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    Sep 16, 2015

    A win-win scenario for PAP and opposition

    I AM surprised that some commentators expressed surprise at the big win by the People's Action Party (PAP) in this election. Two of my articles in FT Chinese and Caijing, published soon after the death of founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew on March 23, had predicted that Singapore would have an early election, and that the PAP would win big.

    My reasoning was simple. The overwhelming reaction of so many people to Mr Lee's death and the celebration of the golden anniversary of independence must have been very favourable to the governing party; moreover, despite some grievances, the Government has done very well to fix some hot-button issues.

    While we should not be surprised by the big win, no one could be 100 per cent certain that the PAP would be returned to government. Why?

    A typical voter in Singapore would have the following dilemma: As with most other voters, he wants PAP to win and to govern. However, he may also want to have some members of the opposing parties in Parliament; in fact, he may prefer to have more than half a dozen of them.

    After all, having some, or even a sizeable number of, opposing Members of Parliament would provide more of a check and balance to the governing party, which is good not just for the opposing parties, but also for the governing party and Singapore as a whole.

    One may say that Singapore had 20 years of governance by PAP without any opposing party in Parliament before, and it did well. In fact, it did so well that Singapore has often been described as a miracle.

    However, miraculous things may not last forever; it is better and safer to have some opposition - provided that it is not so strong and/or unprincipled as to cause instability.


    The "first best" or best-case scenario is for the PAP to win strongly, but not overwhelmingly, which is only the second-best outcome.

    It was widely known that even strong supporters of PAP may rationally vote for a good candidate of an opposing party. PM Lee said that such voters should not want the PAP to govern but vote for the opposition parties.

    Nevertheless, if too many voters do this in order to get the first best, we may end up with the PAP losing the election, a very bad outcome for most voters and for Singapore as a whole. This outcome is so terrible that, like the climate-change calamity, even a 0.01 per cent probability is not acceptable and should be avoided as far as possible.

    A typical PAP-supporter-but-opposition-voter would vote PAP if he knew that PAP could lose the election. Thus, we have the following paradox: The more PAP is regarded as secure, the more such a typical PAP supporter may vote for an opposing party.

    Thus, while unlikely, we cannot rule out the possibility of the PAP losing an election, despite having overwhelming electorate support. How could such a terrible outcome be prevented?

    In principle, using the system of proportionate representation (each party is represented in Parliament proportionate to the number of its overall votes) will prevent both the terrible outcome and the second-best outcome. However, this system has its own disadvantages, including the loss of constituency representation and more unstable governments. The transition to this system is also costly and unlikely to be adopted by a government with a powerful majority.

    Without changing the representation system, there is a simple way to simultaneously avoid both the second-best and terrible outcomes.


    In future general elections, the PAP should give up, say, 15 to 20 seats or so for the opposing parties to compete, and itself contest in only the remaining seats.

    Assured of a sizeable number of opposition parliamentarians, most voters will then have no reason not to vote PAP, assuming its continuing good performance. PAP will then win huge in the constituencies it contests and virtually be ensured of a strong majority.

    I listen to the radio every morning. Often, wise advice is dispensed. One is this: Learn to give up; sometimes, giving up is also a win.

    It is very true when applied to the context of having the PAP give up some seats in advance. The ruling party would gain from the check and balance of having some opposing parliamentarians and hence govern even better; the opposition would win the certainty of some seats.

    While each party would still have to compete with others, this would be good. The typical voter would be free of the voting dilemma. More importantly, Singapore would avoid both the second-best and the terrible outcomes.

    Will PAP be wise enough to adopt such a "giving up" that would be an all-round, win-win situation?

    The writer is the Albert Winsemius Chair Professor of Economics at Nanyang Technological University.

    This article first appeared in The Business Times yesterday.