Time to rethink one man, one vote?

There are parallels between Brexit and Singapore after Separation in 1965, says one writer, while two others argue that Brexit points to failings of the one man, one vote system.

The Brexit shock took the world by storm. It is a perfect storm, definitely much more than the proverbial storm in a cup of English tea.

Almost everyone, everywhere - from political leaders to financial professionals to laymen, from the Americas to Singapore - are figuring out what the future will hold and what the impact will be for them. It is like a wake-up call that the unthinkable nightmare has actually happened.

Despite the hullabaloo on the bleak future of the once united Britain, the more fundamental issue is probably the time-honoured one man, one vote system.

Democracy, as enshrined by the right of determination by all, has been the dominant model globally for most modern countries' organisation and order.

The merit of the principle of equal voting rights for all is compelling. It respects the very sanctity of what it is to be human - to have a voice in how society is being ruled if you are part of it. This principle has even been weaved into diplomatic relations, especially in how the West is dealing with the rest of the world.

It is often taboo to question the one man, one vote system. To do so will risk having critics brandishing labels like elitism, imperialism or even authoritarianism.

However, let us look at the outcome of the Brexit referendum. The majority of British voters who turned out to vote decided leaving the European Union is what the country should do. This is not a freak result as voters cast their ballots in line with their intended choices.

But the problem is, voters may not fully understand the consequences of their choices. Google searches from Britain on questions like "what is the EU?" were trending, even after most Britons voted to leave it. The British media reported on some voters who wished they could vote again - to Remain. A petition for a second referendum is under way, reportedly with over three million signatures. Among other things, it calls for the government to annul the vote if the Remain or Leave vote was less than 60 per cent from a turnout of less than 75 per cent.

In last Thursday's referendum, the turnout was 72 per cent, with 51.9 per cent voting to leave the EU, and 48.1 per cent voting to remain.

Voting patterns were split by region and by demographics. The greater London area opted to remain and it is likely voters there are well-to-do and more mobile in work. In the northern industrial parts of England, the choice was overwhelming to leave the EU.

The irony now is that those voters who chose to exit are likely the ones who will suffer, maybe even more, if the British economy falters. The very outcome of a democracy can turn around and hit the voters back.

The one man, one vote system is a good solution to uphold humanity. But has the solution become the problem?

From Britain and across the Atlantic to the United States, let us look at the presidential nomination process. The unexpected rise of Mr Donald Trump as the presumptive Republican nominee is a most interesting phenomenon.There is probably a confluence of many factors, like in the Brexit case, that led to his party victory. These include the growing disdain of the establishment, the weakening economy and the widening socio-economic gap. Mr Trump has indeed played his card well to capitalise on these factors.

The open question is whether a Trump presidency - if voters support him over the likely Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton - will hit voters hard through a worse America. Only the White House test will tell, but then will it be too late?


Perhaps we can see if something can be learnt from how voting is done in other types of organisations beyond national systems. Let us take a leaf out of the book of the corporate world.

Some companies in the US have a differentiated approach for voting power among classes of shares. This is found in traditional corporations like Ford and Berkshire Hathaway and Internet icons Facebook and Google. In this system, certain shares have higher voting powers than others. The intent is to sustain the original ideals and ideas of the companies, arguably for their long-term good in the face of voters' uncertain vagaries.

Even in Asia, the Chinese company Alibaba, now the world's largest retailer, has a voting system for its board of directors where a group of some 30 original founders and supporters hold the exclusive right to appoint the majority of directors on the board.

Naturally, there are fiery critics of the so-called "dual-class shares" for companies. There are merits on both sides. It is not a matter that is purely black or white. But in terms of outcomes, it is arguable that dual-share companies have been able to maintain the core business without risking usurpation by shareholders of the day, while their impact on stock performance is more mixed and complex.

Thus a key question is: What is more important in any voting system - the means or the end? If the process leads to sub-optimal outcomes, should we still fight tooth and nail to preserve this process?

Sure enough, any tweak to any voting system is a very critical matter that has to be carefully considered in any country. It can cut both ways and not necessarily benefit any incumbent power.

In Singapore, we just got through the general election last year. With the presidential election looming, is it time to reflect on the more fundamental issue of our voting system?

There are distinctive virtues for the one man, one vote system. It is probably hasty to throw this away overnight.

But we can begin a productive discussion on alternatives, or supplements, to this system.

•Lawrence Loh is director of Centre for Governance, Institutions and Organisations at NUS Business School, National University of Singapore. He is also deputy head and associate professor of strategy and policy at the school.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 28, 2016, with the headline 'Time to rethink one man, one vote?'. Print Edition | Subscribe