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Chasing "unity": Elections and multi-cornered fights in Singapore

Kirsten Han photo
Kirsten HanSingapore
Chasing "unity": Elections and multi-cornered fights in Singapore
Opposition parties in Singapore have long tried to avoid multi-cornered fights during elections, preferring to reserve their limited resources to fighting the dominant People's Action Party. Maybe it's time for a change.

In the 2011 general election, almost all constituencies in Singapore were contested, and there were no multi-cornered fights. Following a fairly long-standing principle of "opposition unity", alternative parties met and carved out their respective turfs, so as to avoid cannibalising one another’s votes and to create the best environment for reducing the dominance of the People’s Action Party (PAP), which has ruled Singapore without interruption since 1959.

This upcoming election might not be so neat. After a second round of “horse-trading” talks, there are still constituencies claimed by more than one party, leading to a much higher possibility of multi-cornered fights.

The idea of negotiating territory and avoiding three-cornered fights is not unreasonable, especially in the Singaporean context. One party is overwhelmingly dominant here – from 1968 to 1981 the PAP took every seat in Parliament, and even though the 2011 general election and a subsequent by-election led to the highest opposition presence ever seen in independent Singapore, we’re still talking about only seven elected opposition members out of 87 Members of Parliament (MPs).

Parliament debates thus become more or less foregone conclusions; the PAP can easily win any vote, especially with a whip in place ensuring that MPs vote according to party lines. With over two-thirds majority, the PAP is also able to push through amendments to the Constitution.

“Avoiding multi-cornered contest are an obvious first step for the opposition,” said Associate Professor Michael Barr from Flinders University’s School of International Studies. “Apart from squandering resources fighting each other rather than the PAP, the first-past-the-post election system makes it a necessity. They only need to ask themselves whether there is any alternative opposition party that they prefer less than the PAP, and the answer and imperative should be obvious.”

Yet this paradoxically serves to perpetuate the framing of PAP dominance, where other parties are merely in the passenger seat to – as Workers’ Party leader Low Thia Khiang once put it – “slap the driver”. 

“[T]his reality does have the unfortunate side-effect of emphasising that they are an opposition, rather than an alternative government,” said Dr Barr.

There is also concern that such carving out of territory shifts the focus towards simply voting against the PAP rather than weighing different parties and their policies against one another. Voters are invited to choose between PAP and ‘other’, rather than to vote for the party whose policies and values are most closely aligned to theirs.

For such a small country, Singapore now has no shortage of political parties. Apart from the PAP and the Workers’ Party – currently the only party to have elected MPs – there is also the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP), the Reform Party (RP), the National Solidarity Party (NSP), Singapore People’s Party (SPP), Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), Singapore Democratic Alliance (SDA), Singaporeans First (SingFirst) and the People’s Power Party (PPP).

With so many parties grappling for space, but all up against the PAP, policies and politics are sometimes left behind. Parties become more associated with the personalities behind them, rather than their ideas and beliefs, as seen in the way some “party-hop” from one political party to another.

“Personality-focussed parties is a routine characteristic of underdeveloped democracies,” said Dr Barr. “We saw the same thing in South Korea, where for many years each new president basically set himself up with a new party.”

Some parties have made efforts to distinguish themselves with policy ideas, with limited success. For example, both SDP and RP have put forward alternative plans and policies, yet continue to still be largely associated with their leaders, the much vilified Dr Chee Soon Juan for SDP and Kenneth Jeyaretnam, son of former opposition MP Joshua Benjamin Jeyaretnam, for RP.

Still, the Punggol East by-election in 2013 saw a multi-cornered fight in which votes were not split between the opposition parties to the PAP’s benefit. When the PAP’s Koh Poh Koon, WP’s Lee Li Lian, RP’s Kenneth Jeyaretnam and SDA’s Desmond Lim went head-to-head in that fight, it was Lee who emerged victorious with 54.5 per cent of the vote. Both Jeyaretnam and Lim received less than two per cent each. Perhaps it was simply a matter of tactical voting, but the result suggests that voters were more than capable of deciding between a number of parties (whether based on personalities or policies it’s a little less clear), rather than just for or against the PAP.

The NSP has announced that it will cede both MacPherson SMC and Marine Parade GRC to WP, thus avoiding a three-cornered fight in both areas. This leaves Ang Mo Kio GRC – a constituency anchored by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong – as the last mega-constituency in which multiple parties would like to contest. 

There's the possibility that one of the alternative parties will eventually withdraw, but should they? Perhaps it's time to consider putting an end to the “horse-trading” and promises of “opposition unity”, and simply let parties contest wherever they can or choose to. Let them fight it out based on their policies and their ability to connect with the ground. Then we'll see how the voters think, process and choose.

That's democracy, after all.

UPDATE: New party SingFirst will not be contesting Ang Mo Kio GRC, leaving RP to challenge the PAP. Unless independent Tan Lam Siong goes through with his idea of contesting Potong Pasir SMC, there will, after all, not be any multi-cornered fights this election.

#singapore, #politics, #elections, #election, #vote, #asia, #democracy

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Brendan Zhong

4 years ago

Agree with the author except on one point - such opposition rivalry is only good when our democracy is developed and instituted in our political system and freedom laws reformed, not before.

This can only be preceded by a sizable opposition presence in Parliament. However, the people prefer to elect opposition deemed as capable. Therefore it's a chicken and egg situation that can only be overcome with certain opposition parties and figures.

Now is definitely not the time.

Kirsten Han

4 years ago

That's definitely a valid argument. One needs to decide what the focus and goal is at any given time, which would alter tactics. If the goal is to get rid of the PAP majority then perhaps it might make sense for the opposition to save their resources and focus on fighting the PAP for the seat. That said, we should also take into account that voters do not necessarily react the same way to all political parties. A person who might vote one particular opposition party might actually prefer PAP to another opposition party, so it's not correct to assume that votes for opposition would be safe regardless of the party.

It would be interesting, though, to see how a three-cornered fight would turn out in a general election. Would the vote for the opposition really be so split, or will we begin to see a preference for certain parties? Also, would opposition parties then be pressured to overcome differences and merge? There are definitely parties that are not distinct in their policies and agendas that should probably be merged, only personalities get in the way.