The Stillbirth of Democracy in Singapore Parliament

August 27, 2008

The PAP government spurned another chance to institutionalize democracy. Today, Parliament rejected a motion tabled by Nominated MPs Thio Li-Ann and Loo Choon Yoong to amend the Parliamentary Elections Act to allow by-elections to be called in a Group Representation Constituency (GRC) when an MP vacates his seat. The motion was rejected by 62 votes to five.


If the motion had been passed it would basically mean this to the layperson: your first choice as your parliamentary representative is not available. Please choose again.


There are several concerns we should have over the rejection of this motion.


 #1: The continued centralisation of power: The Prime Minister alone has sole discretion in calling for a by-election. As with almost every other issue, power in Singapore continues to be centralized not merely with the state or executive but with individuals. Instead of developing long-lasting mechanisms that would serve as checks and balances for the greater good of Singaporean generations down the road, this PAP government continues to view every suggestion to implement procedural legislation as an affront to its competence and integrity. It presumes that its current method of picking high-flying morally sound individuals for office is perfect and will thus never be in need of checks and balances. (“Rogue governments” always refer to the Opposition taking power).


But there is a strategic dimension to this. With sole discretion the PM can avoid the potential loss of a GRC. Imagine this: A PAP minister and his team wins a GRC by the narrowest of margins. A year or so later, the minister passes away. And if a by-election is compulsory we could see an opposing GRC team in parliament. By having sole discretion, the PM can avoid his risk.


(note: In the 1988 GE, Eunos GRC was contested by Francis Seow, Lee Siew Choh and Mohd Khalit bin Mohd Baboo. Seow was of course the former Solicitor General and Lee former head of Barisan Socialis. Word on the ground was that this team was going to get into Parliament and to counter this, the PAP sent in Tay Eng Soon, a heavyweight minister, to stop them. Tay and his team (comprising Zulkifli bin Mohamed and Chew Heng Ching) won by the slimmest margin: 50.1% to 49.1% (or 36,500 to 35,221 votes). Tay, however, passed away in 1993. No by-election was called. Eunos was later carved up into several bits to dissipate the unhappy voters.)


#2: What’s one or two missing MPs?: The fact that 65 PAP MPs (together with the 2 Workers’ Party reps) voted against the motion goes a long way to confirming what many suspect. The real constituency work is done by grassroots leaders and resident committees, and not high powered PAP MPs who have law firms to head or hospitals to manage. This is why PAP MPs don’t mind going through the term with one person less in their GRC team – the grassroots leaders will make up the difference, and more.


(Note: Sylvia Lim and Low Thia Khiang did themselves and their party no favours by voting against the motion. Lim’s attempted hijacking of the motion played out in the media as opportunism. The GRC edifice may be a chronic grouse of opposition parties but even they have to rise above themselves from time to time to address broader issues like the interpretation of representative democracy in Singapore. By voting against the motion they have further isolated the 5 votes, thus making it look like calls for representative democracy are truly marginal in Parliament, and actually lending credence to the PM’s justification for retaining sole discretion.)


#3: Impersonal politics: In arguing for the rejection of the motion, PM Lee said that: “The vacancy does not affect the mandate of the government, nor its ability to deliver on its programmes and promises. The government’s mandate continues to run until the next general election is called, when the incumbent team will render account to the electorate.” (CNA, “Parliament rejects motion to fine-tune electorial system”, 27 Aug 2008)


In other words, you did not vote for the man you see on the poster hanging on the lamp-post but for the party. Which of course begs the question: isn’t that man supposed to represent my interests in the highest forum in the land? Or is that man just another mindless party digit whose real job is to explain “tough policies” to me and to sleep in Parliament? Such an argument takes out the personality and human touch in local politics, rendering it cold and faceless. It is only by emphasising party over the individual (together with the GRC mechanism) that the PAP has managed to usher in individuals into Parliament who would, realistically, never win any election if he or she were to stand on their own. I’m sure we all can think of at least 5 or 6 of such current MPs.


#4: PAP MPs really look out of touch with the people: CNA reported that Jurong GRC MP Halimah Yacob argued that “the response of the grassroots leaders and the residents whom I had met is a great assurance… None have raised the issue of a by-election.” This was “refuted by Nominated MP Siew Kum Hong, who said a street poll of about 300 Jurong residents showed that 56.8 per cent wanted a by-election”. (CNA, “MPs debate by-election laws in Parliament”, 27 Aug 2008).


#5: Resistance to real liberalisation: A lot has been made about the easing of bans over political films and outdoor protests. In response, critics have charged that such changes are only cosmetic; all unveiled with a flourish but having little impact on the existing structures (both legal and electoral) that restrict popular or liberal democracy. This rejected motion only reinforces such a belief.


#6: Inconsistent government rhetoric: It also demonstrates the inconsistency between calling Singaporeans to be more politically interested and aware but at the same time denying them the chance to exercise their vote. I guess the message is: yes to volunteerism, no to voting.


For the majority of Singaporeans, this will sail over their heads. It’s not sexy. It’s not a hot-button topic like transportation, GST, ERP or any other bread and butter issue. What a pity. It would have been in their interest to watch the stillbirth of a democratic institution in Parliament today.





5 Responses to “The Stillbirth of Democracy in Singapore Parliament”

  1. bee Says:

    good post bro

  2. […] to revise Parliamentary Elections Act because the motion sought to entrench GRCs – groundnotes: The Stillbirth of Democracy in Singapore Parliament – Workers’ Party @ Parliament: Section 41A Of The Employment Act, GST (Amendment) […]

  3. For more detailed discussions on these important topics, see:
    Singapore Kopitiam

  4. viewpt Says:

    blame it on the current political model. to be fair, which political party in power will welcome disruptions and challenges to its ideological supremacy?

    democracy can only be facilitated in a tributary process. the closest to what i have read is from an ST article about selectoral democracy in one neighboring country. the problem for me is determining the tributaries.

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