While we wait for the general election results this evening, let me plug my ideas for reform of the electoral system. My proposals aim to address these present weaknesses:
One of the biggest bugbears of voters is that in many constituencies, they cannot stomach the idea of voting for one party, yet the alternative available to them in their constituency is nearly as unpalatable. This is the siamese twin to the fear that three-cornered fights are likely to give the advantage to the People’s Action Party. So pro-opposition people clamour for opposition parties to avoid three-cornered fights, but in so doing, it leads to the above, where in some constituencies, voters are faced with lousy choices.
I have also heard from many that the present system of requiring members of parliament (MPs) to run town councils has serious drawbacks. There is a tendency of backbenchers to only look at local issues when they’re also supposed to focus on national ones. All humans have only so much bandwidth — we can’t run away from this reality. Coupled with the fact that Singapore does not require all MPs to be fulltime MPs like in some other countries, we’re not getting good value for the public money we spend paying MPs.
My proposal releases half the MPs from town council responsibilities, so that they can focus on broader issues. The question of whether we should require all MPs to be fulltime is a separate debate.
We also have a complete mess of local responsibility. For decades we have spoken of members of parliament being responsible for municipal matters, but it has gradually dawned on us over the last five years that actually it’s mostly fiction. Behind the scenes, the ruling party, through supposedly non-partisan “grassroots” organisations, control the public amenities and the development funds. Even to find out who is chair of the various Citizens’ Consultative Committees (CCC) took some hard investigation. See this story in The Middle Ground: The “unseen” CCC, from which I quote:
You would have thought that it would be easy enough to find the names of these top grassroots leaders.
But no. When we tried to identify these people who sit on the top rung of the grassroots organisations in a constituency, that is, the chairmen of the CCCs, it was surprisingly difficult. They are practically anonymous; they are not on the People’s Association website or on the website of every community centre/club.
When we couldn’t find this information online, we took the next logical step by asking the grassroots committees themselves. We called the community centres. But even this proved to be more difficult than we thought. Some flat-out declined our request. Others said we had to send in an official media request – just to get a name.
Why so hush-hush?
These are people who control lots of money. Why so unaccountable?
A mixed proportional system
This proposal from me is not new. I have been arguing for this for years, but let me sketch it out again. Singapore should have a parliament comprising 100 members, of which 50 should be elected on a party-proportional basis, and 50 from single-member constituencies.
Each voter should have two votes: one to be cast for party lists, and another for the constituency choice. No candidate can appear on both lists.
Party list seats
For the 50 proportional (also known as ‘party-list’) seats, parties on Nomination Day should submit lists of up to 50 candidates ranked in order from 1 to 50. After the poll, these 50 seats should be allocated to parties based on the percentage share they obtain in the party-list vote. The parties should then fill the seats they have won by going down their candidate list in the ranked order.
As an example, say a party obtains 42% of the party-list vote. It will be accorded 21 seats, and the party will fill these seats with candidates it had ranked #1 to #21 on Nomination Day. This helps parties ensure that their top talent get into parliament so long as they win some share of the party-list vote.
Since these party-list candidates are not linked to any constituency, during the election campaign, they should be focussing mostly on national issues. In parliament too, they can do the same.
While it is entirely up to each party, my guess is that most parties will put their senior leaders on the party lists; it’s a surer way to get them into parliament, and (if they’re successful) gives them broader national legitimacy. Having senior leaders on party lists in turn has the virtue that all voters throughout Singapore can participate in endorsing or rejecting the parties on their policy platform and leadership. The problem of voters in specific constituencies faced with only two unpalatable choices will be reduced.
The other half of parliamentary seats should be chosen from single-member constituencies (SMC). Using the current 2.46 million voters as guide, it means that each SMC will therefore have about 50,000 voters. This is a neat number because it would mean that several towns would organically fit into a single SMC. Bishan, Clementi, Geylang, Jurong East, Queenstown, Sembawang, and Serangoon have populations of 65,000 to 94,000 each (Source: HDB annual report 2013/2014), which, after excluding children, Permanent Residents and foreigners residing in these towns, would suggest a voter population of 40,000 to 60,000 each. Such a size should provide sufficient economy of scale for town management as well as geographical wholeness and contiguity for sensible planning.
Larger towns such as Bedok (residential population 204,000), Sengkang (residential population 183,000) or Choa Chu Kang (residential population 161,000) could be split into 2 or 3 SMCs.
MPs elected for these constituencies will take charge of the town councils. Naturally I would suggest dismantling the CCCs (and the People’s Association too, since this is the umbrella organisation for CCCs) and transferring all their present powers and real estate to the town councils. The funding system needs to be simplified. A simple rate of X dollars per resident — and it should be the same rate for all constituencies — should apply for government grants. It should be up to each town council to decide how to use these funds, subject of course to technical approvals from the roads, sewage or fire departments, etc.
SMC MPs will be the ones bringing voter concerns to parliament to complement and balance the more national perspectives from party-list MPs.
It goes without saying that we should abolish the useless Nominated Member of Parliament scheme, and also do away with Non-constituency MPs.
Transferable votes in constituencies
I would argue for changing the voting method in SMCs. Instead of a first-past-the-post system, there should be a transferable vote system. Each voter should state on his ballot his first choice and a second choice.
If one candidate gets over 50% of the valid votes cast based on first-choice votes, that candidate wins. If no candidate gets more than 50%, then ballot-counting will need to go through additional rounds, until someone gets over 50%.
Let’s use an example of an SMC comprising 1,000 voters with four candidates P, Q, R and S standing. In the first round of counting, only the first-choice votes are considered (the second-choice votes are shown here in this table for the purpose of easy reference in tables further below). Based on first-choices, the leading candidate P gets only 419 votes (41.9%).
Without a majority from the first count, it is necessary to go into another round of counting. Iterating counts are based on the process of elimination. In the next round, the least popular candidate (S) is eliminated. His or her votes are re-distributed to the surviving candidates through looking at their second choices. A new total is derived, and if one candidate then gets more than 50%, he or she is elected. However, in our example, no candidate gets over 50% still.
Yet another round of counting is needed. Now, the least popular surviving candidate (R) is eliminated, and his or her votes are re-distributed to the two surviving candidates. Another new total is derived.
Now at last there is a winner. Q has 523 votes, making a majority of the remaining 981 valid votes. Q is declared the winner in this SMC.
This is a system that better reflects voters’ nuanced choices in a multi-cornered contest.
How do we ensure minority race representation in parliament? I don’t think we need to institutionalise it by any formal means. People forget that when this excuse was laid out for the introduction of GRCs in the late 1980s, J B Jeyaretnam had been elected a few years earlier by voters in Anson. Our first chief minister was David Marshall (pic at left) , who belonged to one of Singapore’s tiniest communities. The GRC ethnic quota system is just an excuse for an electoral plan intended to cement the PAP’s dominance; it is also a cancer springing from Lee Kuan Yew’s obsession with race.
In any case, as Mano Sabnani argued recently in the Online Citizen, the GRC system has outlived its usefulness, even for the PAP.
Some readers will point out that proportional representation will increase the likelihood that no party will win an absolute majority in parliament. Coalition governments may be more likely as a result.
The People’s Action Party has long propagated the notion the ‘coalition’ equals gridlock and (sotto voce) “Singapore will go down the drain”. And they have been quite successful. ‘Coalition government’ seems to be a frightening term to many Singaporeans.
But if you are able to think clearly, you’ll see that all governments are coalition governments, even if not in name. Some are coalitions of different parties, each of which has a publicly-known agenda. Others, even though they appear as single-party governments, are in their internal workings coalitions of competing factions within the same party, with behind-the-scenes tug-of-war, not easily visible to the public. Let’s be honest: Seldom will all ministers in a cabinet have identical views. If indeed a cabinet has only one view and no internal debate, then Singaporeans should have every reason to worry!
Coalition is neither good nor bad. It is a quotidian reality.
To sum up: Half of parliament (50 seats) elected by proportional representation based on party lists. The half elected from single-member constituencies, based on a transferable vote system.