“He huffed and he puffed, and he blewwww the house down!” I remember reading to my kids the story of the Three Little Pigs when they were young, the same story we all heard when we were little.
But it seems that the fable was not just written for children. For me, at least, it carries a profound lesson that many adults seem to have forgotten: Investing time and effort to build a sound foundation for whatever endeavour we may pursue. In other words, delayed gratification is crucial for change and success.
I've tried to let this life lesson guide my work in the SDP. In 1994, I wrote my first political book, Dare To Change, in which I set out to envision an alternative socio-politico-economic system for Singapore, refining my ideas through the years in subsequent publications. The cornerstone of my thesis was that without political rights, it was difficult, if not altogether impossible, to speak of our economic rights. Looking back at developments in recent years, I think I have been largely right.
There was a time, however, when I was variously accused of being too academic in my approach to politics or of not being “in tune” with the masses by talking about human rights rather than kitchen-table issues.
Again in retrospect, I could hardly have done anything else. I have always believed – and I still do – that without a clear ideological framework around which a party erects its house, we are like the two little pigs who built their huts with sticks and straw.
Having clear ideals and ideas about who we are as a party and what we hope to achieve for our nation is, in my mind, fundamental. Without them, how are the citizens going to know why and what they are voting for? How are the constituents to know whether campaign promises are kept?
Without such a contract, elected officials can act in their own personal interests – and they often do. This is the fastest way to create disillusionment among the people and destroy the good name of democracy.
If the SDP is going to campaign on accountability in political governance, we can do no less than to be accountable ourselves. And the only way that we can be held accountable is to tell our fellow citizens before an election the issues we will pursue and alternatives we will champion when we are in Parliament.
In other words, we are inviting voters to track our Parliamentary performance, and if we're found wanting, they have good reason show us the exit at the next polls. This is the only way we can make our political system responsive to the wishes of the people.
This is also the reason why in the last few years, my colleagues and I invested much time and effort into drawing up alternative policy papers in key areas that affect our society: housing, health care, population, education, social security, productivity, income inequality, ministerial salaries, discrimination, etc. (please visit the SDP website yoursdp.org to read the papers).
In doing so, however, we have been asked some questions. The first is, how many people actually read such policy papers? To be absolutely honest, very few. But this does not mean that the papers are not important; they provide the substrate without which policy debates cannot take place.
Another question is: are we not afraid that our ideas might be pilfered by the PAP? If the alternatives that we propose are adopted by the PAP and become public policy, the beneficiaries are the people. That cannot be a bad thing, can it? And if the ruling party actually adopts the SDP's ideas – which they have on several occasions (see here) – wouldn't this encourage the people to support a constructive opposition party?
Are we also not opening ourselves to criticism by our opponents if we put our ideas on paper? Maybe. But if an idea is worth the attention of the people, it is worth defending. Of course, it is safer to remain silent because silence attracts no criticism. I am, however, reminded of what someone once said: A ship is safer in the harbour, but that's not what ships are made for.
A reason to vote for the SDP
I take it to be self-evident that Singapore needs a bigger opposition presence in Parliament. I also suspect that Singaporeans want to see a competent and constructive opposition, one that they can be proud of.
When I entered politics nearly 25 years ago, I stood against another new entrant, Mr Teo Chee Hean (who is now Deputy Prime Minister) in the 1992 by-election in the Marine Parade GRC. He said then that the opposition “only knew how to throw stones” and did not provide any constructive ideas.
I must admit that it hit a nerve in me. I said to myself then that however painstaking the process, we had to provide alternative solutions to the problems that we raised. In other words, we had to give Singaporeans a reason to vote for the SDP, not just against the PAP.
Putting in the effort to build a foundation for our party was the best thing we could have done. May it bear fruit this election.
(4 August 2015)