From 2001: A commentary by the Roundtable on the 2001 GE

I was part of the Roundtable until it was disbanded in 2004. Given what has happened in this year’s parliamentary elections, I think it is useful to publish an article some of us from the Roundtable wrote and got published in the Straits Times on November 10th 2001.

Lack of competition will hurt PAP and nation

THE People’s Action Party (PAP) won a landslide victory last Saturday, securing 75.3 per cent of the vote – a level of support that it has not seen since 1980. Political analysts and commentators will no doubt continue to ponder over the factors leading to the overwhelming support for the party in the coming months.

But beyond the large victory margin for the PAP, this year’s General Election may well be remembered as the election which helped perpetuate two unhealthy trends.

The first is that elections in Singapore are fast becoming almost a non-event. With only 29 out of 84 seats up for grabs, only 33 per cent of the eligible voters actually got to cast their votes.

The second trend is the tendency for many MPs, especially the novices, to enter Parliament shielded by group representation constituencies (GRCs) – contested or uncontested – rather than face the proverbial electoral baptism of fire. It is almost as if they have been ushered into Parliament in privileged, red-carpet style, by merely flashing their PAP cards.

These two trends are closely related.

Elections are increasingly becoming non-events because they have become less and less competitive. Voter participation, the essence of democracy, has plunged as more and more constituencies go uncontested on Nomination Day.

In this year’s election, out of 25 PAP rookies, only seven experienced a contested election, and none in a single ward.

If this trend continues and worsens in the next election, it is conceivable that most ministers and senior PAP MPs will fall into this ‘red-carpet’ MP category in five to 10 years’ time. They will wield power without having the endorsement and legitimisation of their constituents.

What potential dangers do such ‘red-carpet’ ministers and MPs pose for the PAP and Singapore?

Firstly, these MPs may lack moral authority and the political mandate of the majority. Secondly, they may lack accountability because their constituents could not cast a vote, either for or against them. Thirdly, as politicians, these MPs are untested in electioneering and mass mobilisation. There is no opportunity for them to demonstrate their abilities to reach out to and connect with the ordinary folks.

The last point is clearly of concern to senior PAP leaders, including Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong and Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew.

That both PM Goh and SM Lee had to campaign heavily in Nee Soon East – a single-ward constituency perceived to be in a ‘dangerous zone’ for the PAP in the recent election – even though the incumbent MP has been there for 10 years (as part of Sembawang GRC) and holds the rank of a minister of state, seems to justify such a concern.

One wonders, too, if the scant opportunity to hone their political skills in domestic electoral contests may not affect our politicians’ effectiveness in steering the country through the treacherous waters of regional and international politics.

More importantly, will they have the political skills and rapport to mobilise the people when the chips are down?

The reasons for these trends are not difficult to discern.

With its overwhelming control in parliament, the PAP government has almost legislated the opposition into oblivion. In the space of 13 years, the electoral landscape of Singapore has been changed from one dominated by single-member wards to one dominated by super GRCs (with teams of up to six candidates).

The constant redrawing of electoral boundaries is seen by some Singaporeans to work against the opposition. Marginal wards like Anson, Cheng San and Eunos have been wiped off the political map. Election deposits have also been raised over the years; from $500 to $13,000. Six-member GRC teams would have to fork out $78,000 each, and that is not counting the cost of running an election campaign.

As the incumbent party with access to governmental resources, the PAP can wield a ‘carrot-and-stick’ approach to attract political support from a materialistic polity; the opposition cannot. A vote against the PAP would be tantamount to voting against one’s own material interests.

While the ruling party is not obliged to create a viable opposition, it is arguable whether it should have a carte blanche in creating hurdles that may deter citizens from offering themselves as non-PAP candidates for the election.

A good test here is whether the PAP will support all the measures above if it is currently in the opposition.

What can be done to address these problems?

Establish an independent elections commission: To counter the perception that redrawing of electoral boundaries often leads to results that favour the ruling party, the Constitution should be amended to institute an independent elections commission. This commission will ensure a more level playing field by ensuring that electoral boundaries are drawn on the basis of geographical and logical bases, rather than political expediency. Comprising civil servants, academia, civil society and other groups that are representative of cross-sections of the society, the commission will allow citizens to make representations.

Voter endorsement for uncontested candidates: To address the ‘credibility’ issue of red-carpet MPs, hold local ‘referenda’ for walkover candidates. On the ballot, only two options are given: Do you want this candidate or team of candidates to represent you in Parliament – yes or no? One can debate about the minimum ‘yes’ votes that the candidates must secure to enter Parliament, although to make the figure meaningful, it would have to be at least 25 per cent.

Alternatively, the Government may want to consider holding by-elections for walkover GRCs. A by-election can be an additional mechanism for the PAP to infuse new blood and also for its candidates to gain from a real contest with opposition parties. More importantly, by requiring every eligible Singaporean to cast his vote, in one form or another, it will help entrench his constitutional rights and duty as a citizen.

Smaller GRCs, and return to SMCs: Introduce smaller GRCs and more single-member constituencies (SMCs). In this election, all SMCs were contested. Smaller GRCs and SMCs are also more affordable for citizens to participate as candidates. The essence of democracy is citizen participation; GRCs should not keep ballooning in size and cost to the extent that citizens are deterred from participating in elections.

A longer campaign period: A 15-day campaign instead of nine days. The current nine-day limit is probably one of the shortest in democracies. If the PAP wants a more robust contest, it should give the opposition parties and electorate more time to debate national issues rather than to restrict it to the minimum legal requirement. The new Parliament may want to consider raising the minimum legal requirement for the campaigning period to 15 days.

Obviously cognisant of the problem of red-carpet MPs, the PM has suggested the creation of a ‘simulated’ opposition by forging a shadow Cabinet. In other countries, shadow Cabinets are formed exclusively by opposition parties to preserve pluralism and contestation as virtues unto themselves.

As others have pointed out (See ‘Building an effective shadow Cabinet’; ST, Nov 8), there are inherent limits when PAP MPs are asked to form a shadow Cabinet.

Firstly, they are peas from the same pod. Secondly, even if the party whip is lifted, how effective can a PAP shadow Cabinet be? Thirdly, any simulation remains only a simulation; it can never replace the real thing.

Intense competition is a hallmark of Singaporean life. Students are streamed, schools are subjected to rankings, local labour to foreign ‘talent’, and local businesses to the government-linked companies and multinational corporations.

Yet, the one institution that is not subject to any serious competition in Singapore is the PAP.

The absence of competition over time might well lead to a flabby party led by those who enjoyed walkovers and continue to stay in power by making the field even less level for a diminishing opposition.

Can this be in the interest of Singapore in the long run?

Exco Members,
The Roundtable

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