Category Archives: Strategy

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.

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First World & Insurance

It seems the Workers’ Party is hammering a key message in the coming elections: 1) “First World Parliament” and 2) “Political Insurance”.

Earlier this year, Low Thia Khiang concluded his budget speech with this:

As this may be one of the last sittings of Parliament before it is dissolved, I wish all Singaporeans well. I also wish to see a first world parliament in the making when we reconvene in this house after the coming General Election.

I think many people miss this important hint which he has dropped. Their campaign slogan, released today, turned out to be “Towards a First World Parliament”. In last week’s televised political forums, in both the English and Mandarin version, the WP representatives emphasized the need for an opposition (and specifically the WP, I presume) to act as a check on the PAP government. I believe the WP has a coherent message for the elections, and it is a good sign their campaign will be as consistent and also well-organized.

But what exactly is a “First World Parliament”? What is “First World”, anyway?

The “First World” used to describe the bloc of countries aligned to the US, the “Second World” is allied to the USSR, while the “Third World” is supposed to be non-aligned countries, usually those which have just attained self-independence. Ideologically, the First World band of countries have capitalist economic systems and multi-party democracies. Obviously what the WP wants is for Singapore to achieve multi-party democracy. Ironically, the so-called First World countries, with the exception of a few, aren’t doing well economically or even politically. Look at the US, and its near-breakdown of government as the Democrats and Republicans wrangle over the budget.

But I’m quite sure the First World label will resonate well with many S’poreans. This is due to Lee Kuan Yew’s autobiography, From Third World to First: The Singapore Story: 1965-2000. It is quite impossible for S’poreans NOT to hear of this much-parroted phrase, that S’pore leapt from Third World country to the First World within a generation. I find this extremely familiar, drummed in by school and the media. The WP is tapping on this rather smartly; that though S’pore has First World living standards, our political system is still Third World. Some might be persuaded, though I’m unsure if this forms a large number to swing votes to the WP.

Low has also talked about ‘insurance’, that a critical mass of WP MPs is required so that they can start to form an alternative government. I think what he said makes some sense, by comparing the political system to insurance.

Students of economics will understand the insurance market faces a few problems of information asymmetry i.e. one party knows more than the other. Similarly, a democratic political system faces these problems too. For instance, adverse selection. Voters are unable to tell if the candidate or party can carry out his or its promises. They can look at their track record, of course, but there’s no 100 percent way to see if that candidate or party can actually perform if elected. In the extreme scenario, voters choose to spoil their votes because they don’t know who is good enough. But voters are likely to choose the ones who have some track record, familiar to them etc. And the PAP on both counts make them the default winner; it has experiences in governing and it is known by every S’porean.

That might be a problem with Tin Pei Ling. There’s even an online petition to get her contest in a SMC, proving that some S’poreans are skeptical of her ability as a potential MP. The GRC system worsens the adverse selection problem, because inexperienced PAP candidates are taken under the wings of more experienced MPs or ministers. Voters might be skeptical, but they do not have choices to vote against the inexperienced candidate, as that might mean voting against the entire team, which consists of experienced MPs or ministers they might prefer. The GRC system distorts the choices which voters should have to exercise their votes.

Secondly, the problem of moral hazard. When the govt targets 6 million as the eventual population mark for S’pore, the govt does not bear the full consequences of this decision – the people does, good or ill. A democracy easily suffers from moral hazard, because elected representatives do not necessarily bear the consequences of their actions, giving them the tendency to act for their selfish or narrow interests. Examples abound in the world. Some legislators in the US seem to think China is bent on taking over the American economy, while the fact is that Chinese businesses have created jobs for Americans as well. They are beholden to the interests of groups which support them, not ALL Americans which they are supposed to represent.

Similar to the GRC system, a one-party state in S’pore (the PAP believes there is insufficient talent for more than one party in Parliament), worsens moral hazard. Without any checks, the PAP might in the future enact bad policies, and the PAP would be sheltered from these repercussions (in the short term, at least).

Hence I can see the logic of the WP and other opposition parties’ desire to check the dominant party. That is to ensure S’poreans do not one day receive the bad effects of bad policies by the PAP.

But there are still nagging questions to be answered, assuming most of us agree on the premise that there should be “checks and balances”.

1) One-party state too much, should have two-party state?

2) Or multi-party state with governing party and 3, 4 opposition parties?

3) Go further, by reforming S’pore’s first-past-the-post system to that of a hybrid with proportionate representation? (FPPS usually results in one party with the majority of seats, one or two strong parties and the rest nothing; PR tends to produce coalition or minority govts)

Personally I’m inclined to believe a two-party system will evolve in S’pore, because of our historical context and geographical and demographic situation. It is not unusual to see cities with a dominant party for a long period of time, and S’pore is a city-state. Furthermore, the FPPS does not produce multi-party democracy well. A two-party system with the ruling PAP and a strong WP, and other weak opposition parties, seems to be on the evolutionary track of S’pore’s political development – we’ll know in the elections, I guess.

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The gravity strategy of WP

I was reading this commentary, when I thought of the WP’s strategy to focus on constituencies around Hougang. I believe this strategy was implemented since 2001. Hence during the 2006 general elections, they contested these areas:

GE 2006 electoral map. Source: Wikipedia

As you can see, Hougang is smacked in the middle of all the wards which they contested. This is interesting! So I’ve a hypothesis: does the distance from Hougang affect electoral results of the WP?

So I’ve categorized the wards which WP contested:

0: Hougang

1: Aljunied GRC

2: East Coast GRC, AMK GRC

3: Joo Chiat, Nee Soon Central and Nee Soon East SMCs

These values will form the x-axis in the graph I’ll show later. The larger the number, the farther they are from Hougang.

WP graph. Source: Elections Department

You might need to click on the graph for a larger view. Anyway, the y-axis represents the elections’ results. So I plotted the graph, and with these points, I drew a best-fit line. The gradient is negative, which suggests an inverse relationship between election results and distance from Hougang. Hence the WP’s strategy is somewhat working. Aljunied GRC, with envelops Hougang, ranks second in electoral performance. East Coast GRC, which is Aljunied’s neighbour, ranked third. AMK, though in the same category as East Coast GRC, is second from the bottom, and the only odd one out. The worst performers are the SMCs, Joo Chiat, NSC and NSE, which are in category 3, the farthest from Hougang.

For the upcoming elections, it seems WP will contest the new wards of Seng Kang West SMC, Punggol East SMC, Nee Soon GRC and Moulmein-Kallang GRC. Let’s give each ward a value.

1: Punggol East

2: Seng Kang West

3: Nee Soon GRC

4: Moulmein-Kallang GRC

It’s necessary to give Moulmein-Kallang GRC a value of ‘4’, because the wards which WP intends to contest do not border the GRC at all. In contrast, in 2006, the places where WP contested were contiguous to one another. As WP is not contesting AMK, Nee Soon GRC seems to be ‘chopped off’ from the WP’s intended battlegrounds. From the linear graph, it seems logical to argue WP might be victorious in Punggol East, polling above 40 percent in Seng Kang West, about 30-odd percent in Nee Soon GRC, and score miserably in Moulmein-Kallang GRC.

Er-hem. Obviously my predictions are highly inaccurate. But this is all hypothetical. The graph does not take into account GRC or SMC, the voters, the candidates etc. I’ll revisit this blog after the elections to see if my predictions match the results (:

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NCMPs and electoral strategy?

I notice that some commentators have argued that the increase of NCMP seats is an important factor in the elections. Here. One of them is Asst Prof Eugene Tan from SMU. I don’t know why it SHOULD matter at all. To me, they are barking at the wrong tree.

Opposition candidates enter the contest to be elected as MPs, not become NCMPs. I don’t see how an increase in NCMP seats would lead to higher stakes for the opposition parties. They enter the competition to win via the first-past-the-post system (FPP) – even a marginal victory of 0.1 percent over their rivals means they would become elected MPs. In a system with proportionate representation (PR), then it’d be more logical to believe that the stakes have increased. A party which garners more votes than others would have more MPs, giving it more political power. Even a small party receiving 20 percent of the votes can have MPs. In Singapore’s FPP system, it’s more of a zero-sum game. Hence opposition candidates fight to WIN, not over NCMP seats which are handed out AFTER the elections.

Furthermore, increasing the number of NCMP seats is not significant. The reason why there are NCMP seats in the first place is because there are insufficient opposition MPs – so that means the PAP already has a super-majority, and it doesn’t have to fear the opposition. That said, more NCMPs in Parliament means more questions would be raised, there would be more debate and greater pressure on both the PAP ministers and backbench. But in terms of amending the constitution or voting for a motion of no confidence in the govt, NCMPs have no rights. Under a PR system, all MPs, regardless of the percentage of votes his party receives, would have equal voting rights. But S’pore’s FPP system only recognises winners and losers, so NCMPs are 2nd-class MPs.

Even if they are 2nd-class, they still represent those who vote for them. I think I read before on the newspapers, that a resident in Potong Pasir ranted something like this: “Some of us voted for the PAP! They should take care of those who voted for them too!” Lol, I rolled my eyes after reading his comment. What about the 46 percent of Aljunied GRC residents who voted for the WP? They have only one NCMP representing them. Though NCMP means ‘Non-Constituency Member of Parliament”, it is still a token effort which allows losing opposition candidates to ‘represent’ the wards which they lost. Of course, this is far from the PR system which would allow fairer representation (but not a strong govt, according to PM Lee).

The WP has been accused of falling into the ‘NCMP trap’ by sending its candidates into 3-cornered fights. Well, that seems a lame complaint by other opposition parties, which simply fear a greater loss for them because 1) they realistically know they can’t win and 2) they hope to score enough to become NCMPs. Come on, if these people know they stand a good chance of winning, they wouldn’t be afraid of competition. Since S’pore has a FPP system, it is not required to have a majority to win i.e. in XXX GRC, the WP could score 30 percent, the other party could have 40 and the remaining 30 from the PAP. Lol, I know it’s unlikely, and the probable scenario is that the PAP might have 60, the WP 30, and the other party 10 – losing its electoral deposits in the process.

Too bad for the opposition party – but the voter still benefits, if such a scenario happens. That means he’s interested in WP and its policies. If nation-wide, the WP emerges second in all wards, that would be a great step for voters to have an alternative and effective choice. That doesn’t mean the 3rd, 4th or 5th parties are condemned. They just have to work harder to overtake the WP 😉

Lastly, NCMPs hardly provide any incentives. How is the opposition candidate to know he’d be one of the top 9 best losers? He might guess, but he won’t know for certain. And being a NCMP with its greater exposure has not brought benefits – yet. In the past two decades, no NCMP has crossed over to become an elected MP.

Hence I don’t know why commentators are saying NCMPs have raised the stakes or whatever. In S’pore’s FPP system, they are probably not important factors in an electoral strategy.

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