Single party mentality

January 5, 1996

Few governments, if any, in Asia encourage any form of opposition. At best it is seen as a necessary evil by established governments, including many of those in western countries. At worst in several parts of Asia, opposition is something to be hounded, rooted out and even punished as treasonable. The notion of a "loyal opposition" is all too frequently seen as a contradiction in terms. Indeed in Britain the term "loyal opposition" dates from the 1830s when it was used, sarcastically, to indicate a paradox, that of combining dissent from the policies of His Majesty's ministers with loyalty to His Majesty personally.

The idea of a loyal opposition is very subtle and not always appreciated. In practice it accepts a dialogue in parliament whereby the members of the opposing party to government are able to criticise the bills and administration of the government. If possible pressure is brought to bear on the government to modify its policies. Often the opposition can mostly do no more than register its objections to these policies. The hope is that the electorate can be persuaded to offer its support to the opposition's "better" policies at the next general election.

A cursory survey of a number of important states in east and south east Asia would indicate that governments take a very jaundiced view of most forms of political opposition in the western sense. The concept of responsible opposition is at best suspect, if not derided.

In the People's Republic of China it seems that we encounter the old controlling apparatus of a conventional Leninist party governing without any challenge to its authority. But in fact this conventional wisdom is often questioned nowadays. Some efforts have been made to show that China's dissenters, while not actually constituting any form of organised opposition, are still active in the PRC. The argument is that since the late 1980s a good deal of argument has developed over means, if not ends, and that these tendencies have spanned numerous changes, for example, elections at the local level in which there have been more candidates than actual posts. Even in the party apparatus some old-fashioned communists have lost office.

At the same time legislators sitting on the National People's Congress have shown a lot more independence (again, stopping short of formal opposition) than was the case hitherto. Above all, popular culture including rock music, television entertainment and electronic media have made China less of a rigid authoritarian society, and in some ways not as controllable as before. It was the fax machine after all which gave many Chinese news of the events of 1989 in Tiananmen Square. Thousands of newspapers and journals have been set up in the past few years.

All of this can be exaggerated by democracy's enthusiasts and it does not mean that China will see the creation of a "loyal opposition" now or in the foreseeable future. It remains risky to stand up against the Communist party either as an individual or as a group. Intellectual life is still tightly controlled wherever the authorities can do so and the well-known dissident Wei Jingsheng was in fact re-arrested after discharge following on a 15-year prison sentence. The party cannot be challenged and China is still best seen as a Leninist state which has not yet accommodated itself to any suggestion of political opposition.

The cases of Singapore and Hong Kong present useful case studies in the evolution of opposition in Asia. Both are former British colonies (Hong Kong still until June 30 1997). Both have experienced the full force of western influence and both have a similar racial mix, predominantly Chinese.

There are deep similarities derived from a sense of social discipline and a strong work ethic. In both Singapore and Hong Kong the people have created prosperity out of an unpromising landscape, using their well-known industry, pragmatism and realism. Order, stability and discipline are preferred to western-style free-fight polities. Even if western style opposition were to be offered to them they would probably reject it.

In Singapore, the current governmental arrangements have been acceptable since independence in 1959. In 1980, some 76 per cent of the Singapore electorate gave its support to the ruling People's Action Party. In 1984, this figure had dropped to 63 per cent (excluding 30 uncontested seats). In 1992 after the last election the figure had dropped to about 60 per cent. In 1968, 1972, 1976 and 1980 the PAP won all the seats in Parliament.

In any western state the support of half of the electorate would be seen as adequate and convincing support. The conviction in Singapore is that the people are interested in the security of good government, not in the "games" played by an artificial opposition. Lee Kwan Yew, the senior minister said: "It's not my job to build an opposition. But it is my job to make an opposition possible." Opposition is therefore, in Singapore, to be found in the university, the press, the church and the law society, that is in extra-parliamentary forms.

In Hong Kong, the 60-strong legislative council sees the "government" as the object of its attentions. But Hong Kong's government is the civil service and not a party in power as is the case in the conventional Westminster model.

The "administration" is mostly, but not invariably the "enemy" in the narrow political sense. After 1997, opposition in Hong Kong will no doubt have to take on new and more subtle forms as legislators come to see the wisdom of caution in political discourse.

In the west opposition is, at its most ideal, a device to institutionalise conflict. The process of debate, discussion and structured conflict can, in the best of circumstances in the United Kingdom, for example, lead to the emergence of a usually reluctant consensus. John Stuart Mill spoke of "the collision of adverse opinions" as the mechanism by which "truth can be supplied". If this complex notion works imperfectly if at all in western governments, it nevertheless serves as an approximation to the western political process. E pluribus unum.

In Asia, opposition is often seen as an exotic and unwelcome western import. Adversarial politics in which one party "swears horrible" at another makes many Asians uncomfortable, while the notion that government can be ousted by its political opponents is as yet in an embryonic state.

There is no reason to suppose that opposition centred on a neat two-party division will readily emerge in Asia. What political scientists see, however, is a plethora of warring factions from all quarters of the continent. But what is so different about that?

Peter Harris is emeritus professor of politics at the University of Hong Kong.

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