An elastic band here, a clothes peg there, part 2

There were a number of naysayers in  Parliament  when the bills to provide for electoral changes were moved.  The Straits Times reported that:

Five People’s Action Party (PAP) MPs, during the debate over changes that will increase the minimum opposition presence from the current three to nine, raised concerns ranging from their lack of accountability to their effect on debate in the House.


Mr Zaqy Mohamad (Hong Kah GRC) and Ms Irene Ng (Tampines GRC) fretted over the NCMPs’ lack of constituents to be accountable to.

Nothing will hold back an unelected NCMP from making ‘provocative comments and populist calls’, said Ms Ng.

While it is easy to criticise the Government, ‘an elected MP with constituents to answer to thinks differently…and has to stand by what he or she says and represents’, said Mr Zaqy.


Dr Lim Wee Kiak (Sembawang GRC) said voters had reasons not to elect the losing candidate: They do not want him or her to speak on their behalf.

— Straits Times, 27 April 2010, Concerns over plan to increase opposition presence

These three People’s Action Party (PAP) representatives made nothing but false arguments. They either made mistaken assumptions or were slickly reductionist. In three ways:

1. They reduced the multiplicity of voters and vote preferences in any constituency to a single body and mind, which “elected” the Member of Parliament, even if no actual poll took place (a walkover).

It is this reductionism that enabled Lim Wee Kiak to speak as if nobody cast any vote to the losing candidate (“They do not want him”, he said); nobody had wanted the losing candidate to speak on his behalf. This is patently untrue. Even candidates who fared badly had thousands of voters preferring them, let along those who would qualify for a Non-Constituency seat because they came close to a majority.

Zaqy made the same mistake. He said only an MP would feel he had to be accountable, because he and only he had constituents.

First of all, everybody should stand by his words, not just politicians, not just victorious politicians. If a politician goes back on his words, he risks losing votes at the next election. This is true whether that politician won a constituency at the previous election or not.

Secondly, even losing candidates, let alone those who did well enough to qualify for a Non-Constituency seat, would have voters who voted for them. It is absurdly reductionist to think that just because so-and-so won an election therefore he was the only one who received votes. Other candidates would have received votes too and stand to lose those votes the next time around should he be irresponsible.

2. They assumed that only legislators elected through a first-past-the-post system could be legitimate. Anyone who failed to win a constituency under this system could not possibly deserve a seat in Parliament. This was the basis for these MPs arguing against the inclusion of NCMPs.

The fact is, there are other electoral systems that produce entirely legitimate outcomes, beyond first-past-the post. Proportional representation (PR) is one, and the principle behind the NCMP scheme is not substantially different from PR, which is this: you prove you have a significant number of voters voting for you, you get into Parliament.

One also cannot but notice that by holding the first-past-the-post system in such awe, these PAP MPs never question the legitimacy of those who win by default (walkovers). Surely their legitimacy must be more suspect than NCMPs’ who at least demonstrated that a sizeable minority of voters would actually, courageously vote for them.

3. The third error — the worst, in my view — was to ascribe moral fitness to electoral winners. Thus we saw Irene Ng suggesting that NCMPs might make “provocative comments and populist calls”. Zaqy did likewise, implying that “elected” MPs were somehow more noble and responsible than those they defeated. The argument then flowered thus: since the losers are morally unfit, they do not deserve to be in Parliament.

It is a common weakness: victors ascribing moral superiority to themselves. It also happens to be one of the most off-putting facets of the PAP.

They should be careful. The winner at one election can lose at the next, and vice versa. It is as foolish to ascribe moral fitness on the basis of voting results as it is for airlines to claim that they will never suffer an accident. You don’t know what will happen tomorrow.

Consider this: The PAP’s Mah Bow Tan lost to opposition stalwart Chiam See Tong in Potong Pasir in 1984. Is Mah morally inferior to or more irresponsible than Chiam? Is Mah more prone, by Irene Ng’s principle, to making provocative and populist comments?

Irene Ng should read more widely. She should look at elected MPs in other countries. She would be amazed to see many of them, from the ruling parties too, appealing to populist urges. Provocative statements and pandering to baser instincts is not the preserve of electoral losers. She might also want to look back at some of the things her own party’s MPs have said over the years. Some have been racist. Notably in 2007, others have been homophobic, appealing to, and in the process fanning, prejudice.

(Note: Although  as discussed here, some PAP Members of Parliament spoke up against expanding the NCMP scheme, under the party whip they still had to vote for it. )

* * * * *

Bad as these PAP MPs’ arguments were, those that came out of Calvin Cheng (Nominated Member of Parliament) were worse!

In Part 1, I mentioned his attack on the NCMP scheme. Like the PAP MPs he too relied entirely on the belief that only those elected through a first-past-the-post system can be legitimate legislators. Second-place finishers have no place in the House, he said.

But what about himself, a nominated member? His justification for his own place in Parliament was:

Similarly, Mr Cheng added, since no one party represents purely workers’ or business interests, it would be useful to have NMPs from chambers of commerce or the unions.

— Straits Times, 27 April 2010, We’re not Nobody’s MPs, say Nominated MPs

No doubt the first thing that would cross readers’ minds is: But who elected you to represent these interests?


Functional constituencies

A case can be made for functional constituencies. Under such a scheme, instead of grouping voters by the geographic location of their homes, we could group them by the nature of their work or livelihood interests. There would be constituencies for teachers, for healthcare workers, for the retired elderly. Alternatively, we could group them by other attributes like ethnicity or language. Each person can only choose to belong to one constituency, and he may need to demonstrate his claim to belong to that group.

In the interest of fairness, large groups can send more representatives to parliament than smaller groups, proportionate to their size.

Elections would be conducted to elect Members of Parliament from these functional constituencies, and arguably you could get perfectly legitimate outcomes from such an arrangement. It sure beats having people like Calvin Cheng claiming, on the basis of being selected behind closed doors through an interview, to represent a functional group.

The problem with functional constituencies is that the details would be devilish. Where does one draw the lines? Should doctors, nurses and hospital cleaners all come under the same group? Where does one place freelance property agents? What about those who are semi-retired but still have a stake in the family business, are they retirees or are they businessmen? Is a National Serviceman in the same category as a professional Navy captain?

I think the wise answer is that it’s best not to go anywhere near functional constituencies; there’d be no end of dispute.


Proportional representation can reflect functional interests

Proportional representation (PR) can potentially do the same thing: represent functional interests. Just take for example the idea that I have mentioned before, for Singapore to have 84 PR-elected MPs, joining 84 other MPS elected from single-member geographic constituencies.

Anybody, not just political parties, can stand for election under the PR scheme. All you have to do is to get 1/84th of the total votes cast, that’s 1.19 percent.

You could have an independent candidate who makes a name for himself speaking up for workers’ rights, or another speaking up for the environment and how our economic strategies should be environmentally-sustainable. Yet another speaking up for gay equality. Or for the disabled. There are surely voters concerned with the same issues, but right now, they are diffused across all geographic constituencies.

Under PR, if they make up at least 1.19 percent and all cast their votes for the same candidate, then their preferred candidate will get into Parliament. Their interest will have a voice, a voice which the first-past-the-post system, with its geographic constituencies, almost always erases.

Businessmen could get together to put up and support “their” candidate, young people burdened by high tuition fees could do likewise.

If we really want Parliament to be broad-based, if we want all Singaporeans, whatever their identity or functional interests, to feel they have a stake in the system, if we want Parliament to have greater legitimacy, this is the way to go.

12 Responses to “An elastic band here, a clothes peg there, part 2”

  1. 1 matalamak 2 May 2010 at 17:33

    Actually there are 3 things that really stood out, almost unique, in Singapore politics. And withstood the test of time for 40 over years!

    1. The PAP is very well supported during elections and its members are also very united. Do you see any jump ship or breakaway factions formed like in other countries?

    2. The opposition is continually weak (lacking not only in quality but also numbers) and also disunited.

    3. There were no illegal protests or demonstrations that exceed 20 people.

    These are no mean feat.

    So we must ask what are the reasons for these that stood the test of time, even before GRCs, the NCMP, NMP and what not schemes.

    Maybe our small size, homogenity and demography play a part. And some even attribute the credit to one man! U no hu.

    As long as this prevail, PAP will remain dominant, regardless of what happen in other areas, including economic boom, bust etc. But as some said, if the U no hu leaves the scene, it may spell trouble or even disaster for Singapore, politically and economically.

  2. 2 George 3 May 2010 at 00:30

    Actually, the PAP would want us to forget that it came up with this scheme because the PAP leadership could brook no alternative views from within its own ranks of backbenchers.

    The NMP and NCMP are in fact schemes for the PAP to continue to keep a tight rein on its own MPs. The sole purpose of PAP MPs is functional and cosmetic – so that it may on record to have passed laws and policies with the support of the vast majority of MPs. We have all seen how MPs with a little backbone found themselves out of a job as the people’s rep as soon as they show some independence of thought.

  3. 3 Jackson Tan 3 May 2010 at 11:26

    When Irene Ng suggested populist calls, I can’t help think of PM Lee’s decision keep 377A to appease the conservatives…

  4. 4 Robert L 3 May 2010 at 22:51

    “Nominated” MPs is the antithesis of an electoral system. It’s a shameful device to bypass the electorate. It only expands the powers of the ruling party of the day without recourse to the electorate.

    “Non-constituency” MPs, on the other hand, is a small step towards a bit of proportional representation, as already explained by YB.

    Since these NCMPs have secured sizable proportion of citizens’ votes, those who call them losers only reveal how little regard they hold for the electorate. Anyone who shows so little regard for the electorate should never be allowed a voice in Parliament.

  5. 5 Robox 4 May 2010 at 06:19

    You know, I think that there could be new way with which we view walkovers as well.

    1. The mebers of every walkover ward – GRC or SMC – should still be accountable to their constituents*;

    2. The cadidate/team of the walkover ward will not automatically be regarded the winner;

    3. They would have to continue campaigning, though it would not be an opponent-centred campaign but a self-centred one – it’s why we deserve a positive vote from you;

    4. Their constituents would still be polling for them, but on a “yes” or “no” basis.

    5. If the “yes” votes form the majority, then they become full MPs; if the “no” votes win, they become NCMPs stripped of their rights to vote on the stipulated areas.

    This way, we can bring down the levels of hypocrisy, self-righteousness, and arrogance in the PAP government to a minimum.


    * Besides geopgraphically-defined consitutuencies, there is also such a thing in politics as “political constituencies” – it refers to the following that NCMPs have -or potential NCMPs will have – all over the island regardless of not having a physical area they can refer to as their constituency. NCMPs – and all NCMPs thus far have proven this to be true – do have a constituency, and this argument of not having one to be accoutable to is nonsense.

  6. 6 Anonymous 4 May 2010 at 11:11

    I would prefer an opposition MP that’s been voted in. All these NMPs and NCMPs can give their differing views but can’t vote. What’s the use?… all the PAP MPs may have differing views but would still vote with the party.

    I hope in the next election, enough people would have woken up and have the courage to vote with their heads.

  7. 7 yawningbread 4 May 2010 at 12:20

    Anonymous (4 May 11:11) – NMPS and NCMPs can vote, except on budget bills and constitutional amendments.

  8. 8 Anonymous 5 May 2010 at 10:22

    Thank you for the enlightenment. The exclusion of voting rights for budget bills and constitutional amendments for the NMPs and NCMPs are significant set-backs for citizens with different views.

  9. 9 reservist_cpl 5 May 2010 at 10:53

    Agreed, on the point of proportional representation.

    What you are proposing is not entirely new, it is basically the same concept as the Scottish Parliament system.

    The political myopia of the PAP MPs only shows that they are unable to think out of their mental straitjackets and are incompetent to lead Singapore in the next age.

  10. 10 lobo76 5 May 2010 at 15:42


    To add to your suggestion:
    To pass laws, the govt still needs 2/3 majority (56 MPs). If all the walkovers ‘failed’ to become full MPs, with the end result where there are less than 56 full MPs. This govt cannot pass laws unilaterally, without organising a referendum.

  11. 11 yawningbread 5 May 2010 at 16:02

    lobo76 – erm, not correct. To pass a bill into law, Parliament, provided it has a quorum, can do so with 50 percent of members present voting aye or nay plus one aye vote. Abstentions don’t count. The two-thirds requirement is for amendments to the Constitution.
    There is no provision in the Singapore constitution for enacting laws via the referendum route.
    One thing I accidentally left out of my reply to Anonymous above. NMPs and NCMPs cannot vote on motions of confidence either.

  12. 12 Robox 5 May 2010 at 22:25

    Thanks for your reply, lobo76.

    One point that I was driving at but failed to mention is that in conformity with the spirit of the law that makes constitutional amendments more difficult to effect, under the GRC system, we should now require that only a 100% approval can actually pass a constitutional amendment.

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