Politics & Govt

Politics Singapore Style

For a insightful analysis of the various ages of politics in Singapore, please read Janadas Devan's article. Briefly, he calls the elections between Independence (1965) and 1981, ratifications of the default choice of the PAP, rather than true elections. There were simply no feasible alternatives.

From 1981 to 2001, Janadas describes the elections as carrot-and-stick negotiations between the electorate and the PAP.

And finally in 2006 onwards, Janadas says that real, ordinary politics have arrived in Singapore.

Coincidentally, or not, the three phases roughly corresponds to the 3 Prime Ministers' tenure (with the third PM's tenure still ongoing).

For current political issues and news, there's SingaPolitics [Link is defunct], a website for Singapore Politics. Note that it is set up by Singapore Press Holdings, the publisher of the Straits Times. 

So much for the introduction. Let's get to a uniquely Singapore "invention": The Group Representation Constituency.

The Group Representation Constituency

Singapore switched to a mix of Group Representation Constituency (GRC) and Single Member Constituency (SMC) in the 1988 elections after the PAP-dominant Parliament amended the relevant acts to allow for such electoral grouping. Originally, GRCs were 3-member constituencies of which at least one member had to be a minority to ensure that the minorities were represented in Parliament. This meant that political parties had to field teams of candidates in the GRC, and with weak opposition parties who could barely win single seats, finding a credible team of opposition candidates was highly unlikely.

In the 1988 elections, there were 13 GRCs, and 42 SMCs for a total of 81 seats. Only two PAP minority candidates stood in SMC (Abdullah Tarmugi, and S. Dhanabalan) but they were established MPs (Dhanabalan was a Minister).

Ostensibly, the GRC system was to ensure minority representation in Parliament.

The Singapore government policies actively prevents the formation of ethnic enclaves with housing rules. Hence it would not be possible for a constituency to be predominantly or even significantly Malay or Indian and so guarantee or increase the chances of a minority candidate there.

While the PAP was the default choice (up to 1981), it ensured that its slate of MPs were representative of the ground, and included minority candidates. However, as the opposition started to break the complete deadlock of the PAP, their explicit concern was that PAP minority candidates could be disadvantaged at the polls, and vulnerable to chauvinistic attacks. Although to be fair, the first to break the PAP absolute dominance, was a minority.

In 1981 J.B.Jeyaretnam broke the PAP's hitherto clean sweep of Parliament. JBJ was a veteran campaigner, but until 1981 had been unsuccessful in trying to break into parliament. He 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 generosity and kindness to the common man. So although a member of a minority, he had invested years of campaigning and connecting with the people on the ground to win that by-election.

However, since his win, all opposition candidates who managed to be elected were uniformly Chinese, heartlander- and grassroot-type candidates.

MPs like Chiam See Tong, Low Thia Khiang, Ling How Doong, and Cheo Chai Chen were all Chinese MPs who appealed to the Chinese-majority heartlander and were identified with them.

Low Thia Kiang worked the ground to win Hougang, but his ace card was his ability to connect to the people with his fluency in Teochew. PAP subsequently fielded a candidate (Eric Low) 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 subsequently, but it was 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.

However, the trigger for the GRC may have been the lost of Potong Pasir.

In 1984, Chiam See Tong defeated Mah Bow Tan 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 (who got his law degree at 40). Mah lost that election to Chiam the hardworking, heartlander who had built up his base of supporters in Potong Pasir and with whom the voters identified with. 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?

Singaporeans, and in particular, voters in Potong Pasir identified with Chiam. Few had sympathies or affinity for Mah.

However, Mah was earmarked for bigger things and his loss at the election delayed plans for leadership changes. Mah later benefited from the GRC scheme, contesting on the Tampines GRC slate.

PAP may also have realised that their technocrats, the leaders that they intend to bring into parliament and eventually take up ministerial posts, may be able men (they keep losing women ministers at elections), but are hopeless at elections. They speak facts and figures, but are unable to generate hope and aspirations. They can speak of plans and schemes, but fail to provide vision and dreams.

So while the GRC may have been explicitly presented as a means to ensure minority representation, it may also have served a purpose to bring in brilliant technocrats or policy wonks to take up ministerial posts. The problem was that brilliant policy wonks are not always passable, electable, political candidates. The GRC scheme solved that problem.

The PAP had always recognised the need to provide grassroot MPs. However in a one-on-one campaign, a Low Thia Kiang would always beat an Ng Eng Hen, a George Yeo or a Vivian Balakrishnan especially if he has prepared the ground well (and speaks Teochew?).

Few PAP minister are also personable types that can win elections. Why? Because the ability to win elections does not translate to the ability to run ministries well. Meritocracy fails when what is meritorious is not what gets one the job.

(This is a key difference why Singapore govt works, while other countries fail. Politicians in other countries are chosen based on political savvy. After that, their ability to govern is at best 50-50. PAP chooses potential ministers based on ability to develop and implement policy. Then they work the GRC system to try to get them into parliament.)

[Oct 2016 note: It is telling that Hillary Clinton who has the policy chops and experience is having a hard time beating Donald Trump, a misogynistic, egotistical, bloviating, "sexmonster". Democracy at work.]

I believe it was Churchill who said that democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others that we have tried. Similarly, 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 the GRC 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, might 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 politically 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 Govern (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 one of 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.

Without a more cerebral parliament to govern, it would be mob rule, and tyranny of the majority. More importantly, it encourages demagoguery, 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.

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! And because these are experienced grassroot MPs, they would be able to whip up support for their candidacy.

[Post-PE2011 Addendum. Tan Cheng Bock has diverged from the PAP (univited from a PAP-organised event) and if not exactly persona non grata to the PAP, is not exactly their bosom buddy. I was going to point out that if the GRC system exploits the "Grassroot MPs" as a splinter faction TCB would have every reason and motivation to spill the beans, air the dirty laundry, etc. Of course, he was never in a GRC (he ran and won the Ayer Rajah SMC several times). So maybe he did not know about the underhanded dealings (if any) in a GRC? I would find that hard to believe. 

As an independent-minded MP, he would have been one of the persons who would have attracted any disgruntled PAP Grassroots MPs who might have wanted to opposed or expose the elitist/exploitive PAP MPs. 

The simple fact is there were no such movement or reaction. The most likely answer then, is there was no exploitation, elitism, or dissension among the PAP ranks. And that speaks rather well for the PAP.] 

Some references:

The Perils of the two-party system, like in the US.

And how a two-party system is an inevitable development from the First-Past-the-Post system.

An alternative to FPTP. Perhaps a way to adjust the NCMP system?

Electing POTROS - The case for an electoral college.

And how that works in the US.

[Editorial Note of 23 Feb 2015: It has been brought to my attention that that bastion of journalistic integrity, "The Real Singapore", has cut and pasted portions of the above on the GRC, and retitled it "PAP SUPPORTER: THE GRC ENSURES UNPOPULAR BUT QUALITY MINISTERS CAN BE IN POWER"

Caps were in their re-titling, because REAL Singaporeans have to shout to be heard. Or the voice of the Average Singaporean have to be loud, to make up for the lack of intellectual content, perhaps?

I couldn't decide if I should be offended to be labelled  a "PAP Supporter". But then again, this is the website that had to put "Real" in their name... Lest Singaporeans think they are foreigners?* Such insecurity. It is also to help their readers. If you don't tell them "Hey! We're putting something different from the usual intellectual swill that passes for thought here, and oh, BTW, it's a PAP supporter!" their readers won't know what to make of it. They live in a black and white world. It helps if you tell them what to think.

[*6 Mar Edit: It has come to my attention (yes, I know. I am so behind time. Or I have ADHD) that of the two TRS editors arrested, one is an Australian <Link is defunct>. Well, now we know why they have to specify that they are "Real Singapore" in their name.]

I also couldn't decide if I should be offended that The Real Singapore copied (it's not plagiarism if they credit the source right?) and pasted my words, without even the courtesy of informing me. Let alone asking my permission. 

But who am I to complain? I do this for free. TRS presumably needs to generate traffic to justify their advertising rates (and pay their salaries). Being anti-establishment doesn't pay the bills you know. Or just because you are anti-establishment, doesn't mean you have to do it for free. So they go around getting... contributors? Or they just take blog pages from average Singaporeans, and label them "PAP supporter" to justify their... "theft" is such an ugly word... let's just call it "unapproved copying".

Well, I guess, that's one way of ensuring that they have the "voice" of the average Singaporean, whether the average, "PAP-supporting" Singaporean wants their voice carried by the intrepid "The Real Singapore".

One last point. I tried posting a comment there. It was not printed. I guess my disagreement with the homogenous, anti-govt comments already there was bad for the collective "wa".]

[Update: In GE 2011, Worker's Party took the first GRC from PAP in Aljunied. In 2012, WP' s MP for Hougang, Yaw Shin Leong was caught in a scandal, and resigned. This led to a by-election in May 2012, which WP managed to hang onto Hougang with candidate Png Eng Huat. In 2013, it was PAP's turn to have a similar scandal involving Michael Palmer, MP for Punggol East. In the by-election, the shock result was a WP win over PAP in a 4-corner contest. RP and SDA lost their deposits. WP Lee Li Lian won with 54.5% of the votes. 

Subsequently, WP tried to talk down its win in Punggol East. Low Thia Kiang made a point of saying that WP is not ready to form the government and he had no ambition to be Prime Minister.

in 2014, at about the midway point, PM Lee was asked about the future of Singapore in particular if there were a possibility of a coalition government. 

A coalition government is one of the weakest form of government, and it would mean that SG would be poorly run. But here are the scenarios:

Coalition Govt
Coalition Govt II - more scenarios.
Coalition Govt III - into the realm of speculation.

Speculations - 2016.]

[July 2023 edit: Hazel Poa, Opposition NCMP from the Progress Singapore Party (PSP) moved a proposal for the abolition of the GRC System.

This is rebutted by the PAP's Chan Chun Sing:

Note that the Opposition party's argument is the broad principles of Democracy and Representation is undermined by the GRC. The PAP's rebuttal is the official position that the GRC is to ensure minority representation.]


The People's Action Party (PAP) is synonymous with the Government of Singapore having governed Singapore since independence in 1965, and even before then when we were self-governing colony of Britain.

As with any long-standing government, one cannot help but wonder, are they really that good, or have they been gerrymandering the hell out of the system to stay in power so long.

A bit of both I would say.

The PAP like any successful organisation in today's cynical world has their detractors.

Personally, I think they succeeded because they delivered.

But enough of the opinion, let's get down to facts.

What kind of government does Singapore have?

Singapore is a Parliamentary Republic. This means we have a Parliament, and we are a Republic. Isn't Singapore also a democracy? And you might be thinking, isn't this all the same? Apparently, not.

There are political philosophies about the difference between a Republic and a Democracy. In fact some would argue that a Democracy is very dangerous, the key danger being the tyranny of the Majority, Omnipotent and Unlimited.

The founding fathers of the United States intended to create a Republic.
A Republic is representative government ruled by law (the Constitution). A democracy is direct government ruled by the majority (mob rule). A Republic recognizes the inalienable rights of individuals while democracies are only concerned with group wants or needs (the public good).

 In another reference, the Republic's purpose is,
...to control The Majority strictly, as well as all others among the people, primarily to protect The Individual’s God-given, unalienable rights and therefore for the protection of the rights of The Minority, of all minorities, and the liberties of people in general.
The chief idea about democracy is that it is the rule of the people. In a direct democracy, you don't need debate, you don't need deliberation, you just need to vote. Stuck with a decision? Just call a vote.

The critics of democracy realised how dangerous that could be. Rule of the people literally meant that the Majority is omnipotent and unlimited. The majority wins and the minority is stuck with whatever the Majority, in their generousity decides to give to them.

A Republic is government by reference to laws or a constitution, and so can protect the rights as enshrined in the laws. At least until the Republicans change the laws.

[Note that the links and references, while providing an explanation of the difference between republic and democracy, are generally pro-Republican (US Republicans), so do note that the definitions may be biased. If you see a different definition, please let me know. ]

Anyway, Singapore has a democratic process of selecting our Members of Parliament. Our state is a Republic and so the MPs select from amongst themselves to form the executive branch of the government (Ministers and Prime Minister). 

However, as part of the process of further protecting the minority the Group Representation Constituency system was created. 

Party Politics
Singapore has a Dominant Party system, where the PAP has dominated politics since Independence. While there are opposition parties, PAP was the only party in parliament up til 1981, and lost the first GRC in 2011.

If WP continues to make headway, it may well be the clear alternative to the PAP. And SG may evolve into a two party system. It may well be inevitable.

US Politics (as a comparison)

The US political process and cycle is a little more complex. Besides the President who faces an election every 4 years, there is the bi-cameral (two house) Congress which is made up of the Senate, and the House of Representatives. 

There are 100 Senators, with 2 from each state. Each senator's term of office is for 6 years, but every two years, a third of them faces election. This ensures that the senate changes, but slowly. Revolution will take 4 years (for 66% of the Senate to face elections).

The House of Representatives is based on constituencies or wards, which are based on population. So a more populous state like California will have more Representatives, while a less populous state like Alaska will have fewer. These representatives face elections every two years.

The problem, it seems to me, of elections every 2 years is that the politicians have no time to get things done. The US is a cycle of one election after another.

The whole set up of the US government system seems to be to prevent the govt from doing anything. This draws from their historical belief that limited government is best, and the people should be given the freedom to pursue their own interests without the government interfering.

Well, that is their choice.

For Singapore, we do not have this historical distrust of government and government on the whole has led the country well. 

Democracy is the process by which our government is elected, but once elected, the majority party forms the govt and make decisions and policies for the good of most if not all, while protecting the rights of the minorities. Just as it is intended as a Republic.

However, many Singaporeans have no idea about how things work and assumes or imagines that Singapore should be a direct democracy. 

President of the Republic of Singapore (POTROS)

The US President is sometimes called "POTUS" - President of the United States. I thought it would be nice for Singapore's President to have his own short form - POTROS.

Since 1991, POTROS has been an elected office directly elected by popular vote. With this system of election and mandate of the people, POTROS was given additional role specifically to protect the countries reserves, and to check against a profligate or corrupted or inept government.

Minster of Law K. Shanmugam provides a succinct explanation of the powers of the POTROS, as well as why the president does not have a role as a glorified feedback channel to debate or disagree with the elected Government, which some Singaporeans had hoped or wished the elected President to be. This hope was awakened by prospective Presidential candidates who hoped to attract support for their candidacy by appealing to populist tendencies.

Sovereign Wealth Funds (SWF)

Singapore has 2 SWF which invests Singapore's national reserves to ensure that the value of our reserves is not whittled away by inflation. This link compares the various SWFs in the world.

The 2 SWF are Temasek Holdings (TH) and Government (of Singapore) Investment Corporation (GIC), and to be more accurate, TH invests or manages the reserves (approximately about $400b according to our Finance Minister, from memory), and GIC manages government funds - proceeds from Special Singapore Government Securities (SSGS), the Singapore Government Securities (SGS) - both of these are SG govt bonds, government surpluses, the proceeds from land sales and all other government funds.