Making the Opposition’s Case; or Shoot. Foot. Yours.

May 26, 2009


The level of debate in Parliament has never been particularly high. With PAP MPs the overwhelming majority, robust debate in the house is as common as entertainment is on Mediacorp.

And the government knows this too. When birds of the same feather flock together, all dressed in white plumage, there is bound to be group-think and very shoddy reasoning. Which is why the NMP scheme was introduced in 1990 to inject quality into parliamentary exchange. Nevertheless we’re still susceptible to the occasional clanger. 

Low Thia Khiang’s suggestion two days ago that an effective opposition can provide checks and balances on the ruling PAP party created a storm in the proverbial teacup.

The Worker’s Party leader was speaking in response to Goh Chok Tong’s recent teaser that the government would refine the political system to keep pace with society. Any changes however, according to Goh, needed to abide by three things – fairness to all political parties (at this point I had to duck because the flying pig zoomed dangerously overhead); ensuring a strong government; and protecting harmony, unity and economic growth.

For Low, a strong opposition served as viable recourse for Singaporeans if the PAP were to a) abuse its power; b) trample on people’s rights; and c) become corrupt.

As sure as the sun rises and The Straits Times winning SPH’s newspaper of the year, PAP backbenchers rose to rebut Low. Indranee Rajah and Josephine Teo being the most prominent of the lot. Rajah argued that Low’s premise was flawed. According to her,

 He’s really saying just in case PAP becomes corrupt in the future, then people had better vote for the opposition now. But if you apply the same logic, then the argument can also be made that if you vote in the opposition, then they may become corrupt in the future, so in order to avoid that, you might as well vote for PAP now.

 Going by Mr Low’s argument, the logical outcome is that in every other country in the world with an opposition it should be squeaky clean, and in Singapore, in which a large majority of the Parliament comes from a single party, then Singapore should be the most corrupt country in the world. That as we know is not the case.

Firstly, this is probably the most selective form of arguing one can hope to witness. Instead of addressing Low’s overall argument – that a strong opposition would be a viable alternative should the PAP falter – she chose to harp on just one point, corruption, in the hope that this would be enough to discredit his broader argument. It’s an old lawyer’s trick; find a loose thread in your opponent’s argument and then put the spotlight on it, however small the thread, in order to cast doubt over the rest of the argument.

It may work fine in the courtroom but such forms of intellectual disingenuousness really have no place in Parliament. They lack earnestness and sincerity, and rely on facetious point-scoring. Cheap lawyer tricks are like two-bit magicians, they bedazzle the kids but thinking adults ought to know better.

Secondly, while she correctly argues that a two-party system does not guarantee that there will be no corruption, she goes on to shoot her own foot with her reasoning. Just because a two-party system is no guarantee, does not mean that a one-party system necessarily is! Just because our one-party system has been relatively corruption free does not mean it will remain this way forever. It’s your garden variety red herring argument. A bit like saying, oh, white bread is no good so that means brown bread is very good. It makes as much sense as Zoe, Fann and the three brain cells they share.

Josephine Teo’s contribution was not much better. She wondered, 

Is it better for Singapore to support an opposition – even if it is not up to mark – in the hope that it could govern well when it overthrows a corrupt PAP? Or is it better to make sure that the PAP does not fail Singaporeans, that it has the strongest team to serve Singaporeans?  

This is a typical false dilemma fallacy. Why can’t we nurture a strong opposition that is able to takeover if the PAP fails? Why do we have to choose between a weak opposition and a dominant PAP? But to push the envelope further, what would Teo propose we do if for some reason the PAP fails even after all our best efforts to ensure it doesn’t? What then? No contingency plan? Doesn’t sound very PAP-like does it?

In the end, while the MPs debated back and forth over the last two days, the best argument for a strong opposition came, ironically, from the shoddy reasoning of the PAP MPs themselves. Low didn’t really need to push too hard. All he had to do was to dangle the bait and let the PAP MPs, so lacking in debating experience, make the case for him. To be fair, he probably did this unwittingly given his awkwardness as a public speaker. But the point he made, intentionally or not, remains – the case for a strong viable opposition is made most forcefully by PAP MPs who do not believe that the PAP will ever fail.



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