Guest essay by Dasan
Singaporeans want a democracy. This is clearly seen in the enthusiasm that voters of Tanjong Pagar exhibited when they cast their votes. The large rally crowds are also a testament to this. But the results just don’t tally.
In my view, this is because Singaporeans, unlike other democracies, see the opposition as merely a “pressure group” rather than a credible alternative government. They vote opposition in to protest policies of the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) and when the PAP rectifies them in some manner or at least shows it is trying to do so, Singaporeans feel that their “protest” was successful and thus vote in the PAP to show their support. It is not a hallmark of a unintelligent electorate, it is a hallmark of an electorate who knows how to get the best of both worlds (stable government and populist policies) albeit at the expense of the opposition.
Singaporeans have accepted a stable government as being a core characteristic of their country. Radical change is out of the question and since the PAP usually harps on having a “strong mandate” and the opposition parties are known for their infighting, and downright scary proposals (e.g reducing the defence budget) Singaporeans will vote (and have voted) for the safe stable side.
However, as Singaporeans want a democracy, they still want alternative voices in parliament. And they want them in without challenging PAP’s simple majority. Now the only way this could work is in by-elections. The other solution, having the opposition contesting only selected constituencies to ensure a PAP government but also an opposition voice in parliament, is mess. Who will decide which areas are to be contested? Not to mention that depriving an electorate of the chance of voting if their constituencies are not chosen to be contested is a corruption of the very ideal of democracy.
Singaporeans have usually got around this problem by viewing the Workers’ Party (WP) as the only “credible” opposition. Numerous times people have told me that they are voting PAP only because the WP was not contesting their area. Previously the WP played into this as well since, by avoiding 3-cornered fights with other parties as far as possible, general elections effectively became by-elections.. Just vote opposition in the areas the WP contested in and as for the other areas, vote PAP.
That theory lasted till last Friday. Singaporeans voted out the WP in areas except Aljunied and Hougang.
It is interesting to note that people I have met who lived in Potong Pasir or Aljunied have said that they felt used by the other Singaporeans in other areas of Singapore. They understand the significance of their vote and not voting the WP would be “bad” for Singapore but they ask, “why not you vote them in then?” They feel the pinch from loosing upgrading “carrots” and want to pass the opposition torch to another area to carry on. But no one wants to take it. Some people even still have the perception that their votes are not secret and that the numbers can be tracked. It is unreasonable to expect the residents of Punggol East and Potong Pasir to continue to sacrifice and vote for opposition for the sake of Singapore.
This experiences shared by my friends have made me deduce that this is a structural problem. Your post about having a Mixed Proportional System perked my interest and made me see how the system be improved. A new system where Singaporeans’ need for a democracy is balanced with the assurance that the government would be stable. Where voting for opposing voices is not penalised. Where all voices are heard equally and no party is given special treatment, even the incumbent.
This means the depoliticisation of town council, the creation of an independent electoral agency, a truly non partisan public broadcaster, and the change of the voting system to ensure that alternative voices are still heard. Only then can Singapore effectively discuss the issues that matter, like gay rights, abortion, immigration, wages, identity, freedom of speech etc. Basically we need constitutional reform.
I’m sure you have ideas on constitutional reform yourself, your post A second republic is very inspirational. Singapore cannot afford violent change like the Bersih rallies in Malaysia. Or expect the change to come from within. Any change must follow the established rules and conventions. After reading up, I found a model based on the Polish Solidarity Movement. I wish to hear your thoughts on this.
The Polish Solidarity Movement
If we follow the Solidarity model, then organised opposition against the PAP would be based on pushing for constitutional reform. The movement would ideally be an NGO and act as a pressure group to force change. The aims would include reorganising MediaCorp and SPH to be independent public mass media entities. Make the Elections Department into a constitutionally distinct entity that is of equal level to the legislature and the judiciary. Implement some form of proportional voting (single transferable vote or mixed-member proportional). Make voting untraceable (to combat the perception that it is not secret). Reform the People’s Association and the Citizens’ Consultative Committees to be nonpartisan or place them under the control of the constituency’s town council. Make the town council management a governmental responsibility and ensure that national upgrading projects are not politicised to “buy” votes. And lastly, more emphasis must be placed on educating the electorate on the principles of democracy.
Like Solidarity, these aims would be our only purpose; other issues such as immigration and CPF would not be discussed. Solidarity started with the intention of being a temporary alliance and right after its aims were met, its members all formed new political parties that followed the legacy of Solidarity. Similarly, the movement is Singapore should have a temporary aim. Its election strategy could be to contest all seats with the intended aim of controlling a two-thirds majority in parliament. Then after the victory it would implement reforms and then call for a referendum on the new constitution. Regardless of the passage or failure of the constitutional referendum, new elections should be called immediately after. Then the movement can choose to stay intact or dissolve and contest the election separately. The new election would be under the new constitution (if approved by referendum), so regardless of a PAP victory or not, the aim of the movement has been achieved. In short, the movement basically creates a provisional government, giving way to the newly elected government after the election.
Dasan is a pseudonym; the writer is still serving his National Service.