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A 'one-and-a-half party' political system possible in Singapore, says political analyst

SINGAPORE: Singapore could see a 'one-and-a-half party' political system in the future - with greater political contestation even while the ruling party stays in power.

This was one of the scenarios thrown up at a forum held online on Thursday (Oct 1) by the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) where a panel of experts gave their views on the results of the 2020 General Election.

IPS also shared the findings of a post-election survey on the attitudes of Singapore voters at the forum.

READ: Bread and butter issues, need for different views in Parliament - both mattered to voters in GE2020: IPS survey

Dr Lam Peng Er, a Senior Research Fellow at the East Asian Institute who studies Japanese politics, said that this was a likely system in Singapore in the next one or two decades.

"There's ... speculation that General Election 2020 has given rise to an incipient two-party system in Singapore. I very much doubt it," he said.

"If you're going to put a gun against my head and ask me to anticipate what is the likely party system in Singapore - it's not going to be a PAP monopoly of all the seats in Parliament after the Barisan Sosialis walked out. I think (we are) more likely to see the emergence of a one-and-a-half party system within the next decade or two."

Singapore is unlikely to see a rotation of the ruling party like in Western models of democracy, but the country could move towards a system that Japan had for many years - from 1955 to 1993, when the conservative Liberal Democratic Party was in power, Dr Lam said.

READ: GE2020 - PAP’s credibility dipped, WP's went up from previous polls, says IPS post-election survey

Then, the perennial party in power was the LDP but there was a permanent party in opposition - the Japan Socialist Party, which had a substantial presence in the Japanese Diet.

"If such a Japanese scenario would emerge, then it will be a Goldilocks outcome for the majority of voters," he said.

A Goldilocks scenario is often used to describe one that takes neither extreme of any given spectrum.

Dr Lam drew this analogy, saying there would be political stability and predictability, with the People's Action Party (PAP) forming the Government, while having checks and balances in Parliament.


Dr Lam was giving his analysis as part of a discussion with a panel comprising political observer Dr Derek da Cunha, Professor Chu Yun-han, director of the Asian Barometer Survey and Dr Teo Kay Key, an IPS postdoctoral fellow. The discussion was moderated by Dr Gillian Koh, IPS' deputy director of research.

Professor Chu gave an analysis of Singaporeans' political culture compared to other Asian countries, based on his institute's extensive survey of attitudes towards governance and democracy in multiple territories in Asia.

His assessment was that Singapore's system of government had strong legitimacy among its citizens, compared to other Asian countries. This was because many Singaporeans, like citizens in other Asian countries, valued good governance and social equity over the norms of democracy - such as fair elections - or democratic freedoms, data from his studies showed.

"Asian citizens expect democracy to deliver, they don't conceive of democracy in the terms a typical political scientist would define it ... their understanding of democracy is good governance, it's clean politics, it's efficiency," he said.

Answering questions from online viewers, the panellists also gave their take on whether elections in Singapore were fair, and if there could be improvements made to the nation's political system. 

Dr da Cunha said that in his opinion elections in Singapore are free but not necessarily fair. "So, in the sense that we do have an elections department which is part of the Prime Minister's Office, and then we also have an electoral boundaries review committee, part of the same set up," he said.

"If boundaries are going to be redrawn ahead of elections, I think, to have a minimum level of fairness, they should be redrawn a year before the General Election," he said.

Dr Lam said that as Singapore develops as a democracy, a sense of fairness was "very important", adding that it was a good move to formally recognise Workers' Party (WP) chief Pritam Singh as Leader of the Opposition following the Jul 10 election.

The move came after WP won a second Group Representation Constituency (GRC) and increased the number of elected seats it held in Parliament to 10.  


However, Dr da Cunha said that he did not see much change in the political culture of Singapore, as Parliament has kept its Government Parliamentary Committees - which are committees to scrutinise the legislation and programmes of government ministries formed by PAP backbenchers.

He suggested replacing them with Select Committees that will draw members from both PAP and opposition Members of Parliament.

"They can provide direct input to policy making ... then we will have participatory democracy throughout the year instead of what we have now, which is once every four or five years," he said.

READ: Facebook, CNA and YouTube were channels voters turned to in 2020 ‘online’ General Election: IPS survey

In response to a question on whether the GRC system should be changed, Dr Lam said that it can be "fine-tuned". He suggested capping the size of GRCs at four members. The current limit is five.

Although opposition supporters criticise the system for upping the bar for opposition candidates, its original intent was to ensure ethnic minority representation, he said.

The GRC system is a "double-edged sword", as proven by the WP in Aljunied and Sengkang GRCs, he said. Winning a GRC allowed the party to secure four or five seats at a time instead of one, Dr Lam pointed out. He added that Singapore should also think about how to ensure greater representation of women in Parliament.

However, Dr da Cunha disagreed, saying that the GRC system is still a "single-edged sword" in favour of the ruling party because a GRC is large enough that the sample size tends to mimic the popular vote nationally, although he added that "there will always be outliers".

Source: CNA/hm(ac)


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