Explainer: Singapore’s Electoral System

Author: New Naratif
Published:

This Explainer presents an overview of Singapore’s electoral system, how it works, how and why it has been altered over the years, and the challenges it presents for representative democracy in Singapore. It is part of New Naratif’s coverage of the Singapore General election 2020. For more, please visit our Singapore General Election 2020 portal.

N.B.: The following Explainer was written before the eruption of the covid-19 pandemic. It is currently unknown how an election will be held while this crisis is ongoing. If the Singapore government passes new legislation or updates electoral regulations, this Explainer will be updated.

Three things are necessary for the satisfactory working of representative government: (a) a truly representative assembly; (b) members of the assembly who are able to discuss issues freely and frankly; and (c) the binding nature of that Assembly’s decisions. For an assembly to be truly representative of the people, its members must be elected through a system that the general population regard as fair and legitimate.

The conduct of parliamentary elections in Singapore is governed by three main pieces of legislation: (a) the Constitution (Part VI); (b) the Parliamentary Elections Act (Cap 218); and (c) the Political Donations Act (Cap 236). Under Article 65(4) of the Constitution, Parliament ‘unless sooner dissolved, shall continue for 5 years from the date of its first sitting and shall then stand dissolved.’ This means that a general election must be held at least once in 5 years. Although a by-election may be called if one of the seats should become vacant, the Constitution does not compel the Government to hold such an election.

Principles

Singapore inherited from the British Colonial government a system which political theorists call the ‘simple plurality system’, known more popularly as the ‘first-past-the-post system’. Under this system of voting, the candidate who secures the greatest number of votes is declared elected. This system was introduced by the British and continues to be used extensively in the Commonwealth even though it is less popular elsewhere.

One major problem with this electoral system is that it works optimally only when there are two candidates in any given election. In such a case, whoever wins the election necessarily has the majority share of the vote. However, when three or more candidates contest a constituency or ward, the candidate with the most votes may not necessarily command the majority of votes. For example, a candidate may only get 40% of the vote and yet win the election if the remaining 60% is distributed evenly between the other two candidates. In such a case, the candidate elected cannot be said to be truly representative of the sentiments of the majority of the electorate who effectively cast 60% of their votes against him.

First-Past-The-Post: As the 2011 Presidential Election demonstrated, a candidate can win despite only having a minority of the vote.

Constituencies and Constituents

In an election, most countries are divided into electoral divisions or constituencies. Under Article 39(1)(a) of the Singapore Constitution, the number of elected Members of Parliament must be equal to the number of constituencies. The total number of constituencies in each general election is determined by the Legislature. The main statute dealing with the electoral process is the Parliamentary Elections Act. Under Section 8(1) of this Act, the Minister may ‘from time to time, by notification in the Gazette, specify the names and boundaries of the electoral divisions of Singapore for the purposes of elections.’

Section 8(2) states that the number of constituencies will equal the electoral divisions as laid down under Section 8(1). This means that the Minister need only specify the names and boundaries of the electoral divisions by notification in the Gazette to increase the number of constituencies without tabling a specific amendment via the Parliamentary Elections Act.

This means that the [Prime] Minister need only specify the names and boundaries of the electoral divisions by notification in the Gazette to increase the number of constituencies without tabling a specific amendment via the Parliamentary Elections Act.

Types of Membership

Under the Constitution, there are three categories of members (MPs) in the House. The first category consists of members who are elected directly by their constituencies; and this category can be divided into those who are elected from the Group Representation Constituencies (GRCs) and those elected in the Single-Member Constituencies (SMCs).

The second category comprises ‘non-constituency Members’ (NCMPs) who are not directly elected in the sense that they did not poll the highest number of votes in the constituencies in which they contested but got the next highest votes in the overall results during a general election. The number of such members cannot exceed 12 and their inclusion is ‘to ensure the representation in Parliament of a minimum number of Members from a political party or parties not forming the Government.’

The final category of members – the Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP) – was created in 1990. NMPs do not represent any political party; in fact, they do not even stand for elections. They were introduced into Parliament to provide alternative views ‘held outside Parliament’. The Constitution currently provides for a maximum of 9 NMPs in Parliament.

Qualifying to Stand

The qualifications for candidates wishing to stand for parliamentary elections set out under Article 44 of the Constitution. To qualify, a person must be: (a) a Singapore citizen; (b) over the age of 21; (c) resident in Singapore at the date of nomination; (d) able to take an active part in the proceedings in Parliament; and (e) unless blind, be able to read and write one of the official languages of Singapore. The potential candidate must also be a registered voter and not be disqualified under Article 45.

Joshua B Jeyaretnam, Secretary-General of the Workers’ Party, was repeatedly removed from Parliament and barred from taking part in elections due to charges and lawsuits against him.

Under Article 45, a person may be disqualified from standing in an election if he: (a) is of an unsound mind; (b) is an undischarged bankrupt; (c) holds an office of profit (ie being the whole time in public service); (d) fails to lodge ‘any return of election expenses’; or (e) has voluntarily exercised or acquired citizenship in a foreign country. Other disqualifications include being convicted of an offence entailing a term of imprisonment of one year or more or a fine exceeding $2,000 or conviction of an offence under any law relating to elections to Parliament. Such disqualifications may be removed by the President under Article 45(2) and if not so removed, shall automatically cease to apply after five years. No person can at the same time, be a Member of Parliament of more than one constituency.

The seat of a Member of Parliament becomes vacant upon the dissolution of Parliament. Nonetheless a vacancy can also occur if a Member dies, ceases to be a citizen of Singapore, ceases to be a member or is expelled from his political party, resigns his seat or absents himself for ‘two consecutive months in each of which sittings of Parliament … are held’ without permission from the Speaker, or is expelled from Parliament.

Qualifying to Vote

The qualifications for voters are set out under Section 5 of the Parliamentary Elections Act. Any citizen of Singapore, who is above the age of 21 and who is ordinarily resident in Singapore is entitled to have his name entered or retained in a Register of Electors. Among other things, the Register of Electors contains the following:

(a) name of the constituency and its sub-division known as polling districts; and

(b) particulars of the electors: (i) serial no; (ii) name; (iii) address; and (iv) sex.

A register is prepared for each constituency. In the 2015 general election, there were 29 constituencies (13 SMCs and 16 GRCs) in Singapore, and as such 29 registers are prepared. In the next general election, expected in 2020, there will be 31 electoral divisions, with a total of 93 seats in Parliament. After the registers have been prepared, they have to be exhibited for people to submit claims or raise objections. After this is done, the registers will be certified and will be used for the election until a new one is prepared. Voters can check on their standing on the electoral register through the web.

Seloloving/Wikimedia Commons

An otherwise qualified voter may be disqualified if he: (a) owes his allegiance to another state or foreign power; (b) is serving jail sentence ‘for an offence punishable with imprisonment for a term exceeding 12 months’; (c) is under ‘sentence of death; (d) is of unsound mind; (e) is serving in ‘any naval, military or air force not maintained out of moneys provided by Parliament’; or (f) is registered as a voter in any country. A person may also be prevented from voting if he has been convicted of ‘a corrupt or illegal practice’ under the Act or if his name has been expunged from the register under Section 6(g) of the Parliamentary Elections Act.

Voting is compulsory in Singapore and each person is entitled to only one vote which must be exercised in the electoral division in which he has been registered. Secret ballots are used in the electoral process and results are published in the Gazette.

The right to vote is not extended universally to all Singapore citizens who are living overseas. Under section 13A of the Parliamentary Elections Act, the following categories of persons are entitled to exercise their right to vote even though they may be living overseas:

  1. Singapore citizens who are not resident in Singapore but who have lived in Singapore for an aggregate of 2 years over the last 5 years immediately preceding an election;
  2. Members of the Singapore Armed Forces on full-time training or service outside Singapore;
  3. Public officers or an employees of any public authority employed in full-time service outside Singapore;
  4. Singapore citizens over the age of 21 on full-time training outside Singapore that is sponsored by the Government or any public authority;
  5. Singapore citizens employed outside Singapore by an international organisation of which Singapore is a member or by any other body or organisation designated by the President under Article 135 (1)(c) (ii) of the Constitution of the Republic of Singapore; or
  6. the spouse or a parent, child or dependent of any person referred to above.

While the law clearly provides for overseas voting, the mechanism for allowing this right to manifest remains unclear. In the 2001 general election, much controversy was stirred when the Government announced that it was scrapping its plan to allow overseas voting for security reasons in the wake of the World Trade Centre bombings of September 11th. In a statement issued by the Prime Minister’s office, the Government pointed out that the increased security measures at Singapore’s key overseas diplomatic missions ‘have seriously circumscribed the facilities for overseas voting’.

In 2015, there were only 10 embassies and high commissions that had the necessary security and personnel for the conduct of overseas voting. These centres were: Canberra (Australia); London (United Kingdom); Tokyo (Japan); Hong Kong SAR; Beijing and Shanghai (China); Dubai (UAE); and New York, San Francisco, and Washington DC (USA). These locations are not fixed by legislation and can be changed at each election. Unlike in some other countries, there is no provision for postal voting.

One upshot of this decision prompted a wide-ranging debate at home in Singapore as to whether voting was a right or privilege. Some commentators argued that voting was a right and that the failure by the Government to provide facilities for overseas voting was a clear breach of this right. The words of the Constitution do not make voting a clear right; at least not in the same way as those rights protected under Part IV of the Constitution which safeguards our fundamental liberties. Voting is a right in that the scheme of the Constitution envisages a parliamentary system of government and that government is to be democratically elected. Implicit in this scheme is the right to vote. It would otherwise be impossible to have a democratically-elected legislature. Can an overseas voter take out an action demanding that the Government provide facilities for voting? Arguably, this is possible even though it has never been done before.

Is voting a right or a privilege?… The words of the Constitution do not make voting a clear right… the scheme of the Constitution envisages a parliamentary system of government and that government is to be democratically elected. Implicit in this scheme is the right to vote.

In February 2009, there was a fascinating exchange of views in Parliament relating to the right to vote. Nominated MP Professor Thio Li-ann urged Parliament to entrench the right to vote, arguing that since the Constitution did not sufficiently safeguard this right, it was fundamental to a democratic society that the right be entrenched in the Constitution. Demurring on that point, Law Minister K Shanmugam argued that the right to vote was already a constitutional right as implied by a reading of Articles 65 and 66 of the Constitution and a constitutional amendment would be unnecessary.

Life of Parliament & Vacancies

Under Article 64(1) of the Constitution, there must be a session of Parliament ‘once at least in every year’ and Parliament must sit for a new session within six months of the last sitting of the previous session. The life span of Parliament is five years although the President can dissolve Parliament at any time ‘if he is advised by the Prime Minister to do so’ and if the Prime Minister commands the confidence of the majority of the Members of Parliament. A general election must be held within three months of Parliament’s dissolution (Article 66).

Under Article 46(1) of the Constitution, every Member of Parliament shall cease to be a member when Parliament is dissolved. A member’s seat also becomes vacant if he or she: (a) ceases to be a citizen of Singapore; (b) ceases to be a member of, or is expelled or resigns from, the political party for which he stood in the election; (c) resigns his seat; (d) absents himself from sittings of Parliament for two consecutive months without the Speaker’s permission; (e) is disqualified under one of the provisions of Article 45; or (f) is expelled from Parliament. In the case of Nominated MPs, his or her seat becomes vacant when the term of office expires, or if he or she stands as a candidate for any political party or as an independent. A Non-Constituency MP must also vacate his seat if he is elected as a Member of Parliament for any constituency.

One of the biggest constitutional debates in recent years has been whether the vacation of a seat in Parliament automatically triggers a by-election. In February 2012, Yaw Shin Leong, the Workers’ Party MP for Hougang constituency (single-member ward) was expelled from his party and his seat fell vacant. Yaw’s seat was declared vacant by the Speaker on 28 February 2012 and by-elections were anticipated. However, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong stated that there was no time period in which he was required to call an election and even intimated that he had ultimate discretion in deciding if a by-election need be called.

On 2 March 2012, a Hougang constituency resident, Mdm Vellama d/o Marie Muthu filed an application for a declaration that: (a) the Prime Minister does not have unfettered discretion in deciding whether to announce by-elections in Hougang constituency; and (b) the Prime Minister does not have unfettered discretion to decide when to announce by-election in Hougang constituency, and must do so within three months or within such reasonable as the Court deems fit.

In the High Court, Justice Philip Pillai, who delivered his judgment on 1 August 2012, held that the words ‘shall be filled by election’ in Article 49(1) of the Constitution referred to a process rather than an event. In other words, all vacancies shall be filled by the process of an election, as opposed to nomination, and did not require a writ of election to be issued within a specified time. In the meantime, President Tony Tan issued a writ of election on 9 May 2012 and by-elections were held on 26 May 2012. It was won by the Workers’ Party’s Png Eng Huat. Vellama appealed Justice Pillai’s decision and the Court of Appeal overturned the High Court’s interpretation of Article 49 of the Constitution, holding that the Prime Minister did not have an unfettered discretion to decide whether or not to hold a by-election when a seat becomes vacant. Furthermore, such a by-election must be ‘within a reasonable time’, taking all circumstances into consideration:

The sum total of all this in the context of the present appeal is that while the Prime Minister retains a substantial measure of discretion as to the timing of an election to fill a casual vacancy, his discretion is not unconditional. Thus, it will not be in order for him to declare that he will not be calling an election to fill such a vacancy unless at that point in time, he intends, in the near future, to advise the President to dissolve Parliament. In any event, even if at a particular point in time he feels that it would not be appropriate to call for an election to fill a vacancy, he must still review the circumstances from time to time and call for election to fill the vacancy if and when the circumstances have changed.

While it is now clear that a by-election must be called when an SMC is vacated, the question as to whether a by-election had to similarly be called when a single MP vacated his or her seat in a GRC was left unanswered in Vellama’s case. This scenario actually occurred in 2017 when Halimah Yacob, then Speaker of Parliament and a member of the 4-member GRC team in Marsiling-Yew Tee constituency resigned her membership in the PAP to contest the Presidential election. Halimah was also the only ethnic minority member of the GRC team. Wong Souk Yee, a member of the opposition Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) and resident of Marsiling-Yew Tee commenced an action demanding that the Prime Minister call a by-election. Like in Vellama’s case, the Court of Appeal had to consider the meaning of Article 49(1) of the Constitution which reads:

49.—(1) Whenever the seat of a Member, not being a non-constituency Member, has become vacant for any reason other than a dissolution of Parliament, the vacancy shall be filled by election in the manner provided by or under any law relating to Parliamentary elections for the time being in force.

Marsiling-Yew Tee have been missing their minority MP since 2017, but no by-election has been held to replace her.

Wong argued that as Article 49(1) referred to ‘seat of a Member’ becoming vacant, it meant that even if a single GRC member resigned, a by-election was mandated. However, the Attorney-General argued that this reading of Article 49(1) would be inconsistent with Article 46(2) which provides six specific instances in which an MP might lose his or her seat. And as none of these specific instances includes the vacating of a seat by a fellow GRC team member, the three remaining GRC team members must necessarily retain their seats in Marsiling-Yew Tee. Furthermore, section 24(2A) of the Parliamentary Elections Act provides that no writ of election shall be issued ‘for an election to fill any vacancy unless all the Members for that constituency have vacated their seats in Parliament.’ The Court of Appeal held that as there was an inconsistency between Articles 46(2) and 49(1), the only meaningful way to interpret Article 49(1) was to hold that it applied only to SMCs and not to GRCs. This highly textual reasoning misses the woods for the trees. The whole point of the GRC system was to ensure ethnic minority representation by requiring candidates to team up with an ethnic minority candidate and contest the election together and then to run the constituency together. If it were otherwise, then an unscrupulous but popular political party could cobble together enough teams to contest all the GRCs, and then have all but one MP resign from each of these GRCs. Theoretically, five members of a six-member GRC can resign their seats and leave the remaining member as the sole representative for his constituency. In the 2015 elections, there were two 6-member GRCs: Ang Mo Kio GRC and Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC, each with about 187,000 electors. If five of the six MPs in either of these GRCs resign, that would leave a single MP representing 187,000 electors. Contrast this with the average size of a single-member constituency in 2015, which was 27,000 electors. This would make a complete mockery of the idea of representation.

Theoretically, five members of a six-member GRC can resign their seats and leave the remaining member as the sole representative for his constituency…. This would make a complete mockery of the idea of representation.

Drawing Electoral Boundaries

Right up till 1984, the number of constituencies was specified in the Constitution. Thus, the Constitution had to be amended every time Parliament decided to increase the number of constituencies. In 1984, an amendment was made to Article 39 of the Constitution to simply state that Parliament ‘shall consist of such number of elected Members as is required at a general election by the constituencies prescribed by or under any law made by the Legislature.’ With this amendment, Parliament delegated the power and responsibility of determining how Singapore’s electoral boundaries would be drawn to the Minister in charge of the Parliamentary Elections Act: the Prime Minister.

Under section 8(1) of the Parliamentary Elections Act, the Prime Minister may, ‘from time to time, by notification in the Gazette, specify the names and boundaries of the electoral divisions of Singapore for purposes of elections’. This power to determine electoral boundaries gives the incumbent Prime Minister almost unbridled power to shift these boundaries for his party’s best advantage. Unlike countries like India, Indonesia, or Philippines, Singapore does not have an independent Election Department. The Elections Department of Singapore (ELD) was established in 1947 in the run-up to Singapore’s first general election on 20 March 1948 when only 6 of the 22 Legislative Council seats were directly contested. At the time, it was a department under the Colonial Secretary’s Office. Today it is part of the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) and reports to the PMO’s permanent secretary. The ELD is responsible for preparing for and managing Presidential and Parliamentary elections in Singapore and is the department responsible for overseeing the enforcement of the Political Donations Act. Between elections, the ELD maintains the electoral roll and trains election officials.

Singapore does not have an independent Election Department….This power to determine electoral boundaries gives the incumbent Prime Minister almost unbridled power to shift these boundaries for his party’s best advantage.

The ELD is, however, not responsible for determining electoral boundaries or constituency allocations. The body responsible for this is the Electoral Boundaries Review Committee (EBRC) which is not a standing Committee but is appointed by the Prime Minister pursuant to his power under section 8 of the Act. The composition of the EBRC is not fixed by law but determined by the Prime Minister, acting in his discretion. Members of the 2015 EBRC included the Cabinet Secretary (Chairman); the Head of ELD (Secretary); the Chief Executive Officer of the Housing and Development Board; the Chief Executive of the Singapore Land Authority; and the Chief Statistician. The EBRC is appointed just prior to the conduct of each general election, and must act to fulfil its terms of reference, which are also determined by the Prime Minister. For example, the 2015 EBRC was not only tasked with reviewing the boundaries of the electoral divisions, but to also work on having ‘smaller Group Representation Constituencies, so as to reduce the average size of Group Representation Constituencies below 5.’

The EBRC is constrained by its terms of reference and is thus unable to work outside its prescribed parameters. It is the Prime Minister who is the ultimate authority on determining how electoral boundaries will be drawn and how many electors there are in each constituency.  There is nothing to prevent him from gerrymandering the boundaries to advantage his party. In 2015, the EBRC estimated that with a voting population of 2,460,977 and a total of 87 Members of Parliament (MPs), each MP would serve and average 28,300 electors. However, in determining the size of the various constituencies, the EBRC decided to adopt a variation of ±30%. As such, each MP would serve between 20,000 and 37,000 electors. As there is no law to require that the size of each constituency be roughly equal in size, serious discrepancies can occur. In 2015, the smallest SMC, Potong Pasir, only had 17,389 electors, while the largest SMC, Punggol East, had almost double that number – 34,410 electors. In the absence of any law requiring some parity in the sizes of the various constituencies, there is nothing to prevent the system from being abused through malapportionment.

It is the Prime Minister who is the ultimate authority on determining how electoral boundaries will be drawn and how many electors there are in each constituency. There is nothing to prevent him from gerrymandering the boundaries to advantage his party.

One other problem with having the incumbent Prime Minister dictate electoral boundaries and sizes of constituencies is the short notice given to erstwhile candidates in an election. Before any general election is held, the EBRC must first issue its report which lays out the constituencies to be contested. Boundaries of electoral divisions change from time to time because of shifting populations and expansion of wards, but sufficient lead time should be afforded candidates seeking to contest elections, first to determine which wards they wish to contest in, and more importantly, how best to form their respective teams to contest the GRCs, especially since the number of candidates in each GRC can vary between 4 and 6. The table below shows the time lag between the announcement of revised electoral boundaries and the issuing of the Writ of Election, for each general election. From an average of 22 weeks in the 1960s-1980s, the average interval has dropped to 4 weeks since the 1990s. In 2001, Parliament was dissolved, and an election called, the day after the EBRC report was issued.

Announcement of new boundaries Writ of Election Lead Time
31 Oct 1967 8 Feb 1968 14 weeks
19 Oct 1971 16 Aug 1972 43 weeks
23 Jul 1976 6 Dec 1976 19 weeks
15 June 1980 5 Dec 1980 23 weeks
28 Jun 1984 4 Dec 1984 23 weeks
14 Jun 1988 17 Aug 1988 9 weeks
8 Aug 1991 14 Aug 1991 1 week
6 Nov 1996 16 Dec 1996 4 weeks
17 Oct 2001 18 Oct 2001 1 day (!!!)
16 Feb 2006 20 Apr 2006 7 weeks
24 Feb 2011 19 Apr 2011 8 weeks
24 Jul 2015 25 Aug 2015 5 weeks
13 Mar 2020 ? ?

This means that aspiring political candidates who have been ‘working the ground’ may sometimes find their ‘ground’ being swept up from under them. Constituency boundaries are redrawn just months before elections, and a candidate’s ‘ground’ may either be cut up into several parts and merged with other constituencies, or being transformed into a GRC.

For example, Sin Kek Tong, the Singapore People’s Party’s (SPP’s) candidate in the 1991 general elections, who announced very early on that he was contesting the Braddell Heights seat which had hitherto been a single-member constituency (SMC). In 1991, he had narrowly lost the Braddell Heights seat by 1,169 votes (4.6%) and worked the ground for the next five years, hoping to overturn the PAP’s narrow majority. When the Committee’s report was released on 6 November 1991, he was shocked to find his intended ward merged with Marine Parade GRC which was helmed by the incumbent Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong. He instead contested Ayer Rajah SMC against the enormously popular incumbent, Tan Cheng Bock, and was decisively defeated, garnering only 26.8% of the votes.

See: Tan Cheng Bok: A Vision of Singapore’s Future, or a Throwback to the Past? by Sudhir Vadaketh

The problems are thus obvious. How can political aspirants work the ground with confidence, cultivating the grassroots and seeking the people’s mandate if he or she cannot be sure that the ‘ground’ on which he may spend years campaigning in will remain unscathed by the Committee’s report. Worse still, what if it becomes a 6-member GRC? Where is the candidate going to find and harness 5 other GRC members (including one ethnic minority member) at such short notice? The function of law is to give certainty and stability to social, economic and political life. No one can plan ahead if laws are constantly changed at the last moment. Teams can hardly be expected to compete fairly if the rules of the game are changed at short notice. It would be much fairer and sensible if any change to the electoral system should take effect at least 6 months before Nomination Day. This will guarantee sufficient lead-time for all parties in the contest and would go a long way in allaying the peoples’ fears that the incumbent party will abuse its constitutional powers just to fix the opposition through gerrymandering. Because of the difficulties faced by opposition parties, GRCs have, since their creation in 1988, been seen as safe or ‘fixed deposit’ seats for the PAP.

This situation changed dramatically at the 2011 general elections, when the opposition Workers’ Party defeated the PAP’s team in the Aljunied GRC. The defeat was particularly significant since the PAP’s Aljunied team was considered to be a strong one, helmed by Foreign Minister George Yeo, and two other ministers, Lim Hwee Hua and Zainal Abidin Rasheed. More importantly, the Workers’ Party succeeded in debunking the myth of PAP invincibility in the GRCs and is now able to demonstrate its competence in running a town council.

Town Councils

After the 1984 General Election, where two opposition candidates were elected, then-Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew stated that “the government would not be blackmailed.” In March 2015, then-Minister for National Development Teh Cheang Wan announced that the Housing and Development Board (HDB) would give priority to PAP constituencies in providing maintenance for lifts, water pipes, drains, roots, etc.: “This is a very practical political decision… I make no apologies for it. As a PAP government we must look after PAP constituencies first because the majority of people supported us.” The PAP operationalised this through the creation of town councils, which was formally created in June 1988 through the Town Councils Act (Cap 329A), shortly before the 1988 election. The power of the Housing and Development Board to administer and maintain public housing estates was then devolved to the town councils, which are formed according to parliamentary boundaries. Town councils are allocated a budget and have the right to set maintenance fees, make investments, decide on new amenities, and raise rates.

Crucially, funding for this function remains in the hands of the central government. This meant that MPs have responsibility for local services but no control over their funding, creating a mechanism through which the PAP could openly threaten voters to punish constituencies which elect opposition parties by witholding public services until PAP constituencies had first been supplied and warn them against voting for the opposition. In 2011, former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew warned the Aljunied’s residents would “pay a price, the hard way” if the PAP lost Aljunied GRC. “Voters [will] have 5 years to repent… You must expect the PAP to look after PAP constituencies first.” Aljunied’s Town Council has subsequently been largely denied upgrading funds by the government. In a fair electoral system, this selective use of national funds for party-political purposes may be defensible as an inverse form of pork-barrel politics; combined with the unfairness of the electoral system, however, it is morally dubious. 

The PAP’s intention when creating town councils was clear: to directly tie the provision of local public services to electoral outcomes, enabling them to prioritise constituencies which voted for the PAP. Thus, while town councils are not formally part of the electoral process, and while town councils are, strictly speaking, not local government – once no separate elections are held for councillors – they effectively function as such, and their effectiveness is politically tied to the electoral outcome. This will invariably create tensions in the minds of the electorate. Firstly, if they wish to vote for the opposition, they must decide whether they are willing to accept being placed last in the queue for public services and also run the risk of not having any upgrading to their HDB estate. Secondly, they must decide, at each succeeding general election, whether to vote for politicians who are most able to satisfy their localised needs, or for politicians who are capable of forming a cabinet to govern the country; As was seen in the Aljunied GRC case, having cabinet ministers as town councillors was considered a handicap since these ministers seldom have time to meet the constituents in their weekly Meet-the-People sessions. This political development may well lead to future constitutional changes with respect to the GRC system.

The Workers’ Party-held Aljunied-Hougang Town Council has received very little funding compared with PAP constituencies between 2015-2018. Yahoo: https://sg.news.yahoo.com/municipal-projects-which-town-council-got-how-much-in-cipc-funds-090005428.html

Dissolution of Parliament

Before general elections can be called, the President must dissolve Parliament and issue a writ of election to the Returning Officer (usually a senior civil servant appointed to the role prior to each election). The President does this “on the advice” of the Prime Minister, which in practical terms means the PM determines when an election will be called. This writ will specify when the nomination of candidates will take place (not earlier than 5 days nor later than one month from date of the writ); and (b) the place of nomination. Once the President issues the writ of election, the Returning Officer will issue a notice stipulating: (a) the date, time and place for nomination of candidates; (b) the nomination paper to be signed by any 6 or more electors (ie those qualified to vote); and (c) the payment of deposit (a sum equal to 8% of the total allowances payable to MPs in the preceding year, rounded to the nearest $500). In 2015, the election deposit for each candidate was set at $14,500. A candidate’s deposit will only refunded if he or she polls at least 12.5 per cent of the valid votes cast.

Nomination Day

On Nomination Day, candidates must present their nomination papers, statutory declarations and certificate personally at the Nomination Centre between 11am and 12pm. At the close of the nomination period, if there is only one candidate (in the case of an SMC), or one group of candidates (in the case of a GRC) for the ward, the Assistant Returning Officer will declare at the nomination centre that the candidate or the group of candidates have been returned as MP(s). However, where there is more than 1 candidate (SMC) or more than 1 group of candidates (GRC) nominated, the Returning Officer will adjourn to a date when a poll will be taken, ie. Polling Day. The Returning Officer will then issue the notice of contested elections giving:

(a) the date of the poll (not less than 9 days nor more than 8 weeks after publication of notice);

(b) the names of candidates, their symbols, proposers and seconders; and

(c) the names and locations of all polling stations.

Nomination papers must be filled up and delivered in duplicate to the Returning Office at the Nomination Centre between 11am and noon on Nomination Day. A candidate must be accompanied by a proposer, a seconder and at least four assentors when delivering his or her papers. They must also obtain a Political Donation Certificate from the Registrar of Political Donations. Any irregularities may lead to the nomination being rejected.

Following Nomination Day, parties may begin the major logistical work of organising their election campaign. In this period, the parties have to print all their election materials (flyers, leaflets, banners, posters, and so on) and put them up in the designated areas. During this time, the parties also organise their rallies, including hiring the locations, the stages, the amplification equipment, and so on.

There is also very limited time allowed for parties to recruit, register, and train polling agents, because they are only allowed to do so after Nomination Day. Significant manpower is required. At each polling station, there are three simultaneous queues for the polling booth, and in 2015 there were 833 polling stations. Polling takes place for twelve hours, so you need at least two shifts, if only to allow both polling agents to exercise their own rights to vote. Assuming that every constituency is contested by two candidates, and assuming a minimum of 833 stations x 3 queues x 2 shifts x 2 parties, a total of 9,996 polling agents will need to be recruited; more if the constituency is contested by three or more candidates. Parties are responsible for recruiting their own Polling Agents, so the period after Nomination Day becomes a mad scramble to find, register (significant paperwork is required), and train polling agents.

For the poll overseas, every political party with candidate(s) standing for election and every independent candidate may appoint one polling agent to be present at each overseas polling station regardless of the number of polling places in the overseas polling station.

There are a range of infractions which polling agents have to watch out for. This includes any bias from the polling officials, attempts by candidates to campaign on the day, to enter the polling area, or intimidate voters. Failure on the part of any party to find sufficient polling agents to monitor the polling stations impairs the ability of citizens to monitor and ensure the integrity of their own elections process.

Campaigning

Candidates can only start their election campaigns after nominations close. Up to 2009, electioneering can carry on right up to the eve of Polling Day. This is no longer possible as the Parliamentary Elections Act was amended to impose a ban on all electioneering and campaigning on the eve of Polling Day. This was designed as a ‘cooling off’ period to allow voters to detach themselves from the heat of campaigning and carefully ponder their choices.

The length of elections in Singapore, from 1955 to present. Since 1972, no election has been longer than two days over the legal minimum length.

Currently, the minimum number of days for campaign is 10 days, including the ‘cooling off’ day. During this period of campaigning (save for the final day), candidates can make house-to-house calls, distribute pamphlets, put up posters and banners and hold election rallies. Political parties will also be given airtime by the Singapore Broadcasting Authority. The length of airtime depends on the number of candidates each party is fielding. To prevent ‘money-politics’ and expensive election campaigns, the Parliamentary Elections Act specifies that the maximum amount any candidate or his election agent can pay or incur is: (a) in the case of a GRC, an amount equal to $3.00 for each elector divided by the number of candidates in the group; or (b) in the case of an SMC, an amount equal to $3.00 for each elector.

Polling Day

Every voter will receive a poll card informing him of polling day and where he may cast his vote in person. Polling takes place from 8.00 am to 8.00 pm. At each polling station, the voting process is overseen by Presiding Officers and volunteers from each political party running in that constituency “polling agents”). The role of polling agents is to make sure that the elections are held in accordance with the rules.

At the end of the day, the ballot boxes are sealed and witnessed by the candidates and/or their agents. The ballot boxes are then delivered to their respective counting centres where they will be opened in front of the candidates and/or their counting agents. The ballot papers are then sorted and counted.

Like the polling agents, the counting agents are volunteers recruited by the parties through a process identical to that of recruiting polling agents. At each counting station, the counting agents ensure that the ballots are counted correctly.

After the count, the Assistant Returning Officer will inform the Group Assistant Returning Officer of the results of counting at the principal counting place. The Assistant Returning Officer will then collate the results and notify the representatives of the candidates (principal election agents, election agents or the candidates) of the results before transmitting them to the Returning Officer who will make his announcement at the Announcement Centre for public consumption. The results will be officially published in the Government Gazette.

All ballot papers and their counterfoils have to be sealed in the Supreme Court vault for 6 months, after which they will be destroyed. During those 6 months, these documents can only be retrieved by court order. The court will issue such an order only if it is satisfied that a vote has been fraudulently cast and the result of the election may be affected as a result. To date, there have been no applications to court for any ballot boxes to be unsealed and checked.

Political Donations

The Political Donations Act and its Regulations came into operation on 15 February 2001. The Act seeks to prevent foreigners from interfering in Singapore’s domestic politics by funding candidates and political associations or parties. Political associations and candidates may only accept donations from ‘permissible donors’ and may not accept more than $5,000 of anonymous donations per annual reporting period.

Concluding Thoughts

If the numerous changes and innovations to Singapore’s Parliament seems bewildering, one ought to only remember that the ruling PAP government has – like British parliamentarians – all along seen the legislature as the ultimate source of power. Their legitimacy to rule flows directly from the votes cast in an election. However, the structure and logic of the Westminster parliamentary system is premised on binary outcomes – either you are in Parliament or you are not. Put another way, the electorate is forced speak unequivocally for or against the government, and this lack of nuances has led the PAP government to ‘perfect’ Parliament through its various legislative schemes. As then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew explained in the aftermath of the 1984 general election:

The results of the election show a highly sophisticated electorate. They want a PAP government, they were sure they had one, they wanted to put the pressure on the PAP.

They wanted some people in Parliament to get us to either go slower – if they don’t like to go as fast – or to be more generous in our policies, less austere and so on.

In no case did they take chance. The result showed an unexpectedly subtle understanding of how to use one vote to maximum effect. We lost two seats, so just one non-constituency candidate. The signal has been sent.

The puzzle for the PAP government has been this: How to remain in power and yet accommodate alternative and dissident views which the voters wanted? The first of these innovations was the NCMP scheme in 1984 which allowed up to three of the ‘best losers’ in the general election to be appointed to the House. The hope was that these NCMPs would offer an alternative voice, keep the government on its toes and quell all desire to elect an alternative party into power. The scheme failed for two reasons. First, all opposition parties initially rejected offers to have their members appointed NCMPs as they felt that NCMPs lacked legitimacy, having to get into Parliament ‘by the back door’. Second, the numbers allocated for NCMP – just three initially, and then later, six – was simply too small to make a difference. It smacked of tokenism, and the public was not convinced.

The GRC scheme was an attempt to entrench multi-racialism in Singapore’s Parliament without making the ethnic minorities feel that they owed their places in the House to the colour of their skins. Requiring minorities to be members of GRC teams meant that they were voted into Parliament and thus carry the mandate of their electorate. Having rejected the bicameral legislature proposal on two occasions, this was the Party’s ostensibly best effort at ensuring that Singapore’s Parliament would always reflect the demographic mix of Singaporean society. If the traditional Westminster-style electoral system was allowed to function unaltered, there was a clear possibility that Singapore’s Parliament might one day be filled with only Chinese members. This modification ensured that this would not happen. However, as the graph below demonstrates, the fall in the number of minority MPs took place largely in the period where the PAP held all the seats in Parliament. They continue to hold 83 out of 89 (93.3%) of the seats today. As such, the PAP could have simply ensured minority representation by running more minority MPs.

Of course, as we saw above, the GRC scheme also provided the PAP government with a massive advantage in the conduct of electoral politics and succeeded in reducing the opposition parties to contesting seriously only in the small number of single-member wards available. It worked well for over two decades, but by the 2011 general election, had begun to backfire on the PAP.

The NMP scheme was yet another effort to ameliorate the polarisation of legislative debate practically demanded by the Westminster system. Since the parliamentary form of government is premised on a two-party system, with each party taking turns to form the Government, debates are highly partisan. The tendency was thus for opposition parties to object to everything the government proposed because they were expected to do so, even if the proposal was worthy of support. The NMP scheme sought to break this trend and improve the quality of parliamentary debate by bringing alternative voices to Parliament – without creating an upper house – to argue and reason on a non-partisan basis. Good ideas should thus be supported because they were good, and not because they emanated from a particular party. Initially, the NMP scheme was meant to be a temporary measure, especially since many PAP members objected to the scheme. From 1990 onwards, each new Parliament had to vote to retain the NMP provisions. It was, however, made permanent in 2011.

All the changes to the structure of Parliament were premised on certain assumptions – that the PAP would always remain dominant and in power; that opposition voices should be heard as a nod to plurality, but should never derail the common wisdom of the majority; that opposition parties continue to find it difficult recruit new members and poor quality candidates at that; and that the voting public would continue to choose their government pragmatically by opting for the tried and trusted PAP. All this changed in the 2011 general election. Although actual gains by the opposition were small, the transformation of the voting milieu had been dramatic.

Further Reading on Elections in Singapore

  • Lee Morgenbesser (2017) The autocratic mandate: elections, legitimacy and regime stability in Singapore, The Pacific Review, 30:2, 205-231, DOI: 10.1080/09512748.2016.1201134
  • Tan, Netina (2013) ‘Manipulating electoral laws in Singapore’, Electoral Studies 32(4): 632–43.
  • Tey, T. (2008) ‘Singapore’s electoral system: government by the people?’, Legal Studies 28(4): 610–28.
  • Ong, E. (2015) ‘Complementary institutions in authoritarian regimes: the everyday politics of constituency service in Singapore’, Journal of East Asian Studies 15(3): 361–90.
  • Rodan, G. (1996) ‘Elections without representation: the Singapore experience under the PAP’, in R. Taylor (ed) The Politics of Elections in Southeast Asia, New York: Woodrow Wilson Center Press, pp. 61–89.
  • Rodan, G. (2009) ‘New modes of political participation and Singapore’s nominated members of parliament’, Government and Opposition 44(4): 438–62.

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