracy I mean that I want: to rid the word Opposition of its unmentionable connotations, to make party, ideological or philosophical allegiance an everyday action, to encourage normal citizens to join a party and stand for election and actually get everyone normalised to getting out and voting. The success of that aim was shown in a slew of new faces, in that we almost had no walkovers and in the way the following EP election was conducted.

Of course supporting the term Opposition was only part of it. I also had to advocate for the very term ‘Democracy’ itself -another dirty word in Singapore.  And of course I had to present the alternative view point every time the term “Westminster style politics” and gridlock was brought up as a scare tactic.   I continually bring up the Privy Council judgement to those who continue to refer to my father as a criminal and I think you all know my stand and support for Dr Chee just before GE when it looked as though he might be imprisoned.

We all of us need to entrench, respect and encourage our Opposition. In short without an Official Opposition we can’t claim to have parliamentary democracy.

Whilst we move inexorably towards a true parliamentary democracy we must be aware of the pitfalls.  An Opposition which forms a government in waiting can actually be a charade when the Opposition is to all extents and purposes the same as the government.  Here in Singapore we must also be particularly vigilant against tokenism or a tame “opposition” created by the PAP in order to create an impression of democratic debate.

We must also beware PAP approved opposition ( i.e. all the ones not referred to as Riff-Raff by MM Lee a derogatory term repeated on live TV recently by Gillian Koh from IPS) and selected rather than elected MPs as embodied in our now totally unnecessary NMP scheme or in the case of walkover wards.

Along with the progress we have already made we can see more clearly the barriers to parliamentary democracy that need to be dismantled.  Insulting Mr Low is one part of it.  The impossibility of raising sufficient funds, the use of the courts, the ISA, the restriction on freedoms of assembly, the GRC system, the state controlled media. We all have a long way to go with our different approaches but even though in GE2011 didn’t open the floodgates we are seeing a clear crack in the dam. That crack will leak and the trickle will turn into a stream.

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