Time to Drop the Party Whip

Parliament sessions should not begin knowing that the result is already sealed.

Parliament sessions should not begin knowing that the result is already sealed.

The past few years have seen Singapore head towards a slightly different political direction. The dominance of the incumbent party has not been shaken. The People’s Action Party still holds an overwhelming majority. They can lose seats in double digits and still be unaffected. However, it would be foolish for the incumbents to remain stagnant in face of a changing population – one that has become more vocal, desiring their voices to be heard and their words to have an impact on the future of the country.

 

 

The Whip

The party whip ensures that all members of parliament that are from the PAP, votes according to what the party decides. What this essentially means is that the PAP is sure that it gets full backing (at least in votes) of its members in any policy that is being voted upon. Having an exceptionally large majority, this means that any decision that the leadership has decided on will definitely come into effect, barring judicial intervention which is extremely rare.

The party whip was a very important factor for the growth and stability of the PAP in the early years. Having benefited by divisions and dissensions within the ranks of other parties, it is no surprise that the whip was enforced to great effect. In over 50 years as the government, the PAP remained stable as every member echoed its viewed whether they agreed to it or not. With a united front, the PAP stood out against opposition parties that were fractured and seemed to always be in the midst of a transition.

 

It runs on a belief that a relatively small core of leaders is able to make the right decisions that lesser members should follow through no matter what their opinions are.

 

However, the party whip operates on a single line of logic that may not hold true now. It runs on a belief that a relatively small core of leaders is able to make the right decisions that lesser members should follow through no matter what their opinions are. It must be said that PAP’s members of parliament are free to raise whatever issue they like and debate against proposals from their own ranks. However, the bottomline is that no matter how much they disagree with party lines, they must vote with the party’s decision in the end.

With a population that is highly educated and a new crop of citizens and MPs who have a greater variation of good ideas and viewpoints, one must question if the whip is still a necessary device. I personally believe that the whip is undermining the PAP.

 

 

Legitimacy

In my opinion, the biggest issue is that the whip puts the credibility of PAP MPs in question. If your representative MP is not within the decision making core and is a ‘peripheral’ minister, you know that his word will have no actual weight when it comes to voting. Yes, he will raise your queries in parliament. Yes, he can aggressively represent your viewpoint. But he can never vote for it. This essentially means that the minister can be prevented from doing what he/she believes in.

Does this mean that listening is incompatible with leading?

The dichotomy between listening and leading is suggested here.

If we desire our MPs to be people that lead with conviction and passion, then the party whip is sending an reverse message to the electorate. I don’t know how you can say one thing and do another while remaining true to both yourself and the people you represent.

Since PAP ministers are forced to vote according to party lines, what really differentiate them from the much derided NMP and NCMP positions then? This is a problem. A problem for a junior PAP minister and in time, a problem for the party as a whole.

How do you attract a talented political candidate with a contact that states that he cannot deviate from what he is told? Is it still right to treat junior members as children when many of them are as equally qualified as the core? This can mean that the PAP might miss out on the brightest and the best. When I use these terms here, I refer to elements beyond academic qualifications. A great academic rarely makes a good politician. In order to serve the electorate, you must first be able to connect with them, understand their concerns and then find solutions for them. The entire process of doing so relies heavily on trust. Your people must be very certain that you can do exactly as your ministerial role demands of you.

 

Your people must be very certain that you can do exactly as your ministerial role demands of you.

 

This is the most important ingredient that makes a minister a legitimate leader, one that is voted by the people to serve their needs. A MP plays multiple roles. The past decades saw them play a stronger role in welfare distribution. Their role as administrators outshone their role as voices of the people. But times have changed. MPs have been great administrators but can they perform the complete role of a minister? Not with the party whip.

As the need for Singaporeans to have their voices heard increases, the role of the MP will fall under scrutiny. Their ability to perform and make credible changes in parliament will grow in importance. The party whip must recognize this change in priorities or parties without a whip may turn to be more viable and legitimate choices.

 

 

Leaner and Stronger Ministers

In lifting the whip, power is decentralized from a select core and spread evenly among all party members. This means that each and every minister will be expected to perform at the highest level so that an optimal solution is found. Any PAP recruit must be ready to undergo a baptism of fire the moment he graces parliament. He cannot afford a ‘bedding in’ time period and be shielded by senior lynchpins.

While this might create higher levels of uncertainty, the flexibility and robustness of this whip-less party enables the chaff to be separated from the wheat. Ministers without a flair to optimally perform every aspect of the political portfolio will wilt.

 

The flexibility and robustness of this whip-less party enables the chaff to be separated from the wheat.

 

In time, this creates a parliament of stronger leaders who can stand on their own two feet, being very clear that thy vote they cast can actually make a difference. It is in both the interest of the party and the country as a whole for this to occur.

 

 

A Maturing Singapore

16 Feb 2013: A landmark protest.

16 Feb 2013: A landmark protest.

Singaporeans both within and without the political sphere have matured. The existence of a whip is akin to having a cane being used on an adult. Is it really necessary? Is it an insult to both those who wield it and those who are affected by it? These are questions to be answered and the whip must undergo a relook.

Control and power are key incentives of politicians. It is difficult to see the old guard drop a mechanism that have allowed such to be concentrated at the top. But doing so will undermine the incumbent in the long run. The whip is similar to monopolistic mechanisms that have lead to downfalls of different organizations. The time is right to drop the party whip. And this is for the good of the PAP.

No man is an island. Unfortunately, the existence of the whip suggests that only a few men matter on this island state.
 

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