Yawning Bread. 2 May 2010

An elastic band here, a clothes peg there, part 2




There were a number of naysayers in Parliament [1] when the bills to provide for electoral changes were moved. The Straits Times reported that:

Five People's Action Party (PAP) MPs, during the debate over changes that will increase the minimum opposition presence from the current three to nine, raised concerns ranging from their lack of accountability to their effect on debate in the House.


Mr Zaqy Mohamad (Hong Kah GRC) and Ms Irene Ng (Tampines GRC) fretted over the NCMPs' lack of constituents to be accountable to.

Nothing will hold back an unelected NCMP from making 'provocative comments and populist calls', said Ms Ng.

While it is easy to criticise the Government, 'an elected MP with constituents to answer to thinks differently...and has to stand by what he or she says and represents', said Mr Zaqy.


Dr Lim Wee Kiak (Sembawang GRC) said voters had reasons not to elect the losing candidate: They do not want him or her to speak on their behalf.

-- Straits Times, 27 April 2010, Concerns over
plan to increase opposition presence

These three People's Action Party (PAP) representatives made nothing but false arguments. They either made mistaken assumptions or were slickly reductionist. In three ways:

1. They reduced the multiplicity of voters and vote preferences in any constituency to a single body and mind, which "elected" the Member of Parliament, even if no actual poll took place (a walkover).

It is this reductionism that enabled Lim Wee Kiak to speak as if nobody cast any vote to the losing candidate ("They do not want him", he said); nobody had wanted the losing candidate to speak on his behalf. This is patently untrue. Even candidates who fared badly had thousands of voters preferring them, let along those who would qualify for a Non-Constituency seat because they came close to a majority.

Zaqy made the same mistake. He said only an MP would feel he had to be accountable, because he and only he had constituents.

First of all, everybody should stand by his words, not just politicians, not just victorious politicians. If a politician goes back on his words, he risks losing votes at the next election. This is true whether that politician won a constituency at the previous election or not.

Secondly, even losing candidates, let alone those who did well enough to qualify for a Non-Constituency seat, would have voters who voted for them. It is absurdly reductionist to think that just because so-and-so won an election therefore he was the only one who received votes. Other candidates would have received votes too and stand to lose those votes the next time around should he be irresponsible.


2. They assumed that only legislators elected through a first-past-the-post system could be legitimate. Anyone who failed to win a constituency under this system could not possibly deserve a seat in Parliament. This was the basis for these MPs arguing against the inclusion of NCMPs.

The fact is, there are other electoral systems that produce entirely legitimate outcomes, beyond first-past-the post. Proportional representation (PR) is one, and the principle behind the NCMP scheme is not substantially different from PR, which is this: you prove you have a significant number of voters voting for you, you get into Parliament.

One also cannot but notice that by holding the first-past-the-post system in such awe, these PAP MPs never question the legitimacy of those who win by default (walkovers). Surely their legitimacy must be more suspect than NCMPs' who at least demonstrated that a sizeable minority of voters would actually, courageously vote for them.

3. The third error -- the worst, in my view -- was to ascribe moral fitness to electoral winners. Thus we saw Irene Ng suggesting that NCMPs might make "provocative comments and populist calls". Zaqy did likewise, implying that "elected" MPs were somehow more noble and responsible than those they defeated. The argument then flowered thus: since the losers are morally unfit, they do not deserve to be in Parliament.

It is a common weakness: victors ascribing moral superiority to themselves. It also happens to be one of the most off-putting facets of the PAP.

They should be careful. The winner at one election can lose at the next, and vice versa. It is as foolish to ascribe moral fitness on the basis of voting results as it is for airlines to claim that they will never suffer an accident. You don't know what will happen tomorrow.

Consider this: The PAP's Mah Bow Tan lost to opposition stalwart Chiam See Tong in Potong Pasir in 1984. Is Mah morally inferior to or more irresponsible than Chiam? Is Mah more prone, by Irene Ng's principle, to making provocative and populist comments?

Irene Ng should read more widely. She should look at elected MPs in other countries. She would be amazed to see many of them, from the ruling parties too, appealing to populist urges. Provocative statements and pandering to baser instincts is not the preserve of electoral losers. She might also want to look back at some of the things her own party's MPs have said over the years. Some have been racist. Notably in 2007, others have been homophobic, appealing to, and in the process fanning, prejudice.

* * * * *

Bad as these PAP MPs' arguments were, those that came out of Calvin Cheng (Nominated Member of Parliament) were worse!

In Part 1, I mentioned his attack on the NCMP scheme. Like the PAP MPs he too relied entirely on the belief that only those elected through a first-past-the-post system can be legitimate legislators. Second-place finishers have no place in the House, he said.

But what about himself, a nominated member? His justification for his own place in Parliament was:

Similarly, Mr Cheng added, since no one party represents purely workers' or business interests, it would be useful to have NMPs from chambers of commerce or the unions.

-- Straits Times, 27 April 2010, We're not
Nobody's MPs, say Nominated MPs

No doubt the first thing that would cross readers' minds is: But who elected you to represent these interests?

Functional constituencies

A case can be made for functional constituencies. Under such a scheme, instead of grouping voters by the geographic location of their homes, we could group them by the nature of their work or livelihood interests. There would be constituencies for teachers, for healthcare workers, for the retired elderly. Alternatively, we could group them by other attributes like ethnicity or language. Each person can only choose to belong to one constituency, and he may need to demonstrate his claim to belong to that group.

In the interest of fairness, large groups can send more representatives to parliament than smaller groups, proportionate to their size.

Elections would be conducted to elect Members of Parliament from these functional constituencies, and arguably you could get perfectly legitimate outcomes from such an arrangement. It sure beats having people like Calvin Cheng claiming, on the basis of being selected behind closed doors through an interview, to represent a functional group.

The problem with functional constituencies is that the details would be devilish. Where does one draw the lines? Should doctors, nurses and hospital cleaners all come under the same group? Where does one place freelance property agents? What about those who are semi-retired but still have a stake in the family business, are they retirees or are they businessmen? Is a National Serviceman in the same category as a professional Navy captain?

I think the wise answer is that it's best not to go anywhere near functional constituencies; there'd be no end of dispute.

Proportional representation can reflect functional interests

Proportional representation (PR) can potentially do the same thing: represent functional interests. Just take for example the idea that I have mentioned before, for Singapore to have 84 PR-elected MPs, joining 84 other MPS elected from single-member geographic constituencies.

Anybody, not just political parties, can stand for election under the PR scheme. All you have to do is to get 1/84th of the total votes cast, that's 1.19 percent.






Walkovers do not happen under a proportional representation system. One might therefore argue that it produces more legitimate results than a first-past-the-post system, especially one that has as many walkovers as Singapore's elections.


You could have an independent candidate who makes a name for himself speaking up for workers' rights, or another speaking up for the environment and how our economic strategies should be environmentally-sustainable. Yet another speaking up for gay equality. Or for the disabled. There are surely voters concerned with the same issues, but right now, they are diffused across all geographic constituencies.

Under PR, if they make up at least 1.19 percent and all cast their votes for the same candidate, then their preferred candidate will get into Parliament. Their interest will have a voice, a voice which the first-past-the-post system, with its geographic constituencies, almost always erases.

Businessmen could get together to put up and support "their" candidate, young people burdened by high tuition fees could do likewise.

If we really want Parliament to be broad-based, if we want all Singaporeans, whatever their identity or functional interests, to feel they have a stake in the system, if we want Parliament to have greater legitimacy, this is the way to go.

Yawning Bread 






Of course, religious extremists could also exploit proportional representation to send their bigots into Parliament, if they manage to persuade 1.19 percent to vote for their candidate.

This is no reason to fear proportional representation. Quite often, it is a good thing to hear them speak. They tend to self-destruct.

In any case, religious extremism cannot be fully dealt with by silencing them. We have to get to the root causes of extremism, through education.


  1. Although some PAP Members of Parliament spoke up against expanding the NCMP scheme, under the party whip they still had to vote for it.
    Return to where you left off.