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Consider return to Singapore's election system of 1965

There is a new guessing game in town, on what changes the Government has in store for the political system here.

This, after politics made a surprise appearance in the President's Address at the opening of the new Parliament.

Since it is so rare for the "P" word to be the subject of so much attention in this particular formal setting, I should quote exactly what President Tony Tan Keng Yam said: "Our political system has delivered stability and progress for Singapore. But this system must be refreshed from time to time, as our circumstances change. The Government will study this matter carefully, to see whether and how we should improve our political system so that we can be assured of clean, effective and accountable government over the long term."

The President mentioned three modifications to Singapore's first-past-the-post electoral system: Nominated MPs, Non-Constituency MPs and the Group Representation Constituencies (GRCs).

More tellingly, he highlighted the Elected President (EP) as "another critical element that fosters resilience and stability in our political system".

It is anyone's guess which of these four are up for refreshment, but the smart money is on the EP.

Several notable pundits have zeroed in on it, a sure sign here that something is afoot.

I hope this does not mean a quick decision without a thorough airing of the issue.

Though no political system is unchanging, neither should it be tinkered with lightly each time things turn out differently from the original script.

The reality in democratic politics is that it is invariably unpredictable, especially when the society is undergoing rapid change.

It is not possible to devise a perfect system that anticipates every possible scenario, and the best-intended plans will go awry as Singapore has found out.

Take the GRC scheme.

When it was first conceived in 1988, it started with only three-member GRCs, and was meant to ensure adequate minority representation in Parliament, and nothing more.

But barely three years later, the Government expanded the scheme to include four-member GRCs, and in 1997, six-member slates.

Various arguments were made to justify the changes, from making for more efficient town councils to allowing easier entry of rookie politicians meant for higher office by fielding them in big GRCs helmed by senior ministers.

But politics has a funny way of derailing the best-laid plans, and when the People's Action Party lost Aljunied GRC in the 2011 General Election and, with it, two ministers and a designated Speaker of Parliament, it didn't seem like a good idea to have too many large GRCs.

The talk now is of further reduction in their average size.

It shows what can happen in politics and why it is best to keep any scheme simple and be as clear as possible about the objectives.

Better still, steer clear of multiple goals and overcomplicated ideas.

The best example of this is one-man-one-vote, which has survived the decades. Despite its alleged failings, its simplicity is what makes it durable.

The EP is another example of how a seemingly rational proposal at the time can result in many unintended twists and turns.

When the Constitution was changed in 1991 to allow for a popularly elected president with limited discretionary powers, it was meant to be a check against a rogue government.

But trouble emerged almost immediately with the very first EP, Mr Ong Teng Cheong, who collided with the Government over his role in keeping watch on the country's reserves.

Who would have thought that a former minister who had worked so closely with his Cabinet colleagues would clash with them so openly?

But it was nothing compared to what happened in the 2011 Presidential Election, when four candidates campaigned with differing views on the proper role of an elected president.

It opened the eyes of many to the pitfalls of having a politicised president with his own ideas of how he would check an elected government.

Who would have thought this would become an issue when so much care had been given to who could qualify to become a presidential candidate, with the cards stacked in favour of those from the Establishment?

Once again, politics proved to be a slippery eel.

So, there are calls now to make the criteria even more restrictive, or to scrap the scheme altogether.

The problem is that while clever minds can think of all sorts of ideas in anticipation of all sorts of future scenarios, no one can predict the one unknown that matters more than anything else in politics: the electorate itself.

How it responds to challenges, what values shape it most, what its concerns and aspirations are have a greater bearing on the political outcome than the structure itself.

The Government used to say that it was better to have good people in charge of a bad set-up than a rogue leading an otherwise working system.

Honest and competent leaders can overcome the problems of a broken institution, but a corrupt one will undermine even the best.

I think the same can be said of a people.

Whenever the Singapore electorate has been asked to decide, it has shown itself to be responsible and sophisticated and to know instinctively where its interests lie.

It is not easily fooled by empty promises or beguiling leaders.

At every election, especially over the past 10 years, Singaporeans have voted with their heads and hearts in the right places. They do not need an over-elaborate system to protect them from themselves.

So, here is a radical proposal: Go back to what it was when Singapore gained independence in 1965, with the House comprising only elected members from single-seat wards and with an unelected, ceremonial president.

If this is too far a step to take, and if minority representation is too important to forgo, go back to the original three-member GRCs.

Such a system is simple and durable and does not make any presumption about all the possible futures that might emerge.

That future is in the hands of the Singaporean voter, as it rightly should be.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on January 24, 2016, with the headline 'Consider return to Singapore's election system of 1965'. Print Edition | Subscribe