Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Power To The People

Power To The People

This is Workers’ Party’s motto for the past 15 years or so but there is hardly any deliberation on this concept as many see it as “elementary”. I decide to write on this topic basically because it is related to my previous post on Mandate to Squeeze.

I should clarify here that though I am a member of Workers’ Party CEC but what I am going to put up here is solely my interpretation of our slogan “Power To The People” and it got nothing to do with Workers’ Party at all.

The key word of this slogan is “Power” and how it relates to the “People”. There are few questions need to be asked:

1. Why do the people need the Power?
2. Power to do what?
3. Where do the people derive this power from? (Under what circumstances will the people have Power?)
4. When do the people have Power?
5. How could the people exercise their Power?

Why do the people need the Power?

The political scientists will have lots of intellectual theories on the concept of Power but I should not use such theories in my illustrations. I am basically an economically trained person and I should use very elementary economic observations to explain my interpretation on “Power To The People”.

The concept of “Power To The People” most probably come about from the French revolution that fought against monarchy rule. Monarchy rule is basically a despotic, autocratic rule. The characteristics of a Monarchy rule are somehow equivalent to a Monopolistic company. Both of them depend on the monopoly of power, be it in political power or market domination.

These monopolies would and COULD “exploit” the market to the fullest simply because there are no competition in the market. And most important of all, they are in control of goods and services that are a NECESSITY to the people. Good political governance is also a NECESSITY to a stable environment for people to live in. They derive their “power” basically because what they are providing is a “necessity” and they are the only ones who are providing these goods or services. If we view political governance as a kind of “services”, it is not difficult to understand the correlation between market monopolies and monopolies of political power. If the power of these monopolies are not curb, the people will suffer one way or another.

Of course, we could hope for “benign” monopolies just like ancient people always hope to have good Emperors or Monarch to take care of them, but these are rare exceptions from the historical perspective though it is not totally impossible.
The Power to do what?

The reason for people to have “POWER” is basically because they need the “BARGAINING POWER” to balance the monopolies’ power. If they do not have this bargaining power, their needs would be neglected and the products and services will be overpriced.

Many people have wrong understanding of their political power in a democratic political system. Some thought their power as a citizen is “to vote”. This is merely the means to the essence of their power. Some thought their power lies in their ability to “overthrow” or “replace” the ruling party. This is also merely the means to the essence of their power. The essence of their political power is the “BARGAINING POWER” to get those in ruling to provide BETTER and MORE services. This is similar to the “Bargaining Power” of consumers when they could just switch their loyalties to another competitor for better goods and services when the current one sucks. The changing of loyalty is just a mean to the end: to pressure the companies to respond or sensitive to their needs, to serve them better.

Thus it is the power to GET THE BEST DEAL for everyone that matters most.

Where do the people derive this power from?

To curb the “exploitation” of the system by these monopolies, there are two primary ways of going about it. One way is to “REGULATE” these monopolies. The other way is to create COMPETITION by setting up alternatives to the monopolies.

Many goods or services have “Natural monopolistic” characteristics. For example, due to the sheer size of investment, certain industries have Natural monopolistic characteristics. Examples are electrical power, public transportation etc. For these monopolies, we set up a system of rules to regulate them so to make sure that they did not exploit the consumers simply by virtue of the endowment of monopoly power. In the context of political system, there could only be one government at any one time. Thus the governing rules over the government which is endowed with great powers are the Constitution of the country. It is unhealthy for the ruling party to constantly change the rules which are supposed to regulate themselves and most of the time, Constitutional changes in other countries require a National referendum.

The other way to protect consumers’ right is to make sure that there are enough competitors around. Competition would lower prices and increase quality of goods and services. The classic example I could quote is the development of our telecommunication industry. Back in late 80s and early 90s, SingTel is the sole provider of telecommunication services in Singapore. When more players are allowed into the industry, prices start to drop and the quality of services improved. Ten years ago, nobody could imagine that a consumer could get a free handphone simply by registering a line with a mobile phone company! This is the explicit example of how consumers’ bargaining power could be increased tremendously when competition is being introduced.

The same could also apply to the political system. Citizens could only enjoy a tremendously increase in their bargaining power if and only if there are political competition. Although there could only be one government at any one time, but as long as there are alternative parties that continue to challenge the ruling party’s power base, the ruling party will have no choice but to respond. How could they respond in order to keep their power base? There are similarly two OPPOSITE and CONTRADICTORY methods as to voters’ perspective.

One is to kill competition, destroy your competitors. Second is to be sensitive and quick respond to their voters’ (clients or consumers) needs and demands.

Voters must understand that what they want is the later and not the former. The former method of destroying political competitors thus competition would ERODE their bargaining power in the long term. Voters should defend their own bargaining power by sending a strong signal to the ruling party that they reject such unhealthy moves.

When do the people have Power?

Most people have the misconception that they only have this POWER when they have the chance to vote. Consumers’ power does not only exist when they choose to purchase from another company. Their power is extended long AFTER they made the choice to switch. Their switching will send a signal to company that was discarded that they need to improve themselves. This power pushes the company to react and make things better.

Similarly for the political system, it applies. When PAP lost four seats back in 1991, it made them think hard how to improve their approach to win back the seats. Thus the idea of “HDB upgrading”, NSS and stuffs like that are introduced. They have become more sensitive to the masses’ demands by expanding the feedback unit’s outreach.

Thus in this view, the people’s power will have long lasting effects on the ruling party’s behavior even AFTER the General Elections. As mentioned in my last post “Mandate to Squeeze”, there are more things we could squeeze from the ruling party if more political competition is enhanced.

How could the people exercise their Power?

Ideally, the people will have most bargaining power when there is a credible ALTERNATIVE GOVERNMENT waiting to replace PAP. However, realistically at this stage of our political development, the practical thing is to vote in more alternative parties’ MPs to provide the necessity competitive environment that could provide the base of the people’s power.

Voting in more opposition MPs is only one part of the whole strategic maintenance of people’s power. The only way to protect voters’ bargaining power is to demonstrate strong objections to things that could erode their base of power. Citizens should deprive the ruling party the two third mandate to change the Constitution as they wish. This Constitution is supposed to regulate the ruling party and protect citizens’ bargaining power.

Citizens should also demonstrate strong objections to the ruling party’s hard hit tactic to destroy their opponents in which destroy the necessary political competition that provide the base of the citizens’ bargaining power in the political system.

Demonstration or expression of strong objections or dislike is an important way to get the better deal for citizens’ at large. The recent Eight White elephants saga is one fine example. Although I think it is a non-issue but look at it this way, at least such demonstration of dissatisfaction has force LTA to react and do something. However, the stiffening laws have prohibited Singaporeans’ right to make strong demonstration of demands or objections to various issues. However, those who put up the white elephants are deemed as law breakers under current laws though they are exercising their power to demand better deal from the LTA and transport provider.

PAP has claimed that they are “opening up” and there are many ways for people to feedback. However from my perspective, if such “opening up” doesn’t bring value to voters’ bargaining power in the political system, it is not very meaningful at all. We may not want people to break laws and go on unlawful acts but I think there are good considerations to be made on the right to demonstrate (as guarantee by our constitution but administratively deprived by the ruling party) basically because it involves the bargaining power of the people. Hong Kong has provided an ASIAN example whereby LAWFUL demonstrations do not disrupt economic activities nor chase away foreign investors.

Thus when the reporters who interviewed us ask what do we think about the “open society”, my answer is pretty simple: the ultimate test of openness is whether PAP would give us (the citizens) back the right to demonstrate lawfully in Singapore. Ironically, if law and order is really the main concerns, why would PAP willing to allow foreigners to demonstrate in Singapore when IMF meeting is going to be held in 2006?

Street demonstration is only one important avenue of people’s power. Freedom of expressions in any forms is also very important. Active participation in political discussion and discourse is one way of exerting people’s power. Artistic deliberations of social phenomenon and political concerns are one important ways also. Of course, attending feedback sessions either with ruling party or alternative parties are important. However many people who have attended government sponsored feedback sessions are disillusioned and we should seriously ask why.

Helping alternative parties to strengthen themselves in order to provide credible political competition is also one very effective way of making sure that the people’s power is being preserved. Joining or forming political parties to compete directly at the ruling party’s power base is the most direct way of helping to preserve citizens’ power.


In short, Singaporeans as voters, should fully understand what potential POWER they wield at the end of the day. Giving up their bargaining power to small “incentives” like HDB upgrading or NSS or ERS is really not worth it. There are more substantial things Singaporeans could SQUEEZE or bargain out of this political system if they know how to preserve and maintain their political bargaining power.

We are after all just human beings that is looking forward to better living style, quality of life for ourselves as well as our future generations. I am not prepared to sell my future generation’s power away and thus, I chose to fight it out. I just hope that we could continue to preserve and enhance the Power To The People.

Basically there are few important points:

People derive Power in the Democratic system via the ENVIRONMENT just like consumers deriving their bargaining power in the FREE market place; it is a necessity to have a competitive environment for consumers to get the best deal out of the system, similarly for a citizen.

Any moves by a monopoly to curb competition must be prevented; in the real world, you have the Anti-Trust law. Monopoly also understands that they derive GREATEST POWER by destroying competition/competitors and manipulate laws or rules that govern them. In the political industry, constitution will be manipulated to the monopoly's advantage. The Citizens must realise that such moves are detrimental to their own bargaining power in the long run; in fact, any moves by anyone to curb competition is BAD for them.

What the citizens could do actively to enhance their bargaining power or preserve their power in the democratic system is to prevent monopolistic behaviour and to encourage competition. Only then they could get the best deal out of the system.

PAP has been selling the idea of "MANDATE" to rule effectively which seems to mean to have TOTAL CONTROL of ALL SEATS in parliament. This is rubbish; you don't need to win ALL SEATS in order to show that you have the mandate to rule effectively. This is a monopolistic mindset and citizens should resist it for their own good in maintaining their bargaining power.

Goh Meng Seng


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Lucky Tan said...

my blog : http://happycitizen.blogspot.com

Well Singaporeans have one type of power that is never taken away, the kind of power that is makes them forego other powers.

What is this power?
BUYING POWER!....Once they have money to shop, go on tour and entertain....heck with other kinds of power like People power

Do visit my blog - let the power of logic move YOU!