Yawning Bread. 1 May 2010

An elastic band here, a clothes peg there, part 1




The prize goes to Sylvia Lim, chair of the Workers' Party. In my opinion, she hit the nail on the head when she said the recent changes to the electoral system were attempts by the government to solve problems of its own making.[1]

The changes -- constitutional and law amendments passed Monday and Tuesday last -- fixed the number of Nominated Members of Parliament (NMP) at nine, and fixed the maximum number of Non-Constituency Members of Parliament (NCMP) at nine as well. For every one opposition member who wins an electoral seat, there will be one less NCMP seat from the maximum.

Another amendment creates a "cooling-off" period, being the day before polling day. I have no strong opinion on this. It does not obviously impair the fairness of an election to have a cooling-off period.

Regarding the changes to the NMP and NCMP quotas, I dislike and will not endorse them. However, I urge opposition candidates to accept NCMP seats if these fall to them, and make the best of a term in the legislature to make a mark for themselves in the public consciousness. Politics is the art of the possible. Even when a scheme is bad, one should always consider leveraging it to one's advantage. Absolutism is for religious nuts.

Why do I refuse to endorse this scheme? Because I think it is bad for Singapore in the long run. Parliament and the electoral system is supposed to be a respected institution; these changes do not further this goal. Instead, I think it takes us a greater distance away.

For an institution of state to be respected, it must have 

  • Reliable permanence 
  • Clarity and fairness in how it is constituted 
  • Clarity and fairness in how it works.

A sense of reliable permanence can never be achieved if we keep tinkering with it, often for party-political motives every few years. The name may remain the same -- "Parliament" -- but the thingamajig becomes more and more like an incomprehensible contraption with bits and pieces nailed or welded on from time to time.

That said, I will not be so quick to say, as some others have, that the latest changes are meant to further the ruling party's interest at the expense of opposition parties' or the national interest.

I will take Law Minister Shanmugaratnam's explanation to Parliament at face value, as to why he was tabling these changes. As reported by the Straits Times [2], his reasons were:

First: Singapore needs a government with a clear, strong majority, that can provide good governance in the long-term interests of Singaporeans.

Second: At the same time, there is a legitimate desire among Singaporeans to have more diverse views, including opposition views articulated in Parliament.

I assume the first reason was a defence of the first-past-the-post system, which tends to produce lopsided results in seat winnings, especially in a city-state like Singapore where voter profiles are similar from across constituencies.

The second reason was his justification for adding yet another make-shift distortion to the system.

Let me deal with the NMP and NCMP issues separately.

* * * * *


Regarding the carbuncle that is the NMP system, I continue to abhor it. There is no clarity or fairness in how it is constituted (how NMPs are chosen). Critically, there is no electoral basis for such members. It should be abolished forthwith.

The press reported that a number of current NMPs defended their value during the debate on the amendments. A more pathetic set of arguments I could hardly imagine. NMP Calvin Cheng even figuratively thumped his desk, saying [3]:

People who are proposed to be NCMPs are politicians who stood for an election and lost. Sir, they lost. They lost. I do not know how much more emphatic I can be about this. These are politicians who have stood on certain political platforms for certain political issues. A majority of the electorate have considered these issues, these politicians and rejected them at the polls. To then allow them into Parliament flies in the face of logic of a democratic election at best, and at worst is a slap in the face of the people who have voted against them.

Kudos to Sylvia Lim again for stripping the man naked in full public view:

I find it quite ironic that someone who came into this august chamber through an interview can actually attack the NCMP scheme in such strong terms.

As for the other arguments advanced by NMPs during the debate, I shall deal with them in Part 2 of this article.

* * * * *


My dislike for the NCMP scheme is far less fundamental than my opposition to the NMP scheme. Unlike some ruling party MPs who myopically, in their speeches, assumed that the first-past-the-post system is the only legitimate electoral system, I am very open to different electoral approaches. This, especially given that fact that I am convinced the first-past-the-post system is inherently unsuitable for Singapore.

NCMPs in my eyes have legitimacy where NMPs do not.

Yet I oppose the scheme in general, because it lends a further air of band-aid messing about with what should be a permanent institution. For example, why nine? Will it be fifteen tomorrow? Or six the day after? Why are only opposition candidates eligible? Why not the losing candidates of a party that wins nation-wide? Why must the number of NCMPs be reduced for every elected opposition member?

There's something very arbitrary about it, and arbitrary rules are open to abuse and never engender respect. And Parliament is worth nothing if it enjoys no respect.

* * * * *

Proportional representation (PR)

I stand by my proposal -- one that I've been making for years (see previous Yawning Bread articles) -- that Singapore should have a mix of first-past-the-post and proportional representation. I think we should have a parliament of 168 members, of which 84 are elected from single-member constituencies (and also act as Town Council chairs), and 84 others elected by PR.

84 is not an arbitrary number that I picked out of thin air. It is the current number of constituencies we have, albeit that most have been subsumed into Group Representation Constituencies.

The government will no doubt leap up and say that is a recipe for political gridlock and slow-moving coalition governments. That's just scare-mongering.

In the present demographic context of Singapore, the similarity of voter profiles from one constituency to the next will almost guarantee that any party with a slight edge (in voter preference) over others will garner a disproportionate number of single-member seats, bringing it very close to a majority in the House. Add in what it wins from the PR side of the election and it should easily command a majority in Parliament and have no difficulty forming a government.

Even if one distant day, we have a multiplicity of parties and find ourselves faced with coalition governments, so what? Germany is a good example of a country that has had coalition governments for decades, and look how steady the ship of state is.

It's like this: Would we rather have a situation where a party that wins only 40 percent of the vote end up sweeping the parliamentary seats under a first-past-the-post system (with multiple opposition parties splitting the vote among themselves and thus winning very few) and producing a "strong" government that is basically unrepresentative, or would we rather have a coalition government where parties have to be mature enough to work together, but which between them can at least claim to represent more than half the people's votes?

Which is better? A powerful but narrowly-based government or a compromise-making broader-based one?

* * * * *

I disagree with the recent changes. But that does not mean I like the system the way it is. We should overhaul the system, not merely tinker with it.

We deserve a fairer, simpler-to-understand system. It should be one that produces outcomes more representative than the present system, without having to jump through hoops and hurdles, applying an elastic band here and clipping a clothes peg there, like what we are doing now.

In Part 2, I will deal with some of the silly things parliamentarians said in during the debate.

Yawning Bread 



  1. Straits Times, 27 April 2010, PAP's 'woes' of its own making: Sylvia Lim 
    Return to where you left off

  2. Straits Times, 28 April 2010, Balancing a strong govt and a diversity of voices
    Return to where you left off

  3. Ibid.
    Return to where you left off