November 1999

Reengineering our electoral system




I was on my way home, just a few hundred metres from my block, when I saw a banner strung up along the road. It said, "Dr Wong Kai Yuen, MP for Bukit Timah GRC, wishes all residents a Happy Deepavali [1]"

My first reaction was, "What? Wong Kai Yuen is an MP for Bukit Timah GRC?"

My second reaction was, "What do I know about Wong Kai Yuen? Who is he (well, at least I knew it was a 'he')?"

My third reaction was, "Who else, whom I don't know, are also MPs for Bukit Timah? How many MPs are there for Bukit Timah?"

This banner symbolised all the things that are wrong with Singapore's electoral system. There is hardly any relationship between MPs and constituents. The government likes to boast that we are a democratic country and that our regular elections prove it. I disagree. We may observe the forms (and with all the jiggling of the rules, which I shall touch on below, even that is arguable), but we don't really have the substance of it.

The government says they have the mandate, with 65% of the votes cast at the last general election, but one should look behind that figure to see how it came about. Was there meaningful choice? (The Soviet Union's Communist Party regularly won 97% of the vote in their regular elections too.) Lots of other freedoms have to be in place to make a genuine democracy, not just ballot boxes, polling booths and maps showing constituency boundaries (which as far as I could recall, the Elections Department did not release at the last election), but in this essay, I shall restrict myself to just the electoral system. That subject alone gives us enough to talk about.

Below, I shall describe briefly the system as it stands today (it is changed at almost every election!), then tell you about the changes that has made it what it is. After that, I will point out the deficiencies of it and finally argue why I think we need proportional representation.

The electoral system today

Singapore has about two and a half million adult voters, and a uni-cameral Parliament made up thus:

Members of Parliament

After the Jan 1997 general election

Type of MP PAP Opp No party Total
Single-member constituencies
Group-representation constituencies
Non-constituency MPs
Nominated MPs
Total 81 3 9 93

PAP = People's Action Party
Opp = Opposition parties
No party = no party affiliation


Electoral constituencies are of two types. Single-member ones are smallish, returning just one MP each to Parliament. There are nine of them. Group-representation constituencies, (GRCs) are much bigger, each having 4 or 6 MPs as a group. There are 15 GRCs, producing 74 GRC MPs.

If a GRC is allocated, say, 6 members, then a party wishing to contest that GRC must put forward a slate of 6 candidates, one of whom must be of minority race. The voter does not get to choose which individual(s) he wants as his representative(s) in Parliament. He has to choose by party, and the party that gets the most votes in a GRC, sends its entire slate of 6 to the legislature.

To ensure that Parliament will be represented by some members from a political party or parties not forming the government, provision is made for up to three Non-constituency members (NCMP). The number of NCMPs is reduced by one for every opposition party member returned at an election. Since two constituencies returned opposition members after the 1997 general election, only one NCMP seat was created. The opposition candidate who gathered the most votes but failed to win a seat, was made the NCMP.

Nominated MPs are, obviously, not elected. They are appointed by the President on the advice of a Special Select Committee of Parliament, whose deliberations are not public.

In the last general election, January 1997, only 36 of the 83 constituency seats (single-member and GRC together) were contested. 47 seats did not have any contest, so their voters (the majority of Singapore's voting population) never went to the polls. Of the 36 contested seats, the PAP won 34 of them, with 65% of the valid votes cast.

In short, more than half of us never had a vote, Of those who did, 35% voted against the PAP. But, as you see from the table above, the PAP had 81 seats in Parliament, and through the Select Committee, appointed 9 more Nominated MPs.

My own GRC did not have a contest, because none of the opposition parties put forward a slate of candidates for Bukit Timah. I did not get to vote at the last election. You may say that the reason I lost my vote was because the opposition parties failed me. I don't think that. Like lots of Singaporeans, I blame the PAP for making it impossible for opposition parties to organise effectively [2], hence no contest.

Since my neighbours and I did not have the vote, none of the PAP candidates even bothered to speak to us. I have no clear idea who are these MPs who claim to represent Bukit Timah GRC, nor how many of them. Nearly three years later, I was surprised to see a banner with Wong Kai Yuen's name on it. Please don't ask me whether I have any idea what his face looks like.

How we ended up with such a system

Back in the 60's and 70's, we had only single-member constituencies, an arrangement we inherited from the British. It was a straightforward first-past-the-post contest in each constituency.

Then after the shock of losing Anson constituency to the Workers' Party in a by-election, with J B Jeyaretnam beating PAP's man, the first of the many tinkerings with our electoral system began.

A few years after Anson, the GRC was invented. The rationale offered for public consumption was that in a Chinese-majority Singapore, it was going to be difficult to get minority-race representation in Parliament. Chinese voters would tend to vote for Chinese candidates, it was said, (but no empirical evidence was offered), and it would be undesirable for Parliament not to contain minority voices. At first, the GRCs were to have three to four members each, of which one in each party's slate must be from a minority race. This would roughly reflect the racial balance in Singapore of one-quarter minority race.

I don't think anyone was brave enough at the time to carry out any studies to see how many swallowed that justification. I myself thought it was pretty brazen, coming just a few years after J B Jeyaretnam -- minority-race himself -- won his seat. I do remember that even Malays and Indians argued against that excuse. Many felt insulted that the scheme implied they could only send MPs into Parliament on the coattails of Chinese candidates, that they could never win a Parliamentary seat on their own merits.

But since the PAP controlled well over two-thirds of the seats in Parliament, the GRC was born.

In the coffee-shops of Singapore, the places to go if one wants to get a true pulse of political cynicism, many thought they could see the real reason behind the move. By insisting on slates of 3 or 4 candidates at one go, it would be a higher hurdle for opposition parties to cross, since it was always difficult for them to attract enough people to join them. In particular, parties which championed Chinese or Malay communal interests would find it impossible to meet the mixed-race requirement. This move was then to marginalise and de-legitimise opposition and communal causes.

One may argue that in truth communal politics are bad for a multi-racial place like Singapore, and so something can be said in favour of mixed-race candidatures for GRCs. That's fair enough, though I wonder if suppression of alternative voices (no matter how much you disagree with them) work in the long run. I think they need to be heard, and vigorously replied to, otherwise people never get to think through the issues. People never learn to be politically sensible. It is when Singaporeans are politically mature that our future is more secure, not when people are told to shut up.

Unfortunately (for the PAP, that is), the opposition candidates continued to win a few seats now and then, so more changes had to be put in place. For each Group-representation constituency, the GRC MPs were then to form a kind of district council to manage their own urban zone. The government made it clear to the voters that this was to get them to vote responsibly. Yes, they sounded like a teacher lecturing wayward pupils. You vote in reckless firebrands and you get reckless firebrands in charge of your rubbish-collection, tree-pruning and pavement-washing. When these municipal services fall apart, your property value will fall, and you pay the price for voting in the "wrong" people.

The PAP boasted that they could field highly-qualified people, doctors and academics, who would be excellent estate managers. All that the opposition parties could manage were "merely" people with conviction, but no track record, otherwise known as "political opportunists".

As a further safety feature, just prior to the 1997 election, the GRCs were enlarged from 3 - 4 members each to 4 - 6. The rationale was that to make the councils more cost-efficient, they needed to encompass larger areas. It fooled no one that the expansion of the GRCs from 3 - 4 to 4 - 6 occurred just as the opposition parties were getting better organised, and beginning to be able to field the slates of 3 or 4 for the original GRCs. It seemed the hurdle had to be raised.

What about the minority-race thing? The one-quarter representation ideal of 1 in 4 GRC MPs? Silence. When the GRCs were expanded, it remained stipulated that only 1 candidate in each slate needed to be minority race.

The problem with confusing the roles of MPs and city-managers was that these technocrats fielded by the PAP, and who were mostly sent to Parliament without even a poll, were often lacklustre in Parliament. They didn't sparkle in debate; they seldom had anything new to say. Essentially, they were not politicians, able to speak up for the people in the chamber. Nor could they speak to the people outside it, in a manner that would inform and move them. It was bad enough that no one voted for them before they got into Parliament, it was worse that their performance in the five following years earned them no kudos from their so-called constituents.

No doubt, many of them worked very hard at their weekly Meet-the-People sessions. Out of curiosity, I went to one some years ago. Lots of mendicants, oops, I mean, citizens, were there too, asking the MP to force the heartless bureaucracy to make an exception for them, so that they could get a taxi licence, or a new flat nearer their shop, or fix an awning outside their lift lobby so they wouldn't get wet on rainy days. And so these PhD and MBA members of Parliament became highly proficient petition-writers.

But the vast majority of Singaporeans had nothing to do with their MPs, nor ever really heard from them.

It wouldn't be good for Singapore's parliamentary "democracy" if somnolence continued to reign in the House, so as a remedial measure, the government sought to inject some quality into legislative debates. They came up with the idea of Nominated Members of Parliament (NMPs), people chosen for their greater outspokenness. But remember, they were not elected, but chosen: brought into Parliament by grace of the ruling party. If push should ever come to shove over any serious or contentious issue in Parliament, they should know their place. They could never claim any real mandate [3].

The deficiencies of the present system

Mandate is the word. As I mentioned above, the government, whenever challenged, usually by the foreign media, likes to point out that in the last election, they got 65% of the votes cast, and how many other governments in democratic countries can boast of a similar electoral landslide? Now that you've read all the above, wouldn't you wonder how meaningful is such a facile claim?

There are three elements making up our electoral system and all of them have deficiencies that makes one wonder about representation and mandate.

Single-member constituencies

The applicability of single-member constituencies for a compact country like Singapore is highly arguable. In large countries, different regions have different interests. There are the rural, perhaps more conservative areas; the urban, more yuppie districts. There are different clusters of ethnic groups in different parts of the country. There are farming interests or industrial workers' interests that correlate with different regions or towns. To constitute Parliament from various constituencies that are geographically defined would be to obtain a mix of voices generally representative of the country.

Singapore is very different. It is so small, it is not unremarkable for people to move from an address at one end of the island to the other. The result is that all constituencies have quite similar profiles. There is little clustering of communities or interest groups. Even if we abolished GRCs, and reduced Singapore to the smaller single-member constituencies only, the Chinese would be the majority race in every constituency. The senior citizens would not have voting strength anywhere. The English-speaking would be a minority in virtually all wards. The Malays could never claim any constituency as their bulwark.

In such a context, no candidate arguing for minority interests -- and minority interests are not just racial, but include groups concerned with civic liberties, the environment, immigration, treatment of workers, gender or senior-citizen interests -- can succeed. In a electoral environment where all constituencies are similar in profile, they will all return similar results. A party winning 60% of the votes might still end up with 95% of the Parliamentary seats. The 40% who didn't vote for the party would be severely under-represented.

Group-representation constituencies

This problem is exacerbated with GRCs. Generally, the larger the average size of a constituency, the more difficult it is for a minority to be heard, because the profile of that constituency would tend to approach the overall average. Imagine, at the extreme, that all of Singapore were made into a single GRC, and parties had to field slates of 83 candidates each. The party which gets the most votes gets its entire slate into Parliament. This can mean that a party securing just 27% of the votes (provided no other party gets more than that) can fill all 83, or 100% of the seats in Parliament.

GRCs reinforce the effect of homogenisation, to the detriment of minority interests.

Minority representation

The present arrangement requires one minority-race candidate in every GRC slate, and may thus be said to address the problem. It does not. The question of mandate still arises. When a party's slate wins the election for its GRC, one does not know whether the minority-race candidate included among them was indeed the choice of the minority-race voters in that GRC. Did those voters really want him to speak for them? Was that slate voted in by the majority race in the GRC? Did the minority vote for some other slate?

Do our Malay or Indian MPs really represent Malay and Indian Singaporeans? Of course they don't have to. After all, an MP represents all his constituents, whatever their colour. But let's not be nave; minorities generally do want their own representatives, and in response, the PAP often presents their Malay MPs as representatives of the Malays. But look closely at the electoral system, and one cannot see any direct connection; it is not transparent how that mandate was obtained.

What we have is a situation where minorities' representatives were not elected by the minorities to speak for them, but selected by the ruling power (and put through the motion of an election, sometimes without even a poll) to represent them.

It would also occur to you that it is strange to think of minorities merely in terms of race. What about socio-economic minorities? Gender minorities? Religious minorities? Minorities of interests, such as people concerned about healthcare, or small businessmen, or senior citizens? Each is just as valid a group in politics as ethnic minorities. So why shouldn't the GRC system require one candidate in every slate to represent such minorities?

Of course it would be absurd. The GRC arrangement can never accommodate so many kinds of minorities. No house of cards can.

I would scrap the GRC system, and with it, the minority-race quota. The motivation behind their construction is suspect, and as practised, they do not serve to enhance real representation. But what system might be an improvement over the present that can deliver a more representative Parliament, with a more direct connection between voters' wishes and MPs, and that can have a better claim to a popular mandate?

Proportional representation

Many countries have proportional representation as the basis for their elections. Israel and New Zealand come to mind. Proportional representation is the system whereby the number of seats a party gets in Parliament is proportional to the percentage of votes it gets in the country as a whole.

If Parliament has a total of 100 seats, and if a party gets 52% of the votes, then that party gets 52 seats for its members. Another party, with, say, 11% of the votes, gets 11 seats; and so on.

Usually, each party publishes a list of candidates before the elections. After vote-counting, when a party gets 52 seats, its first 52 candidates on the list get into Parliament. The other party, with 11 seats, sends its first 11 candidates there.

Voters vote more for the party program than for the personalities. Those who care about health-care issues might vote for a party with a manifesto that comes closest to their views. Other voters fed-up as ripped-off consumers might vote for a party that highlights consumer issues. The outcome of elections then reflect more accurately the variety of concerns that the electorate has, especially the minority groups.

The big drawback of proportional representation is that a Parliament so constituted tends to be fragmented into many interest groups, with no clear majority (which is to say it reflects society!). The problem then is that a stable government is more difficult to form. Coalition politics does not have a good name.

But single-member constituencies, in the Singapore context, don't serve us all that well either. We are too evenly distributed in our residential mix. Minorities have no strength in any particular place. They are submerged in every area. With single-member constituencies, any party winning a thin majority island-wide will tend to secure a huge majority in parliamentary seats. Even without the hurdle of GRCs, it will be extremely difficult for any viable opposition to arise in such an environment. 

What Singapore needs

Singapore needs a mix of single-member constituencies and proportional representation. The aim is to give us stable government, balanced with some real representation in Parliament, so as to avoid having an overbearing executive. I would propose a chamber of 100 seats, half of them single-member constituency MPs, and half through proportional representation.

Each voter gets two votes. One vote is for his constituency seat; the other is for proportional representation (PR). A voter may vote for one party in his constituency vote and, if he wishes, a different party in his PR vote.

If one party wins 60% of the constituency votes, that party is likely to sweep maybe 48 of the 50 constituency seats, based on the pattern from previous Singapore elections. But that same party, even if it gets 50% of the PR votes (some voters may split their votes, so a party winning 60% on the constituency side may not get 60% too on the PR side), will only get 25 out of the 50 PR seats. The remaining 25 PR seats and 2 constituency seats will go to other parties.

In that scenario, we will get a Parliament where one party has a clear majority of 73 seats, enabling it to form a stable government. This may already be too overbearing in the opinion of some Singaporeans, considering that with 73 seats, it can still change the constitution at will. But at least the opposition then has a more representative 27 seats, and hopefully, is better heard. What an improvement that will be over the present paltry 3 seats from winning 35% of the votes in the last election!

Yawning Bread 




  1. Deepavali is Hindu festival celebrated by our Indian minority; in India, it's known as Diwali.
    Return to where you left off
  2. Consider: the government's control over the media, restrictions on gatherings, talks and forums, obstructions to fund-raising, and all the celebrated defamation cases with million-dollar damages.
    Return to where you left off
  3. Don't get me wrong; the Nominated MP scheme isn't all vile. There are good intentions. We have had independent-minded people from various sectors of society, e.g. the law, business, the consumers' movement, the women's movement. Some of them have earned public respect for their stint as NMPs. But they should never have been Members of Parliament at all, because at the end of the day, they have no mandate from any voters. The NMP scheme compromises the very principle of Parliament -- that of representation through an electoral mandate. However, these outspoken, independent-minded people should still be encouraged to speak up. As civil society. Our media should still pay attention to what they have to say. As civil society. Our government should still take into account their views. As civil society. But unelected persons should have no place in Parliament.
    Return to where you left off