What’s wrong with 3-cornered contests?

The news this morning is that all the active opposition parties got together last night (Wednesday 2 March 2011) to carve up the newly-announced electoral divisions for the upcoming general election. While no formal press statement was made after the meeting, the media reported that casual comments by some who attended suggested that “about eighty percent” of the constituencies had been decided, leaving only a few more to be sorted out at the follow-up meeting, expected this Saturday.

The aim of these all-opposition meetings is to ensure that opposition parties will not find themselves competing against each other in the same constituency, avoiding “three-cornered” fights.

There is something horribly anti-competitive about it. If these were businesses in the marketplace, any competition authority would have something to say about this kind of collusion.

Of course it makes sense from the parties’ point of view, but is it in voters’ interest?

Singapore’s opposition parties generally have limited resources — manpower, funds and time. It would be a waste to be expending them fighting each other than fighting the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP). Moreover, there is a risk that if any candidate fails to garner at least 12.5 percent of the votes cast in any constituency, he would lose his election deposit of S$13,500 (I have not verified if this quantum still applies for the coming election).

But this logic is based on an assumption which, strangely, no one has yet interrogated: that there is a relatively inelastic pool of voters who would not want to vote for the PAP and that they would vote for whichever opposition party happened to be standing in their constituency. You see this assumption at work whenever someone talks about not “splitting” the vote.

You see this again whenever someone calls for “opposition unity”. Unity for what? It can only mean unity to throw out the PAP. Is that all that voters want? Is that even chief of what they want? I don’t think so. How simplistic, how unrealistic, can one get?

If this model of the Singapore voter were true, then I think Singaporeans would be an immature lot. I’d almost be tempted to say we get the government we deserve.

From what I have seen, opposition parties are not interchangeable, and even if there are days when one is frustrated with the PAP, not all of the other parties are always preferable to the PAP.

Over the last few years I have argued on this site that opposition parties should rely less on anger against the PAP for votes and do more to articulate their convictions and policy directions. I have long said that so long as they rely on anti-PAP frustration, there is a ceiling — and a low one at that — to how many votes they will ever get. I am pleased that during the last few years, opposition parties have slowly moved in the direction I advocated — though I don’t know whether whatever I wrote had anything to do with it. More likely, it’s got to do with the communication opportunities presented by new media.

But the trend to differentiate themselves by articulating convictions and policy directions can only mean that they will become less and less interchangeable. I may like Party K and Party L for their positions; I may not like Party M and Party N. So, come election time, why should I be denied the opportunity to choose among K, L, M and N?

We know the reason: there is the fear that no opposition party is strong enough or attractive enough to secure an outright victory against multiple opponents, one or two localised areas, e.g. Hougang, excepted. There’s a fear that even if support for the PAP softens to, say, 48 percent, two opposition parties (let’s say K and M) fighting it out in the same constituency may find themselves with 20 percent and 32 percent respectively, and under out first-past-the-post electoral system, the PAP will secure the seat despite not getting an outright majority.

But why shouldn’t they? The PAP would have more support than either K or M. That’s democracy, isn’t it?

Let’s not assume too quickly that if voters in that constituency had only been presented with a candidate from M, all those who would otherwise vote for K would also vote for M. Rubbish. That’s not how people behave. Even if three out of four K supporters would gave their vote to to M instead of the PAP, that would still leave M with only 32+15=47 percent of the vote.  PAP would get 53 percent and quite legitimately deserve the seat.

In fact, one could argue that it is the worse result. There are different degrees of legitimacy and the PAP winning the seat with 53 percent is a lot more so than winning it by 48 percent. In other words, by my example, anti-PAP folks score a moral victory in the first scenario (K and M holding the PAP down to the 48 percent win) but not in the second (PAP defeats M 53:47).

But then, I don’t really want to be speaking of the upcoming contest as one between the PAP and the anti-PAP. I’ve already said that is a simplistic way of looking at the political landscape.

I think the more important point is that democracy is about choice and I hardly consider it obvious that limiting voters’ choices by assigning constituencies to one opposition party each, expands that choice.


62 Responses to “What’s wrong with 3-cornered contests?”

  1. 1 Vernon Voon 3 March 2011 at 16:06

    I fully agree. The election is about which party deserves our vote, not whether either the opposition or the PAP gets our vote. All parties have to compete with one another for our vote. The opposition should be no exception.

  2. 2 Sasquatch 3 March 2011 at 16:27

    It has been well-documented that about 30% of voters would always vote against the PAP (this is shown from past voting history). 3-cornered contests would split the vote from this group, thereby reducing the chances of an Opposition member getting voted into Parliament.

    You might say, what’s wrong with that? Shouldn’t the best man win? Well, that might be true if your aim was to vote in a new government. But in Singapore’s unique political landscape, that is virtually impossible. It is a given that the PAP will win the election and form the government. So the aim of any anti-PAP voter is simply to reduce PAP’s majority in Parliament, so that there is greater parliamentary dissent and scrutiny of PAP’s policies, and so that the PAP cannot willy-nilly pass constitutional amendments (which require a two-thirds majority).

    Given this aim, it makes perfect sense to avoid 3-cornered contests. The calibre of the Opposition candidate is irrelevant, since he is not going to form the government. You are only voting him into Parliament to keep the PAP on their toes and prevent them from becoming too complacent.

    • 3 Sasquatch 3 March 2011 at 16:31

      I wish there were an edit function. I want to make an amendment to my post – instead of saying that the calibre of the Opposition member doesn’t matter (it does matter, since it affects his standard of debate in Parliament), I would say that the specific *policies* of the Opposition party don’t matter, since they won’t get implemented anyway.

      • 4 yawningbread 3 March 2011 at 17:30

        Of course it matters. Any policy of the government can be criticised from a variety of directions: Too little or too much, too liberal or too conservative and so on. As a voter I don’t merely want policies criticised, I want them criticised from the direction I prefer. Therefore the convictions and policy stances of each party matters. Moreover, opposition candidates’ personalities matter too. I don’t want gaffe-prone or tongue-tried opposition MPs who tend to score own-goals making things worse. Party positions matter. Calibre matters. And that’s why choice matters.

      • 5 Christopher 3 March 2011 at 22:12

        Indeed, you cannot say that the calibre of the Opposition candidate is irrelevant. To reiterate your own point here with my statement, how is an Opposition candidate of poor or less-than-average calibre, be able to ‘keep the PAP on their toes’? Or even convince the electorate of the ward which he/she contests to vote him/her into Parliament?

        I think that it is important for Singaporeans to take our Opposition seriously. Granted, the status quo of a PAP government is unlikely to change in this upcoming election. However one should not simply resign the fate of the Opposition in Parliament to simply ‘keep the PAP on its toes’ and forget about their own policies. The truth of it is, political change takes time, and you want to build a stronger starting point (if more opposition MPs come into power) than just being the alternative voice.

        In my opinion, if this upcoming election achieves a breakthrough from the usual Hougang/Potong Pasir status quo, the Opposition should thus take the next 4 to 5 years up till the next election to consolidate their credibility as leaders of this country. These men and women need to be of good calibre to begin with. Also, they would require the foresight at this juncture right now. You cannot plan on getting into Parliament and then plan on what to do. Policies, and having an opinion, matters.

      • 6 Sasquatch 4 March 2011 at 03:40


        If the choice is between an inferior Opposition MP or no Opposition MP at all (due to splitting the vote), I would prefer the former result. To use your analogy, I’d rather field a player who is prone to scoring own goals, than not to field any player at all.

        Moreover, even in two-way fights, Opposition candidates that are vastly inferior would not be elected. So you don’t really need “more choice” to ensure that the Opposition MP would be of a minimum standard. If he manages to beat the PAP’s candidate in spite of all the disadvantages he faces, he ought to be of reasonable calibre.

    • 7 patriot 4 March 2011 at 16:00


      Sasquatch said, “If the choice is between an inferior Opposition MP or no Opposition MP at all (due to splitting the vote), I would prefer the former result.”

      Do you agree with the above statement or would you rather score the moral victory in your example?

      And please, don’t pigeonhole people, who would rather have an inferior Opposition MP than no such MP at all, or for that matter, any voter who prefers any Opposition party to PAP, as anti-PAP. I see them as pro-Singapore folks who understand the need for or even desperately want change. Do you?


  3. 8 Kramer 3 March 2011 at 16:50

    It’s such an irony that you used the word “anti-competitive” on the opposition parties’ strategy when the biggest culprit committing that crime is the incumbents!

    Bring this up again when the day comes where all political parties in Singapore can compete for votes on EQUAL playing field i.e. an independent mass media, free press, freedom of speech, rights for peaceful demonstration, no GRCs, no “buying” of votes through election budget, no more threatening voters on loss of housing or denial of citizen entitlement such as HDB upgrading and the list goes on.

    • 9 yawningbread 3 March 2011 at 17:25

      Let me paraphrase your position: Since the PAP acts like a thug, opposition parties, in trying to win voters’ hearts and minds, should also be free to act like thugs.

      • 10 Kramer 3 March 2011 at 22:17

        That’s a bad analogy so let me rationalise it better – PAP acts like thugs with parangs and chopping knives, with full armour and go around bullying in big gangs. Then choose to pick a fight with a much smaller gang, and dictates that if they want to fight, they come without armour, and can only use pen knives. There will be an umpire to oversee that fight but the umpire is under the big gangs payroll. Now if you are a member of that small gang and goes into the fight without strategising, then I must say you are not too bright and deserves to be chopped up.

      • 11 yawningbread 3 March 2011 at 23:13

        Your rationalisation is metaphor that blasts off into outer space — where’s the relationship between the circumstances that you have described and the point of my article: that voters’ choice should not be artificially circumscribed. If you want to rebut, you need to provide an answer to this question: Why is reducing voter choice good for voters? Yes, the parties are strategising but is the outcome of their strategising good for voters? Or good only for them (or so they believe)?

  4. 12 Gard 3 March 2011 at 17:56

    How about the case of, say, Sylvia Lim and Jeyaretnam fighting in the same ward against PAP?

    Perhaps it’s a bit of an extreme example – but would you prefer to see both Sylvia Lim and Jeyaretnam in paliament or just one of them or none?

    In business, pure competition do not necessarily generate an optimal outcome for both businesses and consumers if certain ‘ideal world assumptions’ are not met.

    If ‘pure’ is not the answer, then how? What advice would you offer to the opposition parties?

    • 13 yawningbread 3 March 2011 at 19:40

      Yes, it’s a bit of an extreme example, but the point it illustrates still has an answer: It’s not up to me or up to you. It’s up to the voters whether they prefer Sylvia Lim or Jeyaretnam or the PAP candidate. If Sylvia Lim and Jeyaretnam choose to contest in the same ward, such that only one (if either) can get into parliament, so be it. What you are implying is that the system should be rigged so that this either/or outcome (which I sense you consider undesirable) should not be allowed to happen.

      • 14 Tanky 3 March 2011 at 22:56

        I agree with you. They should stand where they want to and voters vote who they think will represent them best. I will like to add that voters are also free to move to the ward where they think they can be best taken care of. Of course, with the unpredictable way the wards are being redrawn, its kind of iffy if one can move to the right ward …

      • 15 Gard 3 March 2011 at 23:36

        Rigged is too strong a word. Even in real business markets, it is not unusual for small players to band together to effectively compete against a dominant incumbent, such as small retailers forming purchasing co-ops to reduce costs. In the business world, this can be a strategy for survival. Is the consumer better off without this strategy?

        And we cannot conceive of such a scenario as if the incumbent (PAP) will stand by and do nothing.

        Even the enlightened PAP party has to consider its own self-interest. If you accept that PAP party has acted in self-interest so far, why shouldn’t you accept that the opposition parties have the right to act in self-interest? (Self-interest does not mean behaving like thugs.) So, operating from self-interest, is it optimal for Sylvia Lim to contest in the same ward as Jeyaretnam; and for Jeyaretnam to contest in the same ward as Sylvia Lim; and for PAP to have Sylvia Lim and Jeyaretnam contesting in the same ward; and so on…?

        Like in the business, we talk about the ideal world that we can have perfect competition for the good of both businesses and consumers. Or the ideal world that teenagers would abstain from sex instead of using condoms. Or the ideal world that people would care about the environment altruistically. Yes, the ideal world scenario is important; but let us deal with what’s really happening on the ground. If it hurts the opposition to have a three-way contests, then what can the voters do?

        If it doesn’t hurt the opposition, that’s a different thing altogether. But we do not know this for sure. I do wish we have the statistics of how three way contests in the past have fared for the oppositions and PAPs; otherwise, all these are interesting opinions not backed by facts.

      • 16 yawningbread 4 March 2011 at 01:57

        So you agree that parcelling out constituencies is an act of self-interest by opposition parties. Please demonstrate how this act of self-interest furthers the best interest of voters.

  5. 17 Lesser of 2 evils 3 March 2011 at 21:22

    I am 99.9% certain that PAP will win at least 2/3 of the seats, whether there are walkovers or not, 3 or 4 corner fights or not.

    So arising from this, whether opposition “policies” good or not, or their candidates good or not, articulate or not, does it really matter at the national level?

    In fact recent events have even made me having serious reservations about the opposition. They squabble and get disunited even before the battle starts!

    I cannot imagine what would be the scenario if they were to win and form the government! Scary, isn’t it?

    Hence I would say that in voting, like the choices in many other things, is the choice of the lesser of 2 evils. And between the PAP and opposition, the choice is obvious.

  6. 18 Alonevotersmind 3 March 2011 at 22:35

    I refer to a previous article by YB.


    In it, there is point number 4 entitled:

    “4. No need for differentiating ideas since opposition parties avoid contesting against each other”

    In contrast to the voter sentiment being assumed as too generalized as proposed in this article, this point states that it is the non-PAP parties who tend to have similar ideas amongst themselves.

    I feel that non-PAP parties do not differentiate themselves from one another that much not because they avoid contesting each other in constituency battles. Rather, it is because there are several general agreements on what is wrong with the PAP’s governance and what should be done to improve the current state of affairs (albeit in a general and not detailed sense. An exception could be SDP’s 2011 Shadow Budget as an attempt to formulate a proposal of greater detail.

    Some areas of such consensus can be seen in YB’s illustrations.

    In this vein, voters are arguably more concerned about the differences between the PAP and the other political parties as opposed to amongst non-PAP parties.

    Of course one cannot assume that the voter sentiment is uniform (and dichotomous) , this being one of the main takeaways in this article. But one should also consider the hegemonic ideology and influence that PAP wields in this country. It marginalizes non-compliant viewpoints and further diversification of alternative proposals. This is not meant to be a justification for political parties not to develop unique “personalities” and policies. (And there will definitely be voters who prefer one non-PAP party over another.)

    But what is the greater cost to a voter who is already considering alternatives to the PAP? In a context where many things are related and compared to the PAP, is it having another 5 years of PAP governance by voting for the PAP over another party (or spoiling one’s vote) when one’s preferred party does not arrive or,

    voting in an alternative non-PAP, non-favorite party, whom if it actually wins in one’s constituency, will make electoral history for a political party winning a PAP ward for the first time in 20 years? (Hougang SMC was won by the Workers’ Party in the 1991 General Elections)

    In sum, is one’s preference for a particular non-PAP party stronger than the preference for an alternative to the PAP?

  7. 19 stngiam 3 March 2011 at 22:53

    Unfortunately, splitting the vote can lead to sub-optimal outcomes. Many countries have tried to get around this by having proportional representation, preference votes, or multi-round elections. But given the rules as they stand in Singapore today, backroom deals may not necessarily create a worse result.

  8. 20 Gard 3 March 2011 at 23:44

    Okay, there is the http://www.singapore-elections.com which gives the statistics of wins-and-losses. Cursory glance at 1997 GE onwards suggest real pain (loss of election deposit) for multi-way contests. Can possibly investigate further.

  9. 21 CCoolidge 4 March 2011 at 00:03

    I somewhat agree in principle that the”horse-trading by opposition parties limits the voters’ choice. Democracy is indeed about choice, and voters should have the right to vote for a particular party, and not be forced into a PAP and non-PAP choice.

    Yet, I have to question how many Singaporeans are able to identify the names of half of the local opposition parties, not less to say their political stand or policy directions. No thanks to barriers such as short campaigning period and restrictive mass media. New media has certainly helped in achieving to this end, but its reach is still rather limited.

    And then, there is the illusive fear factor. I never fail to be appalled (and amused) when I learn of friends, colleagues or relatives who actually believe that the vote is not secret. Hence, the government (To them, “PAP equals Singapore government”) is able trace to their individual vote and “punish” them.

    There are other impediments to a fair and free election, of which you’re probably better informed than me.

    In the end, what we have is a politically immature and ignorant population who views the political scene in Singapore as PAP and the opposition.

    Avoiding 3-cornered fights limits the voters’ choice, but I doubt many Singaporeans are knowledgeable enough to even feel short-changed.

  10. 22 Seth 4 March 2011 at 02:33

    Alex, I agree in principle with you that voters having more choice is more democratic. However, I feel that the “democracy” we have here in Singapore is far from ideal, and hence avoiding three-cornered fights actually enhances the democratic process. It’s – if I may put it – Uniquely Singaporean.

    • 23 yawningbread 4 March 2011 at 03:12

      Please elaborate on your assertion: HOW does it enhance the democratic process?

      • 24 Seth 4 March 2011 at 11:25

        I don’t proclaim to have hard facts to support my assertion (or personal belief), but I believe that there are a significant number of voters who want a choice between the incumbent and an opposition party, never mind which.

        I think we can agree that a walkover is an undemocratic thing as the incumbent wins by default. I feel that a three-cornered fight is similarly undemocratic (to a lesser degree) in Singapore as it almost guarantees a win for the incumbent.

        In short, I believe that most of the electorate are more concerned about either voting for the incumbent, or against it.

        Also, as a side note, since the playing field is as such, I do not blame opposition parties for trying to make things a little more easy for themselves.

  11. 25 Gazebo 4 March 2011 at 02:54

    Yawningbread, i respectfully disagree. I fully understand your position with regards to choice, but there are at least 2 conditions under which your scenarios fail.

    1) Winning the seat is not the only outcome that matters. The percentage absolutely matters, because of the NMCP provisions. As such, 3 cornered fights necessarily impacts the absolute percentage of votes a party can get.

    2) Opposition parties need NOT be differentiated from each other, in terms of message and ideology. It is not a necessary condition that each party NEEDS to have a separate ideology. Our citizens probably do not address these parties through this cognitive path anyway. Under such a condition, having multiple parties contest the same ward necessarily confuses the message. For example if the WP and SDP’s messages are really the same, it would really be silly for them to contest the same wards.

    • 26 yawningbread 4 March 2011 at 03:21

      Yes, I understand that. A candidate will find it harder to get a consolation prize (NCMP) if he has to fight 2 or 3 or 4 contestants than if he hard to fight only the PAP. Great. It’s in the interest of the candidate. But how is it in the interest of voters? After all, there are guaranteed at least as many NCMP seats as are necessary to make 9 opposition members. It’s not as if it is an open-ended number with a threshold of , say 40 percent. If that were the case, the more candidates there are that get to 40 percent, the more NCMPs we will have in Parliament. It’s not like that. The number is fixed. Avoiding a three-cornered fight is to the candidate (and his party’s) advantage. But how is it in voters’ interest?
      Even if every SMC and GRC is a three- or four-cornered fight, you’d still have 9 NCMPs. So reducing or eliminating three-cornered fights makes no difference at all to voters, as far as the number of NCMP are concerned. But it makes a difference as to voters making their preference known which of the many candidates they’d rather have as NCMPs when choice is impaired.
      As for your point about differentiation, saying “opposition parties need not be differentiated” is no argument at all. They already are. If they were undifferentiated, they’d have no trouble all merging to become one party. As for WP and SDP specifically, a simple straw poll will tell you most Singaporeans who are even half-aware of politics see a difference between the two.
      And when you say “confuses the message”, you seem to suggest there is or should be only one message. That’s unreal. There are many different messages and rightly so in a democratic process. Voters should have the opportunity to choose among them.

      • 27 Gazebo 4 March 2011 at 04:07

        1) It may be in the voter’s interest, if the voter merely desires to see the incumbent fall. I think that is a perfectly valid reason for the voter to base his decision upon. He/she just likes to see an entity which he/she hates fall. For example, I once saw a New Zealand football fan’s t-shirt, with the slogan “I support New Zealand, and any team playing Australia.”

        2) The messages can be the same, but that does not imply that parties will “have no trouble all merging to become one party” . For example, 2 party members hypothetically could share the same ideologies, but would not tolerate not being the top dog in the party. As such, one of them may lead a breakaway faction, thereby leading to another party being formed. We should not confuse party messages with individual personalities.

        I can see the difference between SP and WP, I was merely painting a hypothetical example. Nevertheless, I tend to think that Singaporean voters still associate all opposition parties as the same –> merely anti-PAP. I have no quantitative data to back me up here, just a feeling I get from talking to peers. I think this should not be surprising. Hegemony always creates polarization, which causes all the smaller players to be lumped together.

  12. 28 Gard 4 March 2011 at 09:39

    (Mmm. I wish I could reply onto the thread on my previous thread.)

    I was only suggesting that parceling out may be the optimal strategy for opposition parties, amongst all other strategies they could undertake. But whether this act of self-interest coincide with the interest of voters is another matter. We cannot blame the opposition from carrying out their optimal strategy if the system does not support that.

    After looking at the past year election results, I can now challenge you to explain how multi-way contests worked to the advantage of the opposition. But even without statistics (these are past information anyway), I am pointing out the flaws in your starting premise:

    1) That the interest of voters necessarily coincide with the self-interest of the parties.

    What happens if the interest of the voters clashes with the self-interest of the parties?

    2) That the incumbent is passive.

    To the die-hard anti-PAP voters, the incumbent’s strategies get more interesting with multi-way contests. “If you cannot win them over, maybe you can let them fight over themselves.”

    One strategy for the incumbent to ‘lend’ (directly or indirectly) support to one of the oppositions (the stronger one), so that the (relatively) weaker opposition can suffer the election bond penalty. Or to attempt to misdirect voters to think that the opposition parties are ‘not that different’ through its communication apparatus.

    Of course, the incumbent doing this is not in the interest of the voters. But should we or the opposition expect the incumbent to behave otherwise?

    3) ‘Part of the forest’ thinking.

    While it may somehow be optimal for Party K and Party L to contest PAP in Ward X, this can mean that some other ward (Ward Y or Ward Z) are given up by the opposition because of lack of manpower and resources.

    Does it then serve the voters’ interest to have PAP walkover in Ward Y or Ward Z?

    If the opposition parties get together is to ‘drink tea and do the math’, then can we really fault them for finally deciding that parcelling is the optimal (resource allocation) strategy? At the end of the day, the parties and the candidates have to bear the real risk and cost of campaigning.

    • 29 yawningbread 4 March 2011 at 14:13

      I’m afraid it is you who are misunderstanding the point of my article. You said that my starting premise is “That the interest of voters necessarily coincide with the self-interest of the parties”. This is the exact opposite of my premise. What I am pointing out is that we should not confuse the self-interest of opposition parties with the interest of voters. Avoiding three-cornered fights serves the former but not the latter.

      You pose a challenge: to explain how multi-way contests work to the advantage of the opposition. Again that is a total misread of my article. I said AVOIDING multi-way contests work to the advantage of opposition parties at the expense of voters’ interests.

      You seem completely confused between opposition parties’ interests and voters’ interests. Are you conflating one with the other back and forth?

  13. 30 nobody 4 March 2011 at 10:21


    i’m in a dilemma. Don’t really like Eric Lim. But if he were to show up in my constituency. I will still vote for him despite how i feel about him. Why? Because my mission is very clear. I (we) need to send in a sizable number of opposition MPs into parliament not only for a healthy debate but more importantly, to veto legislation that is/may be detrimental to Singaporeans.

    An anology would be: you don’t have to like Stalin, but you don’t have much choice other than to “work” with him to defeat Hitler. The mission is to defeat Hitler.

    Yes, a 3 cornered fight gives choice to singaporeans. Weather its a 3 or 4 cornered fight. Ultimately what is our mission? Singaporeans must be clear about what they want.

  14. 31 Gard 4 March 2011 at 10:49

    Ehrm, Or I may be mistaken about the intention behind your article. If it is to espouse certain ‘voter’ ideals without regard to the *system* and how it affects the parties and their strategies, then it is a good creative thinking exercise. A world in which business leaders do not pollute, politicans always act in the same interest as the citizens, the masses are educated and well-informed, and so on.

  15. 32 witness 4 March 2011 at 11:42

    Avoiding 3-cornered fights from the perspective of the Opposition is plain common sense. With their limited resources, they should spread these resources and make them go as far as possible. They should be contesting as many seats as possible and try to ensure that they do not wind up competing with one another for votes.

    It is also good for the electorate that there are no 3-cornered fights. Don’t most people want more opposition in Parliament? Avoiding 3-cornered fights is one way to maximise the chances of having more opposition mps. So this is entirely in alignment with the interests of that section of the electorate that wants to avoid a one-party Parliament.

  16. 33 Peter Tambuwang 4 March 2011 at 12:39

    I think Gazebo meant that it is in the voter’s interest for the best 9 opposition candidates to get the NCMP seats in the situation that opposition wins few seats (a realistic scenario) and for that, u want to avoid three cornered fights.

    Secondly, this point may have been made already but I think it bears repeating. We want to avoid three cornered fights because while the opposition parties have different ideologies and messages and people prefer one to the other, the country is so overwhelmingly in the grip of PAP power, and the opposition are similar enough that, for all practical purposes, in singapore, you have two choices, you are pro-PAP or anti-PAP.

    Yes, there are important differences between the parties, but that is a subtext that is almost irrelevant at this point in our history.

  17. 34 Peter Tambuwang 4 March 2011 at 13:05

    Sorry, i see that your article deals with my above point. Let me state my rebuttal then.

    I know a little about Worker’s party, almost nothing about NSP, a lot about SDP’s ideology and too much about PAP
    and from what i know, the similarities between the opposition is more important than their differences
    The PAP is an extreme outlier as you yourself have said.

    I would like to know how anyone would prefer the PAP to one but not another of the oppostion parties.

    Theoretically, it may be true that not all opposition parties are the same and it may be simplistic to automatically think of singapore politics as pro-PAP anti-PAP. But the reality of the political ground this year, this voting season, is binary.

  18. 35 Peter Tambuwang 4 March 2011 at 13:39

    An addendum to above comment-

    For those opposition singaporeans know nothing about- they may legitimately feel that any unknown is better than the known PAP.

    But really, about any of the opposition candidates you know this much- just for standing against the PAP you know that they have some spirit and ideals, whatever those ideals may be. For some people, that is enough.

    • 36 yawningbread 4 March 2011 at 14:04

      You say: For some people, that is enough. What about those for whom it is not enough, for whom what exactly the parties represent is an important consideration?

      • 37 Peter Tambuwang 4 March 2011 at 15:56

        You know how stacked the gsme is already. Wait till the HDB upgrading carrots are brought out. How attractive is it to join opposition- risk your 13k election deposit, the stigma, government scrutiny? And you have to watch what you say- its literal meaning and its generous implications. How many good people have too much to lose to participate?

        Apart from those of us online, and the uncles and aunties in the coffeeshop, there is little political talk, or thought. Singaporeans are politically naive. And thats being generous.

        You’re right- it is undemocratic to collude like this. It is hegemonistic thinking. I do not want to give those Singaporeans a chance to vote PAP in because of the fear of property price falling in their constituency or the fear that somehow the government will find out who they voted for and not give them their promotion. Before we can talk about democracy in your high-faluting manner, we have to have an educated populace, freedom of speech, fair electoral process. I am not even completely confident that votes are counted properly.

        If the opposition had not colluded, it would have PISSED their voters off.

      • 38 Peter Tambuwang 4 March 2011 at 16:03

        Alex, one day we will have the democracy you wish for. For that day to happen in Singapore, today we have to fight hegemony against hegemony.

  19. 39 anon 4 March 2011 at 14:09

    There is a very simple reason to avoid a 3 cornered fight, based on local voting history: The incumbent party’s candidate invariably always win. It is illogical to expect the local voters to be swayed to give the opposition more votes at the expense of the incumbent. It is like asking the voters to decide which of the two opposition candidates would they vote for -so any whisker of a chance of an opposition candidate coming up better than the incumbent is rendered even slimmer.

    Conversely, a 3 cornered fight would require even less support from voters for the incumbent to win since the two opposition candidates would be splitting the votes from their supporters!

    This cannot be too difficult to understand, surely?

    • 40 yawningbread 4 March 2011 at 14:37

      You’re assuming that the supporters of one opposition candidate would gladly give their support to the other. You’re assuming that if a voter is anti-PAP in one way, he will support any other anti-PAP candidate even though that other anti-PAP candidate represents views he disagrees with. You’re assuming that “anti” is or should be the overriding consideration. FOR EVERYBODY. I think that is as hegemonistic a way of thinking as the PAP’s.
      In my article I gave an example of K and M standing against the PAP and how by avoiding a three-cornered fight, it may actually increase the legitimacy of the PAP’s victory.

  20. 41 yawningbread 4 March 2011 at 14:52

    By sheer coincidence, I see Ravi Philemon from The Online Citizen saying exactly the same thing. In a letter published in the Straits Times Online Forum today (4 March) he wrote: “To me, the by-election strategy is self-serving, for while it sent more opposition politicians into Parliament, it deprived the voters of having a say in who they wanted to represent them.”

    Actually I think the jury’s out as to whether the strategy even sent more opposition members into Parliament.
    I looked at 8 contests between 1991 and 2006 in which there were 3 or 4 candidates. In none of them did the non-PAP candidates combined get more votes than the PAP, so one cannot say that a multi-way contest deprived a non-PAP candidate of a seat he would otherwise have won.

    • 42 Empiriral 4 March 2011 at 15:23

      For the purposes of this discussion, it might be more useful for someone to list the ideological and proposed policy differences between the various political parties. This might aid in the evaluation of how and to what extent are the parties different from one another and if such differences are significant in the decision-making process of voters.

      Perhaps in a more detailed analysis, a longitudinal study comparing the manifestos/ policies of the various parties who have contested in 3 (or more) cornered-fights against their respective share of the constituency vote can be tabulated to get a sense of “voter elasticities” when it comes to non-PAP party preferences.

  21. 43 Christopher 4 March 2011 at 16:15

    In democratic principle, pre-made arrangements between political parties to avoid 3 or 4 cornered fights *is* an undemocractic practice.

    As one reader commented above, this is something “uniquely singaporean”, because after all, our democratic process (or dare I say, pseudo-democratic process) will not be seen as the conventional method.

    There is no doubt that the pre-election pow-wow is for the Oppositions’ benefit. After all, they are doing all they can (pooling resources, finding alternative voices in new media, etc etc) to prove themselves as credible candidates who deserve the chance to serve their people and community. For that, I am personally heartened. For the Opposition is the best reminder to all of us that not all Singaporeans are politcally apathetic.

    From the voters’ perspective, there will be some that stand on democratic principle to frown upon this practise. I have no figures to back my claim, but I dare say that for the majority (who only care if they vote for or against the incumbent, as another reader mentioned above), such a practise may indeed be welcome as any effort to broaden the margin of the Oppositions’ odds is not being spared.

    The consolation would lie in the fact that, although the Opposition undermine the democratic process to some degree with this current pow-wow, they are at least aware of it. I would venture to say they are simply reacting to their own circumstances and voters can either sympathise with them or stand on principle. There is no legislation to ban what they are doing and so they are not doing anything wrong legally.

    What I would like to believe, is this: should the Opposition be able to win more than the 2 seats in this election, they would strive to change their own political landscape and circumstances, and hopefully in the future these pow-wows will be a thing of the past, a “uniquely singaporean” thing of our political history. In tandem with this of course, would hopefully be an emergence of a strong and credible party that can be a shadow to the PAP, and (here I shall say with even more idealism) impress the incumbent enough to allow them to level the political playing field.

    This, is the evolution of democracy that I would like to see for Singapore. MM Lee has said that the democracies of America and Britain took years to establish and our nation is relatively young – hence circumstances that apply to them do not necessarily apply to us. I agree with what he said to some extent but I feel the larger picture will be to change and move forward for the future generations of Singaporeans.

  22. 44 anon 4 March 2011 at 18:46

    ” I looked at 8 contests between 1991 and 2006 in which there were 3 or 4 candidates. In none of them did the non-PAP candidates combined get more votes than the PAP, so one cannot say that a multi-way contest deprived a non-PAP candidate of a seat he would otherwise have won. ”


    This is exactly what can happen when you have a 3 or 4 cornered fight, when you have 2 or more opposition candidates vying for voters support! Can opposition candidate A stay neutral or silent in his references during the hustings regarding opposition B, and vice versa? They obviously have to ‘differentiate’ to impress the voters.

    Psychologically, this would be complicating/muddying the picture for the voters. You would be making the voters choose between them when the top priority should be creating a solid opposition focused against the incumbent. Competition would present to voters a fragmented/weakened opposition front against the pap. The risk of self-sabo is very real, esp. in the context of a govt-owned MSM with a proven capability and record of going out on a limb for their masters. Do you recall that picture of yours of the really massive crowd attending WP’s Low Thia Khiang’s rally in Hougang?

    The strategy at this point must essentially be as Chairman Mao and others facing a common adversary did, which is to join forces to beat a common foe.

    Or, a more updated analogy from Teng Seow Peng: Black cat or white cat does not matter as long as it catches the rats.

    or, as the saying goes: The end justify the means.

    In any case, one must also consider the inter-party ambivalence, the consequences, the divisive impact of opposition candidates facing off each other in some wards, on the overall mission to present to voters a solid united front against a common adversary who will be only too glad to exploit to the full any perceived weakness/split in the opposition front/ranks.

    The opposition parties need a united front against a pap election juggernaut.

    The pap considers all opposition parties as a single foe. It does not discriminate (or does it?) between opposition party A, B, C or D for different treatment.

    If you divide yourselves, you will be conquered! As simple as that.

  23. 45 Gard 4 March 2011 at 20:00

    Alex, please remove my pending moderation comments. I realize I have been arguing across you (taking the side of the parties) and this is not helpful. So, a better tack would be for me to put myself in the shoes of the votes and argue why it might not serve the voters’ interest to have three or multi-way contests.

    1) Sustainability.

    I argued from the side of the parties because I wanted to see if this three-way contest is a win-win, for both voters and the opposition. It comes down to the question that can the practice of three-way be sustained. You already highlighted the risk of loss of election deposit, so I won’t dwell on that. But there is also the issue of gathering support for the party you cast your vote for. Using your example of M, 32 (in three way) vs 47 (in two way), it can be a significant confidence boost to M and in turn, help it attract more and better candidates.

    There is also another point about sustainability of a game where the opposition would play by the ‘voter-ideal’ rules but the incumbent can behave otherwise in self-interest. The incumbent can and have been known to use the media to expose unsavory but unrelated content on the opposition candidate. In a two way, this may backfire, helping the candidate to gather sympathetic votes (because the big fighting the small). In a three way, the candidate under attack will suffer the opinion swing to the other opposition candidate.

    2) ‘Part of forest’ thinking

    Unless the opposition can afford to contest in all the wards, some wards have to be sacrificed. So it is still the question, why is the interest of Ward Y who experienced the PAP walkover be lesser than the interest of Ward X who enjoys three or multi-way contests? Is the ‘gain’ experienced by Ward X voters offset by the ‘loss’ in Ward Y? Who is doing the math?

    I hope the above arguments are better aligned to your article. Or else, you can delete as well.

  24. 46 Chee Ken Wing 4 March 2011 at 21:37

    I can tell you why avoiding 3-cornered contests benefits the electorate.

    The very fact that almost half of all citizens are deprived of their vote, due to walkovers, is reason enough for opposition parties to spread themselves out.

    To me, the benefit of having a constituency challenged is greater than having more options in a constituency that already has a potential challenger. If you agree with this premise, then there is no argument.

    Now, in the unlikely event that ALL constituencies are contested, then that’s a different story altogether… Perhaps in 2016/2017!

  25. 47 Gard 5 March 2011 at 10:23

    I guess judging from the number of comments generated from your post, you must have set off something. For me, it’s your post “If these were businesses in the marketplace, any competition authority would have something to say about this kind of collusion.” that made me sit up to re-read. Any student of business or economics are trained to think about the conditions where perfect competition works, when market intervention is required, etc. Pure competition is not an automatic good.

    So, it’s natural for me to be mildy surprised. We don’t see anti-collusion authorities going after small businesses cooperating.

    In fact, you should take a poll of how many people here would want the government to launch an anti-cooperation strategy against the opposition parties. Enact a simple law like ‘when political parties come together for tea, they should seek the approval from the authorities.’ – in the similar vein against public gatherings. Would you support this strategy from the incumbent?

  26. 48 K Das 6 March 2011 at 00:48

    If there are many Sylvia Lims (SLs) and Jeyaratnams (JBs) contesting the election, it makes my choice cut out – I will vote for the PAP. There is every possibility of PAP being voted out and this is an outcome I personally do not want. The Opposition is long way off from giving better governance than PAP. On the other hand, if only a handful of SLs and JBs are contesting I am likely to vote for them as I want good opposition MPs to grill and query the government.

    • 49 Quittor 6 March 2011 at 22:07

      A couple of good oppositions MPs to “grill and query” does not work and has been proven. Low Thia Khiang was grilled by Lee Hsien Loong instead over the Mas Selamat incident, so what can a handful do? In this existing political climate, nothing. If PAP has better governance why even bother to vote in less credible oppositions? This is exactly the political immaturity of the masses that pervades this society.

  27. 50 anon 6 March 2011 at 15:33

    K Das,

    ” “if only a handful of SLs and JBs are contesting I am likely to vote for them as I want good opposition MPs to grill and query the government.

    Your 6 March 00:48 comment is self-contradictory.

    You seem to want the best of both worlds when NO such things exists. the ruling party is good at some things just as they are equally bad at other things which impact Singaporeans at large. You seem to buy in into the pap mantra that only it can provide solutions or actions that solve problems. In a globalised world and in a situation where Singaporeans are intellectually, professionally and technically as qualified and capable as the people from other countries this belief is the ultimate capability of the ruling party is flawed. It does in fact says a lot about your lack of self-confidence and ‘inward-lookingness’.

    You would not be the type that a country (note, as distinguished from, govt) can rely on to do what is necessary as you are too concerned only with your own self-interest. People like you would be the anti-thesis of the people of Egypt, Libya and Tunisia who are fighting to removed the tyrants, despots and dictators enslaving them.
    the enslavement here is of a different kind -the soft or gilded cage type – you are surrounded by beautiful pictures, you get occasional scraps with some REAL bits of meats on them, you get to say what you like but the enslavers have made it sure that it is not heard by the vast majority, you are on a very short leash but because you are never allowed to reach beyond the end of the short leash before being slyly slapped down, you don’t know it is there.

  28. 51 matulos 7 March 2011 at 00:55

    What’s wrong with 3-cornered contests?

    Nothing, if the electoral system uses proportional representation. Then, the total electorate’s percentage preferences by party will translate to roughly the same percentages of MPs from each party, who can negotiate among themselves to form a government if no party has an absolute majority.

    However… in a first-past-the-post system as in Singapore, UK, US, etc, it is of course winner take all. As the saying goes, “to finish first, first you must finish”, so the point is to avoid splitting out the opposition votes among different alternatives to the status quo. If the “winner” in a first-past-the-post contest gets the highest share but still polls less than 50%, the result does not reflect the fact that more than 50% of voters did NOT choose them.

    For instance, in the 2000 US presidential election Ralph Nader voters could well have contributed to Al Gore’s narrow loss by dividing the Democratic vote (and I’m not a fan of the US system either… a duopoly is just a monopoly with two brands). The consequence though, with a little help from the Supreme Court, was that the worse of two evils prevailed and we got Iraq, torture, global spying on communications, grope-before-you-fly, unregulation of the banks leading to global crisis, and all the other great public policy innovations of the Bushies.

    Coming back to the case of Singapore, the analogy would be with a newly-qualified driver getting onto the highway for the first time with experienced drivers who are ready to carve them to bits. The new driver needs to concentrate on getting a feel for the vehicle and the road, how to effectively jockey for position among the incumbents, how to edge in to little gaps instead of waiting forever at junctions, how to assert their lane position when incumbents try to stomp on them, and so on. The new driver does NOT have the spare bandwidth to also worry about tripping over other new drivers trying to learn the same things. It just makes the exercise more like trying to run while learning to walk, so to speak.

  29. 52 John Tan 7 March 2011 at 01:37

    anon said: This is exactly what can happen when you have a 3 or 4 cornered fight, when you have 2 or more opposition candidates vying for voters support!

    It’s not a zero-sum game. As Alex points out, supporters of party A may not support party B. So if you have a straight fight between PAP and party A, you may get 70-20 but when party B enters the fray, the result may be 60-30-10.

    Chee Ken Wing said: The very fact that almost half of all citizens are deprived of their vote, due to walkovers, is reason enough for opposition parties to spread themselves out.

    There might be a case for arguing that voters’ and opposition parties’ interests are aligned because voters will to get a chance to vote and opposition parties hope to get a high percentage of the vote to win a seat. But the alignment stops there. What led opposition parties to spread out is not because they want to give voters a chance to vote but because they are afraid of losing their deposits. This is neither good for voters who prefer a choice of opposition or for the development of a viable opposition in general? Prior experience of losing their deposit in three-corned fights has led to opposition parties like the DPP to take the easy way out by contesting in places where no other major parties are contesting (i.e. avoiding competition) rather than upping their game.

    Overall, I agree with Alex that competition among opposition is warranted. The notion of “anyone but PAP” or “opposition unity” is very myopic and detrimental to the development of a viable alternative to the PAP in the long run. We’ve seen what happens in Iraq or elsewhere where opposition is united merely by virtue that they are against the incumbent and when the regime is toppled, the country is thrown into chaos. It is precisely this chaos that is fuelling the fear of voting for the opposition.

  30. 53 Alan Wong 7 March 2011 at 12:05

    I think in an ideal world, choice is good. But in reality the odds are aleady set against the opposition. To become an opposition political candidate in Singapore already takes a lot of guts. To become an opposition MP, one has to made a lot of personal sacrifices. Ask ourselves honestly this question, for all the money in this world, do we really even want to serve as an opposition candidate, let alone a opposition MP if elected

    It’s about time that we give opposition candidates their due recognition by giving them a headstart to improve themselves for the sake of our our future and the sake of the future generations. No matter what, there is really no harm in having a greater opposition voice in Parliament, at least PAP will not take things for granted.

    For those who are stubbon and insist on competing in 3-cornered fights, what’s the use of standing for election when both the opposition chances of beating the incumbent is slim in 3-cornered fights ?

    Talking about the voting for the lesser evil, I am more inclined to consider PAP as the greater evil considering the underhand tactics they have no qualms in using to deal with the opposition.

  31. 54 Gard 7 March 2011 at 16:40

    Might I make an observation that there is a world of difference between the motion “What’s wrong with three-cornered contests?” and “What’s wrong with (lack of) competition between the opposition parties?”

    How many of us have actually sat and listened to what’s being said in an opposition carve-up-the-kingdom session as opposed to reading about it in the mainstream media? Have you paused to consider the possibility that ‘opposition unity’ may be something drummed into the readers’ subconsciousness that did not originate from the opposition parties?

    It is actually peculiar to think that the opposition fearing ‘competition’ (or to ‘take the easy way out’). If that were the case, the candidates have the choice not to contest or, if opportunity is available, to join the incumbent.

    • 55 Gard 7 March 2011 at 17:19

      CLarify: even if ‘opposition unity’ is championed by any one particular party, it does not represent the whole picture of the opposition political landscape.

  32. 56 Tan Ah Kow 7 March 2011 at 18:37


    I believe you have indicated your preference for proportional representation.

    Given the reality of the electoral situation as it stands now — first-past-the-post. Would you know think that the by-election strategy not be a proxy for proportional representation?

    True I buy your argument that just because only particular opposition party is represented in a constituency, it may not ensure that all PAP opposer will indeed want to vote for the opposition party standing. Case in point when a senior WP member choose to vote for the PAP rather than SDP. He certainly did not buy into the notion of voting for opposition to beat PAP.

    However, I supposed then the “opposition” parties should unite on selling a consistent message not only policy but on the idea that the “by-election” strategy is a form of propositional representation. By that I mean opposition party A standing in one constituency should have opposition party B urged its supporter to vote for A there. And for A to urged their supporter to vote for B where B is standing. I think this should be the kind of unified message opposition parties should sell rather than a unified policy position — i.e. that would really close the choice of electorate.

    Personally, my view from a tactical position, is not for the opposition parties to bother with this election. It is way to early for them to enter such a race. Yes, many Singaporean are feeling the pain of PAP policies but my straw polls suggest that the pain is still not hurting enough for people to want to vote for the change. Even at an optimistic scenario, where more oppositions got into Parliament, the ability to effect change would be minimal. Worst still if PAP policies turn even nastier, the PAP could then used the presence of oppositions as distraction thus proving to electorate that having PAP majority is better.

    In any case, opposition should take heed of the adage that elections are lost by incumbent not won by opposition. So let the PAP continue to run things to the ground and then come in then. Also, it is a form of tough love for the electorate who after all let the PAP run the country without opposition for so all. The electorate has only themselves to blame for the predicament they are in.

  33. 57 anon 7 March 2011 at 20:11

    John Tan
    7 March 2011 at 01:37,

    The opposition parties are not going to take over govt from the pap anytime soon. But, they will never get the chance to get their acts together if they remain in the Singapore political wilderness, as they are now – parliamentary democracy needs practice and OJT and parliament is the ultimate place in which to have it. But, this will forever remain a dream if one insists on getting everything prim and proper as a matter of priority over more down to earth things like getting elected into parliament FIRST. Without that toe or foot hold all else is mere rhetoric, academic and semantics.

    Let’s get REAL, you can only talk about learning to work together AFTER you have gotten together. Talking and quibbling about it at this juncture is putting the cart before the horse and being unimaginably dogmatic about something which has not materialized yet.

    You can only play ball when it is there to play. Right now the ball game is to construct a united front against a big crafty common foe.

    Let me quote Mao again: Political power comes from the barrel of a gun.

    Your firepower comes from the numbers you have in the parliamentary chambers on each and every parliamentary sitting day.

    Quit stalling.

  34. 58 Gard 8 March 2011 at 18:08

    The discussions have been rather fruitful; but I like to invite a re-examination into the premise: voters choose the candidate in terms of party affiliation. To use the analogy of the business landscape, the small businesses have not built up a strong brand yet, so their greatest strength is the ‘flexibility’ and ‘personal touch.’ So even if Party K and Party M are ideologically different, the different candidates can present characteristics favored by the median voter; for example, the commitment to ask more questions and demand more transparency during parliament than the otherwise asleep MPs.

    I would argue that this flexibility and critical thinking attribute is far more valued than any party brand as the brand is being developed. In fact, the brand should represent flexibility though it can be construed as wishy-washy.

  35. 59 anon 11 March 2011 at 16:35

    My feeling is that if the parties are going to quibble and fall out over which wards they want, the ruling party is going to laugh all the way to the bank -figuratively and literally.

    IMO any 3-cornered fight is going to be FATAL for the opposition.

    Now that the scholars couple has joined GMS’s party I am expecting his party to create even more 3-cornered fights. The couple are wolves in sheep’s clothing. GMS has only himself to blame for opening the gate to let the wolves into his party.

  36. 60 Edmund 13 March 2011 at 00:41

    It is part of Psychology to avoid a 3-cornered fight i suppose. A neutral voter, when faced with 3 parties, will usually vote for the Party that he/she feels is the “safest” choice. This may be due to reasons of uncertainty, “easiest-way-to-decide” mentality etc. Scenario – I go into a shop and decide i want to look “different” this year, given i have ONLY 2 choices, i will definitely not going to choose what i have chosen before. However, if i am faced with 3 choices, sub-conciously, i feel confused and will take the safer choice, which is usually the one i had chosen before, even though i knew that i wanted to “change”.

  37. 61 anon 13 March 2011 at 01:23

    Talking about competition authority on collusion, this may work in free market provider of goods and services.

    When it comes to politics in a democracy, the people are supposed to be the competition authority, at least in theory.

    Anyway, members of minority party(ies) has the option to partner with other parties if it has the chance to form a government, a coalition or should we say a ‘collusion’. So why not do it during election time to ensure that votes are not split and give itself a better chance of being elected first.

  38. 62 ziiro 13 March 2011 at 03:36

    While i agree that it might sound not sound “Democratic” to avoid 3 corner fights, but you’re missing the point about it being a “GRC”. If we are allowed this democracy, we wont be forced to take a “package” deal where even if there is 1 member u want, u usually get 3-4 unknowns, unwanted or even useless members tagging along enjoying the fruits of 1 member’s popularity. What if, say you want Member A, but he is in a GRC with Member B, who you feel strongly against?

    If every area was an SMC, then it would be different. It might actually feel like you were voting for the person you want, as opposed to the party, you want (or do not want).
    Dont forget that PAP has created this situation where it makes it overwhelming hard for any other parties or individual to contest

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