I’ve always been generally critical of the opposition parties, and a lot of my friends (and haters) tend to stereotype me as a diehard PAP voter.
In fact, and some of my older friends know this, I used to be a bit of a CSJ fanboy. I remember reading “A Nation Cheated” back in the day and thinking his books were like the Holy Grail. I even wrote articles defending him in his 2016 by-election.
My views have obviously changed drastically since then. If you ask me today, I would argue that his policy platform is terrible. If he was in my constituency, I’m not sure I’d vote for him.
Why vote opposition
Having said that, I still think that there are solid reasons to vote in some opposition parties.
Two obvious reasons. The first is regarding civil rights issues. If you’re someone who places a premium on freedom of expression or association (as I do), I can see why it’s hard to get behind the incumbent. The PAP has demonstrated very little (if any) sign of budging on these grounds i.e., press freedoms, LGBTQ+ rights, freedom of speech (see laws like NPPA, 377A, POFMA).
The second is for constitutional reasons, which is a common argument among the Left in Singapore. Spoil the PAP’s 2/3 majority, and restore the Madisonian concept of separation of powers, and checks and balances.
At this point, many PAP voters go, “if PAP becomes a big bad wolf, then we’ll vote them out lor”. Unfortunately, that’s not how democratic politics works. History is filled to the brim with authoritarian regimes that originally gained momentum on bad arguments like that.
So I do largely agree, at least in principle, with many opposition thinkers that the supermajority is worth thwarting.
Why vote PAP
The problem is that these opposition parties are also the same ones that are fighting to introduce social democratic economic policies such as wealth taxes and welfare programmes, that I think will take Singapore in the wrong direction.
To be fair, these proposals in its current state are not super radical. But the problem is that many of these programmes usually start small, and then they expand overtime.
And this isn’t a slippery slope argument. To give you some context, the American Social Security system was introduced during the Great Depression in 1935. Its original conception was a very lean, means-tested programme for the handicapped, poor and old. Today, social security is an inefficient, bloated bureaucracy costing taxpayers hundreds of billions. Even liberals condemn it.
The Overton Window shifted from “We need a minimal welfare programme in these times of crisis” to “Poverty cannot be solved merely by welfare cheques” (actual quote by the NYT).
It is on this note that I have great fondness and appreciation for the PAP’s economic policies. For the most part, it has understood very fundamental economic principles such as moral hazards, incentives, and fiscal prudence.
And more importantly, it has stuck to them. They understand the importance of economic growth. When it dispenses welfare, it’s usually contained within some form of market-based structure. Even its ministers are paid based on a kind of market-based rate to deter corruption.
And that is why Singapore is one of the most prosperous countries today, even if this prosperity is contained within an illiberal polity. Not because Lee Kuan Yew was a God, but because he and his colleagues understood the virtues of free markets and problems of socialism during a dark time period where it was very unfashionable to be pro-capitalism.
So as a market-leaning guy who cherishes individual freedoms, there are very real trade-offs involved, and no easy answers.
Why is politics so full of conflict?
A lot of my non-political friends like to ask me why politics is so divisive.
“Why can’t people just live and let live?”
“Eh you so free ah, why you like to argue all day on Facebook ah? Another day, another essay.”
Politics is divisive not because its most active participants are bad by nature, but because the rules of the game are set up in a way that incentivises conflict.
If my party wins, I get everything I want. If your party wins, I don’t get anything. So I better fight you to the death for it. And smear and defame you if if that’s what it takes. Why wouldn’t I? Democratic politics is a zero-sum game with high stakes and trade-offs.
In many aspects of our lives, people don’t behave that way. Within your families and workplaces, if there are disagreements, there is also room and incentive to compromise. No such room for compromise exists within democracy, except when it’s politicians logrolling at the expense of the taxpayer. Because civil life is a positive-sum game. Democracy is not.
And this is why I’m most aligned to the classical liberal position of limited government and free markets, and have been for the longest time. Classical liberals recognise that people are always going to have fundamental disagreements over extremely sensitive issues such as religion, abortion, LGBT rights, the use of environmental resources, gun rights, etc.
It is only when rules are decentralised, can we then allow for a plurality of goals to be pursued simultaneously. Only then can we allow different views to coexist, and be tolerated alongside each other — even if they may sting our moral intuitions.
That, in essence, is the classical liberal argument against government, against top-down planning and regulation. Not because we want rich people to prosper at the expense of the poor. Not because we only care about economic efficiency. Not because of any nonsense like that. But so that we don’t have to step into the voting booth and make difficult trade-offs, like we will all have to, come Election Day.
Donovan Choy is co-author with Bryan Cheang of an upcoming book published by World Scientific titled “Liberalism Unveiled: Forging a New Third Way for Singapore”.