The competing views of LKY

Catherine Lim recently wrote a political commentary on Lee Kuan Yew leaving the cabinet after the general elections. She declares (emphasis mine):

Singapore’s remarkable development under Lee Kuan Yew, using the hard indicators of home ownership, level of education, degree of technological advancement, extent of foreign investments, etc, has seen few parallels, making it a poster child for economic progress in the developing world. Consistently ranked among the top three in international surveys on best-performing airports, sea-ports, world’s most livable cities, best infrastructure, etc, Singapore receives the most enthusiastic accolades from foreign visitors instantly impressed by the cleanliness, orderliness and gleaming appearance of the city state.

How could such a brilliant paradigm, a model of classic realpolitik, be the cause of the GE 2011 political demise of Lee Kuan Yew? The answer: mainly because it had no place for human values. It was a model of governance where, if there had ever been a conflict of Head vs Heart, IQ vs EQ, Hardware vs Heartware, it had been resolved long ago in the defeat of presumably worthless human emotions.

This light-hearted little anecdote is meant to provide a probable reason, though in a rather circuitous manner, for MM’s ironic downfall: the material prosperity that he had given Singapore, which many world leaders could never match, was no longer enough compensation to Singaporeans for the soullessness that was beginning to show in the society . For the fear that his strongman approach had instilled in them for so long, denying them the fundamental democratic liberties of open debate, public criticism and an independent media, that are taken for granted in practising democracies, had made them mere cogs in the machinery of a vast capitalist enterprise.

Yet in 1983, the late statesman S. Rajaratnam commented in a speech in Lee Kuan Yew’s 60th birthday celebration (emphasis mine):

It is often said by less perceptive critics that Mr Lee does not care for human beings; that he measures progress in terms of factories, buildings and quantifiable wealth. None of these would have been possible had there not been a transformation in the mind and character of the Singaporean as well. People with a slave mentality and with unpacked bags could not have created the clean, prosperous and dynamic Singapore we see today.

Far more than many people realise, Mr Lee’s basic concern has been and still is first with the quality of men and only after, with machines, bricks, mortar and the Singapore dollar.

The aspect of his leadership has gone unrecognised because transformation of a people’s mental attitude and character requires a special kind of tough leadership which could be mistaken for one without human sympathies and feelings.

In short, if I correctly read the Prime Minister’s mind, his goal is not a nation of rabbits led by lions, or a nation of lions led by rabbits, or worse still, rabbits led by rabbits, but as befits the Lion City, a nation of lions led by lions. Only such a Singapore can, in a world of prowling hungry predators, be assured of a secure and honorable existence. His main concern is to create Singaporeans of quality since the numbers game is not for us. He knows full well that as with great adversity, prosperity too, if improperly enjoyed, can transform lions into fattened rabbits.

(From the book S. Rajaratnam: The Prophetic and the Political)

On one extreme end, we’ve Catherine Lim accusing LKY of being an obsessively rational leader who treats Singaporeans as economic digits. On the other end, we’ve S. Rajaratnam defending LKY’s style of leadership, that ultimately he wants Singaporeans to be characters of strength.

He has a very mixed legacy – which great and historical leader hasn’t?

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Surprises in new Cabinet

PM Lee has announced his new Cabinet – without MM Lee and SM Goh – and it was a surprise to me on two counts. Firstly, instead of grooming some of their newfound talent the usual way e.g. appoint them minister of state, rotate around the ministries, before finally heading one ministry etc, two newly-elected MPs are going to be ministers right away. Secondly, three ministers associated with unpopular policies were ‘retired’ despite being re-elected, albeit with much lower margins. I’d thought the PM would allow these ministers to continue, except for Wong Kan Seng, who was more or less slated for retirement.

‘Retired’ ministers

1. Wong Kan Seng, DPM and Co-Ordinating Minister for National Security, suffered much of the opposition’s assault over the Mas Selemat issue. He was challenged by opposition veteran Chiam See Tong, and polled 56.93 percent in Bishan Toa-Payoh GRC, lower than the national vote of 60.1 percent. I’d thought he’d become Senior Minister (pending retirement) despite all these, but PM Lee chose to leave him out of the Cabinet, unceremoniously ending his lengthy political career which saw him heading key ministries like home affairs and foreign affairs. Without his Cabinet appointments, I think Wong would be eased out of the PAP’s Central Executive Committee (CEC) as well (he’s currently first assistant secretary-general).

Hence his retirement now, rather than later, shows how serious PM Lee is on leadership renewal and ‘transforming’ the PAP.

2. Mah Bow Tan, Minister for National Development since 2001, polled 57.22 percent in Tampines – his lowest winning margin (he first began his political career by losing to Chiam See Tong in Potong Pasir). He was furiously whipped at opposition rallies for the rise in HDB flat prices. Yes, he’d set in cooling measures…but apparently insufficient to cool political tempers. S’porean voters want their accountability, and with such election results, PM Lee had to listen to them – sacking Mah.

I’m not sure if his replacement, Khaw Boon Wan, is able to solve the tricky problem of rising HDB prices, especially if the asset enhancement policy continues. That is the root cause of the price increases. In my view, the policy has to be thrown out before most people are satisfied that HDB flats are within their reach. But throwing out the asset enhancement policy will make tens of thousands of S’poreans angry. It’s a tough job, but I think Khaw has done tremendously well at the Ministry of Health. It’d be interesting to see what tweaks or even reforms he would introduce to housing.

3. Raymond Lim, Minister for Transport. What did he do wrong? All right, many S’poreans hate the peak hour congestion, swear at the occasional breakdown of trains, and wants fare prices to go down or remain the same for eternity. But I think there is nothing fundamentally wrong with transport in S’pore. Train stations will be popping up here and there soon, some not in a decade. With some luck peak hour congestion can be alleviated (mind you, not totally solved ‘cos that’s impossible). It’s a matter of enduring…and well, our patience has its limits. So out go Raymond Lim.

His replacement is Lui Tuck Yew. My impression of him at MICA isn’t good, so cross my fingers.

Rotated ministers

1. Vivian Balakrishnan will swop MCYS for MEWR. This is interesting, because MEWR is ranked a little lower than MCYS in terms of budget allocation. Furthermore, MEWR is a quiet ministry doing the background work – water, canals, reservoirs, trees etc – and Vivian Balakrishnan doesn’t seem to be a quiet man.

2. Dr Ng Eng Hen will take over MINDEF. I think this is expected, because he has been 2nd Minister for MINDEF. He didn’t come from a military background, but so did Goh Keng Swee and Goh Chok Tong, who were formerly ministers for defence. But he should relook his MOE public relations fiasco regarding the calculation of mother tongue grades in PSLE, to avoid a similar one in MINDEF e.g. like lengthening National Service etc.

3. Gan Kim Yong to take over MOH. Khaw has done a good job, so Gan would probably continue tweaking the system, like allowing Medishield for persons with congenital diseases.

4. Lui Tuck Yew to be Transport Minister. Hmm. Not too sure about this, from impressions alone…

5. Yaacob Ibrahim shifted to MICA. Or rather, he’s going back to where his political career in government began. MICA is considered a lightweight ministry, where you throw the newbies to test them out. So putting a veteran in a lightweight ministry suggests two things: this veteran is out of favour, or MICA requires a major shake-up. I’d prefer the latter, because in my opinion, MICA is doing more negatives than positives. It’s there because it’s just there – it’s not doing anything plus plus for S’poreans, especially in areas of censorship, cultivation of alternative spaces for artists and government communications.

6. Tharman to become DPM, as I predicted in a previous post. If George Yeo were not voted out, he would have been DPM. But I think Tharman is as good too, given his standing in the international economic arena. And by holding two portfolios of finance and manpower (which makes sense since neither can do without the other), he should be able to tweak or introduce beneficial policies for S’poreans. The issue of foreign talent will be sensitive, and this is where he might trip up or be successful in.

7. K Shanmugam to succeed George Yeo. He sure has large shoes to fill. But he was one of the top lawyers in S’pore before leaping from the backbench to the Cabinet, and he should be able to handle foreign affairs delicately as well. In any case, foreign affairs for S’pore has few options, and I don’t expect major policy shifts even if the minister changes.

Backbenchers to the fore

Two labour MPs, Josephine Teo and Halimah Yaccob, will be promoted to ministers of state. Both were quite critical of some government policies, and with them in government, I suppose they would initiate changes. Surprisingly, they were promoted to ministers of state right away – not parliamentary secretaries, perhaps given their senior roles in NTUC.

With Halimah Yaccob in MCYS, I think she would definitely initiate policies for low-skilled, low-educated and low-income workers and their families. Good move.

Newbie ministers

Again, I was surprised that PM Lee chose to put Heng Swee Keat as Minister for Education right away. Note that minster-wannabes, according to the PAP system, are usually groomed in lightweight ministries before moving on to take larger portfolios. That he is a full minister (compared to Acting Minister for MG Chan) means that he already holds the trust and confidence of PM Lee, and to take on an important portfolio means any mistakes he makes will be amplified many times, and I believe the resurgent opposition in Parliament will not hesitate to demand his head to roll. But then again he had performed well in MAS during the 2009 financial crisis, so he should breeze through…

MG Chan is the new Acting Minister for MCYS – a sensitive ministry where I expect the opposition, with an unprecedented 6 elected MPs with legitimate access to the people through Meet-the-People sessions, to hammer the government for not doing enough. How he holds up will be important in both PM Lee’s and the public’s assessments of him. Hopefully he doesn’t use his ‘Ah Beng’ English in Parliament.

Conclusion

Surprises – yes. A break from the past – yes. Will it transform Singapore? Not really sure. But with Khaw Boon Wan in housing, K Shanmugan in foreign affairs, Tharman as finance and manpower ministers and DPM, I think most of us can trust this Cabinet. Anyway, we’ve 6 elected opposition MPs + 3 NCMPs to help us ensure these ministers will do their jobs well.

Cabinet Line-up, based on seniority (according to previous Cabinet)

1. PM – Lee Hsien Loong

2. DPM and Co-ordinating Minister for National Security – Teo Chee Hean

3. DPM and Minister for Finance and Manpower – Tharman Shanmugaratnam

4. Minister for Trade & Industry – Lim Hng Kiang

5. Minister in PMO – Lim Swee Say

6. Minister for Info, Communications & Arts – Yaacob Ibrahim

7. Minister for National Development – Khaw Boon Wan

8. Minister for Defence – Ng Eng Hen

9. Minister for Environment & Water Resources – Vivian Balakrishnan

10. Minister for Foreign Affairs & Law – K Shanmugam

11. Minister for Health – Gan Kim Yong

12. Minister for Transport – Lui Tuck Yew

13. Minister for Education – Heng Swee Keat

14. Minister for Community Development, Youth & Sports (Acting) – Chan Chun Sing

But of course expect the official seniority line-up to be different. Foreign Affairs and Defence probably rank higher than MICA or Minister without portfolio, lol.

And to be fair,

Leader of the Opposition – Low Thia Kiang

In other parliamentary democracies, especially the Westminster-style, the Leader of the Opposition is the alternative PM (OK, small the opposition is now and nowhere near a Shadow Cabinet). But shouldn’t PM Lee recognise this position openly, like then-PM Goh did to Chiam See Tong in 1991?

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Shock as MM Lee and SM Goh retire

I think ‘shock’ is an extremely under-stated response to their retirement from political office.

In Singapore politics, retirement is always planned in advance, unless in the case of George Yeo, you’re voted out (once-in-50-years event). For example, S Jayakumar’s retirement was probably expected by many political observers. After GE 2006, he had gradually relinquished his appointments of Deputy PM and Minister for Law, before his promotion to Senior Minister. He had reached the pinnacle of his political career, short of becoming PM. When the time came for GE 2011, no one raised an eyebrow when he announced his retirement from politics. Similarly, Lim Boon Heng, Minister without portfolio and PAP chairman, had entered politics the same year as Jayakumar. So his retirement was more or less expected.

But not for MM Lee and SM Goh. It is odd to find two former prime ministers in the Cabinet, but co-opting alternative voices has been a hallmark of the PAP (though I think this is increasingly shaky), so instead of forcing both to become private citizens, having both in the Cabinet allowed them to air their views behind doors. I think most political observers and perhaps most S’poreans expected both of them to continue serving as long as their health permits. Furthermore, S’poreans are quite comfortable with ‘recycling’ our top-ranking leaders (OK, abit crude) – former DPM Dr Tony Tan is now chairman of SPH, former foreign affairs minister S Dhanabalan is now chairman of Temasek etc. Having two former PMs in the Cabinet is a form of respect as well as allowing them to contribute positively, especially in the international arena.

So why are they retiring from political office now?

We have studied the new political situation and thought how it can affect the future. We have made our contributions to the development of Singapore. The time has come for a younger generation to carry Singapore forward in a more difficult and complex situation. The Prime Minister and his team of younger leaders should have a fresh clean slate. A younger generation, besides having a non-corrupt and meritocratic government and a high standard of living, wants to be more engaged in the decisions which affect them. After a watershed general election, we have decided to leave the cabinet and have a completely younger team of ministers to connect to and engage with this young generation in shaping the future of our Singapore.

But the younger team must always have in mind the interests of the older generation. This generation who has contributed to Singapore must be well-looked after.

Joint Press Statement

It is obvious neither of them had any intention of stepping down BEFORE the elections, but the results of GE 2011 had forced them to take a hard look at their political positions. Firstly, they are not stepping down because of accountability issues regarding the elections – PM Lee himself declared he was running the campaign. Though the PAP polled its lowest popular vote share since independence, there was no danger of it paralyzed by 6 elected opposition MPs, or worse, lose power. Furthermore, the swing could be attributed to issues such as inflation, housing and immigration – which arguably would become better in the next 5 years, and allow the PAP to recapture some of the swing votes.

Hence both of them had stepped down from positions of strength, and probably also in belated recognition that they are not immune to voter resentment. That George Yeo, ranked No. 7 in the cabinet, was voted out probably reminded them that S’poreans are willing to show any minister the door if the opposition puts up a strong and credible team against him. More importantly, SM Goh might have had an epiphany that he was not indispensable – he polled about 56 percent in his Marine Parade, lower than the national 60.1 percent, and much lower than his previous 70-odd points, and that was fighting an unknown, just-arrived NSP team with Nicole Seah being the star, outshining SM Goh’s teammate Tin Pei Ling as the representative of S’porean youth.

Finally, both of them had made several gaffes during the campaign – MM Lee’s threat of ‘repent’ to Aljunied voters, and SM Goh back-pedalling on his comments on his former principal private secretary etc. I think younger and some older S’poreans did not think these befit their statures of being elder statesmen. Being in the future Cabinet would be politically costly in the next elections, if both were still around to stand for them, and in the long-term, their legacies would be scarred by a few incidents in the twilight of their political careers.

So what this means for the next Cabinet?

Current DPM Wong Kan Seng is likely to move up to Senior Minister, and he probably will retire by the next elections. Who would be the next DPM? When voters in Aljunied kicked out George Yeo, not only did Singapore lose a foreign affairs minister, but possibly a future DPM.  Traditionally the DPMs were the ministers responsible for security or foreign affairs. The next ranking minister in the Cabinet, Lim Hng Kiang, is one candidate, but he is more of a technocrat than a politician. The second DPM (first being Teo Chee Hean) might be either Tharman, the Finance Minister, or Ng Eng Hen, the Education Minister. Or there could be none at all.

Oh, it would be amazing if Mah Bow Tan is still kept in the Cabinet.

And in the longer term, without MM Lee and SM Goh making contradictory side-comments, the Cabinet would be more united…but not necessarily more receptive. That remains to be seen. In all, their retirement is symbolic of a changing of times – the PAP has lost the ability to dictate the agenda, force people to argue on it, and then move on according to their directions. The recent GE has proved that both opposition parties and ordinary S’poreans are setting the agenda instead, and forcing the PAP to respond before moving on. MM Lee and SM Goh clearly came from another era, and by retiring, they are giving PM Lee a broad space to respond to the changing needs of Singapore – as they mentioned, “A younger generation, besides having a non-corrupt and meritocratic government and a high standard of living, wants to be more engaged in the decisions which affect them“.

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Reforming the GRC system

GRCs are supposed to be ‘good’ for Singapore – they guarantee a permanent minority presence in Parliament. They started off by combining 3 single-member wards into one GRC, but SMCs were still dominant then. The controversies began when GRCs replaced SMCs as the dominant electoral structure; 3-member GRCs expanded into 4-member GRCs, then 5, 6; and ministers were distributed in all the GRCs to ‘take charge’ of MPs.

These were compounded with the inexplicable carving of GRC boundaries; Marine Parade GRC stretches to Serangoon, central Singapore. Opposition-leaning single-member wards were subsequently absorbed into GRCs, and even GRCs with significant opposition support were dissolved and pieced off. Due to the massive size of GRCs – a typical 5-member GRC would have more than 100, 000 voters, and its relative large size to the entire voter population – the law of huge number kicks in. Unless there is a strong nation-wide swing against the incumbent governing party, it became very difficult for the opposition to capture a GRC, as the electoral outcome of any GRC has a tendency to reflect the national popular vote.

Hence, between 1988 till now, opposition MPs came from SMCs only, when clearly in the same period, some S’poreans wanted more than two opposition MPs in Parliament. The PAP often likes to justify their actions by saying “it doesn’t matter, what works for Singapore is more important”. Yes, GRCs work in the sense that both the ruling and opposition parties must field minority candidates to win elections. Minority representation in Parliament is firmly entrenched, whoever wins or loses. GRCs might have created economies of scales for the running of town councils, but this is more of an after-thought consideration.

It is disturbingly obvious to anyone that mega-sized GRCs which form the majority of elected seats in Parliament have only benefited the PAP. As I mentioned before, and repeated above, the PAP has benefited in three ways:

  • Absorbing opposition-leaning SMCs into GRCs, dissolving opposition-leaning GRCs, or drawing boundaries here and there with no reason – opposition parties are unable to work on shifting grounds, or their supporters’ votes are diluted. Despite the fact that Singapore is a tiny city-state, electoral districts can spring up or splinter, when it is pretty clear the population distribution is even. Who benefits?
  • Physical barriers – Singapore is a city, densely-populated, it shouldn’t be too hard to reach everyone staying within a particular neighbourhood. But in a GRC, multiply this neighbourhood by ten, twenty, or thirty folds. Of course, the opposition can be blamed for not attracting or mustering resources to cover an entire GRC of more than 100,000 voters. In larger countries, a single candidate typically represents such a population size. But Singapore is not that large. It doesn’t make sense to have mega electoral districts in this urban maze. Who benefits?
  • Ministers who ‘anchor’ their team of MPs. New and young candidates are parachuted into GRCs to under-study their more experienced ministers and senior MPs. This political tutelage might be good for any party (even the Workers’ Party candidates in Aljunied rode on Low Thia Kiang’s experience), but voters seem to be at the losing end, as they can’t vote for or against an individual candidate. Their voting powers are again diluted. Of course, when all the candidates are equally good, S’poreans have no problems. But if one is a bad apple… Who benefits?

So should GRCs still stay?  I think all opposition parties have called for GRCs to be abolished, and even ordinary S’poreans too. There are several ways of ensuring minority representation in Parliament (or don’t even need it at all). One way is to declare some SMCs to be fielded by minority candidates only. I think some Chinese would be unhappy why only Malays or Indians have to represent them. Are S’poreans voting along ethnic or religious lines now? I’m not very sure. Such a proposal was probably considered before, and I believe MM Lee discarded it precisely because he believed some Chinese would be upset.

What about reserved seats in Parliament, like an upper chamber? Good idea, but personally I think Singapore doesn’t need it – this is a city-state by political and geographical definitions, I don’t see so many ‘interests’ like rural areas, highlands, tribes etc to be represented. Unless the upper chamber consists of minorities only, to scrutinize legislation which might discriminate against them, but this role is apparently served by the President Council for Minority Rights. Then what about the lower chamber? What about the minority candidates in there?

I think solutions along these lines to ensure permanent minority representation in Parliament always have some trade-offs. What we need is simplicity. So back to the GRCs.

In my opinion, a 3-member GRC is quite ideal. The voter size for each GRC should be capped under 75, 000, so each MP serves about 25, 000 residents. This will slightly mitigate the effects of the law of huge numbers. So with 87 seats in the current Parliament, and with fifteen 3-member GRCs (45 seats), 42 seats will be allocated for SMCs, as opposed to 12 only in GE 2011.  There will still be a minimum of 15 minority MPs, but with smaller-sized GRCs and forming only a slight majority of all elected seats.

Why not two-member GRC? Possible too, but it would seem to voters the minority candidate has to borrow the other Chinese candidate’s help for his election bid. 3 is a good number, with more permutations; 1 minority (Malay or Indian/Others) with 2 Chinese, 2 minorities (Malay & Malay, Malay & Indian, Malay & Others, Indian & Others) with 1 Chinese, and possibly all minorities. More importantly, with smaller GRCs, there won’t be ridiculous Jurong GRC which doesn’t include Jurong West or Chua Chu Kang GRC which covers Jurong West etc this kind of situations. At the same time, there will be many SMCs so that many candidates will have to battle alone, instead of taking shelter in GRCs, which in any case will be smaller and easier to win or lose.

However, no matter how the electoral system changes, it must still follow these principles which many find lacking:

  • simplicity
  • consistency
  • transparency

GRCs or SMCs boundaries should be simple to understand, and easy to know why the boundaries are drawn in such a manner. For example, West Coast GRC covers a swath of area from Jurong Central to Clementi to Sentosa. If residents are puzzled, it is no wonder.

Secondly, Singapore is a city-state. Any boundaries drawn is man-made and should not shift in every elections. If they shift, there must be a valid reason, like population growth.

Lastly, why did the people drawing up the electoral map do this and that? What are their reasons? No one knows them exactly. Unless the PAP embarks on such reforms, they will always be saddled with accusations of unfairness. If they change, they will perhaps make themselves more palatable to all S’poreans.

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Opposition flaws in the SMCs

SMCs results

GE 2011 was an exceptionally bumper year for the opposition, as they fielded several strong candidates in as many wards as they could. But while the average vote share for the PAP in GRCs alone is around 60 percent, similar to the national vote share (due to the law of large numbers), the PAP vote share in the SMCs was different, roughly 58 percent. One reason it is lower is that Hougang was won by the WP, and Potong Pasir and Joo Chiat were marginally won by the PAP.

But I believe in this year, it could have been lower. After all, discontent against the PAP is at an all-time high, due to rising cost of living, cost of housing and a liberal immigrant policy. Why did results in SMCs turn out slightly different? Yes, SMCs tend to produce results of greater deviation from the national popular vote share. With so many GRCs won by the PAP in the 50-odd percentage points, if they had been SMCs, a few would have fallen to the opposition. I was puzzled why some SMCs did not follow this trend, especially in the SMC scoring the only 7o percent point (considered a norm in older days).

When I look at the PAP candidates in the top-scoring SMCs, they were indeed high-profile. Hong Kah North was won by Amy Khor, long-time office-holder; Radin Mas was won by Sam Tan, another office-holder; Yuhua was won by Grace Fu, a junior minister; Bukit Panjang by Dr Teo Ho Ping, who is personally popular in the ward; Whampoa by Heng Chee How, a junior minister.

The PAP candidates in the rest of the SMCs were not as high-profile, but that doesn’t mean less capable. Pioneer, won by Cedric Foo, a former junior minister, reflected the national trend (60 percent scored by Cedric Foo). What’s more interesting is that, though the bottom-scoring PAP candidates were less low-profile, all of them had been the incumbent MPs (or for Sitoh, the ‘grassroots advisor’) of their wards for at least 5 years (exclude Charles Chong in Joo Chiat, who is a veteran MP but parachuted into the ward; Desmond Choo in Hougang). And against them, the opposition fielded newcomers, each of them clinching more than 40 percent of the votes.

But against the high-profile PAP candidates in the top-scoring SMCs, the opposition fielded veterans, who lost big. It was a strategic error by the NSP and SPP to put those whom they considered ‘strong’ against the high-profile PAP candidates. Ironically, those who seemed strong had lost consecutive elections (Sin Kek Tong, Yip Yew Weng, Ken Sun, Steve Chia), compared to the WP’s newcomers, who polled more than 40 percent each, as they depended on the party reputation. In Yuhua and Bukit Panjang, it seems the SDP also committed a flaw in parachuting in Teo Soh Lung and Alec Tok respectively. Teo was a former ISA detainee…and that’s all everyone in Yuhua probably knows. For Tok, his switch to the SDP from the Reform Party, and his campaign in Bukit Panjang, seems a little too late and insincere to win the ward from the genuinely popular Dr Teo.

Hence it boils down to individuality of candidates, age and party brand in the SMCs. If younger and new opposition candidates (perhaps Nicole Seah?) had stood against the high-profile PAP candidates in the SMCs, they might have done better, so following the national trend. In any case, the next elections might not present similar opportunities of discontent which the opposition could tap on in GE 2011. And of course, SMCs could appear and disappear, like magic.

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Chiam lost, TPL won, period.

Supporters of Mrs Chiam then organised this petition-signing to collect signatures to call for a by-election. It is unclear what the supporters are basing its request on, or which part of the Constitution it is referring to.

The Online Citizen

We all strongly believe that you, Ms Tin Pei Ling does not have what it takes to be a Member of Parliament but you are in Parliament because of the flaws in the Group Representative Constituency system.

Petition to remove TPL as MP

It is extremely clear that Mrs Lina Chiam has lost the contest for Potong Pasir under the first-past-the-post electoral system. Even if she had polled one atom of a ballot less than Sitoh, it does not matter. I’m sorry to pour cold water on her supporters, but I don’t think there can be any by-elections as long as the elected MP does not resign, die or be sacked from his party.

Those who had voted the PAP candidate might not have done so if Mr Chiam had remained in Potong Pasir. But I’m not discussing his strategies or analysing his campaign here. We’ve to respect the law of the land…and that includes accepting TPL as an elected MP, because she (with the help of her team-mates) won.

If we don’t respect rules, what are they for? What are the reasons for having rules in any forms of democracy?

  • Simplicity
  • Consistency
  • Transparency

While Singapore’s democracy as shaped by the PAP is not exactly simple, consistent or transparent i.e. arbitrary re-drawings of electoral boundaries, I don’t think pro-Chiam or anti-TPL people should stoop to their levels, by demanding a subversion of rules for their causes. Of course, a new rule can be added that if a petition among Potong Pasir residents has collected 10k signatures, then by-elections must be called. But until such a rule exists, and it should be properly evaluated if it ever pops up, then for now Chiam’s supporters have to accept the electoral outcome. I mean, they can do other meaningful stuff:

  • Join his party to help his re-election bid
  • Send a clear signal (petition) to the government that Potong Pasir should remain a SMC, as it has 99 percent chance of being absorbed into a GRC
  • Hold the new PAP MP to accountability in Parliament and municipal issues (reasonably, I hope)

For TPL’s case, it’s more ridiculous. Is the petition or FB page demanding her to resign? On what right? And on what grounds, since she has been democratically elected? (OK, the GRC system not very democratic. But still.) Are they residents of Marine Parade in the first place? Similarly, those who dislike her as a MP can:

  • Hold her accountable in a reasonable manner (her first parliamentary speech will be very important)
  • Move to Marine Parade and vote her out
  • Challenge her in the next elections lor

The PAP has tinkered with the GRC system, gerrymandered here and there etc such that democracy in Singapore is not simple to understand (people can change constituency without moving house, Jurong West resident part of Chua Chu Kang GRC), not consistent (SMCs pop out of nowhere, some GRCs so big, some so small), not transparent (who made these decisions?). The root of the pro-Chiam and anti-TPL frustrations lies here. Until our electoral system has these guiding principles, I think people would doubt the PAP has changed much.

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WP wins Aljunied, but GRCs still favour PAP

Derek da Cunha, an independent scholar in Singapore, suggested before that the ‘law of large numbers‘ in the GRC system makes it difficult for the opposition to win a GRC. Well, Aljunied GRC has been lost to the WP. Does the law of large numbers still stands?

GRC results

According to da Cunha, the more voters there are in a GRC, the results will tend to reflect nation-wide results. So for GE 2011, the PAP has a popular vote share of 60.14 percent. From the table above, you can see 10/14 GRCs have a deviation of +5 or -5 from the PAP popular vote share. Only West Coast, Jurong and Ang Mo Kio have more than +5 or -5 deviation.

It’s easy to see why: West Coast and Ang Mo Kio were challenged by the newcomer Reform Party, resulting in above-average performances by the PAP. Jurong was contested by an unknown and weak NSP team.

From the table, you can also see out of the five largest GRCs, only Ang Mo Kio deviated more than 5 percent from the PAP popular vote share. Even for the five smallest GRCs, only East Coast deviated slightly, at -5.31.

Conclusion: GRCs have a tendency to reflect overall vote share. As long as overall support of the PAP remains above 50 percent, it is difficult to dislodge the incumbents. What happened in Aljunied was a combination of chance, strategic choices made by the WP, errors committed by the PAP and a general sense of discontentment. I’m not too sure if the WP or any other party can replicate this victory in a couple of GRCs in the next elections, if overall support for the PAP remains good.

Take a look at the SMCs:

SMCs results

In SMCs, the biggest ward is Punggol East – 33 281, 18 percent the size of the largest GRC and 38 percent the size of the smallest GRC. The smallest ward is Potong Pasir, with only 17 327 voters. Only three SMCs kept within the +5 or -5 deviation limit which I set for the PAP popular vote share of 60.14 percent. The deviation range can run from -24.95 to 10.47, with the results of most SMCs deviating from the popular vote share.

SMCs, unlike GRCs, have a propensity to deviate from the popular vote share. This is because of the smaller number of voters in each SMC, and the law of large numbers does not hold here anymore. From a statistical point of view, it is easier for the incumbent to be knocked out (or hold onto power) in a SMC than in a GRC, because of the much smaller size of the SMC. Hence Potong Pasir and Joo Chiat were won by tight margins, while candidates for Hong Kah North, Radin Mas and Yuhua scored huge margins (they were also facing weaker opponents). As SMCs do not necessarily reflect the popular vote share, if George Yeo, Lim Hwee Hua and Zainul Abidin had stood in SMCs, they might have won easily, instead of squaring off against the WP’s dream team in Aljunied.

Conclusion: SMCs might be easier to win (or lose), but with creation and destruction of SMCs in every elections, it is difficult for opposition candidates to work the ground and stand in a particular SMC.  But the first-past-the-post system must also be considered, even winning by a 0.01 margin is also considered a win. SMCs tend to have such close margins, while GRCs do not. Hence the fear of such close fights might have led the PAP to enlarging the size of GRCs over the decades, while reducing the number of SMCs to a mere 12/87.

In all, while the WP victory in Aljunied inflicted a psychological blow to the PAP, it was an exceptional one. Whether it can win in multiple GRCs throughout Singapore to control 1/3 of Parliament or even form the next government is greatly dependent on the national mood. If support for the PAP falls tremendously, in all likelihood GRCs will reflect this loss of support easily, as compared to SMCs, and many GRCs will be captured by the opposition. The PAP has won big through GRCs – and it might lose big through GRCs too. The first-past-the-post system and the GRC system have so far favoured the PAP, but if one day a perfect storm converges, it would be the biggest loser.

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