Singapore Solidarity: Constitutional reform to pave way for a better democracy


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

The founder and leader of the Solidarity Movement, Lech Wałęsa, would later receive the Nobel Peace Prize for bringing freedom and democracy to Poland and inspiring the same in other countries under Soviet dominance.

The founder and leader of the Solidarity Movement, Lech Wałęsa, would later receive the Nobel Peace Prize for bringing freedom and democracy to Poland and inspiring the same in other countries under Soviet dominance.

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.

12 Responses to “Singapore Solidarity: Constitutional reform to pave way for a better democracy”

  1. 1 yawningbread 17 September 2015 at 10:59

    At first sight, Dasan’s idea looks extremely idealistic. It takes a bit of getting used to, though it is obvious that he has identified the core issue: the present system is designed to place structural limits to how democratic Singapore can ever be.

    With a bit of extraordinary leadership, something along the lines he is proposing may actually be do-able. Specifically, it will require a coalition of parties (and since we’re letting our imagination run a little wild, why not the PAP too?) to fight an election (or several elections until they succeed) on just one platform: A set of concrete ideas for changing the constitution.

    The parties in the coalition promise to (a) stay in power for no more than three or six months or whatever short time they need to get the constitutional changes made, (b) hold steady and make no changes to any policy (e.g. on tax, housing, transport, healthcare) in the meantime, and (c) hold a general election under the new constitution after that, and it is only at this general election where policy issues are debated, with parties holding different positions, proposing different solutions again.

    The key requirement though is “extraordinary leadership”…. There is probably also the need for extraordinary conditions.

    This is where I return to my pessimism about Singapore. Dasan referenced the Polish Solidarity Movement of the 1980s. An examination of the situation that produced this movement should give us a good clue when Dasan’s idea may see fruition in Singapore.

    n the 1970s and 1980s, communism was ossifying and standards of living were fast eroding. In 1970, Poland’s GDP per capita was US$850 (in current dollars) which was slightly below the world average of US$921. In other words, Poland was in the poorer half of the world. Poland’s GDP per capita was less than one-third of West Germany’s (US$2,712) and France’s (US$2,872) and about a quarter of the United States’ (around US$3,250). There were shortages of consumer goods and severe restrictions on personal freedom. These were the conditions that produced the mass frustration that gave rise to Solidarity. Yet, even so, it took ten years of demonstrations, and helpful foreign trends (the collapse of the Soviet Union) before Solidarity finally succeeded in its aims.

    In other words, for this kind of mass frustration to arise in Singapore may require a huge tumble from the present middle-class comfort we see around us. Financial distress, unemployment, corruption and heavy-handed policing needs to become daily issues for a large section of the population. Singapore needs to roll backwards from First World to nearly Third World before enough people will wake up.

    So I repeat a point I have often made: the present system we have may last for a very long time, but instead of producing ever higher “progress”, it will produce ossification, complacency, cronyism and very possibly corruption, though in such a gentle way that few would notice at the start. And the decline will be so comfortable that few seriously react to it until it gets close to the bottom. For Singapore to correct itself (perhaps along the lines Dasan has suggested) requires Singapore to first go back to Third World.

    • 2 Yanti 19 September 2015 at 06:33

      I disagree that in order for change to occur Mass Frustration would be required or that Simgapore would have to go back to the third world. As you have mentioned, the points are:
      1) United Opposition parties
      2) Platform of Constitutional Reform
      3) Referendum and New Elections
      4) All within a short time as possible
      None of this need social upheaval or violent protests and can work under the current system just fine. We just need a “exemplary leader”. And that is going to be difficult.

    • 4 Hope 19 September 2015 at 11:56

      All the comments so far have been about how change is unlikely as the PAP is too powerful or that Singaporeans don’t have the motivation to change the system. I find this very worrying. Maybe Kenneth Jeyaretnam was right when he said that Singaporeans get the government they deserve.

  2. 5 han 17 September 2015 at 15:16

    How can that proposal be contextualised and perhaps even significantly modified, if possible, such that it becomes more workable in our context?

  3. 6 yuenchungkwong 17 September 2015 at 19:07

    Poles and other people in East Europe were not really concerned about constitutional reform, or even democracy per se, but about Russian dominance. It was a kind of anti-colonialism; the subsequent political systems in the various former soviet countries are mixed. Some have merely replaced Russian authoritarianism with local versions. It is also useful to note that the collapse of the soviet system occurred after East Germans swarmed into West Germany embassies in Hungary and Czekoslovakia demanding to go to West Germany, and East German government had to give in; the people were more seeking a better life than democracy per se. The more recent Jasmin revolutions have not resulted in the spread of democracy, merely the collapse of several authoritarian regimes, creating a power vacuum for ISIS to thrive in. The ousting of the pro-Russian president in Ukrains has resulted in loss of Russian subsidy without being replaced by western subsidy and loss of territory which the west has not helped to regain. In short, regime changes are complex issues with major communal and economic aspects; constitutional changes playing just a small part.

    • 7 Renee 17 September 2015 at 20:39

      The use of Poland Solidarity Movement as an example may be misleading, but in essence I think the proposal focuses on the idea that the opposition would join forces and work under a common platform to implement constitutional reforms. The author may be referencing Solidarity to emphasise the movements ability to unite people from disparate groups to unite under a common political movement. It’s also important to note that Solidarity didn’t last long after overthrowing the communist regime and in fact broke up fairly quickly after the economy continued to worsen. Maybe that’s why the proposal calls for focusing on only reform and then the dissolution of the movement. It acts to preserve the best aspects of the movement while preventing the negative aspects. Also since Singapore does not have to contend with an external hegemonic country like how Poland and Ukraine are faring, it would possibly be much easier and cleaner to implement. However whether Singaporeans would want such change is doubtful. Even if it is ultimately best for them.

  4. 8 sahir 17 September 2015 at 19:25

    It’s a nimbly thingy.

  5. 9 Revolutionary 18 September 2015 at 11:47

    Very Idealistic. But the only thing holding us back is ourselves. If Singaporeans woke up to see where they are and how better they can be then this would be possible. But since we are happy with the status quo, as evidenced by this election, then we can forget about this. We get the government that we deserve.

  6. 10 Qiao Zhi 18 September 2015 at 15:12

    A mindset change is required of Singaporeans. I don’t see that possible even after a 100 years because the PAP is an extremely intelligent and shrewed party. Look no further than GE2015. Any observer who bothers will see the methodical way the PAP has been going about ‘dismounting’ and eliminating the issues, one by one. I have always believed that the PAP uses a lot of psychology in its approach to both cajole, entice and even subtly threaten/intimidate the sense of safety and security of the voters. It can do this precisely because it controls virtually aspects of living and well being that matters – from the press, to freedom of expression, to the legislation of laws that curb and control in particular freedom of association, public gathering and peaceful protest. Best of all the PAP can blatantly do anything it wishes by bending or acting above the rule of law without any problem from the police or other enforcement agencies. In other words, the PAP runs Singapore like a sole proprietorship.

    Sadly, IMO, all those changes the writer mentioned can only be within reach in a hot revolution, nothing less, as I have said because the PAP is very smart and Singapore is really VERY small and easily controlled and bottled up. While on the surface we are supposedly to celebrate 50 years of success and achievement, in actual fact, the subtext is that PAP has been using the 50 years to consolidate and dominate every aspects of Singapore life through an extensive and deep network whether it be the political, social, educational, civil, religious or economic landscape. PAP has pervaded and permeated itself comprehensively into the country’s DNA. Just name one important aspects that the PAP has not got its pie finger in?

    It helps that the majority race were of apathetic migrant stocks with little apart from either survival and money making in mind. After all, the ethnic Chinese forefathers left the motherland essentially for two basic reasons – economic survival and to flee the political turmoils of Mainland China then. It’s bread and butter that they are most concerned with.

    We are already a ‘goner’. The main preoccupation of the PAP currently is to cull, shape, corral, convert and persuade the new migrants/citizens to fall in line with its ‘ideals’.

    • 11 Yanti 19 September 2015 at 11:48

      Agreed. It is abundantly clear that we have no hope whatsoever. The PAP are too entrenched and since we waited too long, we have no choice but accept the reality that the PAP would be around for another 100 or more years. Must as well do away with elections entirely. Why must we masquerade as a democracy when we clearly know that we are not?

  7. 12 Hawking Eye 19 September 2015 at 16:43

    Some views related to GE 2015 results.

    Whatever post-election reflections and “I saw this coming” bragging some pundits may engage in, the fact is all of us were floored. The general consensus – from political commentators to ordinary people – was that the Opposition, the WP in fact, would win another SMC and possibly another GRC, overall reducing PAP’s share of popular vote by 1 to 3 point percentage. It was my prediction too.

    The fear of external factors – global and regional uncertainties, the flagging economy of Malaysia and China and the current chaotic ethnic problems in Malaysia which will affect Singapore directly – all played up by the PAP adroitly – worried large segments of working people. Some 20% (or less) of them are employed in the civil service, stat boards and GLCs with the rest being in the private sector. Those in the private sector were among those most worried about this jobs and livelihood and they thought the PAP with their proven record, were a better bet to protect their interests even though many among them could have been pro-Opposition. It is a case of mind triumphing over emotions.

    The ballot paper may have to be re-tooled. It carries a registration number which gives the perception that the vote is not secret since it can be tracked to find out how an individual voted. Even if this is factually untrue and that voting is secret, why not remove the misperception altogether by having a ballot paper without any reference number?

    The other point is why require a voter to put a cross against the name of the candidate of his/her choice instead of a pass sign? Generally a pass sign symbolises approval (for) and a cross disapproval (against). Just image a loony voter, dead set against the WP, puts a cross against its candidate’s name, thinking that this means a one plus for the PAP. How weird! Why can’t we be innovative and not follow what Western democracies do in this instance?

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