Why Workers’ Party might be wrong

During the Workers’ Party launch of its manifesto, Sylvia Lim claimed that one-third of Parliament should be held by the opposition, so as to block the governing party from amending the constitution at will. The PAP then responded that there is no model for First World Parliament, that bitter partisan struggles which result in inefficient government are prevalent in developed countries…criticism which S’poreans have often heard, and I think many of us believe this. A few weeks ago, a friend commented that a two-party system, with one party saying ‘yes’ and the other saying ‘no’, would lead to deadlocks in government, so it is absolutely unworkable. On the surface, perhaps.

However, while it is desirable for the opposition and some S’poreans to have a substantial check in Parliament, it might NOT be possible. Often we think of Singapore as a ‘country’, but it is nothing more than a small city, a city-state to be precise. Hence Singapore has a few characteristics:

  1. There’s no real geographical divide. There’s no lowland vs. hilltop, coastal vs. inland etc, rural vs. urban. Parties can hardly spring out from Bukit Batok or Potong Pasir and claim to represent a special group of people; there’s none.
  2. An overwhelming majority of the population lives in public housing, and there is no concentration of rich areas or slums. When parties root for support in a particular ward, this ward is not likely to diverge greatly from the national average.
  3. Even the ethnic make-up in each ward is likely to be similar to national statistics, part of it might be due to the Ethnic Integration Policy. There’s no concentration of Malays or Indians such that they can create strongholds or safe deposits.

From these characteristics, parties which represent narrow interests are likely to fail miserably. Instead, personalities are very important for political parties to win individual wards. Hence Chiam See Tong holding Potong Pasir for more than two decades, yet his parties did not expand their parliamentary presence much. These characteristics also ensure the longevity of the PAP’s dominance. It’s partly because of history, and partly because of Singapore’s city context, that the PAP has enjoyed such dominance.

Furthermore, the first-past-the-post system means the winner takes a seat even if he has a winning margin of 1 percent. The system has a tendency of throwing up strong governments with a clear majority. In Singapore, this is complicated by the existence of GRCs, which homogenizes voting patterns across a few wards – the election results of a GRC has a tendency toward the national average. And if we include gerrymandering, this means that it is more difficult for opposition parties to capture parliamentary seats.

With these conclusions, a predictable outcome is that a strong party can win more than two thirds of the seats to form a government with a supernormal majority. Of course, critics will have you believe this is because of the PAP’s engineering of the electoral system to benefit themselves, but I think geographical circumstances have been neglected.

In Singapore, a two-party system is likely to be this:

  1. Strong governing party (PAP) with supernormal majority
  2. A token representation by one or two parties
  3. A few other active parties but with no parliamentary presence

So that’s why the WP might be wrong in thinking it’s possible for one-third of seats to be occupied by opposition members.

However, since the system and context of Singapore are skewed to produce strong governments, an opposition party does not have to capture a few seats and gradually build its strength for 50 or 100 years. What it can do is simply to proclaim that it is willing and capable to form the next government, and seek to contest every single ward. Education Minister Dr Ng Eng Hen has challenged the opposition to form a new government. It is obviously impossible, because the opposition parties have no intention to take over the government.

But I think if an opposition party, or even an alliance, simply declares this intention and fields candidates in all seats, and given the right set of circumstances, this serious threat will by itself create a two-party system. A two-party system does not require one opposition party or a few of them holding a substantial number of seats. The only meaningful system which will work in Singapore is simply a threat of replacement.

For example, in 2031, the WP might have a core leadership consisting of a potential prime minister, finance minister etc. This core team can declare an early intention to field candidates in all wards, to slug it out with the PAP at the polls. If the ground is not so sweet for the PAP, then either they attack the WP or respond to the influence exerted by the (few or solo) WP opposition MPs of the day.

Obviously the limitation to the growth of opposition parties is the lack of talent, but this general elections might be the start of a trend in which highly-qualified individuals i.e. former government scholars are willing to join them. It might take years, decades before any opposition party can claim to form a new government. That’s why all the opposition parties are desperate to a win a GRC, as a sizable number of elected MPs can help them expand in terms of political influence and attraction. But I doubt one-third would be won or could be won…

In any case, if one day a non-PAP government were formed, this government is likely to have at least a two-thirds majority. And that is all which is needed to undo PAP policies or amend the constitution – perhaps to lock out the PAP for good. History shows ruling parties do not last forever, so making the system fair to give themselves a second chance will seem to be good foresight later on.



Filed under Analysis, Predictions, Strategy

5 responses to “Why Workers’ Party might be wrong

  1. Ah Loong

    What the f*** are you on about? Care to make your point in a clearer way?

  2. Hm

    All babies learn to crawl before they can walk, they will then learn to walk steadily before they learn to run. WP’s intention is clear and it is in the right direction. This article is rubbish.

  3. Sam

    PLease elucidate what do you mean by strong government?

    May be it is not the opposition parties who are the only ones desperate to win a GRC; there are Singaporeans too who want to have a GRC led by an opposition party but not in their own constituency may be? But who knows, if there are many like me, then I dont mind my GRC to be represented by an opposition party.

    • If you’ve read properly, I wrote here “The system has a tendency of throwing up strong governments with a clear majority“.

      I’m arguing that besides the PAP system of GRCs and gerrymandering to their favour, S’pore as a city-state, with a first-past-the-post electoral system, has an innate tendency to create governments with huge majorities. My suggestion is that S’pore is unlikely to have combos of 60% PAP vs 40% opposition , 70 vs 30 etc, but 90 to 10 – and vice versa, if one day an opposition party takes over.

      but not in their own constituency may be

      That is a big problem with many S’poreans, not-in-my-backyard attitude. But I think in the future, if the WP or any opposition party is poised to capture Parliament, attitudes will shift to follow the potential winner.

  4. Juan

    Hello mostly agree with what you’re saying. The PAP is the best political party that is able to represent Singapore’s best interest at the moment. I see this lacking in WP’s policies and the rest. The WP’s main reason for entering parliament is merely to ‘be a co-pilot’ or to ‘form a first world parliament’. What is a first world parliament anyway. Would one want a first world parliament with a third world economy?

    Singapore is unable to be like US where they, with geographical characteristics and sufficient in resources are able to withstand political distractions from managing the economy but Singapore cannot afford that kind of luxury/spats in the passing of bills in order to manipulate ourselves around the external factors which we are completely, I repeat, completely dependent on. We need a strong government who has the capable people and leadership to guide us through the stormy waters.

    And a strong government does not mean a strong opposite. How WP associates the two eludes me. A strong government is made up of one with foresight, honesty, wisdom, and capability. If the opposition has that, I’ll give it to them. But currently, they are lacking sorely judging from their policies. (seriously, nationalizing public transport?! Are you out of your mind? Even an a level Econs students can tell you how destructive that will turn out in the long run)

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