Changes to Parliamentary system: Don’t be lulled into the political “mind trap” set by the PAP

Written by Ng E-Jay
28 May 2009

Changes to the Parliamentary system were announced by PM Lee Hsien Loong on Wednesday. They include:

  1. Amending the Constitution to allow for up to nine Non-Constituency Members of Parliament (NCMPs);
  2. Amending the Parliamentary Elections Act to increase the stipulated minimum number of opposition MPs, including NCMPs, to nine;
  3. Amending the Parliamentary Elections Act to set a cap of 2 NCMPs to come from any one GRC, so as to spread out the NCMPs more evenly;
  4. Fine-tuning the NMP scheme to broaden representation of various interest groups;
  5. Fine-tuning the implementation of the GRC and SMC scheme to allow for fewer 6-member GRCs, and at least 12 SMCs up from the current 9.

According to PM Lee, the reason for the changes to the Parliamentary system was to “encourage a wider range of views in Parliament, including opposition and non-Government views“, because Singapore faces more complex policy choices and Singaporeans want national issues to be more fully debated.

On the surface, it would seem that these changes would allow more non-PAP voices to be heard and increase the diversity of views in Parliament. In reality, these changes are merely cosmetic and do not level the playing field for the opposition by giving them a fair chance of entering Parliament as a full-fledged MP via an electoral victory. They would increase the number of alternative voices heard in Parliament, to be sure, but they will not give more power to the opposition if the people do not take the initiative to vote them into office with an electoral majority.

Repressive laws remain in place to curtail free speech, restrict freedom of assembly, ensure that vociferous parties do not get a fair hearing in the mainstream, and ensure that only an “approved” chorus of voices gain publicity and legitimacy. To me this is hardly liberalization, but selective repression under the guise of liberalization.

My take is that this latest move is an adaptation by the ruling party to accommodate the inevitable desire of the electorate for greater parliamentary representation by alternative parties, as well as the semblance of checks and balances. However, true power is not given as the NCMPs have not as much voting rights as full MPs. Also, with the electoral system still flawed and manipulated, the playing field is still drastically uneven for the opposition.

All these token changes announced in Parliament do little to alter the status quo. They merely provide a safe outlet for the opposition to air their views without disrupting the PAP’s power base.

PM Lee said that the parliamentary changes were framed so as to expose PAP MPs to the cut and thrust of the debate, improve policy formulation, and demonstrate what the opposition can and cannot do. I find this last phrase (in bold) most revealing as to what PM Lee’s true intentions are in tabling these political changes.

In his Parliamentary speech, PM Lee said: “Opposition MPs and NCMPs will surely want to score points too, but must understand that while they may be in the opposition, they must uphold the political system and our institutions and their loyalty must be to Singapore.

In other words, PM Lee expects the opposition to continue to operate within the boundaries set by the PAP and avoid challenging the system even if they think the system could be wrong. PM Lee does not want the opposition to be effective. He only wants the opposition to speak up on issues that do not threaten the PAP’s grip on power.

Aspiring opposition candidates should not be lulled into complacency

My greatest fear now is that aspiring opposition candidates might be tempted into complacency, thinking that the PAP has given them an easy route into Parliament. Perhaps the PAP wants the opposition to start taking short cuts and miss out on the larger picture. If the opposition gets fooled into doing so, they would be playing straight into the PAP’s hands.

It would be sad if opposition candidates missed the forest for the trees. I urge all aspiring candidates not to lose sight of the large issues facing our nation and recognize the fact that true democracy has not been restored to Singapore.

Voters too should recognize that the PAP has set a political mind trap for them. From now on, expect the PAP to play up the propaganda that there is no great necessity to vote opposition into office because there will always be nine NCMP positions reserved for them in Parliament. I urge voters to recognize this diversion created by the PAP and remember that only when the opposition has full voting rights in Parliament and actually represent a physical constituency can they be most effective in campaigning for change.

First Past the Post good, Proportionate Representation bad

PM Lee asserted that despite all these refinements, the First Past the Post political system will be retained, as he thinks that this produces decisive majorities. In contrast, PM Lee lamented that the principle of Proportionate Representation (PR) implemented in other countries like Israel tends to produce weak coalition governments that are unduly controlled by small extremist parties wielding a disproportionate influence.

I find PM Lee’s dismissal of a coalition government to be disingenuous, as it is a perfectly legitimate outcome of democracy. His insistence that a decisive majority should always be obtained by one party is equally disingenuous and indicative of his lack of regard for democratic principles.

In any political system, whether one based on Proportionate Representation or one based on a First Past the Post principle, the necessary ingredients are always adequate checks and balances and effective separation of powers between the judiciary, legislature and Executive. In his speech, PM Lee paid no consideration at all to these fundamental tenets of a true functioning democracy.


Despite the promise of more political space and more representation of alternative views in Parliament, the key obstacles preventing Singapore from becoming a full-fledged democracy remain unaddressed by the ruling party, whose only interest seems to be maintain its grip on power by undemocratic means if need be.

The drawbacks of the GRC system have been repeatedly highlighted by all opposition parties, perhaps most vociferously by the SDP. Other than a token promise to reduce the average size of GRCs, there is no indicate the PAP will budge on the GRC issue anytime in the future.

The GRC system is not just a flawed system that makes the barriers to entry unreasonably high for aspiring opposition candidates. It is in fact an unlevel playing field designed to deny the opposition a fair fight during the hustings.

The Elections Department is still under the purview of the Prime Minister’s Office and conducts its business largely away from public scrutiny. The Electoral Boundaries Review Committee also redraws boundaries and submits its report to the cabinet for approval without any public or parliamentary consultation. Clearly, there is a distinct lack of transparency and accountability in the whole electoral process.

As long as elections in Singapore are neither free nor fair, all this talk about liberalizing our political space and changing the political system to allow for more diverse views to be heard in Parliament is just a great show and pretense that would eventually amount to nothing more than further entrenching PAP’s dominance and political hegemony.

I urge everyone, especially aspiring opposition candidates, not to be fooled by this chicanery.

8 comments on Changes to Parliamentary system: Don’t be lulled into the political “mind trap” set by the PAP

  1. It is doubtful what the changes to the Parliamentary system will achieve, but its clearly intended to lessen the impact of a backleash at the polls in the next GE.

  2. While the article holds some truth, it is not advisable to dismiss every attempt by the ruling party to change as “no different”. What this article did was like what the PAP was fond of doing–dismissing every view of the oppositions as “unconstructive” and “mindless fault finding” no matter how well intended the views are. Call it a “trap” if you want, but a little change is better than no change at all.

    Also, don’t expect them to remove the GRC concept as this is their mainly guarantee of absolute power in parliament. But I believe they have come to realise that the voters are not really so stupid as to believe what they and the boot-licking journalists always maintain—that the GRC is to ensure the minority race also get voted.

    The recent outburst, threats and physical attacks on MPs also made them realise that the GRC has produced MPs who virtually walked into parliament with ease very often lacked the empathy with ordinary residents no matter how friendly they try to portray themselves on front of the media. This was even more clearly apparent with the SSTA president’s way of handling the Liu Guo Dong affair.

    The only way for them to abolish the GRC concept is for US, the voters, to vote in GRC oppostion party! This will definitely send shivers down the ruling party. But are the voters daring enough? Please don’t keep parroting what the PAP always says, that there are no credible oppositions that’s why the PAP always wins..

    Bullshit! Only when oppositions are voted in then we can see whether they are credible or not!

  3. Rome is not built in one day.

    For the opposition to make significant inroads into Parliament in the form of contesting either a GRC/SMC and defeating the PAP incumbent is not possible in the future what with the unlevel playing field you’ve outlined.

    However, the concession of enabling a larger so-called ‘non-PAP’ presence in Parliament is a good start as discourse and debate will potentially flourish and not be drowned out by the PAP majority.

    PAP has been institutionalised in the Singaporean voter’s psyche since time immemorial and it takes a while to wean the latter off the “PAP is good for Singapore” mindset.

    The proposed changes hopefully will open up (especially apathetic) S’poreans’ eyes that the alternative can be equally credible should they lose their faith in the PAP.

  4. I have been reading your blog for some months, and take some issue with your assertion that proportional representation would be a good thing for Singapore.

    I should start off by saying that I am a fan of the PR system as it does raise the likelihood of multiple voices being heard within the parliament, but I feel there needs to be some limits on its use. What can emerge is a fragile multi-party system that involves unstable coalitions between parties that can quickly fall apart.

    I am an Australian, and as you may be aware, our federal parliament has a mix of proportional representation and preferential voting.

    The House of Representatives is elected using single member electorates that operate using an instant-runoff voting system (whereby voters rank their choices of candidates on the ballot, and they are counted by first grouping adding up the number 1s. If a candidate does not get at least 50%+1 vote through first preferences, the candidate with the least 1s is eliminated and their number 2s are given their votes. This repeats until one candidate gains 50%+1, or in other words, a majority of votes. Some find this a rather odd method of electing a candidate, as it may be that one who got the most first preference votes actually ends up losing, but it effectively prevents vote-splitting. If there exists an election where there are two conservative parties and one liberal party, and the electorate is 60% conservative and 40% liberal, what may happen is that the two conservative parties get 30% each of the primary vote, leaving the liberal party with 40% and, under a first-past-the-post system, victory. This is regardless of the fact that the majority of voters actually voted AGAINST that party. Using IRV, the conservative voters would have preferenced the other conservative party ahead of the liberal party and one of them would have been elected, consistent with the wants of the electoral majority.

    Our federal upper house, the Senate, uses a proportional representation-single transferrable vote system where each state has 12 Senators and elects 6 of them at each election.

    What we see in Australia as a result is the House of Representatives being dominated by the two major parties, Labor and Liberal (something of a misnomer, as it is regarded as the more conservative of the two), while the Senate tends to have several members from minor parties (The Australian Greens, Family First, The Australian Democrats – before they imploded, anyway) as well as independents. It is rare for any party to hold absolute majority in the Senate (The Liberal Party did during Howard’s final term as PM, giving them a dual-house majority).

    The reason I favour the Australian system (other than patriotic bias) is that the constitution prohibits the Senate from appropriating funds, giving this role to the lower house. The Senate can amend or block any bill, but can only introduce non-money bills. This has created convention for the executive to be formed predominately from the House of Representatives. Some Ministers sit in the Senate, but the Prime Minister has always been a member of the lower house. Because the lower house is mainly two-party, with little minor party or independent representation, I feel this lends to a more stable government. If the government wishes to pass a bill, it must do so with the blessings of the Senate, and thus must consult with members outside of its party, but for day-to-day executive operations there is little threat of a coalition falling apart at a moment’s notice.

    Effectively, we get the best of both worlds. A stable government provided by the single member electorate IRV system in use for the lower house, and the introduction of multiple voices into the legislative process provided by the use of PR in the Senate. Granted, we’re not perfect. I feel the Australian Senate requires more executive oversight committees to allow minor parties to more closely watch the government, but for the most part I think it provides a solid political system.

    If Singapore were to actually reform, this is the approach I would like to see employed. Abolish the GRCs and have SMCs with instant-runoff voting. Then create an upper house (with full legislative powers apart from money appropriation – to prevent it from trying to govern) that uses PR. I’d probably advocate say 6 upper house districts with 8 members each (with all 8 being elected together) with equal numbers of voters. You would then have the Australian Senate voting system where there are many (sometimes over 50) candidates, and voters can either rank them all, or simply pick a party who will then do the preferencing for them (see – we call it above or below the line voting – I’m a below, but I’m a vast minority). The party preference lists would be presubmitted to the electoral authority. If racial minority represenation is a concern, then the electoral code could specify that any party preference list must have a minority as at least the number two candidate. This would afford them a pretty high chance of being elected.

    Granted, what I propose requires creating an entire new house. In lieu of that, introducing PR into the existing house could work. That said, I find it a bit risky.

    Nonetheless, I think the changes proposed by the PAP are laughable, and reflect its opposition to real change. 66% of the vote should not get you 97% of the seats. The changes proposed don’t do anything to address that fundamental flaw.

  5. I think the Prime Minister must be quite sly not to even employ a PR based system. He argues against it as he regards that this will produce an unstable governments, and this involves ONLY MENTIONING Israel, which is pretty much a country with many diverse parties. But hear this: Israel may have its “weak” coalition governments BUT the country still functions. The Army still does a job, the Civil Service does its bit, the only real instability that exists comes from the terror bombings by militants, which even under a single party majority Israeli government could probably not prevent either. And oh, he forgot to mention that most Israeli parties are headed by those who have real leadership (ie, battlefield skills) which he obvously does not have. Referring to his speech, he mentioned the “racial, religious society in an dynamic, unpredictable environment.” Well, maybe Israel should move back to Plurality voting tomorrow.

    Secondly, so many countries use the PR system. Spain, for example, has a national 2 party system (no coalitions involved). How does that explain his “diverse, fragmented, unstable polity?” Or Netherlands, with Catholic and Protestant cleavages, but their entire country uses PR? The last time i checked, the Dutch are still doing well: low unemployment, ease of religious tensions, lack of Political Instability. Even if you want to maintain a stable political system using PR and keeping out dangerous individuals, thresholds can be implemented; after all, this is what Germany does to keep many far-right parties out of Parliament with a high threshold that none of these divisive parties can even get past. I don’t even need to say that NOT ALL PR systems produce unstable coalitions. It really depends on the country, the parties, society, its history and how they want to work together. CDU and SPD works in a “Grand Coalition” in Germany today, putting their differences aside, even if they are at odds in terms of policies. This is the sort of politics we should try to encourage. Or Scandinavia, even. Governments there don’t collaspe every year. Japan uses PR, and the LDP remains dominant: how does this explain things?

    The PM also mentions that PR would encourage political parties to form based on race or religion. I am sorry, look up north to Malaysia. UMNO, MCA, MIC, PAS so how are they formed? Does Malaysia use a PR system? Flawed argument. UK Christian Party? How did that come about? Religious or Racial Parties form if there’s support for them, if the rules are relaxed. In Singapore’s apathetic state of politics, people aren’t going to form racial parties; they probably wouldn’t even care too much about race issues!

    To sum it up, E-Jay, you are right. The PAP intends on being dominant, and doesn’t want to learn how to cooperate. This is the real danger of the Westminster, FPTP system: Winners take all, Losers stay out of my face. No cooperation needed, and coopeation is what PR systems are based upon. Even the UK is considering moving to PR. This is how the PAP wants the system to be and i pray it will end up bringing them down. In all, the PM’s argument is very weak, and cannot be taken seriously.

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