Three local myths

Sudhir Thomas Vadaketh

We Singaporeans know not to pee on trees. What might elsewhere be thought of as fun, or fertiliser, is here considered sacrilegious, a needless provoking of dormant tree spirits. How do we know this? Like any old wives’ tale, it is based on unverifiable anecdotes. Over time, these tales becomes ingrained in society and accepted as fact.

Similarly, there exist several political axioms in Singapore that discourage people from voting for the opposition. These have been passed down from one generation to the next and are rarely debated. But with elections round the corner, it is worth now asking—which are actually myths and which are true?

1. Singapore Inc’s efficiency will suffer with too many opposition politicians

There is this idea that if we elect “too many” opposition members of parliament (MPs), Singapore will sputter and stutter and grind to a halt, akin to throwing a wrench into a well-oiled machine. I recently suggested here that it would be beneficial for Singapore to elect up to 20 credible opposition MPs.

Immediately some asked if 20 is “too many” for our country to handle. The truth is that none of us, really, has a good idea about what “too many” means for modern Singapore. For the past forty-odd years, we have had a one-party state.

It is important, therefore, to explore what really drives Singapore’s efficiency. It is certainly not just about politics. More important, in my mind, is our lean, efficient civil service that implements government policy. Many people I speak with, however, believe that Singapore = PAP = Civil service. That is not true—our civil service is in no way beholden to the PAP. It will continue its great work regardless of who our politicians are.

Also important are things like infrastructure and the rule of law. These are also not beholden to the PAP. Singapore’s power supply and corporate framework are not going to suddenly go haywire if Singaporeans elect “too many” opposition MPs.

No doubt, political consensus matters too. But even if we accept that Singapore works best with one strong party, how many parliamentary seats does the PAP actually need to govern efficiently?

At a minimum, the PAP requires 44 of the 87 elected seats. With more than 50% of parliament, the PAP can still pass legislation unhindered—the opposition cannot block any new laws or policies.[i]

In order to make any amendments to Singapore’s constitution, however, the PAP will need at least two-thirds of the parliamentary vote, i.e. 58 of the 87 elected seats. Note that constitutional amendments are not everyday necessities, but extraordinary changes.

Two of the most significant constitutional amendments in Singapore’s history are

a)     the creation of the Group Representation Constituency (GRC) system in 1988; and

b)    changes to the president’s powers in 1991

So let’s assume that that the PAP wins between 44 and 57 seats (50.6%-65.5%). The PAP will still be able to pass laws and run Singapore. In order to make any changes to Singapore’s constitution, however, the PAP will have to convince a few opposition politicians about its viewpoint, and get them to vote along with it. Some might consider this the ideal long-term scenario for Singapore.

But what, if by some freak of nature, the PAP wins fewer than 44 seats? This scenario will undermine the functioning of Singapore as we know it. With less than half of the parliamentary seats, the PAP will need to secure buy-in from the opposition on every single issue. The opposition will effectively be in a position to block legislation. This would indeed be “too many” opposition MPs. (Nevertheless, some might say there is a potential benefit to this arrangement as well. If there is a policy that many Singaporeans disagree with, the PAP will not be able to easily bulldoze its way through.)

However, as long as the PAP wins 44 of the elected seats (around 10 GRCs), Singapore will continue to function smoothly. In other words, the opposition can win up to 43 seats without anything dramatic happening to us. Don’t worry.

2. If Singapore is not a one-party state, it will be like the UK or the US.

Establishment folk love to bandy this myth around. The line of reasoning usually goes something like this—“Not happy with Singapore’s system? Would you rather be like the UK or the US?”

This argument is terribly problematic. First, it presents us with a false dichotomy, i.e. the erroneous claim that there are only two choices. In fact, there are many. Singapore does not have to be a one-party state, nor does it have to be like the UK or the US. We should be striving for something much, much better. What might that be? Opinions differ. I personally would like to see a majority PAP-government with a strong opposition.

Second, there are fundamental differences between Singapore and most other democracies, including the UK and the US. As a result, our political systems can never be similar. For instance, most other democracies have huge rural and urban populations. This influences the nature of politics—rural and urban residents have some different desires, needs and preferences, which parties must appeal to. By comparison, Singapore’s electorate is urban, relatively homogenous and crammed into a tiny space.

In my opinion, there is no basis for comparing Singapore’s political system to giant, multi-party democracies. We are not, and will never be, like them.

3. If I vote for the opposition, the government will blacklist me.

Pointing to serial numbers on voting slips, some suggest that the government blacklists those who vote for the opposition. This is absolute bunkum. Everybody’s vote is secret. I know people who have voted for the opposition their whole lives and not been disadvantaged in any way.

Unfortunately, the above three myths have been circulated in Singapore for as long as I can remember. Come every election, somebody will surely repeat them, trying to convince all and sundry. The point of this piece is to try and debunk these myths—not advocate voting for the opposition.

Ultimately, we each have to decide based on the quality of the candidates who are running in our districts. It is important that we choose the party we feel can do the best job for Singapore. If you believe that is the PAP, then do vote for them.

If you believe that is an opposition party, however, then do vote for them. There is really nothing to fear. It is much safer, I imagine, than peeing on a tree.


The writer is an editor at The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU). The views expressed here are purely his own.

[i] I have refrained from discussing the influence of non-constituency members of parliament (NCMPs) and nominated members of parliament (NMPs), partly because they have limited voting rights in parliament.


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