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Why are people cynical about politics? Are we missing something?

Why are people cynical about politics? Are we missing something?

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Published by Ravi Philemon
Some Singaporeans tell me: The Government makes all the decisions. It's all done behind closed doors. It asks for feedback. We know they hear us, but do they listen enough? Questions like these are perplexing to me.

When I heard the President telling us that we need to open up more space for them to participate in the national debate, I know we have made some progress in the right direction.

But I still ask myself: Why do most Singaporeans feel left out of the political and decision-making process?

So, I asked myself: Are we missing something here?
Some Singaporeans tell me: The Government makes all the decisions. It's all done behind closed doors. It asks for feedback. We know they hear us, but do they listen enough? Questions like these are perplexing to me.

When I heard the President telling us that we need to open up more space for them to participate in the national debate, I know we have made some progress in the right direction.

But I still ask myself: Why do most Singaporeans feel left out of the political and decision-making process?

So, I asked myself: Are we missing something here?

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Published by: Ravi Philemon on Jun 02, 2013
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06/02/2013

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Why are people cynical about politics? Are we missing something?
The Straits Times, Singapore4 April 2002Why are people cynical about politics? Are we missing something?- Former Speaker Tan SooKhoonUnlike the previous two days, only three of the 15 MPs who spoke yesterday were newcomers.Perhaps, it was no surprise then that the most striking speech on the third day of the debate onthe President's Address to Parliament was given by an old hand. Now a backbencher, Mr Tan SooKhoon, who was the Speaker of the House for 13 years and has been an MP for 25 years, spokeabout what could be done to reduce the persistent cynicism among Singaporeans of the politicalprocess here.We produce extracts.BETWEEN the opening of the Ninth Parliament and this one, so much has changed in the world.Five years ago, we were brimming with confidence. Nobody foresaw that within a few months, theAsian financial crisis would engulf us, President Suharto would fall from power in Indonesia andSingapore would go through two major economic crises.The dream of more good years would be put on hold as Singaporeans would Line is overdrawnfind themselves losing their jobs. Certainly, nobody at that time would have imagined aneconomic downturn and the sight of Singaporeans queueing up to collect money from their MPsto give them relief.And, most certainly, none of us ever thought it possible that we would ever see two airplanesplunging into the World Trade Center in New York. It was an event that would eventually lead tothe possibility of terrorism rearing its head at our doorstep.Amid these dramatic events, the Government called an election before it was due. We wanted toquickly provide hope for our people.And these are the pressing issues: the deepest recession since Independence, unemployment,finding jobs for our people, high business costs, our economic competitiveness, the tudung issue,relations with our neighbours and terrorism.So it did somewhat baffle me that, while we went out to seek a new mandate from the peoplevery quickly, it took almost five months for Parliament to be convened for the representatives of the people to meet and discuss the issues that are so crucial to Singaporeans and our future.I am in no way suggesting that the Government is not seeking to engage Parliament. Having beena Member of this House for a long time, I can attest that the Government has not shirked in itsaccountability to Parliament.
 
 But this time, there are so many urgent issues that should have been discussed sooner rather thanlater. I can therefore understand the scepticism of many Singaporeans of our political process.Some Singaporeans tell me: The Government makes all the decisions. It's all done behind closeddoors. It asks for feedback. We know they hear us, but do they listen enough? Questions like theseare perplexing to me.When I heard the President telling us that we need to open up more space for them to participatein the national debate, I know we have made some progress in the right direction.But I still ask myself: Why do most Singaporeans feel left out of the political and decision-makingprocess?So, I asked myself: Are we missing something here?Maybe it's their failure to understand how we arrive at our decisions Perhaps, part of this failureto understand us lies in the way we do things.And I also find myself grappling further with questions like these: Why are Singaporeans,particularly younger ones, cynical of our political process?How can we be more open with the way we arrive at our decisions so that they can understandthat policies are not made and rammed down their throats, but that every conceivable alternativewould have been weighed before a decision is taken?Perhaps, we are sometimes too efficient or, some may say, too business-like.It is, indeed, a rare occasion in this House where a minister accepts changes to be made to his Bill,except as one minister puts it: 'I guess I can live with the changes if they are just commas andfull-stops.'Or we may want to consider sending more Bills to select committees so that we can engage publicparticipation.I find myself asking further: Has the government parliamentary committee system proven soeffective for the Government, in that it allows the backbenchers to thrash out issues withministers behind closed doors, to the extent that by the time the issue reaches the floor of theHouse, the sting has been taken out, so much that the public perceives our backbenchers to beeither too understanding or amenable of the Government's position?Is it the way the Government handles MPs' criticisms and proposals that lead the public to thinkthat MPs are less effective than they would want them to be?Like MPs, ministers, too, come in all shades. Some are more receptive than others. I have seen, onoccasion, how a minister can, if I may put it in a gentle way, bristle at some of the criticisms of hispolicies.
 
 But parliamentary debate is all about cut and thrust. Our backbenchers have often been remindedthat they must be prepared to face the rebuttals because ministers will defend their policiesrobustly. That is correct.But ministers, too, must accept that where criticisms are valid and where suggestions are good,they must be receptive enough to accept them and give credit where credit is due.For example, MPs had been arguing for many years for compulsory education. In recent years, MrChiam See Tong, Madam Claire Chiang, Mr Wang Kai Yuen, among others, made the plea.I have always found their arguments to be sound, but it was always difficult to convince theminister and his predecessors.Finally, we had a Committee on Compulsory Education to study the matter and we got the Actpassed two years ago.In my mind, it was an issue that should have been settled sooner rather than later.There is nothing wrong with a turnaround in policy. But my grouse is that not a squeak of acknowledgement was given to the MPs who first raised the matter.If we acknowledge that the suggestions did originate from the backbenchers, I think it will go along way towards enhancing their credibility as elected representatives.This leads me to the subject of how we can encourage more active debate in the House.Much buzz is now given to the lifting of the Whip. MPs of the ruling party may ask for permissionto vote freely on a case-by-case basis, except for some crucial areas. And the Whip will be liftedfor all matters of conscience and selected issues.So, what's new? I still have to get permission to disagree.Matter of conscience? It's a term which has never been clearly defined. And as if to show howgenerous we have been in lifting the Whip, we always take a kind of skewed pride in parading, asan example, our lifting of the Whip during the debate on the Abortion Bill. But that was 33 yearsago! Since then, we have lifted the Whip only on two other occasions.This is not the first time we have asked MPs to speak up.When I first came to this House in 1976, it was already a one-party Parliament. So, backbencherswere told to play the role of the opposition.But one MP told me that the call was similar to the words of Mao Zedong: Let a thousand flowersbloom. But the MP also advised me: 'When flowers bloom, they get chopped.'Towards the end of the 1980s and the early 1990s, when we moved towards a more open and

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