Sunday 10 April 2011


If you consider the various opposition MPs elected since J.B.J. broke the PAP's hitherto clean sweep of Parliament in 1981, would you say that there is a similarity amongst them?

Chiam See Tong, Low Thia Khiang, Ling How Doong, and Cheo Chai Chen are all Chinese, grassroots-heartlander type MPs, who appeal to the average voter.

Chiam defeated Mah Bow Tan in 1984 election in spite of, or perhaps even because of then-PM Lee Kuan Yew's campaigning for Mah. Lee had compared the sterling scholarship of Mah, with the late bloomer achievement of Chiam (got his law degree at 40). Mah the scholar lost that election to Chiam the hardworking, heartlander who had built up his base of supporters in Potong Pasir. After all, how many of us are scholars, and how many of us struggle in our studies and sometimes hope or plan to further our studies, acquire new credentials and get a second chance, a second career? We identified with Chiam. Few had sympathies or affinity for Mah.

Low Thia Kiang works the ground too, but his ace card is his ability to connect to the people with his fluency in Teochew. PAP had to field a candidate in Hougang who is also fluent in Teochew!

Ling How Doong, a grassroot-type MP beat Seet Ai Mee, seen as an elite and upper-class. The story of her washing her hands after shaking hands with a fish-monger may have been debunked (or at least explained away), but it is telling that many people (even SM Goh Chok Tong!) believed it. It speaks to her "atas" public image.
Cheo Chai Chen who won Nee Soon Central in 1991 was also a grassroot-type, non-elite, non-high-flyer MP (he was/is a businessman). He won by just 168 votes so maybe it was a bit of a fluke, but he match the general profile of opposition MPs.

J.B.J. was well-known and well-loved for connecting with the common man and championing their causes. At his wake there were many stories of his generousity and kindness to the common man.

Other than J.B.J.'s race, all the opposition MPs have been of the same characteristic - Average, grassroots-type, male, and Chinese.

It would seem then that given a chance, the people would choose grassroot/ heartlander-type average people to represent them in Parliament.

The PAP recognised this tendency, and in response it ensured that in their ranks they had the likes of Ang Mong Seng, Chan Soo Sen, Ho Geok Choo, Seng Han Thong, and various grassroots type MPs.

However in a one-on-one campaign, a Low Thia Kiang would always beat an Ng Eng Hen, a Gan Kim Yong, a George Yeo or a Vivian Balakrishnan especially if he has prepared the ground well.

I believe it was Churchill who said that democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others that we have tried. At some point, LKY had wondered if perhaps the "one man, one vote" system was faulty, because the evidence would suggest that Chinese heartlander Singaporeans being in the majority and voting for the candidate that best represented them, would end up voting for heartlander-type average MPs.

LKY, ever the meritocrat, had wondered aloud if intelligent people should have more weight to their votes. Heretical!

The scenario is that if Singapore had proceeded with the usual Single-Member Constituency election system, eventually, most if not all MPs would be average heartlander, Chinese MPs. There would be few if any minority MPs, and also few Ministerial-level MPs. Based on the opposition members elected into parliament, it would seem that this assumption has some validity.

So Singapore would have had a Parliament of (mostly) average MPs, from which the ruling party (not necessarily the PAP) would be hard pressed to find good intelligent Minister-calibre MPs to form the cabinet.

So the PAP came up with the Group Representation Constituency system.

So to paraphrase Churchill, the GRC system is the worst way to try to ensure all segments of the population are represented, except for all the other methods that have been tried in various other places.

In a sense for Singapore, Democracy is secondary to Meritocracy. At times we have been called a technocracy - rule by technocrats or "experts". That's meritocracy in governance. But there have been humbling moments for the PAP - Chiam beating Mah, Ling defeating Seet, - which were also a check on meritocracy/technocracy. So I see it as a compromise.

Instead of a parliament of average MPs (which would be QUITE bad) or a parliament of demagogues (which would be HORRIBLE), or a parliament of ELITES (which without the opposition, would be what the PAP would evolve into, and would also be TERRIBLE), the PAP had to come up with the GRC system to ensure that a) capable leaders (who may be seen as elite/elitist, aloof, arrogant, out of touch, and socially inept) would be elected in, b) grassroots-type MPs are amply seeded throughout to represent the average, middle-class, common man's concerns and c) minorities are adequately represented.

So we have a Parliament to Rule (technocrats & Ministers) and a Parliament to Represent (grassroots-type and Minority MPs). Which may well be the best compromise conceivable at this point in time. And the role of the opposition, is to ensure that the Parliament to Represent does not dwindle over time. And in that sense, I think they have played their roles very well.

[I fear I may not have been very comprehensive in the above, so in the style of LKY's latest book, here is a Q&A style for some loose ends.]

So what? So what if our Parliament is of average heartlander MPs? Isn't that democracy at work? 

Yes, it is. It is the worst form of democracy. It is mob rule, and tyranny of the majority. More importantly, it encourages demagoguery, populism, appealing to the emotions, polarisation of segments of population, politics of envy, pitting the haves vs the have-nots, and generally drawing out all the worst parts of democracy.

It's like a buffet. People always go for the seafood, and the meat, cos that's what they like and that's value for money. But this leads to an unbalanced diet. Similarly it will lead to an unbalanced Parliament, where the people who are represented are the majority, and the majority is average.

Cassendra Chew wrote in the ST blogs, comparing the GRC system to buying bags of onions, she arrives at this dilemma:
"At the supermarket, I usually go for the bag without any bad onions. To me, getting average onions (emphasis mine) is better than having to deal with the rotten onion at all.
I know of others who would pick the bag with the bad onion and then look forward to the moment they can toss it out, all for the sake of the perfect onions."
Of course with the GRC system you can't toss the bad onions after you buy the bag. You're stuck with it.

But her analogy is wrong. We're not picking a bag of onions. We are putting together a balanced meal. We may like the meat (grassroot MP), but we also need the fibre and the carbohydrates (the Minority, and the Thinker).

But isn't there some other way? What about proportional representation?

Yes, in a proportional representation system, minorities will be represented. And if you decide to have an "Intellectual Party" appealing to smart people, smart people can also get into parliament. But being in the minority, they can't form the govt.

But isn't this disguised elitism?

By most reasonable definitions of of "elitism", no. In the GRC system, the Minister, the Grassroot MP, and the Minority MP must work together and they depend on each other to make the system work. In most cases, if an MP becomes a Minister, he will have to hold the post for 4 terms according to PM Lee. Most backbenchers stay for 3 terms (my estimate), so often we see grassroots leaders stepping down while the Ministers carry on.

Now if the Ministers are using/misusing/abusing the grassroot MPs, there would be some sign of the discontent. So far there has been no cases where a PAP MP having been let go, turns against the PAP, alleges discrimination or elitism, and challenges PAP as an independent or joins an opposition. Such a defection would be a huge PR coup for the opposition!

The two best examples of possible "defectors" from the PAP are Tan Cheng Bock, and Tan Soo Khoon (why both Tans?). While they were critical of the PAP, they were critical of policies not persons and did not suggest that there were any impropriety. Perhaps TCB having always contested in an SMC, was never "exploited" in a GRC. But Tan Soo Khoon started in SMC (GRCs had not been implemented then in 1976), was absorbed into a GRC, and then transferred to another GRC. If he had been exploited, he would have said something. He was quite outspoken. He criticised the government for building monuments - "The Seven Wonders of the Civil Service" - new HQ for various Ministries.

So if the "elite" MPs/Ministers are exploiting grassroots MPs, you can be sure that you would hear of it.

Meanwhile, the opposition candidates are playing musical chairs with RP losing all their candidates.

But by supporting or arguing for the GRC system are we making a case that the GRC system is the best system and we should keep the PAP in power for ever, and perpetually keep the opposition at a disadvantage?

Not necessarily. There are several ways the PAP can lose power. If intelligent people choose not to join the PAP and this they decide either for selfish reasons (their career pays better) or for altruistic reasons (PAP policies are becoming less tenable, and more unfair), then the PAP will have less intellect to bring to bear upon the problems of governing and growing SG. Performance drops and confidence in the PAP drops as well.

The opposition can also be more strategic in their thinking. So far, the opposition is unthinkingly trying to match the PAP's game for the wrong reason. They think that because the PAP's team consist of a Thinker, a Representative, and a Minority, they must also have the same - an "A" team. They don't. They just need a Minority to satisfy the overt objectives of the GRC, and they have the advantage of fielding Representative MPs for the rest of the slate in the GRC. So they can tell the voters, "The Minister not often in, but vote for us and we will always be there for you and we understand your problems because we are like you. The Minister is a bit atas, doesn't know or feel for you like we do."

[The PAP often says the Minister anchors the GRC. I suspect the Minister may actually be the weak link. BUT to be fair, the Ministers have had to learn on the ground how to be more "grassroots". Khaw Boon Wan seems like a approachable, grassroot Minister. Mah Bow Tan by now may have become a grassroots MP as well. So while they may have started out weak in grassroots, they have learnt on the job. The thing is, the GRC gave them the opportunity to learn on the job. Without the GRC, Mah would never get into parliament, and would never be minister, and would never have learned how to be an MP.]

It is only when the opposition has a chance at forming the govt that they need to bring in their Thinker-Policy Maker.

[Post GE 2011 note: WP managed to take Aljunied, by working the ground, and leveraging on the anti-PAP groundswell. So while the advantage is with the incumbent, there is no guarantee that the incumbent cannot be ejected.]


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