Singapore Election: Just 23.8 percent of votes needed to form government

In a recent event, "SG50+ Conference" held on 2 July , Dr Fareed Zakaria asked Prime Minister of Singapore and Secretary General of People's Action Party (PAP), Lee Hsien Loong on how a political party that win 60 percent of the vote could get 80 out of 87 seats and whether this is going to change.

PM Lee's reply was, "That depends on how the electorate votes and how the votes are distributed.  You might ask in the western countries how a party which wins 30 percent of the vote can form the government.  It happens, In America not quite so extreme, but in Britain it just happened, it’s an electoral system; it’s a system which is meant to give the country a stable and effective government. It’s not meant to give a country a proportional representation Parliament. The purest proportional representation Parliament, I think it’s in Israel, and I am not sure whether they are totally happy with the system."

How many percentages of votes to win a majority?

In his reply to Dr Zakaria's question, PM Lee implied that Britain's electoral system is extreme for allowing a political party to form a government with only 30% votes.

So looking at Singapore's electoral system, let us consider the lowest percentage of votes a political party needs to take a majority of seats and form a government.

Based on the electoral divisions in the 2011 general elections, even if People's Action Party (PAP) received just 23.8% of the popular vote, the party can still retain a simple majority in parliament to form government (44 out of 87 contestable seats). This figure changes to 27.2% (49 out of 99 seats) if we include all Non-Constituency Members of Parliament (NCMPs) and Nominated Members of Parliament (NMPs).

With 27.2% of the popular vote, or support from a little over a quarter of Singaporeans, the PAP can pass any law it wants, even if the law affects everyone in Singapore.

Moreover, the PAP only needed 31.5% (66 out of 87 seats) of the popular vote to have the two-thirds parliamentary supermajority needed to make constitutional amendments. NCMPs and NMPs cannot vote on such issues.

The here calculation looks at the least populated constituencies that can respectively add up to 44 and 49 seats, and counts a “win” as 50% of the registered electors in each constituency plus one vote since Singapore adopts a first-past-the-post electoral system. This approach assumes that all the contests are two-cornered fights. A party can win a constituency with an even lower percentage of votes in a multi-cornered contest.

Given that the total number of contestable seats in GE2011 was 87, the 50% of the seats translates to 44 seats, 66% is 58 seats, and 34% is 30 seats. Under the Westminister-style parliamentary system that Singapore adopts, a party can technically still form a minority government even if it wins less than 50% of seats in Parliament if it holds more seats than any other political party. The calculations in this piece rest on the assumption that a party wins a simple majority.

Based on information from the Elections Department the number of electors in GE 2011 was 2,460,484. So, the minimum for 44 seats would be 584,644 (23.8%) votes and the minimum for 58 seats would be 774,323 (31.5%) votes.

With the inclusion of 2 NCMPs and 9 NMPs, the total number of seats in Parliament increases to 99 (87 MPs + 3 NCMPs + 9 NMPs.). Half of that is 50 Seats. So, the minimum of the popular vote necessary to form a government increases to 668,397 votes, or 27.2% out of a total of 2,460,484 electors.

Note that least number of votes required to attain the more than one third of seats, or 30 seats, in Parliament necessary to prevent a constitutional change is 370,939 votes or 15.1% of the popular vote. However, these votes must be correctly distributed among constituencies to ensure 30 seats won. Votes spread too widely across Singapore or too concentrated in a few constituencies will result in less than 30 seats, even with a higher share of the popular vote.

Opposition votes were too thinly spread across Singapore in GE 2011, which is why 39.9% of the popular vote translated into only 6 non-PAP seats or 6.9% of contestable seats.

If, according to PM Lee, for the Conservative Party (UK) to have won the majority with a mere 36.9% of the popular vote in the United Kingdom is “extreme", then things may be even worse in a system that permits a parliamentary majority with just 27.2% of the popular vote and a constitution-changing two-thirds majority with just 31.5% of the popular vote.

The Improbability of “Freak Results”

Under the current electoral system and constituencies similar to those seen in GE 2011, a situation where the PAP loses power, what PAP politicians sometimes call a "freak election result” or even its two-third majority, is highly improbable. Singapore is more likely to see a PAP government that has lost the popular vote (less than 50% of total votes cast) but retains a parliamentary majority or even a two-thirds supermajority

The low likelihood of the PAP losing power in elections may ease the minds of those who refrain voting for opposition parties out of fear that this may place an inexperienced group of leaders in office. Singapore’s electoral system, as seen in GE 2011, largely prevents such an outcome.

On the other hand, the opposition parties only needed to win a minimum of 15.1% of the popular votes and 30 seats in 2011 to have enough seats in Parliament to block any constitutional change.

However, despite having won 39.9% of total votes cast in 2011, opposition parties in Singapore only won 6.9% of seats in Parliament in GE 2011. These 6 seats were won by the Worker’s Party, which received 12.8% of the total popular vote. Even with victory in the Ponggol East by-election, the Worker’s Party (WP) holds just 8% of elected seats and opposition parties 10.1% of total seats, once we account for the two WP NCMP seats and one Singapore People’s Party (SPP) NCMP seat.

For opposition parties to win more than one-third of the seats in 2011, they had to win, at a minimum, Joo Chiat (1 seat), Mountbatten (1 seat), Potong Pasir (1 seat), Whampoa (1 seat), Yuhua (1 seat), Bishan-Toa Payoh (5 seats), East Coast (5 seats), Moulmein-Kallang (4 seats), and Holland-Bukit Timah (4 seats) or win four more SMCs in place of one of the 4 seat GRCs on top of Aljunied GRC (5 seats), Hougang SMC (1 seat), and Ponggol East SMC (1 seat). Winning by 50% + 1 vote in each of these constituencies translates to roughly 15.1% of the popular vote.

Legitimacy of a not-so-popularly elected government?

The ease of forming a government with just over quarter of the total popular votes—especially in a system where voting is compulsory—raises several critical questions for Singaporean voters. Voters may wish ask how big the discrepancy between the popular vote and legislative representation would have to be before the system faces a legitimacy crisis or becomes unstable.

Alternatively, voters may also wish to consider how small the difference between popular votes and parliamentary representation would have to be for there to be effective government.

Given Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s recent announcement that the Electoral Boundaries Review Committee (EBRC) is currently examining how to adjust electoral divisions in Singapore, it would be interesting to see what the final changes are and how they affect the electoral game—especially who and what the alterations advantage and disadvantage.

So thinking of setting your own political party to form the government? Use the table below to see where are the wards to win to secure a simple majority and form the next government. (Data from Singapore Electoral Board)

ConstituencyElectors50% + 1Seats
Bukit Panjang34294171481
Hong Kah North28126140641
Joo Chiat22752113771
Potong Pasir173858693.51
Punggol East34398172001
Radin Mas28882144421
Sengkang West39586197941
Holland-Bukit Timah9468747344.54
Bishan-Toa Payoh12280361402.55
Chua Chu Kang16628983145.55
East Coast122382611925
Marine Parade151786758945
Nee Soon16244981225.55
Tanjong Pagar138178690905
West Coast129132645675
Pasir Ris-Punggol206913103457.56
Ang Mo Kio18132790664.56