Singapore Presidential Election: A Failure of First-Past-The-Post Democracy?

Although the president’s role in the nation state is mostly of a ceremonial and custodian with little executive power, that did not stop people from various quarters from politicizing the issue. While the candidates all declared that they were operating as independents with no ties to any party, ground sentiment and local media played up their past political affiliations anyway. Eventually when Dr. Tony Tan won, his ‘dismal’ 35% vote share had been analyzed by many, including foreign news sites such as the Economist and the Asian Correspondent, as a sign of burgeoning discontent with ruling party.

A common gripe among the complaints is with the first-past-the-post system, where only the one with the most votes, regardless of percentage, is accorded a place. In other words, winner takes all, even though more than half of the voters didn’t vote for that person. Watch this video to get a better sense of the problems with such a system in the long run.

And so speculation has been rife among the citizenry–especially about how Dr. Tony Tan would probably have lost the election if maybe only one other opposition (say, Dr. Tan Cheng Bock, who came in second with 34.85% of the votes) had contested against him.

Question is, is that really true democracy? Would the election have been a fairer fight  if say the two of the other three candidates somehow decided not to run just so Tony Tan would lose? Or should a democracy be idealistically insistent in allowing a diversity of (reasonable) views simply because the real success lies in the maturing of a society that possesses people of different ideals being willing to step up to contest, and not the tactical vote-playing of outcomes. The following video of a Democrat Senator’s speech from the American TV drama ‘West Wing’ might better illustrate this.

forum letter to the Straits Times today (30/08/11) also retorted that the first-past-the-post system is fair, at least in the short run:

Each voter has a fair chance to decide for himself which candidate to support, or none at all through spoiling his vote. There is only one vacancy for the office of president. If the voter knows who he wants as president, even if given two votes, he would still cast both to the same candidate. An indecisive voter who splits his votes is ceding the advantage to others who are decisive.

Saying president-elect Tony Tan has 65 per cent of the voters against him does not stand up to scrutiny.

First, going by that ‘logic’, the other candidates, Dr Tan Cheng Bock, Mr Tan Jee Say and Mr Tan Kin Lian, have 66 per cent, 75 per cent and 95 per cent, respectively, voting against them.

What are your own thoughts about the PE and the first-past-the-post system? What could be done to possibly ensure a fairer voting system in future? 

Also, should politics in Singapore move in the direction of opposition camps uniting against the ruling party? 

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