Singapore – A Guided Democracy

March 30, 2002
Singapore Democrats

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Singapore Elections 2001

Reporting for the Alliance for Reform and Democracy in Asia

On 3 November 2001 the Singapore Government, controlled by the People’s Action Party (PAP), was returned to office. In effect, however, the government had been returned on 23 October, the day of nomination. Of the 84 seats for election 55 were filled by PAP members as they were the only nominees. 29 remaining seats were contested, 27 being won by the PAP and two by opposition parties.

To use the Sunday Times headline the opposition were “well and truly trounced” with the biggest margin of victory for the PAP (75.3 %) since 1980. Nonetheless, in a so called democracy how is it possible that one party could win 82 of the 84 seats and have absolute power with only three quarters of the vote? By comparison, one week later on 10 November the current Australian Government, led by the Liberal Party, was also returned to power with a lead in the lower house, the house of government, of 82 to 65. However, once again they are a minority in the Senate where the balance of power is held by smaller parties elected through the method of proportional representation. In these circumstances to achieve the passage of any legislation requires successful negotiation between the government and the opposition parties.

The Singaporean system of government relies on a unicameral parliament where, unless there are constitutional constraints or the balance of power is held by a third party or parties, it may govern freely. There are several factors limiting the emergence of a more balanced, and perhaps more democratic, political structure in Singapore.

Control of Electoral Processes

Appointments

The first is a structural problem brought about or continued by the PAP government. Specifically, this is the control by the government of the electoral processes including the appointment of the Registration Officer, the determination of the number and arrangement of electorates, the appointment of the Returning Officer and the latent control of the press.

Section 3 of the Parliamentary Elections Act allows the relevant Minister to appoint a Registration Officer and a Returning Officer. The Act also allows these appointments to be revoked by the Minister. It is highly inappropriate to have positions of such importance as held by these officers subject to the demands of a minister standing for election. Positions of this kind should be statutory in nature and set for a fixed term. Alternatively, there could be one senior official installed as a commissioner who would have statutory protection and a lengthy fixed term appointment.

Electoral Boundaries

The ability to manipulate constituent boundaries is quite unfettered and evident in the creation of Group Representative Constituencies (GRC) for the 1988 elections.1 This process grouped most single member constituencies into 11 GRCs with either 5 or 6 members. Two or three single seats are available in each constituency. Nine single seat constituencies remain. As voting is first past the post, or winner take all, rather than proportional representation, the opportunity for individual candidates to win, or even for candidates sponsored by small parties, is heavily reduced.

Indeed, from 1988 to 1997 the ratio of votes received by the PAP government to the number of seats they won declined at each of the successive elections after the introduction of the GRC. That is, although the number of seats won by the PAP increased at each election its percentage of votes won successively decreased. A significant gain, however, was recorded in the 2001 election. See attached chart.

Timing the Election

Unlike the United States and other nations where a fixed term period of office exists Singapore, and other countries with a similar British legacy, has a maximum period of office during which an election may be called by the Prime Minister or by any other parliamentary group which has the numbers to force the situation. Although the PAP government has dominated Singapore politics since 1959 it is still very intent on controlling all aspects of the electoral cycle.

The recent election exemplifies the PAP’s hard nosed attitude to electioneering. The announcement of the boundaries and seats was made on 24 October 2001, one day before the elections were announced on 25 Oct and 17 days before polling was held on 3 November.

Authoritarianism

The capacity of any government to rule is influenced to a high degree by its ability to carry out and implement legislation. In a unicameral parliament it can result in authoritarianism. An example in Australia would be that of the parliament in the State of Queensland. Through the nineteen sixties, seventies and eighties this parliament was dominated by an authoritarian and ultimately, in part, corrupt government.

Given that it is an independent nation the control of parliament and the governance of the nation by the PAP in Singapore is far more extensive than that in Queensland which is only one state in a larger federation. This is not to suggest that the Singapore Government, or the PAP, is corrupt. However, with few limits on its power and having ultimate control of the local media the inevitability of any long term government becoming authoritarian, or even totalitarian, seems axiomatic.

Australia is regarded by some as having the second most forbidding defamation laws in the world. They appear to be rarely used at the parliamentary level, however. This is not the case in Singapore where there is a long list of legal action taken by the government against political adversaries. These legal actions may reflect a cultural phenomenon where formality, or structured debate, is seen as the appropriate way to challenge

Singaporean leaders rather than public accusations. Alternatively, they may reflect bloodymindedness for as Senior Minister Lee puts it, “This is hardball politics. But at the end of it all there is deep idealism to create a fair and just society, that’s why we did what we did to get here. Where else is there a society in South-east Asia or in East Asia where 94 per cent of the people own their own homes? That’s a substantial asset. Have CFF accounts, have bank accounts, own shares. But we need hardball politics to win elections and then run our programmes.” 2

Presumably, this is why the Prime Minister took legal action, alleging libel, against a prominent opposition leader, Dr Chee, during the course of the 2001-election campaign. However, although this would have had an unsettling effect on Chee and his supporters during the run up to the election Chee subsequently counter attacked by taking legal action against the Prime Minister.

Population Distribution

The distribution of ethnic groups appears to be an important consideration for electoral boundaries. The population distribution is done through the Housing Development Board (HDB) which builds and sells flats to the people. 86% of Singaporeans live in these state owned flats. The HDB stipulates that only a certain percentage of each ethnic minority group (not more than the national percentage, that is, approximately 25% for Malays, 5% for Indians and 1% for Eurasians) can live in a particular housing estate. Buyers and sellers of the flats must seek permission from the HDB before a transaction can be made.

This population distribution presumably provides ethnic minorities with better opportunities for housing and municipal facilities. However, it makes it possible for political hegemony to remain firmly in the hands of ethnic Chinese notwithstanding that the Malay and Indian minorities are represented in parliament. On the other hand it also makes it impossible for the Malays, for example, to form a strong political block in their own right.

Electoral Persuasion or Buying the Vote

There are other factors which influence the Singapore government’s ability to maintain electoral control. As described in The Straits Times they might be described as flagrant vote buying or manipulation:

Delivering on the Promise

“When you see your precinct being upgraded, you will know straight away your precinct has given the support.”

“Mr Sitoh Yih Pin, promising to reveal by Christmas the upgrading plans for opposition-held Potong Pasir, where the PAP had made an election promise to upgrade those precincts that favoured the ruling party.”3

They handed him a victory, but at a smaller margin because they want to see their flats upgraded, as the PM promised, says WP chief.

“Before polling day, the Prime Minister had asked voters to cut overall support for the WP in Hougang from 58 to 52 per cent,”

“Mr Goh Chok Tong had said that if 45% of the voters in any Hougang precinct voted for the PAP, he would consider that precinct for upgrading.” 4

New Singapore Shares

In the month before the announcement of the election by the Prime Minister the government distributed New Singapore Shares to about 2.1 million Singaporeans aged 21 and above.5 These shares worth hundreds of dollars were available to all citizens aged 21 and above on 30 September 2001, just before the announcement of the election. “More than 130,000 Singaporeans have cashed out part of their New Singapore Shares (NSS) putting about $75 million into their pocket.”6 SDA chief and incumbent parliamentarian Chiam See Tong “criticized the PAP for wooing voters with material incentives, such as Housing Board upgrading and New Singapore Shares. Singaporeans who had cashed in their shares should not feel compelled to vote for the PAP, he said, as they were only having their own money returned to them.” 7

The Place of the Media

The Government’s attitude to or control of the media is seen as another impediment to achieving a balanced political structure. It has been accused of improperly taking control of The Straits Times after gaining control of the government in 1959, driving the Malay-language publication Utusan Melayu out of the country in 1969, the effective closing of the Nanyang Siang Pau in 1983, the closing of the Eastern Sun in 1971, the closure of the Singapore Herald in 1972 and the effective seizure of Singapore Press Holdings in the early 1980s. In addition, it is accused of owning, and presumably controlling, the only local radio and television networks in Singapore.8 If any of the above claims are true the extent to which the PAP government can assert it is a true democracy is reduced.

The Opposition

It is ironic that a government, which has absolute power, is considering the establishment of a review group consisting of its own junior parliamentarians. Why? The Prime Minister acknowledges that there is no alternative reference group or opposition in parliament to adequately debate its political agenda. He wants to choose MPs “who, in fact want to be on the other side”. Of this group, a potential in-house de facto shadow cabinet, he said “Their hearts are with us but, intellectually, they may not be with us. That’s good”.9

In a somewhat related move Deputy PM Lee Hsien Loong hopes the opposition’s “best loser” on Saturday, Mr Steve Chia, will take on the role of Non-Constituency Member of Parliament. “With only two opposition candidates returned, one non-constituency seat is available to the loser who performed best – and that is Mr Chia.” 10

The attitudes described above say something about the opposition parties. That is, they are held in contempt by the government, and perhaps with little esteem by most voters, as they are unable to provide any effective opposition.

Is Reform Necessary – Is it Possible?

“How can a PAP government returned after such an election result lack moral authority and political mandate?”11 was the question asked by Mr Ong Keng Yong, the Prime Minister’s press secretary, in a letter to the The Straits Times Forum following the election.

As for the political mandate it is clear that the PAP government had a walkover victory in the 2001 general election. In particular, the 75.4 percentage of votes won by the government was the highest since the 1980 election. However, the moral authority desired by the government is more elusive. That is, if the opposition parties had won seats proportionate to the votes they received in 2001 they would have around 21 parliamentary representatives rather than two!

Clearly, as shown earlier in this paper, the PAP government is adept at framing the law to optimize the possibility of electoral success. The concept of GRC voting where winner takes all is a very powerful tool for excluding minor parties. One possibility, and perhaps the most important for reform, therefore, is to legislate for a more egalitarian system of determining members of parliament such as proportional representation. In brief, this system enables parties, who win a certain proportion of the vote, to gain seats roughly equivalent to the proportion of votes won by the parties. The current GRC system would accommodate proportional voting and although such a system would hardly challenge the PAP it would make the system of government more democratic and possibly more accessible than the present one.

Another appropriate reform would be to establish an Electoral Commission which would oversee the mechanics of election processes, determine electoral boundaries subject to law and undertake other related matters. The members of this Commission would be appointed for a fixed period (possibly five to ten years) and would be subject to law, not the Executive.

However, under the current circumstances it is unlikely that change would be initiated by government. Clearly, the constraints of law would need to change and at the moment this is unlikely to happen internally because of the government’s dominant position. It is also unlikely that change, at least in the near future, would be influenced by the political attitudes of other South East Asian states or, indeed, any in the western world.

The ineffectiveness of the disparate opposition parties suggests that to be successful in the future they will have to abandon the strategies of the past characterized by the fragmentation of political effort and, in some cases, tilting at windmills. To be effective the various political parties and allied groups would need to coalesce and form a political movement which would have some depth and breadth nation wide. Such a movement might be based on an existing one such as, for example, the most consistently successful opposition party, a union or other movement, or created ab initio. Naturally, to achieve this would require that most difficult of things, the subordination of political egos by the various small political entities operating in Singapore.

Any new political movement must be prepared to contest all, or nearly all, seats if it is to have any worthwhile identity. It must also be prepared to find sources of funding that will finance such an ambitious approach. Contrary to what some might think, a political party with national coverage and identity is more likely to be seen as a real political force and able to source adequate funding than a party competing for one or two seats.

General Election Results: 1959 to 2001

Year Seats Contested Seats Parties Party in Power Seats Won % of Vote Rounded
1959 51 51 10 PAP 43 54
1963 51 51 8 PAP 37 47
1968 58 7 2 PAP 58 87
1972 65 57 6 PAP 65 70
1976 69 53 7 PAP 69 74
1980 75 38 8 PAP 75 78
1984 79 49 9 PAP 77 65
1988 81 70 8 PAP 80 63
1991 81 40 6 PAP 77 61
1997 83 36 6 PAP 81 65
2001 84 29 6 PAP 82 75

Adapted from ELECTIONS IN SINGAPORE,

2000 Open Singapore Centre

Notes:

The Straits Times abbreviated as TST

Parliamentary Elections Act as PEA

1Parliamentary Elections Act s8A

2The Straits Times 2 Nov 2001

3ibid 5 Nov 2001

4ibid 3 Nov 2001

5ibid

6ibid

7ibid

8Elections in Singapore – Open Singapore Centre 2000

9The Straits Times 3 Nov

10ibid 5 Nov

11ibid 22 Nov