Let’s start a conversation about Singapore’s electoral system

TL;DR? Singapore’s parliament is really unrepresentative of the way people have voted compared to other countries’ parliaments. Instead of (or in addition to) speculating about which GRCs will shrink or disappear, let’s start thinking about switching to proportional representation. The PAP might improve their vote share; the opposition will increase their seat share; we get a more representative parliament. Everybody wins, right?

For some time I’ve been thinking about how Singapore’s politics might change in the coming decades. Here, my focus is electoral politics—the formal, institutionalised politics of political parties, voting, and elections. (I’ll treat things like inter-election parliamentary politics, and socio-political contestation from civil society/social movement organisations as a separate issue.) It’s topical, given that elections are just around the corner. But I’d like to take a step back from elections and examine our electoral system itself. Here, I’ve thrown together a bit of evidence which indicates that at least according to one simple measure, Singapore’s electoral system—the set of rules which transform voters’ preferences into representation in parliament—is fairly unrepresentative compared to other similar systems around the world. Moreover, the evidence suggests that Group Representation Constituencies (GRCs)—the mega-constituencies that send four to six party-list members to parliament—themselves are not to blame for the opposition’s sorry state. Because of that, I think we shouldn’t just look at having smaller GRCs; rather, more radical alternatives should be considered—namely, some form of proportional representation.


Marikana: Both sides to blame

As some of you know, maybe too well, I’ve been doing fieldwork on community organising — the formation of grassroots organisations among residents to advocate for / take care of communal matters like safety and development — in a new informal settlement in Cape Town. That informal settlement exploded in violence over the last week of May, just after I concluded my fieldwork. I sent a letter off to the Cape Times for publication, explaining my view of matters. It was shortened and published on June 8, 2015 as “Active engagement between City, Marikana could’ve averted violence,” but here’s the full version.

The events of the last week in Marikana informal settlement in Philippi, Cape Town, powerfully illustrate the saying that when elephants dance, the grass gets trampled. Innocents died, scores have been injured, many houses burnt, and countless lives disrupted. As a student-researcher who has been gathering information on community organising in the Marikana settlement for the last six months, I have had deep conversations with all sides of the current fracas. In my opinion, both the leaderships of Marikana and the City of Cape Town deserve the strongest possible condemnation; the Marikana side for their actions, the City for their inaction.

Cape Town’s Marikana began as an occupation of undeveloped, unfenced, mostly privately-owned land which was a known hotspot for illegal activity and violent crime. The land occupiers wanted to meet their own housing needs, while denying criminals the space to kill and rape. After intense periods of confrontational eviction activity in April 2013 and August 2014, the land occupiers and the City settled into an uneasy accommodation. As court cases against the Marikana settlers ground on, life in Marikana became more settled, even routine. Local street committees and the SAPS brought violence, infighting, and crime in the community under control. People began to build lives there.

All this changed in the last half of May. Residents in nearby Klipfontein began protesting against electricity cuts, and people from Marikana joined in solidarity. Now, direct action—barricading, stone-throwing, toyi-toying—was back on the table. Even so, a crisis could have been averted—but instead, Marikana leaders decided to ride the momentum, stoke the flames. On Monday, 25 May, they called for their own community to mobilise. But by barricading roads, burning tyres, hurling stones and spreading rubbish, protesters only succeeded in alienating their neighbours, to whom they should have been reaching out as allies. They disrupted the daily routines of people throughout Marikana, Philippi East, Khayelitsha, and other areas, making it harder for honest, hardworking citizens (including many in their own community) to safely get to work and school for a full week. In fact, people of neighbouring Lower Crossroads, fed up of the disruption, retaliated over the weekend. Marikana leaders must ask themselves: was it worth it? (more…)

A fitting legacy for Lee Kuan Yew

This Monday, far away from home, my thoughts are, fittingly, on a person who so thoroughly altered every single aspect of it. Singapore’s first and longest-serving prime minister Mr Lee Kuan Yew died this morning. While local obituaries in the mainstream media included history lessons reminding us of the progress we made under him, foreign ones emphasised political and media ‘repression’ he engineered. (The Economist‘s, my favourite among the ones I’ve seen, subtly and at times humorously steers a middle course between both.) Instead of looking backward, though, I’m reflecting on the future.

The enormity of Mr Lee’s task at independence is well-known to Singaporeans, as is the audacity of his team’s accomplishments. But he and his team were also placed in a uniquely favourable position in history. There was a demographic transition ripe for the picking (see Leete and Alam 1993, who point out that fertility rates in Penang declined at nearly the same pace as Singapore with a short time lag and, significantly, without a Stop at Two policy). There was a demographic dividend of a youthful population. Globalisation 2.0 was just taking off. And though the HDB justifiably deserves credit for housing so many so quickly in the early years, Singapore avoided the kind of messy urbanisation that happens in so many cities in the global South not just through its efforts but also partly because in 1965, we were separated from a neverending stream of migrants from rural areas aka Malaysia—the kind of neverending stream that crowds Dharavi or Soweto even today. So there certainly were external factors working in Mr Lee’s favour.

Even so, Mr Lee was singularly astute. Failure was not an option, and so Mr Lee made sure that every possible tool at his disposal was geared towards success, right down to his intimidating presence. I think it is fair to say that in 1965 or 1975, Mr Lee’s success or failure was synonymous with Singapore’s own success or failure, simply because it is vanishingly unlikely that any other party could have assembled a team of such visionaries as Mr Goh Keng Swee or Mr Lim Kim San. And so some of these tools included the Internal Security Act, the Newspapers and Printing Presses Act, defamation suits as a means of defending the reputation of political leaders, and later on the Group Representation Constituencies. The human cost of these tools to those people on whom they were used is only starting to become more widely known. What these tools saved us from, we will never know.

In any case, Singapore today is vastly different from what it was in 1965 thanks to the efforts of Mr Lee’s team. But it reflects priorities that they have chosen. We have a variety of state-led capitalism (Hall and Soskice 2001, Ritchie 2009) that has arguably stifled innovation and limited the bargaining power of the labour movement even while it efficiently generated a massive stock of human capital and paired it with financial capital from MNCs. We have a welfare regime (Esping-Andersen 1990, 1999, Peng and Wong 2010) that emphasises individual and familial self-reliance. While keeping social spending and transfers low, the system has also reinforced (whether inadvertently or by design) a feeling of shame around seeking help, as well as left out people who don’t fit into traditional conceptions of family—because according to our Shared Values, the product of a White Paper from 1991, we put society before self. These economic and social policies form a system or regime of government policy choices that show an internal cohesion and logic—choices that were made beginning with Mr Lee’s team.

The pioneering work by Hall and Soskice and by Esping Andersen also makes clear that there are different policy regimes—different welfare regimes, different varieties of capitalism—with their own advantages and disadvantages, and there are trade-offs between them. What’s more, there are countries with similarly high levels of human development which nevertheless exhibit different policy configurations. In other words, we are not in a situation where the only choice lies with the decisions made by the PAP, and the alternative is to be doomed to failure. Rather, there are multiple paths out there with no clearly optimal one a priori.

Moreover, choosing between these paths involves questions about priorities and values. Are single-parent families less Asian, more immoral? Can we afford individualism? And where there are questions, there must be answers. It used to be the case that our top political leadership and civil servants worked together to hammer out the ‘correct’ answer. But it’s unlikely there will be ‘correct’ answers to ever-more pressing questions of priorities and values. And if there’s one thing the Great Immigration Debate has shown us, it’s that we the people can place political constraints on the kinds of answers we will accept. The sustained though still small volume of critical writing online and from the think tanks shows that dissent will not go away. In other words, it is inconceivable that our policies will continue only to reflect negotiated agreements at the top. They certainly shouldn’t.

None of this is meant to demean Mr Lee’s achievements, merely to place them in context. He was helped by external factors, and what he did in order to lay the groundwork for his accomplishments may not be necessary today. It may not even be appropriate if we think that the increase in political participation in recent years is legitimate, as well we might if we accept what I have argued, that different policy configurations may well lead to broadly similar outcomes in the aggregate (though the distribution or the types of people who benefit may be different).

So here’s what my argument’s been building towards. If you think Lee Kuan Yew was a great man, it must be admitted that the system was built for great men. As his generation of giants passes on, as Singapore progresses, and as our wants and priorities diversify, it becomes less clear that his chosen successors will be able to fill those shoes 100% of the time. If they can’t, then we need to quickly build up a vibrant public discourse and a B team that we can trust to govern, for five years if not fifty. And if he was not a great man, even more reason for the people to make the choices (some might say mistakes) they will live with, rather than leave the tools Mr Lee crafted in the hands of those lesser mortals who have followed in his footsteps.

Properly acknowledging the legacy of Lee Kuan Yew involves tweaking our political system to extend the boundaries within which alternative views can be expressed. Our political system was built to be run by great visionaries far ahead of their time, and Mr Lee and his small crew were just such visionaries. Today, the path ahead is far less certain, and the nature of the policy regime we want to see in Singapore far more contestable. No comparable crew of visionaries is readily apparent. And no one leaves heavy machinery in the hands of babies.

What do you give a nation which has everything? It is becoming harder to answer that question. Therefore a fitting legacy for Lee Kuan Yew, paradoxically, involves repudiating part of his legacy—the part of that legacy that was built for great men by a great man.

(Edit 31/3/2015) Other LKY obitmentaries:

Esping-Andersen, Gøsta. 1990. The Three Worlds of Welfare Capitalism. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

———. 1999. Social Foundations of Postindustrial Economies. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Hall, Peter A. and David Soskice. 2001. “An introduction to varieties of capitalism.” In Varieties of Capitalism: The Institutional Foundations of Comparative Advantage, edited by Peter A. Hall and David Soskice, pages 1-68. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Leete, Richard, and Iqbal Alam. 1993. “Fertility Transitions of Similar Cultural Groups in Different Countries.” In The Revolution in Asian Fertility: Dimensions, Causes, and Implications, ed. Richard Leete and Iqbal Alam, 239–252. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Peng, Ito, and Joseph Wong. 2010. “East Asia.” In The Oxford Handbook of the Welfare State, edited by Francis G. Castles, Stephan Leibfried, Jane Lewis, Herbert Obinger, and Christopher Pierson, 656–70. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Ritchie, Bryan K. 2009. “Economic upgrading in a state-coordinated, liberal market economy.” Asia Pacific Journal of Management 26:435-457.

The politics of the minimum wage: Hong Kong, Malaysia… and Singapore?

Warning: Everyone and their grandmother has written about the pros and cons of the minimum wage. That is not the subject of this piece. Irrelevant comments solely about how the minimum wage is the bee’s knees or devil spawn will be deleted.

Why do countries adopt a minimum wage? Surprise, surprise: there are arguments on both sides for the minimum wage. Economists don’t agree. And it’s no wonder. Wage dispersion and unemployment are affected by many factors other than the minimum wage, so the literature on minimum wage will always be inconclusive. In other words, we’ll never be able to say whether the minimum wage, as a general rule, is a good or bad thing. Rather, the best we can do is to find out whether it helped or hurt in a specific instance where a minimum wage was implemented or raised. And before it’s implemented, we can argue all we like but it is next to impossible to model or predict the likely effects. Even in the UK (whose economy is far better studied than Singapore’s), pre-minimum wage fears of job losses have been recognised even by the Conservatives to have been unfounded. So I think if a minimum wage were ever to be implemented in Singapore, the decision would be taken on political grounds, not econometrics. In this piece, I’m not making any judgement on the merits of the minimum wage; instead, I want to focus on the politics of the minimum wage—what makes the introduction of a minimum wage likely or unlikely.

I don’t think it’ll happen in Singapore anytime soon. Here’s why: our labour movement is well-integrated with the government, and the media and political opposition is weak. Having taken care of three possible sources for minimum wage demands, it is difficult to imagine another source for minimum wage demands to emerge and gain political traction. And the progressive wage model which has recently come into effect (albeit only for cleaners) may, instead of leading up to a minimum wage law, defuse demands for the introduction of a minimum wage.

To the best of my knowledge, in the region the minimum wage has been implemented most recently in Hong Kong (legislated 2010, implemented 1 May 2011) and Malaysia (legislated 2012, implemented 1 January 2013). I’ll take each of those cases in turn. (Myanmar also implemented a minimum wage in 2013, but there’s just too little written on it to work on. The UK implemented theirs in 1999, and two good policy analyses for that can be found here and here.)


Could demographic change drive values change?

Summary: values change is often argued to push fertility rates down. But what about the reverse? That is, low fertility rates could drive values change. Fertility rates could recover in a generation if (for instance) more religious or conservative people have larger families, and their children go on to have larger families as well. But this would have implications for what we might think of as liberal, progressive values.

Some demographers have argued that people in North America, Europe, and East Asia are having fewer children because value systems have changed (for instance, people prize career and independence over family; some articles that argue this are Atoh 2001, Goldstein et al. 2003, McDonald 2000, 2006). This can be explained either purely through cultural change, or with reference to changing incentives. For instance, it’s plausible that having large families in some societies today invites stigma—that’s an example of cultural change. On the other hand, the fact that divorce has become more widespread and acceptable means that women want to ensure financial stability in case of a breakdown in the marriage, which in turn encourages them to stay in the workforce and discourages them from taking breaks to have children—that’s changing incentives. These two sorts of explanations are not mutually exclusive. But what they have in common is that a demographic outcome is a result of changing views on the good life.

And the result? According to Goldstein et al. (2009), in 2002 about 700–900 million people lived in areas with total fertility rates below 1.3 (that is, based on birth rates that year, women would have 1.3 children on average), including many countries in Europe, most of developed East Asia, as well as anywhere between 6–12 provinces in China.

But how about looking at things in reverse? What I mean is, could changing family structures have an impact on value systems? Last Saturday the New York Times carried an article about the disappearance of the liberal Jewish voter bloc—60% of Jewish children in the NYC area live in Orthodox Jewish homes, which means that in a generation they will form a large voting bloc. In that piece, Samuel Heilman argues that as Orthodox Jews gain political influence, they will clash with “American values” (by which he seems to mean liberal-secular values).


We get the opposition we deserve

“Inter Pares” (among equals) argues that what they call the “Roy Clique” is a threat to Singaporean democracy. This clique is named for the blogger and opposition cause celebre Roy Ngerng, who has allegedly accused the Prime Minister of mismanaging CPF funds, by analogising it to the discredited leadership of City Harvest Church.[1][2] According to Inter Pares, the ‘clique’ have harmed democracy in two ways. Rather than improving political discourse, they have polarised political opinion. And by changing people’s opinions, they may force the real political opposition to reposition themselves. I’ll respond to each of the points in turn. I think the piece reveals a mindset that is so formed in the establishment mould (uncritically accepting ideas about national unity, political polarisation, the function of electoral contestation, and the role of the opposition), that even when it intends to be impartial and critical, it isn’t. (more…)