Democracies are easily identified by the existence of electoral systems; however, there are distinctions between liberal democracies and illiberal democracies. According to John D Lewis, despite the presence of elections, “decisions simply imposed by a majority, unaffected by the impact of minorities, cannot be considered genuinely democratic decisions” (Lewis 1940). Modern-day Russia is a traditional example of an illiberal democracy, as Vladimir Putin maintains control of the presidency by manipulating public opinion and elections for his support (Fish 2018). Nevertheless, there are governments capable of maintaining power without this overt undermining of democratic values. One example of this is found in Singapore where the current ruling party, the People’s Action Party (PAP), has amended their electoral system to remain in power. By understanding the types of electoral systems, recommendations can be made to reform the Singaporean system to better represent the wishes of the people.
One distinction between different electoral systems is how many people from a district are represented in the national government. Some countries use single member districts and others use multi-member districts. In a single member district system the state is divided evenly into constituencies that are represented by one person in the federal government. In a multi-member district system the constituencies are given varying levels of representation determined by the size and population of the constituency (Heywood pg. 409, 2019). Typically, multi-member districts are used in systems wherein the number of representatives from each party is proportional to the percentage of votes that the party received. Singapore has a unique combination in which they have multi-member districts, but all of the representatives from a district are from one party that received the plurality of votes. The existence of this system is one of the reasons that the PAP has maintained power. In order to understand how this came to be, it is important to examine Singapore’s history.
Singapore is a former British colony, and, similar to other former British colonies, they originally adopted the Westminster system with single member districts (Tan 2013). PAP was originally formed as a radical left-wing party in the early days of Singaporean government. However, it wasn’t until 1968, when Barisian Socialis, a faction of the PAP, staged a mass boycott. This boycott led to the PAP’s clean victory and established their hegemony; the PAP has maintained a supermajority in every election since (Tan 2013). In 1988 PAP ensured their future hold on government by establishing Group Representative Constituencies (GRC) (Ganesean 1998). GRCs are multi-member districts where a party submits a list of four to six people, including at least one ethnic minority, and the constituency votes for their preferred party (Ganesan 1998).
Mandating minority candidates within GRCs means that ethnically homogenous smaller parties can no longer run, and it prevents potential parties from forming on ethnic lines and overtaking the PAP’s seats (Ganesan 1998). Although the GRCs were formed under the guise of increasing minority representation, there is little evidence that suggests the legislature was unequal before the GRCs were formed (Ganesan 1998). The GRC system also means that for a party to gain any representation, they have to win more of the votes than any other party in a large, diverse, district. If they were to win seats in a small district this would be quickly overshadowed by victories of the PAP in large GRCs.
With no other significant opposition party, and severe gerrymandering under the GRC system, voters are either left with no electable alternative to the PAP or no alternative at all (Tan 2013). In 2001 the PAP was running unopposed for 66.9% of voters (Tan 2013 pg. 640). The plurality system in conjunction with the multi-member districts led to a 22.3% electoral disproportionality based on vote and seat shares (Tan 2013 pg. 638). Therefore, in order for Singapore’s democracy to accurately reflect the wishes of the people, this must be reformed.
In order to decrease this disparity Singapore should introduce a single-member district system where the districts are approximately equal in size and population. This way there will not be an overrepresentation of one party that wins in districts with more seats. Reducing a large GRC to a few, smaller, districts will allow some of the areas to elect opposition candidates instead of sending up to six representatives for the entire district from one party. If these smaller parties were able to gain seats in the legislature, they would be able to form coalition governments, or even gain enough seats to act as a check on the ruling party. This is important because as of now, even controversial legislation passes through the House because the PAP has almost all of the seats.
By Cora Fagan
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