COMMENT: PAP should clarify what it means by 'strong mandate'

Screenshot of Singapore Parliament during Budget 2019. (PHOTO: Yahoo News Singapore)
Screenshot of Singapore Parliament. (PHOTO: Yahoo News Singapore)

by Bertha Henson

I watch a lot of Chinese period dramas, so when I hear the word mandate, I think of “mandate from Heaven’’. And the mandate takes the form of the imperial seal, that square chunk of jade that the Emperor uses to stamp on imperial decrees. Of course, now the mandate is from the people, to legitimise the authority of our representatives and those who will govern us.

But I have trouble deciphering what a strong or clear mandate (for the PAP) means. No one wants to put any numerical figure on “strong’’ or “clear’’ in terms of number of parliamentary seats or percentage of popular votes. Yet, the implication is that a “weak’’ mandate will make the job of governing more difficult and hobble policy implementation.

I think we can all agree that in GE2011, the PAP was not given a strong mandate. It took 60.1 per cent of the votes and 81 out of 87 seats in Parliament. (Note that this is uniquely Singapore, as political parties elsewhere would probably kill for that kind of election result.)

What happened post-GE2011? The PAP became a lot more consultative. It started the Our Singapore Conversation, moved unpopular ministers to the backbench, slowed down the inflow of foreign workers and ramped up the building of HDB flats.

In GE2015, we can all agree that the PAP was given a strong mandate, with 69.9 per cent of the vote. And what did it do with that mandate?

Of course, the PAP continued to govern. It was also confident enough to suggest constitutional changes right from the beginning of the term of Parliament in 2016.

The Prime Minister called for voting rights to be given to non-constituency MPs and a re-look of the qualifications and types of checks on an elected president. Half-way through its term, it broached the need for a law to prevent online falsehoods. There were other pieces of legislation, yes, but what stuck in my throat were those three above.

All three merited further discussion. Yes, there was discussion, of a unique kind.

So there was a parliamentary select committee on POFMA, but this was about getting a consensus on the need for a law. We know some kind of legislation is needed but what kind. I tried hard to get people to lobby their MPs to call for another select committee to scrutinise the LEGISLATION instead. But it went through second and third reading and became law. Now, we can see the effects of POFMA, when we have trouble figuring out what some of the “falsehoods’’ which have been POFMAed are about.

Then you have the PAP-dominant Parliament voting to give their non-elected counterparts the right to vote in Parliament. I was astounded. They have no pride in their role or what? The next time I see a PAP candidate who tries to convince me to vote PAP because got NCMP, I will reply: “So you will be my glorified contractor ah?’’

The constituency political broadcasts seem to confirm this “contractor’’ role of an MP. Except for a few opposition candidates, no PAP candidate seeking re-election saw it fit to talk about his or her contribution to lawmaking. Instead, we hear about fitness parks and covered linkways.

As for the changes to the elected presidency, yes, there was a constitutional commission which tightened up the qualifications and the checks on the president’s power as requested. It was also asked to see how to include a race component in the election - not to study whether this was needed. Okay, maybe the whip was firmly in place in Parliament and the PAP MPs couldn’t do much about the race bit especially since the PM had set the agenda early, but the least they can do is question far more vigorously this strange timing of who the EP started with. The Government says it’s Wee Kim Wee, not Ong Teng Cheng, the man they had so much trouble with.

So, what does a clear and strong mandate mean? That the government will not be able to implement what it said it would? That would be the case if the PAP doesn’t get half the seats in Parliament and therefore unable to form the government. But what if it gets 70 per cent of the seats? Lose another GRC or two? Is the PAP going to say that it will re-think its jobs policy? Put a couple of projects on hold in the GRC that did not vote for it?

The PAP shouldn’t just throw around this “need for strong and clear mandate’’. What does it mean by it?

Let me give it a shot.

Maybe, it is saying that having more opposition in Parliament means that it will have to spend time countering opposition views and cannot push legislation through quickly. PM Lee gave some examples of COVID-19 legislation that took just one day to get through - the result of a “highly competent government’’. In my view, if the legislation is urgent, then the opposition looks real stupid to stymie its progress. But MOST times, legislation is not urgent, even if it is important.

Is the PAP saying that all its legislation is fully justified and full/fool-proof? That all soundings have been taken behind closed-doors? That Parliament cannot improve on Bills, because it isn’t as smart as the executive? That second and third readings of the Bill are simply stages of a legislative process that has been a parliamentary tradition?

Has it asked itself whether it is better to get more buy-in from the people, rather than get legislation passed quickly. That greater acceptance trumps efficiency? That it may well be that other people have ideas that can be implemented to the nation’s advantage?

I would be more willing to countenance a dominant PAP in Parliament if its MPs had shown some gumption in questioning their political masters. But over the years, with the exception of a few, PAP MPs have become more and more subdued. They sound like frontbenchers, and sometimes ask questions that seem primed to give the frontbench a platform to expound on the government’s point of view.

Yet in the late 80s and 90s, PAP MPs weren’t all cut from the same cloth. They took to heart their membership in the newly conceptualised government parliamentary committees, offering fierce critiques of policies and boasting of advisory panels with brand names. Now, the GPC is just a label attached to the MP, reminding him or her to speak up when the ministry he has been allocated to oversee is up for debate in the committee of supply.

Am I harsh? Probably. That’s because I take the institution of Parliament seriously, more seriously than the Members in the House who seem always to be on their hand-held devices rather than listening to speeches. So seriously that I will never pass up the chance to call for live-streaming of parliamentary proceedings.

If a strong mandate means business as usual, a strong government and a subdued Parliament, I’m not sure I like the balance very much.

From what I have seen in Chinese period dramas, that imperial seal denoting the mandate from Heaven is so heavy that the Emperor can knock a person dead with it too.

Bertha Henson is a veteran Singapore journalist who now lectures at NUS. The views expressed are her own.

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