Date: Thu, 28 May 2009 02:33:37 GMT
Local: Thurs, May 28 2009 10:33 am
Subject: Dr. Chee Soo Juan forced LHL's hand
There will be a minimum of nine opposition members of parliament from the
next general election on, announced Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, 27 May
2009. Why nine?
There will be twelve Single-Member Constituencies (SMC), up from the current
nine. Why twelve? Why not thirteen? Why not twenty?
There will be fewer six-member Group Representation Constituencies (GRCs),
he said. Why "fewer"? How many exactly? Why not none?
On the whole, the proposed changes to Singapore's electoral system moves in
the right direction, towards more non-government voices in the legislature
and a slightly lower hurdle for opposition parties, but the thing that
struck me was how arbitrary the changes were.
One should always disapprove of arbitrariness. When something is not
grounded in clear principle, it is very easy to change it tomorrow when it
does not work to the ruling People's Action Party's (PAP's) advantage.
Specifically, the changes announced were:
1. The Constitution and the Parliamentary Elections Act will be amended to
permit a maximum of nine Non-Constituency MPs (NCMPs) the exact number in
each Parliament to be equal to the difference between the number of
opposition MPs elected and nine. No more than two NCMPs may come from the
same GRC ward.
2. Nominated Members of Parliament (NMPs) will be a permanent feature of
Parliament from now on, with the number fixed at nine.
3. There will be fewer six-member GRCs and a few more smaller ones, such
that the average GRC will not have more than 5 members.
4. There will be 12 SMCs. He did not say whether the additional three (up
from the present nine) will be carved out of existing GRCs, or if they will
be newly created constituencies. Lee's reference to "voters numbers
increase" seems to suggest that they will be new constituencies.
As I said, the announced changes move in the right direction. But many
unsavoury features remain.
Why are some voters lumped into GRCs, while others get to be in SMCs? On
what basis? Now, adding to that, why some voters in gigantic GRCs and some
other voters in slimmed-down GRCs? On what basis?
It will be up to the Electoral Boundaries Review Committee, said Lee. This
body is appointed by the Prime Minister and reports to the Prime Minister.
It has never publicly justified why some precincts are GRC'd and others
SMC'd. Or for that matter, why the geographical shape of some constituencies
look like elongated salamanders.
The system for selecting NMPs is also opaque. A committee of mostly-PAP
parliamentarians invites certain civic groups to submit names (why those
groups and not other groups?) and then makes a decision behind closed doors.
A more principled structure needed
True reform would require a more principled structure for elections and
Parliament. There should be clear formulae for the minimum number of
opposition voices instead of an arbitrary nine. He should have reduced all
GRCs to no more than three members, if not abolished them altogether.
The Prime Minister should have announced plans for an independent Electoral
Boundaries body and an independent Elections Commission.
He should have stipulated a minimum of six months between any announcement
of boundary changes and the calling of elections.
The election period should also be longer than the present nine days, which
is too short for voters to connect with and know their candidates.
Media liberalisation is also essential for the true spirit of democracy to
flourish. In this regard, the recent changes to the Films Act, tightening it
under the guise of "liberalisation" is a sick joke.
And as for the NMP scheme, I've always disliked it. The selection method is
If Lee likes the "magic number" of 18 non-PAP voices in Parliament, he
should have instead provided for up to 18 NCMPs. If he is really sincere
about a future where there is a healthy, responsible opposition with the
ability to be a government-in-waiting, then allowing opposition parties more
parliamentary experience through greater numbers is better than restricting
them and filling up the seats with NMPs.
The really interesting question is: Why did Lee make these concessions at
To be honest, there was no groundswell of pressure to change the system. The
PAP's grip on Singapore is as tight as ever. He didn't need to make these
One possibility is that Lee is sincere in wanting to give Singaporeans more
space to "learn democracy". His approach is still as paternalistic as ever
in the way he doses out his step-by-step learning modules to children, but
he is trying to prepare for the day when the PAP may really cock up,
anti-government feeling surges up, and instead of the electoral system
absorbing and channelling the demands for change, the system proves so rigid
and therefore brittle, it collapses altogether.
Another possibility is that his PAP's ears on the ground have indeed
detected a rising disaffection with the ruling party, and he is gambling
that it is better to provide the safety valve of more NCMP seats than risk
losing a GRC or two to the opposition altogether.
He may hope that a typical fence-sitting voter's calculation goes like this:
Since it is likely that in my GRC, opposition support is high enough for
opposition candidates to get one or two NCMP positions, it's good enough to
meet my desire for a check on the PAP, so I can guiltlessly throw my vote to
the PAP now.
The third possibility is the most interesting of all. Perhaps he is
concerned that there is a rising sympathy for those who denounce the system
as beyond saving, and who would use civil disobedience. Perhaps out of
frustration that alternative opinions and parties will never get a fair
shake under the electoral system, the politics of the street may be gaining
traction. This cannot good for Singapore's future stability.
Lee's hand is forced. He has to allow more opposing voices into Parliament
before the street becomes more attractive than elections and the stuffy
If you take a step back and look at these electoral changes in the context
of the new Public Order Act that clamps down even harder on street protests
as well as the recent amendments to the Films Act outlawing filming of
unlicensed street activity, you begin to think that Possibility Number Three
is, by a whisker, the most plausible. All these changes tie in together as a
carrot-and-stick scheme: A big stick for those protesting in public; sweet
carrots for those who would play by the rules.
If so, to whom should we credit these small steps to greater liberalisation?