Will multi-party by-election in Hougang increase choice?

~ By Gordon Lee ~

On the face of it, having more parties appear on the ballot paper increases voter “choice” by giving voters a more varied slate of candidates to choose from. Indeed, there could be some previous PAP-voter who would like to register their discontent (but not by voting WP), or some WP-voter who has been let down by the Yaw incident but would refuse to vote PAP. These marginal voters might well indeed welcome an additional option on which to cast their vote of confidence.

Singapore has many political parties, and their job is to fight (and win) elections. These parties have an unquestionable right to contest in the Hougang by-election.

However, the increased “choice” of having more political parties contesting the by-election will have to be balanced by potentially lower “choice” in other ways. It is not my job to strike the balance, or to tell parties how to strike this balance -- but I would point out the darker side of “choice”.

ONE: Potentially allowing a less-favoured party to win

Everyone is aware that - assuming the PAP is indeed the less-favoured party in Hougang (as in the last General Elections) - a multi-party by-election may cannibalise the WP vote and cause the PAP to win. This is by no means the fault of any party, but a flaw of the existing first-past-the-post system.

The PAP is a right-wing party, whereas most other parties are on the centre-left (including the WP). Judging from the votes last General Elections, approximately 65% of voters in Hougang can be said to be on the political left, and 35% of voters on the political right. A multi-party by-election may give the majority left-wing voters more “choice” at the ballot box, but may leave their “choice” more poorly represented when the results are announced.

TWO: Potentially lowering opposition representation in parliament

It is politically sexy to say that this by-election is “all about the residents in Hougang”. However, as much as this is about electing a local manager (for the Town Council) and representative (as an MP), it is also about electing a member of the national legislative chamber to propose, debate and make laws that affect the entire country.

The combined 40% of non-PAP votes is under-represented in parliament, whereas the 60% PAP votes translated into an over-representation of PAP MPs in parliament. Assuming the PAP remains the less-favoured party in Hougang, and if a multi-party by-election causes the PAP to win, then besides Hougang’s voice not being properly represented (due to the problems inherent in the voting system as previously mentioned), the way the nation chose to vote during the last General Elections would also be more poorly represented.

Some additional points to note

One would not expect a political party to send more than one candidate to contest in any given constituency during an election. Indeed, prior to recent years, non-PAP parties had operated as a de facto coalition by actively avoiding multi-party contests. Recently, that de facto coalition has evidently collapsed. However, I suppose in many voters’ minds, they still expect these political parties to behave like a coalition party (because their political stances are seen to be largely similar) and avoid multi-party contests.

So, as I mentioned earlier - and let me be clear, every party (and every independent candidate) has a right to take part in the Hougang by-election. They are after all independent parties. But they also be aware that “choice” is not a straightforward matter of simply having more names on the ballot paper - and they have to themselves decide where best to strike that balance (i.e. whether to contest).

And arguments of “choice” aside, they should also consider their very dear deposits!

Headline photo courtesy of Learn Bonds