The Bright Side of Our Electoral System
The Malaysia election results have outraged and disappointed many Pakatan Rakyat’s supporters. A Malaysian working in Singapore, who was a polling agent, gave a first-hand account of what happened at a polling station: “I’m really upset. We tried our best to stop the fake foreign voters from coming in, but when the blackout happened things got totally out of control. There weren’t enough polling and counting agents, and many stations had no agents from the opposition to supervise the process.”
In the meantime, Barisan Nasional (BN) wasted no time in blaming its vote loss on the Chinese. Said Najib of BN’s worst-ever electoral showing, “The polarisation in this voting trend worries the government. We are afraid that if this is allowed to continue, it will create tensions.” Najib went on to say that “racial politics and extremism” must be rejected. As President of a party that has thrived on racial politics over its 56 year-rule of multi-ethnic Malaysia, Najib was remarkably oblivious to the irony in his statement.
These reactions to the election results illuminate the key differences between the electoral politics of Singapore and Malaysia that strengthen my conviction that the institutions and political culture that will gear Singapore toward a two-party system are, more or less, in place. The lesson for us is to preserve the integrity of these institutions and improve on them.
That Singapore has no deep-seated ethnic cleavages and is united by an emerging Singapore identity are quite evident and I shall not delve into these. Instead I would like to take stock of our electoral system in light of the Malaysia election.
(1) Going to the Polls
While the voting process is only a part of the whole electoral system, the act of voting itself is of great importance because it is educative and fosters the qualities of responsible citizenship essential for a real democracy. Through voting, we learn how the process should work, we are cognizant of the power of our ballot and we learn to respect the outcome regardless of who we vote for. A clean voting process reinforces voters’ confidence in the system which, in turn, gains credence because of voters’ abidance by it as a legitimate means to seek a change of government.
The voting process in Singapore is open, transparent and free of ludicrous shenanigans such as indelible ink which is actually delible, phantom voters, stolen voting right, electricity cut-off at opportune moments and taxis transporting ballot boxes. So long as I do not spoil my ballot, I am quite sure that my vote will end up in the right ballot box instead of some mysterious black hole.
(2) The GRC: A Double-Edged Sword
The PAP’s justification for introducing the GRC in the late 1980s was to ensure that the minorities are represented in the parliament. However, critics have pointed out that the system disadvantaged the opposition parties which struggled to find enough candidates to field in GRCs. And indeed for more than two decades since the introduction of the GRC, the system had worked to the PAP’s advantage, keeping the number of non-PAP seats to a minimum of one and a maximum of four in the parliament.
But as we all know, the seemingly impregnable fortress fell in the 2011 General Election (GE)with the Workers’ Party’s (WP) victory in the Aljunied GRC. In one sweep, five WP Members of Parliament (MPs) were ushered into the parliament.
If WP’s electoral triumph in Aljunied is not enough to convince skeptics that the GRC per se is no longer an impediment to opposition parties seeking to capture parliamentary seats, a quick look at the evolution of the GRCs may suffice.
When the GRC was first introduced in the 1988 GE, all except three of the 13 three-member GRCs were contested. The non-PAP parties garnered a vote share of more than 40% in four GRCs, and took as high as 49.1% of the votes in Eunos GRC. In the following GE in 1991, the PAP called for a snap election and three-member GRCs were no more. Of the 15 four-member GRCs, only five were contested.
Apparently, this easy victory was not good enough for the PAP. In 1997, it introduced five and six-member GRCs and did away with four-member GRCs in 2001. As a result, only four of the nine five-member GRCs were contested in 2001, of which the opposition scored a dismal vote share of 20-27%.
Things started to look up again for the opposition parties in 2006, when half of the GRCs were contested and the WP team garnered a notable 43.9% of the total votes in the Aljunied GRC. It was no coincidence that subsequently in 2009, the PAP announced a reduction in the number of six-member GRCs, thereby lowering the chance of losing six seats to the opposition at one go, which no longer seemed far-fetched.
In the watershed 2011 GE, all except one GRCs were contested and the vote share of the opposition parties in GRCs averaged a respectable 40%.
The GRC, conceived as a weapon to constrict the growth of alternative parties, has now backfired. If you do not agree, imagine this: in a future GE under our first-past-the-post system, a party narrowly wins in all the GRC wards with a vote share averaging 51% but takes up all 75 parliamentary (GRC) seats, and that party is not PAP. Is this scenario not conceivable?
(3) Gerrymandering, the Electoral Commission and Others
As of 2011, our government had rejected the UN recommendation to establish an independent, non-partisan election body. Yet despite the extensive redrawing of electoral boundaries in the 2011 GE, the PAP still garnered its lowest-ever vote share since Singapore’s independence (note that this vote share is not entirely comparable to past results due to the varying extent of walkovers or uncontested wards).
With the latest record-low ranking of our mainstream media in the press freedom index, we cannot count on fair and non-partisan representations of all candidates in the press. Neither can we hope for zero gerrymandering.
What has leveled and shall continue to level the playing field is the alternative media. As the Singapore electorate matures and becomes better-informed of its political choices, and as more brave Singaporeans step forward to make a difference, I am confident that we will see light at the end of the tunnel.
For it is the people who shape the system, not just the PAP.