An elastic band here, a clothes peg there, part 1

The prize goes to Sylvia Lim, chair of the Workers’ Party. In my opinion, she hit the nail on the head when she said the recent changes to the electoral system were attempts by the government to solve problems of its own making. (Straits Times, 27 April 2010, PAP’s ‘woes’ of its own making: Sylvia Lim)

The changes — constitutional and law amendments passed Monday and Tuesday last — fixed the number of Nominated Members of Parliament (NMP) at nine, and fixed the maximum number of Non-Constituency Members of Parliament (NCMP) at nine as well. For every one opposition member who wins an electoral seat, there will be one less NCMP seat from the maximum.

Another amendment creates a “cooling-off” period, being the day before polling day. I have no strong opinion on this. It does not obviously impair the fairness of an election to have a cooling-off period.

Regarding the changes to the NMP and NCMP quotas, I dislike and will not endorse them. However, I urge opposition candidates to accept NCMP seats if these fall to them, and make the best of a term in the legislature to make a mark for themselves in the public consciousness. Politics is the art of the possible. Even when a scheme is bad, one should always consider leveraging it to one’s advantage. Absolutism is for religious nuts.

Why do I refuse to endorse this scheme? Because I think it is bad for Singapore in the long run. Parliament and the electoral system is supposed to be a respected institution; these changes do not further this goal. Instead, I think it takes us a greater distance away.

For an institution of state to be respected, it must have

  • Reliable permanence
  • Clarity and fairness in how it is constituted
  • Clarity and fairness in how it works.

A sense of reliable permanence can never be achieved if we keep tinkering with it, often for party-political motives every few years. The name may remain the same — “Parliament” — but the thingamajig becomes more and more like an incomprehensible contraption with bits and pieces nailed or welded on from time to time.

That said, I will not be so quick to say, as some others have, that the latest changes are meant to further the ruling party’s interest at the expense of opposition parties’ or the national interest.

I will take Law Minister Shanmugaratnam’s explanation to Parliament at face value, as to why he was tabling these changes. As reported by the Straits Times (), his reasons were:

First: Singapore needs a government with a clear, strong majority, that can provide good governance in the long-term interests of Singaporeans.

Second: At the same time, there is a legitimate desire among Singaporeans to have more diverse views, including opposition views articulated in Parliament.

— Straits Times, 28 April 2010, Balancing a strong govt and a diversity of voices

I assume the first reason was a defence of the first-past-the-post system, which tends to produce lopsided results in seat winnings, especially in a city-state like Singapore where voter profiles are similar from across constituencies.

The second reason was his justification for adding yet another make-shift distortion to the system.

Let me deal with the NMP and NCMP issues separately.

* * * * *

NMPs

Regarding the carbuncle that is the NMP system, I continue to abhor it. There is no clarity or fairness in how it is constituted (how NMPs are chosen). Critically, there is no electoral basis for such members. It should be abolished forthwith.

The press reported that a number of current NMPs defended their value during the debate on the amendments. A more pathetic set of arguments I could hardly imagine. NMP Calvin Cheng even figuratively thumped his desk, saying [3]:

People who are proposed to be NCMPs are politicians who stood for an election and lost. Sir, they lost. They lost. I do not know how much more emphatic I can be about this. These are politicians who have stood on certain political platforms for certain political issues. A majority of the electorate have considered these issues, these politicians and rejected them at the polls. To then allow them into Parliament flies in the face of logic of a democratic election at best, and at worst is a slap in the face of the people who have voted against them.

— ibid

Kudos to Sylvia Lim again for stripping the man naked in full public view:

I find it quite ironic that someone who came into this august chamber through an interview can actually attack the NCMP scheme in such strong terms.

— ibid

As for the other arguments advanced by NMPs during the debate, I shall deal with them in Part 2 of this article.

* * * * *

NCMPs

My dislike for the NCMP scheme is far less fundamental than my opposition to the NMP scheme. Unlike some ruling party MPs who myopically, in their speeches, assumed that the first-past-the-post system is the only legitimate electoral system, I am very open to different electoral approaches. This, especially given that fact that I am convinced the first-past-the-post system is inherently unsuitable for Singapore.

NCMPs in my eyes have legitimacy where NMPs do not.

Yet I oppose the scheme in general, because it lends a further air of band-aid messing about with what should be a permanent institution. For example, why nine? Will it be fifteen tomorrow? Or six the day after? Why are only opposition candidates eligible? Why not the losing candidates of a party that wins nation-wide? Why must the number of NCMPs be reduced for every elected opposition member?

There’s something very arbitrary about it, and arbitrary rules are open to abuse and never engender respect. And Parliament is worth nothing if it enjoys no respect.

* * * * *

Proportional representation (PR)

I stand by my proposal — one that I’ve been making for years (see previous Yawning Bread articles) — that Singapore should have a mix of first-past-the-post and proportional representation. I think we should have a parliament of 168 members, of which 84 are elected from single-member constituencies (and also act as Town Council chairs), and 84 others elected by PR.

84 is not an arbitrary number that I picked out of thin air. It is the current number of constituencies we have, albeit that most have been subsumed into Group Representation Constituencies.

The government will no doubt leap up and say that is a recipe for political gridlock and slow-moving coalition governments. That’s just scare-mongering.

In the present demographic context of Singapore, the similarity of voter profiles from one constituency to the next will almost guarantee that any party with a slight edge (in voter preference) over others will garner a disproportionate number of single-member seats, bringing it very close to a majority in the House. Add in what it wins from the PR side of the election and it should easily command a majority in Parliament and have no difficulty forming a government.

Even if one distant day, we have a multiplicity of parties and find ourselves faced with coalition governments, so what? Germany is a good example of a country that has had coalition governments for decades, and look how steady the ship of state is.

It’s like this: Would we rather have a situation where a party that wins only 40 percent of the vote end up sweeping the parliamentary seats under a first-past-the-post system (with multiple opposition parties splitting the vote among themselves and thus winning very few) and producing a “strong” government that is basically unrepresentative, or would we rather have a coalition government where parties have to be mature enough to work together, but which between them can at least claim to represent more than half the people’s votes?

Which is better? A powerful but narrowly-based government or a compromise-making broader-based one?

* * * * *

I disagree with the recent changes. But that does not mean I like the system the way it is. We should overhaul the system, not merely tinker with it.

We deserve a fairer, simpler-to-understand system. It should be one that produces outcomes more representative than the present system, without having to jump through hoops and hurdles, applying an elastic band here and clipping a clothes peg there, like what we are doing now.

In Part 2, I will deal with some of the silly things parliamentarians said in during the debate.

15 Responses to “An elastic band here, a clothes peg there, part 1”


  1. 1 Eugene 1 May 2010 at 21:14

    That’s what’s happening in the UK right now where the Liberal Democrats are pushing for electoral reform from FPTP to a proportional-type system (though I’m unsure which specific kind of PR they are advocating).
    We’ll see after 6 May if Lib-Dems can command significant popular vote vis-a-vis Labour and Conservatives but still lose out in terms of the number of seats garnered due to FPTP.
    I’m for a mix of FPTP and PR system.

  2. 2 yuen 2 May 2010 at 02:34

    I also believe in having a mixed system, with a first-past-the-post Lower House as present, and a Proportionate Representation Senate, e.g., if say there are 25 senators, then any party that manages to get 4% of the vote would be entitled to one senate membership. Such a system would have the following advantages:

    1. everyone citizen will vote in a general election – even when there is a lower house walkover in youre electorate, you will still take part in the senate election, since voting for the senate is counted nation wide

    2. the PAP can send retired ministers to the senate where they can play advisory roles, instead of keeping them in the cabinet

    3. prominent individuals can stand for the senate as independents, providing a new kind of oublic voice

    4. the senate can take over the role of the 3-man committee that assesses the qualification of presidential candidates – it is better to have such an important role played by an elected body

    like the current NCMP system, a senate provides alternative representation for opposition parties that do not succeed in getting elected to the Lower House; like the NMP system, a senate provides for independent voices – but both these will be chosen by the voters

  3. 3 yawningbread 2 May 2010 at 12:20

    The problem with constituting the proportionally elected members as a separate chamber – a senate – is what sort of mechanism would you propose to pass laws? If, as is common in bicameral systems, no law can be passed unless it is passed by both houses each taking a separate vote, then I can foresee a problem: The dominant party may dominate the lower house (made up of single-member constituencies), but other parties or independents may make up the majority of the senate. There is a shown tendency for opposition parties, controlling one house, to try to frustrate the governing party by blocking all bills. How do you propose to deal with this?
    .
    On the other hand, your point about the senate taking over the role of prequalifying presidential candidates is a good one. I would, however, want the rules liberalised first. In its present form, only about 600 people in all of Singapore would qualify, and you can bet that the 600 would either be PAP leaders themselves, or others very sympathetic to them.

  4. 4 matalamak 2 May 2010 at 13:13

    From what I see, the PAP over react lah. I think no matter what they will win 98% of the seats, with 50% courtesy from our opposition.

    If I were them, I don’t worry at all. I start to worry only if foreign “talents” don’t want to come here anymore.

  5. 5 yuen 2 May 2010 at 13:46

    as I have already indicated under point 2, I see the senate, like the british house of lords, as basically an advisory body; retired ministers would be eminently suited to such a role, whereas remaining active ministers in the cabinet is a rather heavy burden for aging individuals

    actually, one drawback from PAP’s point of view is that some voters would go with PAP for the Lower House but vote opposition or independent for the Senate – similar to the case of the 1st (and only) presidential election when Ong Teng Cheong received a lower percentage than PAP did in the general elections before and after the presidential election; whether this is a strong deterrent against the senate idea is of course not for me to judge

  6. 6 yawningbread 2 May 2010 at 17:02

    Yuen – if your proposed senate only has an advisory role, why would anyone bother to stand for election?

  7. 7 ExExpat 2 May 2010 at 17:54

    Hi Alex, you mentioned the German system, although it has a few procedural weaknesses it is the fairest I can imagine.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elections_in_Germany

    In short, Germans have 2 votes:

    1st vote goes to your direct candidate of choice – majority wins – he goes to parliament in any case.

    2nd vote – party vote! If a party get 8.9% (yes, must be over 5%), the there will be close to 8.9% of the seats given to them, EVEN IF they didnt win a single direct seat! However, they have to present a party list, so it will be clear who goes to the parliament. If they have 5 seats, then the 5 first in the list win.

    The total number of seats of course varies a bit, since there may be more direct candidates than %, or the other way around, and then some more parliament members have to be fit in to make it 100% fair.

    Another interesting and very beneficial effect is this: in some constituencies, there may be a great direct candidate from some small obscure party, and we can still elect him while AT THE SAME TIME give the 2nd vote for the big party we actually prefer. Somehow, the vote is split in 50-50 like that, and everyone has a chance.

    This system, applied to Singapore, would have created >20 opposition seats last time, the opposition would be quite exposed and coalition discussions would be quite naturally already. Would not be a bad thing I believe.

    Even small parties with a boutique niche agenda, such as the “greens” stand a chance, and in fact the green provided one of our most brilliant foreign ministers in a coalition.

    Such a system is fair, stable and able to reform. All your concern on NMPS, etc are taken care of.

    Cheers

  8. 8 yuen 2 May 2010 at 18:58

    > if your proposed senate only has an advisory role, why would anyone bother to stand for election?

    for the same reason people want to be NMPs

  9. 9 Robox 2 May 2010 at 22:11

    Hi Alex,

    I thought I’d point out some serious problematic areas in the NCMP system. I’ll do this in two parts.

    First, no where in the Westminster system is the electoral system of a country detailed in law. Electoral systems are political conventions, not law. To make things doubly worse, the NCMP system is enshrined in the Constitution, and not in the statutes. But there seems to be a very devious reason that the fraud PAP has made it so.

    1. Amendments to the Constitution require a qualified two-thirds majority for them to pass. By contrast, amendments to the statutes require only a simple majority of 50% plus one vote.

    2. In the original framing of the Constitution adopted variously by the British Commonwealth countries including Singapore, this was to make it “vary hard” to make changes to the Constitution. (This is the extra-constitutional or “spirit of the law” basis for the relevant clause in the Constitution requiring a qualified majority for amendments.) It was inconceivable to the original framers that a two-thirds majority could easily come entirely from one party so as to make amendments to the Constitution at will.

    3. However, in Singapore the requirement for a qualified majority has gone unchanged despite the introduction of GRC feature of the electoral system; along with the array of other measures to guarantee it, the GRC feature will see to it that the PAP will always have the required two-thirds majority.

    My point is that not only has a convention like an electoral system been enshrined in law in Singapore, it has been enshrined in the Constitution to make it impossible to remove.

  10. 10 Robox 2 May 2010 at 23:01

    The next problematic area I find with the NCMP scheme is restricted only to scenarios in which less than 9 opposition members of Parliament actually win in either their SMCs or GRCs.

    I illustrate with an example.

    Lets say that only 5 opposition candidates actually win, and while immaterial to this discussion, this could have been in one SMC and one four-member GRC. That would leave exactly four NCMP seats available.

    But what if the next highest qualifiers actually lost in a five-member GRC? Which four members in that five-member team would qualiify for an NCMP seat, which one member would not, and why?

    In the last election which saw Sylvia Lim as the only member of her five-member team qualify for an NCMP seat, it was on the basis of her being the leader of the team. (It that even provided for anywhere?)

    Still, it is a more palatable explanation.

    But if the GRC feature was ostensibly to guarantee minority race representation, shouldn’t there be some kind of provision to ensure that the minority race candidate in a qualifying GRC team be given an NCMP seat? Let’s say instead that a total of 7 opposition candidates actually won in their wards leaving two NCMP seats available. And let’s also say that the next highest qualifiers are from a four- or five-member GRC team. The leader of that team would be given an NCMP seat. Who gets the next one, and why not the minority race cadidate, if that were to be the case?

    But the most pertinent in this discussion is that constituents in a GRC actually vote for a team, and not the individual candidates. How would the Elections Commmission know anything about any breakdowm in the votes for the individuals in the team so as to make decisions on who from a team gets an NCMP seat and who doesn’t?

    There can be any number of permutations of winners/next highest qualifiers in scenarios of less than 9 winners, but all the same question seem to crop up for me.

  11. 11 yawningbread 3 May 2010 at 01:25

    Robox – the recent amendments also state that no more than 2 losing candidates from any GRC team will be offered NCMP seats. Another new directive is that no GRC will be larger than 4 constituencies.
    .
    If the opposition candidates win 5 seats outright and there are 4 NCMP seats to fill, (and assuming the best losers aren’t candidates in Single-member constituencies, but in GRCs) then the Elections Department will offer 2 NCMP seats to the best loser GRC team, and 2 NCMP seats to the next best loser GRC team.
    .
    Exactly which ones in each losing GRC team will take up the NCMP posts is not for the Elections Dept to decide, it is for the party leadership to decide.
    .
    Yes, it’s damn complicated. The typical voter will find it hard to understand, and consequently will be full of suspicion that it will be manipulated by the powers that be. And that is precisely one of my chief criticisms of the NCMP scheme. It suffers from complexity, which is never a good thing in electoral system design. A simple proportional representation system is so much cleaner and easier for the layman to grasp.
    .
    If you bring in the question of minority-race representation even among losing candidates, it just gets even more complicated, and then there’ll be no end of argument where to draw the line and what’s fair or not fair.
    .
    Re racial quotas for GRC candidates, my position is that we should do away with them. No racial quotas. No GRCs.

  12. 12 Robox 4 May 2010 at 06:03

    Hi Alex,

    Thanks for the clarification. Yes, the system is too complex for a population that is only just beginning to mature politically but is nowhere near there yet.

    My question regarding the institutionalizing of minority race representation, even among the “losers” – Aargh! I don’t like that word! – was actually one that I was posing for the PAP government that has always used it as the raison d’etre for the GRC feature: If minority representation is important to the winning teams, why shouldn’t it be demanded of the NCMP scheme comprising ” losers”as well, since it is an extension of the same GRC system and part of the larger electoral system?

    Having said that, I am still disappointed that think that guaranteeed minority race represenation should be done away with. It is even more disappointing that you seem to disparage it as tokenistic representation by your use of “racial quota”.

    Even blooger and Workers Party memeber Png Eng Huat seems to think that the GRC is “affirmative action” but only for minority races, and not the majority of candidates of ethnic Chinese origin who coast through elections under a cabinet minister’s wings.

    http://pngapore.blogspot.com/2010/04/isnt-grc-system-affirmative-action.html

    While everyone knows that the PAP government has been using the “minority representation” excuse to entrench the hated GRC and themselves in power, I would mention that many among the minority races ourselves feel relieved about that such a guarantee at least exists.

    The demographic structure of every single ward in confluence with the existing sociological conditions predispose any doing away of the guarantee to a Parliament that is 100% ethnic Chinese.

    I doubt that there are many takers for the possibility of that outcome even among the majority of the ethnic Chinese in the electorate.

    There is actually a very simple system of SMCs only, with guaranteed minority race representation that works in such a way that it can NEVER be token representation by them.

  13. 13 yawningbread 4 May 2010 at 10:11

    Robox, you said: ‘Even blooger and Workers Party memeber Png Eng Huat seems to think that the GRC is “affirmative action”…’
    .
    Yes, I saw his letter in the Straits Times 3 May 2010. But you are misreading his point. He was using it to contest the government’s reply to a point made by United Nations Special Rapporteur Githu Muiga, who had said that Singapore needed to consider measures like affirmative action for racial minorities. The government said Singapore does not believe in it; the racial minorities themselves do not believe in it.
    .
    Png’s point was that racial quotas in GRCs belie the government’s point.
    .
    Further on in his letter, Png said: “The minorities have spoken. They have the ability to achieve progress under the national system of meritocracy. The Government should recognise that and abolish the GRC system,” – which seems to me that he too thinks we should dismantle race quotas in elections.

    • 14 Robox 4 May 2010 at 12:29

      I have to disagree very severely.

      Png Eng Huat’s poin, was:

      1. The PAP government does not approve of any affirmative action;

      2. Minorities agree, as if he if he was even an authority on any of this; but he based his conclusions on PAP-approved sources which tells me where his biases lie;

      2. The GRC is affirmative action, and in his blindsided way, helps only racial minorities get a free ticket into Parliament, but not the majority of ethnic Chinese that it actually does;

      3. Given that the PAP government does not approve of affirmative action and that, according to Png Eng Huat, the GRC system helps only racial minorities get a free ticket into Parliament, but not the majority of ethnic Chinese that it actually does, THEN SHOULDN’T THE LOGICAL CONCLUSION BE TO GET RID OF THE GRC SYSTEM ALTOGETHER?

  14. 15 Robox 4 May 2010 at 23:26

    Sorry, when I said, “THEN SHOULDN’T THE LOGICAL CONCLUSION BE TO GET RID OF THE GRC SYSTEM ALTOGETHER?”

    it should have continued with:

    “…and replace it with a system in which minorities are no longer guaranteed representation.?

    And maybe the problem here is with the word “representation” because most people, including especially minorities, think that:

    1. we don’t think along communal lines;

    2. there are not really all that many very pressing race-related issues; therefore,

    3. we don’t need anyone to “represent” us specifically in Parliament.

    This is of course very true.

    Thus the word should really be “participation”.

    What if I wanted to make politics my career and run for office, but know very well that despite my talents, I’m going to have a next-to-impossible chance of being elected?

    Wouldn’t that make an only-SMC system without guaranteed minority representation a racist system for systemically excluding me?


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