Our parliament, never admirable, has lately been filled with much quacking. The issue that has gotten quite a few opposition members mired is that of Non-Constituency Members of Parliament (NCMP). The government proposes to increase the minimum number of opposition members to twelve from the present nine. This will mean that if opposition parties fail to win 12 seats outright (through our first-past-the-post system), the shortfall will be made up of NCMPs.
The Workers’ Party seems to be taking a mealy-mouthed stance over this. There may be a fear that when voters know there will be at least 12 opposition members, they will be less inclined to vote strongly for an opposition party.
But the same logic could have been applied in the 2011 general election. There was a rule then that there would be at least nine opposition members of parliament, to be made up of NCMPs if needed. That didn’t stop voters giving a 6.5% swing to the opposition. Why would twelve disincentivise them from voting opposition when nine didn’t?
My thoughts about the NCMP scheme
The principle can be defended. It’s not true that NCMPs “represent nobody”. They would not be NCMPs if not for a significant minority of Singaporeans casting their votes for them — and in a Group Representation Constituency, it would in the tens of thousands. Just because NCMPs didn’t win a constituency (or GRC) outright under the first-past-the-post system does not make them illegitimate. Some countries have parliaments elected entirely by proportional representation. No MP directly represents any constituency. Are all their MPs illegitimate then?
I have long argued that in a city-state like Singapore, where we are geographically homogenised — i.e. no significant concentrations of minority-interest voters in particular localities — a first-past-the-post system effectively disenfranchises these voters and exaggerates the winning party’s majority in terms of parliamentary seats. For years, I have argued that we ought to have a parliament where 50% of members are elected via a proportional vote. The other 50% can be elected through single-member constituencies with a single transferable vote.
To the degree that NCMPs give voice to substantial numbers of voters even if they are not the majority, it is not different in principle from a proportional representation system. I therefore support it.
But in its particulars, our NCMP scheme has one serious flaw and another potential one.
The first is that it is arbitrary. One day it is nine. Another day, it is twelve. It has the appearance of being a gift of the ruling party, rammed through parliament on the back of its majority. What is given one day can be taken away the next. When something is arbitrary, the scheme itself can never be fully legitimate (even if the NCMP himself can be fully legitimate), since it will always be suspected of being calibrated for political advantage.
A straight-forward 50% proportional representation rule hard-coded into the constitution is more neutral.
The other, potential, flaw flows naturally from the hope of the non-constituency member winning the same constituency at the next election outright. Even though we say an NCMP does not “represent” the constituency now (a point I don’t fully agree with) the fact is that this person will try hard to impress the constituents in the hope that more of them will switch their votes to him (or her) the next general election. He will tend to raise issues these constituents are concerned with, and say things that many of them agree with.
But then, so would the MP who won outright. He would likely be expected to defend his seat the next election. So likewise he would try to raise his constituents’ concerns and take positions they agree with.
Effectively then, the constituency is represented by two persons in Parliament.
On a small scale it may not matter much, but if constituencies that split their vote narrowly (thus sending NCMPs to parliament) are of similar profile, then the interests of this demographic group become over-represented in parliament. To better understand what I am trying to say, let me paint a scenario.
First, let’s understand that the constituencies that will send NCMPs will be those that are highly competitive, ones where the opposition is close to winning. Now, we know that HDB dwellers are less likely to vote for the opposition than those who live in condos or landed property — you can divine this pattern from the results of the last few elections. So it may mean that there’s going to be some skewing: constituencies with a higher proportion of better-off voters are the more competitive ones, and thus the ones more likely to send NCMPs to parliament. They get double representation. The weightage in parliament is skewed in their favour.
How big a risk is this? How damaging to democracy is this going to be? It’s hard to say since at the moment, all this is hypothetical. But it’s something we should be alert to.
In short, I would still argue for 50% proportional representation. But having NCMPs, however flawed the present system, is better than having no NCMPs at all. And twelve is better than nine.