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GRC system: Wool over eyes (Part 6 of 6)

In Part 5 of a series of articles on the GRC system, Rajiv Chaudhry refutes the justifications the Government has given for the need for GRCs. In this final installment, he calls for a return to the SMC system as a step to bring about true democracy

Part 6: We don't need the wool

Why was there a need to make changes to the political system two years ago, when the system was working so well in favour of the ruling party?

We must assume that political parties, like people, do not give up positions of strength (the high ground, in military terms) voluntarily. So, if they appear to be doing so, we must look for the real reasons elsewhere.

The government says large GRCs make it difficult for voters to identify with the whole GRC or the whole team of MPs. This is stating the obvious. The only surprise is that it's taken the government so long to acknowledge it. This argument, when carried to its logical conclusion, leads us to SMCs. Small SMCs of about 10,000 voters each are the ideal constituencies for voter-representative bonding to take place, not GRCs with an arbitrary number of members and certainly not GRCs with a token reduction in the average number of members in each from 5.4 to 5 as has been proposed for the 2011 GE.

As the Prime Minister (PM) himself said in Parliament in May 2009 when justifying the reduction in sizes of the GRCs “Each MP has to look after his own ward, hence (it is) not easy for him or her to get to know voters in all the other wards (in a GRC)”.

There are two other unspoken causes, not enunciated by the PM in his speech:

  • without adequate opposition in parliament, dissenting voices and movements tend to crop up and congregate elsewhere eg in cyber-space or worse, underground and
  • possibly, just possibly, there is tacit acknowledgement that Singapore lacks good governance capability outside the ruling party and that this is not healthy for the country in the long term.
  • If this is true, then it could be belated recognition that a point has been reached where more long-term harm might be done by keeping opposition members out of parliament than by letting them in. A charitable view is that the moves at loosening the political reins, albeit only a little, were a genuine effort by the government (without, of course, jeopardising its own position) to allow the opposition to build “capacity”.

It is, no doubt, in recognition of these shortcomings that the changes to the political system were made. In the opinion of this writer, however, they fall short of true reform and are little more than pulling the wool over the eyes of the electorate. The government has opted for gradualism, rather than radical surgery.

True and far reaching change, benefiting all the people, can only come about with a complete  overhaul of the electoral process. This requires original thinking, a great deal of boldness and nerves of steel.

To bring about true democracy, in keeping with Singapore's status as a near-developed country, the following changes, at a minimum, must be instituted:

  • revert to a 100% SMC system, with one representative per constituency
  • maintain small SMC sizes of about 10,000 – 15,000 voters in each
  • form a truly independent Electoral Commission, to be appointed by an act of parliament and operating independently of the executive branch of government
  • reduce electoral deposits, allow reasonable campaigning periods and
  • enshrine the principle of proportional representation for minorities in the constitution

Before concluding, let me touch upon two other aspects that have a bearing upon the election system in Singapore:

Proportional representation

A number of commentators, including Alex Au of Yawning Bread, have long suggested the whole-sale adoption of Proportional Representation (PR) in Singapore to replace the current first-past-the-post (FPTP) system. PR forms of government have many advantages and more accurately reflect the voting pattern and preferences of the electorate, although they do pre-suppose a mature and politically aware population. Many European countries and mature democracies use PR forms of government and appear to be none the worse for wear. A full discussion of PR is beyond the scope of this article. Suffice it to say that that PR forms of government allow for many shades of opinion to be represented in Parliament and arguably for better and fairer decision making to emerge. In the 2006 GE, for example, on the basis of votes cast in the contested wards, the opposition parties would have secured one-third of the seats in the House or 28 seats, instead of the 2 that they managed to get under the FPTP system.

Singapore would benefit with a full discussion of the subject

Compulsory voting

The principle of compulsory voting is one that does not appear to have received any attention in the media here, on or off-line. Voting is compulsory in Singapore and forms a cornerstone of Singapore's electoral system. It therefore, bears closer examination.

The principle behind compulsory voting is that it is the duty of every citizen to participate in the electoral process. Compulsory voting systems are said to throw up the electorate's preferences more accurately. If that be the case, the corollary must be that citizens must vote in every instance, even when there is no contest. In such instances, they must have the right to cast a “negative vote” or to tick a box saying “none of the above”. The government cannot expect to have its cake and eat it too: if voting is compulsory, then it follows that it must allow every voter to have his or her say, even in uncontested wards, and submit to the collective will when the result is known.

The alternative is to make voting optional. Compulsory voting is practiced in only some 32 countries of which only a dozen enforce it. Singapore is, therefore, in a minority of countries in having compulsory voting.

The main argument against optional voting is that many in the electorate do not get to have a say and that small, narrow interest groups can sway the final outcome. There is, however, no evidence to suggest that making voting compulsory helps to reduce voter “apathy” or that it leads to the average voter taking the time to understand the issues better and that therefore, they somehow become more “politically aware”.

On the contrary, there is evidence from the experience of countries like India where voting is not compulsory and a large proportion of the population is uneducated or semi-literate, that when there are bread-and-butter issues or even complex issues, such as when emergency rule was imposed by Indira Gandhi in 1975, voters respond by turning out in greater numbers. The key point is that voters, even in supposedly apathetic societies such as ours, know when there are issues that affect them. It is doubtful that compulsory voting can produce better outcomes. In any case, with over a million people shut out of the electoral process here in the past three elections (see Part 1), the purpose of compulsory voting is rather defeated.

In the opinion of this writer, voting is an act of conscience and to require citizens to vote in every instance, when they might not wish to do so, is a violation of their fundamental rights.

Forcing citizens to vote leads to situations where some “spoil” their votes in frustration. TOC's on-line fora has seen a lot of discussion on this subject in recent days. To apply first principles, voting is the exercise of one's choice and if that choice is not to vote for, or affirm, any of the candidates offering themselves for election, then it follows, in this writer's view, that that decision must be respected. Not to vote is a fundamental right. That is the way democracy works.

True democracy might be messy, noisy and, in some ways, perhaps less efficient than the current system. However, in the immortal words of Sir Winston Churchill “democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others that have been tried.”

It is a system that gives voice to every shade of opinion, where each is fairly debated and decisions that are seen to be fair taken. It ensures an orderly transition of government after each election. And, above all, it ensures that each individual's rights are valued, respected and protected.

In Freedom House's annual Freedom in the World 2011 reportii, Singapore is categorized as only 'partly free' and is attributed a '5' ranking for political rights and '4' for civil liberties on a scale of 1 to 7, where 1 denotes completely free and 7 not free. For comparison, at least 48 countries on its list enjoy a '1' and '1' rating for the two categories.

Singapore might be a small country but that does not preclude it from being a full democracy as classified by the Economist Intelligence Unit's Democracy Index. Many countries with a similar population size, such as Norway, Denmark, Finland, New Zealand, Ireland, Uruguay and Costa Rica are classified as full democracies in this index. Indeed, several countries that are much smaller, such as Iceland, Luxembourg, Malta and Mauritius are also labelled full democracies, belying the argument that the small size of a country somehow demands a special form of government. Singapore by contrast, is classified as a “Hybrid Regime” and has a ranking of 82iii on the list, behind such developing countries as India, Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines and Papua New Guinea. This is incongruous when seen in relation to Singapore's economic standing and indices such as per capita GDP on which Singapore is far ahead of many of these countries.

Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore's first Prime Minister grappled with incalculable odds in the early years of independence to put Singapore on the map. It would be a great pity if the current Prime Minster Lee Hsien Loong left the elder Mr Lee's work unfinished. Singapore deserves to be in the first rank of nations, not just economically, which one would hope is only a means to an end, but also in terms of the dignity of the human spirit in all its ramifications.

Further reading:

For an overview of everyday concepts of democracy visit http://www.elections.org.nz/elections/concepts/

Singapore: Drawing Districts to Ensure Super-Majorities in Parliament by Jeremy Grace, courtesy of the Delimitation Equity Project sponsored by USAID

http://aceproject.org/ace-en/topics/bd/bdy/bdy_sg

Rajiv Chaudhry is a member of the Reform Party and a contributor to TOC. The views expressed are his own. The articles were written in 2009 before he joined the Reform Party.