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The Non-Constituency MP scheme: A Frankenstein story

If America’s insistence on the virtues of liberal democracy is the result of its belief in its own exceptionalism, Singapore’s hodgepodge of parliamentary oddities reveals the ruling People’s Action Party’s (PAP) corresponding sense of its own superior uniqueness.

The NCMP scheme, then, is the ultimate expression of this benevolent authoritarianism. Inaugurated just before the 1984 General Elections, it is a strange aberration, a perfect expression of Singapore’s Frankenstein—neither wholly liberal nor downright repressive, but a curious combination of both. It avoids overt repression and has none of the marks of conventional authoritarian tools; yet, it has been met with heavy criticism and deep suspicion. It is emblematic of our unique brand of soft authoritarianism—a concept that confounds political observers so used to black and white categories—and is a useful starting point for examining Singapore’s political culture and all its other electoral oddities. The focus here is therefore on the NCMP scheme, and only on a small part of its history.

Singapore’s Frankenstein

The Singapore narrative begins with the recognition that Singapore’s unique circumstances places it in an especially vulnerable position. A small island-state with no natural resources, a history of racial conflict and geopolitical uncertainty can only survive if it is wisely managed by an elite class of scholar-gentlemen who must use carefully calibrated instruments to achieve that perfect balance between freedom and security.

The cautionary fables are told and retold, but the moral of the story is always the same. Give the people too much freedom and the nation will be overrun with racial violence and sectarian politics. Let them tell their rulers what to do and populism will plunge the country into economic ruin. Only one party can stand above the pettiness of politics and guide the nation through adversity towards everlasting prosperity. It has proven itself time and again, and it is the safest bet.

At the same time, a pseudo-Confucian conscience demands that no benevolent sage ignore the desperate pleas of the humble people and prudence dictates that no shrewd politician be caught unawares by the shifting tide of public opinion. Therefore, some measure of freedom must be granted—if only to better understand the wishes of the lay people and pre-empt discontent.

The NCMP scheme, then, is the ultimate expression of this benevolent authoritarianism. Inaugurated just before the 1984 General Elections, it is a strange aberration, a perfect expression of Singapore’s Frankenstein—neither wholly liberal nor downright repressive, but a curious combination of both. It avoids overt repression and has none of the marks of conventional authoritarian tools; yet, it has been met with heavy criticism and deep suspicion. It is emblematic of our unique brand of soft authoritarianism—a concept that confounds political observers so used to black and white categories.

The scheme’s merits

Under the scheme, three of the best-performing opposition candidates who fail to win a majority would nevertheless be granted a seat in Parliament as Non-constituency MPs (NCMPs). Proponents argue it is the ideal solution to the problem of disproportionate representation created by the first-past-the-post Westminster system. The 1976 General Elections best illustrates how this system produces overwhelmingly dominant majorities. The PAP, having won 74% of the popular vote, took all the seats in Parliament. In comparison, the runners-up Worker’s Party and United Front which won 12% and 7% of the votes respectively had a grand total of zero seats as their votes had been split among multiple constituencies.

Therefore, in theory at least, with the best performing losers taking up seats in Parliament as NCMPs, opposition politicians could have the opportunity to express contrary views at the highest level of government and vote on important motions—excluding, of course, motions that are too important. At the time of the scheme’s introduction, Jeyaretnam was a lone voice in a sea of PAP MPs. With the proposed three NCMP seats, he would at least no longer have to stand alone against the relentless assault against him and his ideas.

Echoing his father’s arguments, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong argued that the NCMP scheme achieved the best of both worlds. Rather than go the way of New Zealand and combine proportional representation with the Westminster system, Singapore could enjoy the same salutary benefits without suffering the debilitating effects of special interest politics. Only the right kinds of opposing views would be well-represented while the dangerous ones, in particular, those made along racial and religious lines, could be avoided.

These limited concessions, therefore, appear, at least on the surface, to move Singapore in the direction of greater openness rather than authoritarianism.

The scheme’s problem: toothless duckweed becomes a crutch

Unlike under the proportional representation system, NCMPs would not have the same voting rights as other MPs. They would have no real say in three key areas: government expenditure, constitutional amendments and votes of no confidence. They could say their piece, but no one had to listen, not attentively anyway. It was a voice that carried little weight because they had no power. No one had to take seriously because toothless NCMPs were not real MPs.

In addition, as Workers’ Party Secretary-General Low Thia Khiang argues, NCMPs who have no means of reaching out to their residents have no way of truly representing their voices. They are like duckweed which have no roots and cannot speak from an understanding of the reality of the situation.

If that were all, the worst that may be said of the NCMP scheme is that it is useless. However, the scheme is also frequently criticised as a sinister plot to entrench PAP dominance. For example, Low argues that this might encourage opposition politicians to settle for being NCMPs and give up the fight. Low is not alone in believing that the NCMP scheme is another one of the PAP’s seemingly innocuous tools of authoritarianism.

Interpreting history

The timing of the NCMP scheme is frequently emphasised to impute sinister motivations. For instance, during the parliamentary debate over the proposed scheme, then Worker’s Party MP J. B. Jeyaretnam asked repeatedly, “why the haste?” Doubting the sincerity of the PAP’s intentions, Mr Jeyaretnam then pointed to the PAP’s track record of political repression and questioned whether it was merely a ploy to create an illusion of democracy—all form but no substance. Likewise, The Online Citizen (TOC) left readers with the poignant question of why the scheme was introduced after the PAP lost its monopoly in Parliament with the election of the first opposition MP since independence, Jeyaretnam, in 1981, but not before.

In Singapore: Wealth, Power and the Culture of Control, Professor of Asian Studies at the Queensland University of Technology, Carl Trocki, suggests that historical context is key to this shift in Singapore’s political development—a “third phase” that begins around 1985 and includes a whole host of political reforms. He highlights the economic recession in 1985, the PAP’s declining vote share in the 1980s and the emergence of a new generation of Singaporeans who have never experienced the hardships of Singapore’s early days. These trends, he argues, explain the PAP’s subsequent attempts to, on the one hand, “provide alternative avenues of public involvement in government, while on the other, [take] steps to strengthen and prolong the life of the one-party state.”

What is common among these strands of analysis is a strong suspicion of the PAP’s intentions, especially that of the prime mover of this bill, Lee Kuan Yew. And perhaps justifiably, references are frequently made to the PAP’s authoritarian track record, its lack of credibility and the opaqueness of its decision-making process. Questions of timing are thus yoked to an intense distrust of authoritarian rule to suggest that the NCMP scheme is not as democratic as purported. Consciously or otherwise, the imperialising categories of the PAP’s narrative are ignored and an attempt is made to establish an alternative story—that of deceitful autocrats relentlessly trying to hold on to power.

Competing narratives

So what are narratives and why do they matter? Narratives are really just stories that help us to make sense of our lives by identifying key characters and events. Consciously or not, we are surrounded by stories. We tell them to others, and we tell them ourselves. When we put all these stories together, they form a grand narrative. This grand narrative is frequently imbued with ideals. In Singapore’s case, the grand narrative that the PAP attempts to portray is one of progress, fairness (meritocracy) and equality. On the other hand, those who object to this idealised portrayal of Singapore argue that our story has also been one of elitism, authoritarianism and deceitfulness.

It is in this light that I have sought to recount the attempts by the PAP to justify the NCMP scheme and the attempts by opponents to discredit it. The story that emerges, however, is not a monolithic one for the NCMP scheme is not purely repressive. Indeed, at least one opposition politician seems to have benefited from it, and at least on the surface, it is plausible that the NCMP scheme was created with the best of intentions. This is not to say that the NCMP scheme has been good for the opposition on the whole, merely that the case against it is not sufficiently obvious for us to simply dismiss it. The complexity of the scheme and the dexterity with which the PAP continues to update it suggest that a closer examination is necessary.

At the start of this essay I suggested that the grateful reception of these schemes depend greatly on their positioning within the Singapore narrative and the co-optation of the opposition. Indeed, this appears to have been the PAP’s strategy. Not merely content to convince the public of its altruistic motives, the PAP has tried to attach key characteristics of the Singapore story—fairness and progress—to the NCMP scheme. More than that, the PAP has even tried to co-opt the opposition with arguments that acknowledge the unrepresentative nature of the first-past-the-post Westminster system. But, perhaps because of Lee Kuan Yew’s stringent elitism and his especially toxic remarks towards the opposition, this effort has largely met with suspicion and consequently, failure.

Similarly, opponents of the NCMP scheme have a narrative too. It is one that characterises the PAP as a deceitful, authoritarian party which cannot be trusted to have benign motives. Questions, so the story goes, must therefore always be asked about their motives. Sound or not, the argument that the NCMP scheme is merely a ploy to dilute voter support for the opposition fits nicely into this story of sinister autocrats.

In addition, the story is one that emphasises the importance of political power. It is not sufficient to merely be able to speak; one must be heard, and one must have the power to turn words into reality. So a central sticking point about the NCMP scheme has been the NCMPs’ lack of power to vote on important issues and the refusal of government agencies to assist them (with the reason they give being: because they do not represent a constituency).

In this context then, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s proposal to increase the number of NCMPs and grant them full voting rights may be understood as a tactical maneuverer designed to enhance the appeal of the PAP’s narrative and undermine the coherence of the opposition’s narrative.

Much more may also be said about the NMP, GRC system and the elected presidency. Together with the NCMP scheme, these four electoral oddities have turned Singapore’s electoral system into a novel aberration. They cannot be casually dismissed, either as altruistic innovations or as sinister tools of control. They have become part of both the PAP’s and the opposition’s narratives. Vigorous debate over the scheme is therefore also a contest between opposing narratives.