Is centrism the way to go in local politics?

Chan Jia Hui

A centrist leaning electoral campaign is more likely to capture votes from the middle ground than a "leftist" one

The conventional understanding of centrism is a middle position between political right and left, and in between statism and libertarianism.

Adherents to the political right support the notion of a hierarchical society or social order. Such is conceived as a reaction to the political left, which advocates an egalitarian society. Statism refers to support for the idea that the state should play a prominent role in the economy and within the society. At the opposite end, is the libertarian perspective which advocates the minimisation of the government’s role in both economy and society.

In Singapore’s context, the understanding of what “rightism” and “leftism” represents has taken on varied meanings, and the circumstances that bring about beliefs along the continuum of our political spectrum are different.

For instance, the fact that the bottom 20 percentile is getting left behind while the rest of the society makes economic progress makes the embracing of egalitarianism tempting. Unlike conventional circumstances, embracing of leftist principles in this case has a reactionary basis (plight of the bottom percentile), very much like how “rightism” developed in response to “leftism”. It is just that it is now the opposite.

“Leftism” has also taken on an “anti-establishment” meaning which took root during our colonial past when our colonial master was waging a struggle against communism. Sympathisers and adherents to the communist movement were viewed with having suspicious motives such as subverting authorities, doing away with current political structures and replacing them with one that is in line with communist political philosophy (political thought). At least, that was what the authorities thought.

In modern day Singapore when the ghost of communism was finally laid to rest, “leftism” has taken on a more general “anti-establishment” meaning. Such revolves around the beliefs that the current structure and philosophy of governance should be replaced by another model with a different structure and driven by a different philosophy.

Some of us may be wondering which position between “centrism” or “leftism” resonates better among Singaporeans. Results from the recently concluded parliamentary and presidential elections do tell us a lot about Singaporean’s preferences.

The Workers’ Party (WP) is currently the best performing opposition party with six elected members of parliament (MP) and two non-constituency MPs. Although it may have the tag of “opposition”, however, the core beliefs of a party should be seen on a political spectrum along the lines of adhering to the philosophy and methods of the current political establishment, and complete opposition to the latter at the other extreme end.

Centre-lying entities between the two extremes are those who do not opt for a complete overhaul of our governance structures and its underlying philosophy. They may also feel that the current structures and philosophy may need partial overhaul, but do not strive for a complete revision.

This is how WP functions. They do not seek for a complete overhaul of the structure and philosophy of Singapore’s governance. What it is concerned with, however, is refining certain kinks or tweaking certain aspects of our system.

This is why the WP electoral theme centred on “moving towards a first world parliament”, and much of its electoral speeches revolved around addressing the concerns of voters, especially those from Aljunied, calling for more affordable housing and highlighting the issues of minority groups. Nothing of this sort suggests that WP wants a complete overhaul.

Our Presidential elections also saw two leading front-runners in the form of Dr Tan Cheng Bock and Dr Tony Tan. While the latter eventually became Singapore’s President, the race between the two was close, with Tony pipping Cheng Bock by the slimmest of margins at 0.35% of valid votes.

If we analyse the modus operandi of Cheng Bock, it is obvious that he isn’t the type to go for a complete overhaul of the system. However, saying that, he is also an independent-minded man, and there are some aspects of governance within the system that he did not agree with.

He even went at lengths to illustrate his disagreements in order to assert his independence with two prominent examples – his voting against his own party, the People’s Action Party (PAP), over his disagreement regarding the Nominated MP scheme, and his showdown with Dr Goh Keng Swee over streaming in our schools.

On the basis of the Presidential elections results, Cheng Bock did reasonably well, but an opposition-backed Mr Tan Jee Say finished a distant third with 25.04% share of the votes. With a campaign team backed by prominent opposition personalities such as Miss Nicole Seah, Miss Jeanette Aruldoss, Dr Wong Wee Nam and others, Jee Say essentially ran what look like an opposition campaign.

He went at lengths to illustrate his “independence” by asserting that his Presidential electoral rivals were former PAP members, and ate, breathed and slept PAP. However, an obvious inference regarding his voting base was his reference to voters who would otherwise have spoilt their votes if he hadn’t run. This was obviously hinting at hardcore opposition supporters who don’t like the idea of voting ex-PAP men and would rather spoil their votes instead.

Within the odd 20% plus of hardcore opposition, there are two main types. One who is anti-PAP to the extent that they are willing to vote anyone who contests a PAP or PAP-endorsed candidate. The other type is the one who disagrees with the current structure of governance and its underlying philosophy, and as such requires a complete overhaul.

However, the fact remains that majority of the voters lie in the middle ground. An odd 20% plus result from hardcore opposition votes isn’t going to get a party anywhere other than being a mere competition presence. It will be a political entity with centrist tendencies that will appeal to the middle ground.

A rhetorical question is why does a centrist leaning political entity end up doing better than its opposition counterpart at the polemic end?

A probable reason is perhaps voters are not too comfortable with an entity proposing too radical a change in the form of a complete overhaul of the current system of governance and its underlying philosophy. This is outside their comfort zone. They prefer a more centrist entity that advocates smaller baby steps toward progress. Such voters are the ones who are in the majority.

Photo courtesy of Sepehr Ehsani, Flickr Commons