Voting responsibly and wisely as a Christian

votingI read a balanced article by Dr Daniel Koh Kah Soon,  a lecturer of Trinity Theological College.  I got permission from him to share it on this blog. We may not agree with his conclusion and how he will vote, but what he wrote will help to remove unrealistic expectations, clarify our hopes and criteria, and help us reach a more thoughtful and prayerful decision.

He begins by describing six political realities we need to accept, and the seven qualities in politicians and political parties that he would support. Then he concludes with his veiled personal judgment, with which you may or may not agree. If you wish to go straight to the meat, skip the first four introductory paragraphs.

Something extraordinary has happened since the last Parliament was dissolved and a fresh General Election was called. More people are turning to social media to express their political views and disenchantment. Besides commentaries and even outbursts from individuals, political parties and their supporters refused to be left behind. They are getting into social media in a major way to make their case for voters to cast their votes in their favour.

Alternative perspectives are freely available from online forums and social media like Blog, YouTube and Facebook. Whereas in the past, General Election reports were primarily dominated and controlled by print media and television, the new media are difficult to monitor or control. The government and the traditional media have lost their once entrenched monopoly for dissemination of news and state-fed propaganda. This loss of effective role to impose censorship and control have made it easy for anyone with an opinion to speak up to do so with little fear of being silenced.

The new inexpensive channel of communication has invariably attracted top quality commentaries as well as diatribes from unhappy citizens. Some of what have been posted are brilliant opinion pieces and others which have found wide circulation are just incoherent and sometimes malicious utterances often taking the views that anything to do with the ruling party must be wrong and anything presented by a favoured opposition party must be right. Such muddied and often emotionally charged views expressed in the heat of the campaign season is not something any level-headed person can be proud of nor should anyone be involved in facilitating the spreading of such views. Distorted views may also make it more difficult for the average voters who want to exercise their voting rights responsibly to wonder who they can trust and who they should give their votes.

The predicament, it should be noted, is not just a problem faced by the “average voters.” Sadly some of the confusions have come from otherwise smart people, assuming – and this can be a tenuous assumption – that those who were fortunate enough to receive a tertiary education can be considered smart. I know of people who studied in the schools of hard-knocks where their campus is the streets and rough roads and yet they live a life marked by mature thinking and holding fairer perspective of life than some of the privileged ones. But because of the widespread circulation of unhelpful and skewed views, I thought I should put some of my considered thoughts in writing (for those who are open to my counsel you may read on, otherwise just turn the page) to assist anyone who wishes to cast his/her vote responsibly and wisely. Here then are some of my thoughts informed by my understanding of Scripture, tradition, reason and corporate experience.

Ours is a world with promise. But it is a fallen world. The political reality is that:

1) No political party in any country is faultless. Not the one in power, and not those which hope to take over.

2) No political party has the exclusive divine-ordered access to all the answers for societal problems. Elected politicians may be able to attend to many pressing problems. However, sometimes in solving certain problems they may introduce new ones, although any competent government will try to minimise ill-effects while attempting to cure societal ills. In any case, in our inter-related world, international upheavals and conflicts will impact the local scenes. As much as a competent government must anticipate problems – both local and international – there have been occasions when things just happened because they are unpredictable and there are issues which no one country can resolve by itself.

3) No political party can attend to all the needs of different groups of people nor should they commit themselves to one pet cause. Some of them may have a focused cause, e.g. the environment or animal welfare. But resources are relatively limited and there are competing claims for different and differing causes. It is the responsibility of each government to exercise wisdom when prioritising and deciding which need is truly urgent and which cause requires comprehensive attention.

4) No political party can be trusted if they promise to give regular and generous goodies to the citizens. Unfortunately there are gullible people who may be swayed by such promise and from my observation, among them will be those who are supposedly well-educated people. Nevertheless, I would like to think that not everyone is gullible. This is not to say that when the country is doing well, the people should not enjoy the results of their hard works and their contribution to building a stable and prosperous country. So once in a while, a celebration may be called for and citizens are given tangible bonuses. However, it is not possible to grant freebies for the long term on a regular basis. I do not trust politicians who promise the moon, principally because no one can offer unsustainable free lunch for the long haul.

5) No ruling political party – not in Singapore, not in the world – will deliberately make it easy for other political party to take over. That would be ludicrous and politically suicidal. Today it may be the Conservative Party in power. No Conservative government will make things easier so that other parties will stand a better chance to get elected. And if it is the Liberal Democrat in power, do not expect the Liberal Democrats to tweak the election process too much so that the other parties can gain more seats to oust them. Of course the process of electing the government and the rules which political parties must comply with, may not be completely acceptable to every political party. In that way, established process and procedures need to be reviewed, revised and improved regularly, even if every political party in power will seek to remain in power, by crook (in a totalitarian system) or by election rule (in a democracy).

6) No opposition party will be so generous and nice to the ruling party or other parties. Ideally they should at least be civil with each other. But every party worth its salt will want to be elected with sufficient number of Members of Parliament to represent and to speak for the varied and legitimate concerns of the people. And if the opposition party aspires to form the next government, it is to be expected of any worthy opposition party not only to criticise and expose the weakness of the ruling party, but must also convince the electorates that they have a better political agenda and that the political ideology that guides their party is more superior than that offered by other parties.

Other considerations and the essential quality of politicians and political party

1) It is a tough task looking for politicians and political parties with the kind of qualities which will work for the benefit the wider society. Needless to say, it is always an advantage to have politicians with high academic qualifications, sought-after skills, and professionalism. But more than such qualifications, we should look for politicians who value character and are themselves people of good character. That is to say we want to have people known for their trustworthiness, sense of justice, integrity, uprightness, fairness, compassion, community spirit, and hard work. In short these are people with required virtues that constitute what I consider as evidence of moral character; people who are willing to serve not for the high income, the lure of power, and the attraction of position, but because they see it as a dignified duty to be able to serve the community and the state. I am wary of politicians who are concerned about high pay and perks. They tend to be people with compromised sense of civil duty, vocation and professional career. For them political office is just another job where salaries and perks are pegged to the standards set by high income-earners. Having said that, it must be our duty to ensure that our politicians and leaders do not starve, and I am sure they will not starve if they follow, for example, the salary and benefits of a school principal or a university professor. And if they have served at least two terms as a minister, HDB can give them a five-room flat for their retirement.

2) I hold the view that once politicians or political parties have compromised moral character, they will lose their moral authority to govern well and to rally people to any worthy cause. My educated guess is that there has been an erosion to the authoritative voice of the current ruling party when they pressed for and rewarded themselves with what most people would consider as ridiculously high rewards.

3) It is not a bad idea to have elected Members of Parliament from different parties and I think we should have them. That said, not everyone who rode on an opposition party ticket deserves to be elected. It does not matter if we elect twenty opposition members or two so long as the twenty or two are people of substance and good character.

4) The checks and balance instrument offered by credible opposition parties may seem untidy for any ruling party which may prefer to be efficient and to make unimpeded decisions. But credible opposition members of parliament play critical role in asking hard questions which members of the ruling party may not ask. On important issues, opposition Members of Parliament should have no qualm voting against policies which they find unjust, unhelpful or undesirable. It is unlikely that members of the ruling party will vote against policies introduced by their own party. We need checks and balance because we cannot place complete trust in a single party, whatever that party might be.

5) The Nominated Members of Parliament scheme and Non-Constituency Members of Parliament serve limited functions. They cannot replace the roles or responsibility of elected Members of Parliament. In any case while they do have voice, they do not have votes. These two schemes should be phased out.

6) The standard we require of one party and the character of the candidates – which I hope will be both high and stringent – must be applied to all. Whether party or politicians, hard questions must be asked of both, and they must be scrutinized for lapses and flaws and held accountable to them; as well as we should affirm integrity and trustworthiness.

7) After all is said and done, apart from the consideration mentioned above, my decision to vote for someone(s) or a party must be guided by whether the party and politicians will pursue social justice, work at enhancing human well-being, uphold tested moral values and vision, offer committed holistic assistance and material resources to those who vulnerable, easily neglected people – the young and he elderly – who are struggling in life because of complex social issues, ill-health, and chronic poverty.

On Balance:

If only the choice we make is strictly made on the basis of what is right and what is wrong; clear line of good and evil. That would have made life much easier. But in politics there are often times when we have to make decision based not just on the good option versus a better one; but also between the lesser of two evils or better of two weak options.

No matter how we look at Singapore, God has blessed us with good fortune and favour, in spite of human failings and some past policies which I have spoken against previously, e.g. harsh treatment of political dissent, the questionable “Marxist conspiracy” and the silly graduate mothers policy. On balance, we have done well when we compared our over-all well-being with the state of many countries which obtained independence from their colonial powers post-Second World War. Unless there is an unforeseen drastic change in the political landscape in the next few days, I know who I will vote and I do so with much prayer and deep thought.

– Daniel Koh Kah Soon, 8 September, 2015

A Christian’s simple guide to voting

Who should I vote for is the question on my mind and on your minds too. Some thinking and feeling and praying should go into my vote. To help me think through, I came up with a list of criteria. If you want to use it to help you in your decision go ahead but do attach your own individual weight of importance to each of the criteria. Since I am a preacher permit me to indulge in alliteration.

Personality

Who are the candidates in the GRC or the SMC? Certainly integrity of character and ability would be an important factor in my choice. While it is difficult to assess a candidate’s character in just two weeks, the testimony of others and character references do help. The speeches and interviews may also let slip some clues. Still it is advantageous for the incumbent, and since its difficult to be fair here, I give this less weight. I just need assurance there is no major doubts about the integrity or ability of the candidates to represent me in Parliament.

Property or practical benefits

This is probably the most self-centred of all the criteria as it has to do with “what’s in it for me and my family?” PAP’s explicit and publicly stated policy is to benefit whichever constituency votes in their candidates. This behaviorist’s approach of carrot and stick in politics has served them well in the past though today’s young voters are a different breed.

Party

Another approach is simply to choose the party whose platform and values I am most aligned to and consonant with. A perfect match is unlikely but I can surely choose the party I am most comfortable with. Read their manifestos and hear the speeches will help me reach a reasonable  judgment.

Principles

This criteria is related to the one before it: specific issues and policies. Cost of living, availability of affordable housing, ministers’ salaries, the immigration and foreign worker policy, the care of the elderly and the poor, casinos and their social costs, health care, transparency of dealings of national reserves, and other such matters that fire your heart.  Certainly, how strongly I feel for or against the present state of affairs will somehow be factored into my thinking process.

Perspective

The big picture, the long term good of the whole of Singapore comes to the forefront here. It’s no longer about whether my mum gets a lift at her floor, or upgrading of the landscaping in my area. It’s about the future I want for Singapore and for my children and children’s children. Which party is more likely to bring me towards that future?

Personal convictions and values

Faith cannot be totally divorced from this. The faith or religion I have does influence what I believe to be important in life and society, and therefore it does colour how I view the world and the decisions I make, including this vote. Christianity values the integrity and righteousness; peace and harmony; truth and justice; compassion and mercy; stewardship of the earth; etc.

Personal ranking of criteria

Individual Christians will of course place different weights of importance to each of these depending on their experiences, stage in life and convictions. Ranking the factors in order of importance helps me make a clearer decision, one that I can be at peace with, one that expresses the unique “me” at this stage of my life.

Prayer and peace

It is important to pray about my vote. Prayer is not only for when I am in trouble. The vote I take can then be free from the forces that have been unleashed by all the different political parties: fear and greed (the same forces that dominate the stock market). When these primal emotions dominate your personal landscape it is difficult to make a peaceful decision. Confidence in God’s love and care provides the basis for me to enter into a restful vote. So I will talk about this with the Lord.

Further reading: The Catholic Archbishop Chia’s pastoral letter for 2011 general elections.