Saturday, February 9, 2013

When voters have conflicting desires...

Feb 09, 2013


Many want to have more opposition MPs but not a change in government

By Elgin Toh

MATHEMATICALLY, it was difficult to argue that the People's Action Party's (PAP) rule was under serious threat. But for many, an emotional threshold seemed to have been crossed.

In the aftermath of the Workers' Party's (WP) decisive win in the Punggol East by-election, many Singaporeans instinctively rejected the idea that the one-seat swing was nothing more than, well, a one-seat swing.

Maybe it had to do with the fact that the WP looked to be on a roll and the mighty PAP was on an unprecedented losing streak.

Nonetheless, I was fascinated by rumination over the larger significance for the country of what can only be described as the slightest of alterations to parliamentary balance - from 81-6 to 80-7.

Former foreign minister George Yeo wrote on Facebook: "Whither Singapore?" A Straits Times Forum writer defended the one-party system.

And my colleague Leslie Koh wrote about the question that came to his mind after hearing the result: "Would I see the PAP lose power in my lifetime?"

Whether or not these were overreactions, my conversations with others confirmed that they were fairly commonplace.

These didn't just come from political conservatives or PAP supporters. Some people who showed signs of anxiety were also highly critical of many government policies. And some would have cheered when the Punggol East result was announced, only to grow a little more circumspect later on.

At a time when Singapore is entering uncharted political waters, the fear of the age-old bogeyman - the "freak" election result - seems to be making a comeback.

The difference this time: It looks more bottom-up.

In the past, PAP leaders were the ones issuing warnings on how all of Singapore's progress could dissipate in one term if, in a moment of collective foolishness, voters elected a non-PAP government.

This time, if anything, PAP leaders have played down the result's significance, attributing it to the by-election effect.

WP chief Low Thia Khiang also quickly assured the country that the election had little bearing on the general election to be held by 2016. The WP, he stressed, was not ready to form an alternative government.

The country is moving into an awkward phase in its political development. In time, it will pass and the angst associated with it be replaced by a greater sense of certainty. But as we live through the phase, we cannot avoid its distresses.

In an earlier phase, Singaporeans wanted a PAP government and were prepared to live with a very weak opposition. That was a straightforward time. Most voted for the PAP, period.

In a later phase, Singaporeans may well want a strong check on the government, and may even be able to imagine that check growing so strong that it becomes the government. Political talent might be more evenly spread out by then, making government change less unthinkable.

That would also be a straightforward time. Voters would elect the party whose vision they agree with.

But in this current, somewhat conflicted middle phase, many voters want a strong check - but not too strong, please. They want more opposition MPs but almost no one can imagine a change in government. That is why a change in government in this phase is called a "freak" result: It would be - oddly enough for a democracy - unreflective of voter desire.

To make matters worse, Singapore as a polity is prone to swings, heightening the dangers associated with this phase.

When Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said at a forum last week that every seat in Singapore was a swing seat, he was not scare-mongering. He had the weight of political science on his side.

Singapore is a small city. Its citizens' concerns are fairly homogenous. There is no urban-rural divide among the constituencies. Thanks to housing policy, there is no racial divide. The income divide has been greatly reduced by the pooling effect of group representation constituencies.

That means if voters change their minds about something, there is a good chance they could all change their minds at the same time.

I am of the view that the Westminster system is ill-suited to this present phase. When voters have two conflicting desires - one for more opposition MPs, and another for no change in government - a single vote is inadequate to express them.

Let's be clear: Both desires are legitimate. So what, then, am I proposing? Each voter should get two votes. One vote is for the local MP, who represents that ward in Parliament. The second vote is a first-past-the-post election to decide the government.

On Nomination Day, parties running for national government have to name another list of candidates. The number of candidates on the list is all local wards plus one. (Currently, that is 88.)

The party that wins the national government vote gets additional seats from their list up to the point where: (1) they have a parliamentary majority, or (2) their parliamentary share reflects their vote share in the national government vote - whichever is higher.

In an extreme situation where the party that wins the government vote loses all local wards, all 88 list-candidates are admitted, resulting in a one-seat majority.

Like a presidential system, the legislative and the executive elections are separate. But unlike a presidential system, the potential for gridlock between executive and legislature is avoided by giving the executive a majority.

But the main advantage of this system is that true voter desire is far more likely to prevail. If we do change government, it would not be by accident. It has to, by definition, be a clear decision taken on the basis of one up-or-down vote.

In a democracy, voting is the primary way in which citizens are heard. It is therefore incumbent on us to find an electoral arrangement that allows these voices to be projected - even if they are multifarious and dissonant.

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