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GE2020: Op-Ed ⁠— This Is What a Supermajority Does for a Democracy

Credit – TODAYonline

Supermajority. Blank cheque. Incumbent. These three buzzwords have been on nearly every Singaporean’s lips and social media feeds as of late as Polling Day draws near. As always in politics, the populace is often loosely divided into two camps—for and against the ruling party.In Singapore, the People’s Action Party is, and always has been, the incumbent party. It is widely accepted that it will stay this way for at least the near future. “There’s no doubt that PAP will still form the government,” says opposition candidate Leong Mun Wai of PSP.

While that is a pill that’s hard but necessary for some to swallow, the issue at hand is reducing the supermajority, rather than attempting to form a new government altogether. And this is what the opposition parties in Singapore have been fighting ever-so-hard for.

What is a supermajority?

A supermajority is defined as a value that is far greater than half of the total, typically in the setting of voting. Essentially, one can view the supermajority as having a weighty hold over a country’s soft power—a double-edged sword, in essence.

CAPE explains it very clearly and succinctly:

Credit – CAPE

To change the constitution, Parliament has to vote to approve the change. Unlike other laws which can be changed with a simple 50% majority of the MPs in Parliament, an edit to the constitution needs the approval of a 2/3 majority.

To change provisions in the Constitution relating to the sovereignty of Singapore, a national referendum has to be held. Singapore has only held one national referendum on 1 September 1962 to decide on the terms of integration into the Federation of Malaysia.

With great power comes great responsibility, and having this great power concentrated into the hands of a single party could be both harmful and beneficial to a nation, depending on how this capacity is executed.

Party Whip

Where a supermajority is in question, many point to the existence of a party whip as its fault. A party whip is an official of a political party whose job is to ensure that members of a party vote in accordance to the party’s platform, rather than based on the member’s personal ideology or opinions.

While it is important for party members to band together in taking a unified stand, and also one that best reflects the party’s values, a party whip can at times be detrimental. The classic psychological bias that is groupthink is always an impending threat in any decision-making scenario that involves a pool of individuals.

Credit – The Straits Times

Groupthink is the phenomenon when members have the tendency to conform to the opinions of a group in the name of unanimity which can sometimes result in irrational or illogical decisions. In a sense, a party whip fosters obligatory groupthink.

Occasionally, the party whip may choose to “lift the whip” in order to allow MPs to vote freely, and according to their conscience. This occurs precisely because the PAP currently holds a majority of the seats in parliament, so voting along party lines will always result in bills being passed according to the party.

Tan Cheng Bock & the party whip

A memorable example of the party whip being defied occurred back in 2002 when then-PAP MP Tan Cheng Bock voted against his own party despite the whip not having been lifted. This was pertaining to the issue of NMPs getting into Parliament without being elected.

The 3 dangers of a supermajority: Exemplified

Lack of checks and balances

While it is undeniable that within most incumbent parties already exist competent, brilliant individuals, the danger arises when too much power is vested in a single party. Nepotism and gerrymandering are extreme examples of a supermajority turned sour, especially when this power is used in the party’s favour.

Let’s have a look at Indonesian President Jokowi’s supermajority. Where there lacks a significant opposition to challenge the government over the course of the term, the one who stands to lose the most is the public, an expert commented.

Credit – Jakarta Globe

Syamsuddin Haris, a political scientist at the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI), said that “without a significant opposition, we can assume that the government will be very transactional.

In such situations, there are no defenders of the public interest”.

Breeding complacency

This example of the Republican Party in Indiana well demonstrates how a supermajority breeds complacency. In 2012, they won enough seats in the state election to gain a supermajority in both the Senate and House of Representatives. Over the last seven years, they have managed to retain their supermajority, holding 40 of the 50 seats in the Senate, and 67 of the 100 seats in the House of Representatives.

This means that the Republicans in Indiana can, and do, use their supermajority to exercise unlimited and unchecked power in the legislature.

Credit – Limestone Post

Senate Democratic legislation to raise teacher pay, pass gun safety laws, approve medical marijuana, and get an inclusive hate crimes law on the books were rejected without ever making it past the first step of the legislative process.

Closed door dealings is another example of unhealthy complacency in a supermajority. There have been many reports of Republicans making decisions behind closed doors, meaning that these legislators met privately to discuss, debate and vote on issues without their constituents or their Democratic counterparts’ input. Bypassing the legislative process in order to maintain control over the legislature should under no circumstances be done.

An impenetrable mandate

Looking back at our own political climate in Singapore, we can assign arbitrary numbers to demonstrate. Hypothetically speaking, even if all relatively popular or recognisable opposition members—assuming that these individuals represent the Aljunied, Seng Kang, Marine Parade, East Coast, West Coast, Holland-Bukit Timah, Bukit Batok, and Bukit Panjang constituencies—do get voted into parliament, that would still make up only 30 seats in parliament.

30 seats out of the 93 seats being contested this year still make up fewer than a third of the total number of seats. This is still insufficient to veto any changes to the Constitution in parliament.

Bluntly put, a supermajority is great for discouraging change. It is the easiest way to gatekeep pre-existing power and keeping things at a comfortable status quo. Those who benefit from the supermajority would naturally be the ones holding privilege, and they would hence want to keep this influence in their favour.

When is a supermajority useful?

Good for quick implementation

To quote former MP Lee Bee Wah:

“Do we need an opposition? If there are too many opposing voices, it’s also difficult to do things”. According to Lee, too many cooks spoil the broth—in other words, too much hemming and hawing delays processes and creates time lags.

Credit – The Straits Times

She cites examples such as HDB lift upgrading works, sheltered walkways, and speaking up for TCM shops to be open as ways in which she has spearheaded positive change in her community.

As more decision-makers are introduced into the mix, efficiency is undoubtedly compromised. This makes a lot of sense, but only on the condition that the agenda being pushed benefits citizens in the first place.

The truth is that quick implementation is not the only defining factor of policy-making. Without an entity to create checks and balances, it becomes much easier for hypothetically distasteful decisions to come to fruition quicker as well.

The incumbent in support of a supermajority

Defending the PAP mandate, ESM Goh Chok Tong said:

“For many years, the PAP was the only party in Parliament. Had the PAP gone corrupt in those years? Until the 2011 election, there were very few opposition MPs in Parliament. Had the PAP let the people down? We are our own checks, the integrity of our leaders and our MPs … not this seductive lie of check and balance. They are seducing the people. And if the people are not careful, they will be seduced and they will pay a price”.

In response to WP Chief Pritam Singh’s remark that PAP would have a strong mandate even if it lost 1/3 of its seats, Heng Swee Keat said:

“What would Singaporeans think, if they wake up next Saturday, to find that the PAP has lost four GRCs and two SMCs? What would investors and other countries think?

Do you seriously believe they would say – Good. The PAP has won a strong mandate again? Or would they see a government severely weakened, a people divided, and a nation whose confidence has been shaken?”

Diluting the supermajority

The only actionable thing to do, should one hope to move away from a supermajority is to dilute the power from just the hands of a few. As Workers’ Party chief Pritam Singh puts it:

“PAP can carry out its agenda even if it loses supermajority”

Credit – Mediacorp

Where the fate of a nation and its citizens is concerned, having checks, balances, and multiple perspectives tend to help birth a better, more inclusive outcome for all, albeit a slower one sometimes.

As economic forces have shown, a monopoly is harmful to consumers because of its autonomy, while an oligopoly introduces healthy competition which benefits the market in the long run. Similarly, having a small group of varying viewpoints in parliament helps to ensure representation and inclusivity in its discourse, and whatever the incumbent lacks, the opposition should ideally make up for.

It’s possible to have an established arena for a healthy dialogic parliament, though there is no telling how and when we will get there.

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