Picking out the winners in electoral systems

This story was first published in The Straits Times on March 23, 2013

AFTER nearly five years in Hong Kong, I am often asked why there are so many street protests against its government, making Hong Kong seemingly ungovernable.

The problems are complicated.

Hong Kong is a Special Administrative Region under the "one country, two systems" since 1997. The working class demand better welfare, in particular housing and working conditions. The upper class argue that the British colonial laissez-faire policy should be kept, as it was the economic system of Hong Kong.

Property developers and owners do not like the government to build more public housing, fearing it will exert downward pressure on property prices and inevitably erode their interests.

Unique political system

HONG Kong has also been a safe haven for China's political dissidents, home even today to those with different political ideologies.

There are pro-mainland and pro-Western groups. Many dislike the communist regime and are fearful of Beijing's interference in Hong Kong's governance.

Western China watchers and liberal advocates champion the cause of full democracy, including early universal suffrage in the elections of the chief executive and Legislative Council. These are now chosen by a select group.

Young people, mostly students, are earnest vocal protesters in the marches. Many newspapers attack the government with sensational reports that help sell their papers.

The scene seems chaotic, especially from far away.

Although the commercial and social infrastructure left behind by the British was intact and working, the political set-up has been revamped to create a totally unique structure.

Under the new system, the chief executive is elected by an Election Committee comprising 1,200 members.

Cabinet ministers are appointed by the chief executive, not elected. They have to seek support and approval from the 70-member Legislative Council. This council in turn is made up of 35 members from functional constituencies such as chambers of commerce, trade unions and professional associations, and 35 from geographical constituencies.

Political parties in Hong Kong can be classified into two major categories: the pro-establishment group, comprising mainly the Democratic Alliance for Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong (DAB), Liberal Party and New People's Party; and the anti-establishment, anti-Beijing, pan-democratic group consisting of the Democratic Party and Civic Party.

A distinct feature is that there is no ruling party. The chief executive is not affiliated to any political party. An ex-chief executive once said: "Giving a speech in the Chamber, looking down from the rostrum, I could hardly find a single member who would support me, irrespective of whether they are pro- or anti-establishment."

Political parties need votes to survive, and so adopt populist gestures. This has made it difficult for the government to implement its policies and govern. There is some truth in attributing the political chaos to the present electoral system.

Proportional representation in elections

FOLLOWING two direct elections in 1991 and 1995, in which pro- democracy politicians won most of the seats contested, Beijing replaced the Legislature with a Provisional Legislative Council after the handing over of the territory to the Chinese in 1997.

Perhaps fearing that pro- democracy politicians might capture most of the seats again, the Provisional Legislative Council voted to change the "first- past-the-post" electoral system to a "proportional representation" system in September 1997.

The new system favours small parties and independent candidates, thus lowering the chances of domination by bigger parties such as the Democratic Party.

Hong Kong's system is known as the "proportional representation with the largest remainder method", developed by British political scientist Thomas Hare. This method clearly favours parties and independent candidates with fewer votes.

In the 2008 Legislative Council elections, a vocal and controversial candidate from the League of Social Democrats won a seat with only 8.1 per cent of the total votes cast in his constituency. Eight candidates won their seats with less than 8 per cent of votes in the 2012 elections.

This system favours low-vote candidates and encourages vocal minorities, contributing to the chaotic political scene. But it may not be entirely correct to blame the proportional representation system for Hong Kong's political chaos, as Taiwan, with a modified formula, differs in its experience.

Taiwan's electoral mix

THERE are essentially three segments of Taiwanese elections: First, local government polls, including those for mayor, city council and county government/ council; second, Legislative Council polls; and third, the presidential election.

The local government sector is an important training ground for young politicians who later enter the national political arena.

Former presidents Lee Teng- hui and Chen Shui-bian, as well as President Ma Ying-jeou, all served as Taipei mayor before entering national politics and winning the presidential election.

For the second segment, the Legislative Yuan (council) comprises 113 members. This includes 73 directly elected from geographical constituencies and six aboriginals from the reserved aboriginal constituencies, with the remaining 34 elected by the proportional representation method.

These 34 seats are allocated according to the percentage of votes won by the parties, subject to a 5 per cent minimum. Half of the 34 seats are reserved for female members. Each party prepares a candidate list, with those at the top of the list having better chances of winning than those at the bottom.

The third presidential election segment is a direct election by eligible voters across Taiwan and offshore islands. The elected president appoints Cabinet ministers who are not elected members.

Unlike Hong Kong, Taiwan has adopted a mixed electoral system.

About two-thirds of the 113 seats (79) are directly elected by geographical constituencies, and about a third (34) are elected from party lists under the proportional representation system. With the 5 per cent minimum, small parties and independent candidates have been effectively excluded from sharing in the 34 non-constituency seats, while women have greater participation in the Legislature.

NCMPs by proportional representation

SINGAPORE inherited the "first-past-the-post" electoral system from the British.

There has been no compelling need to change it, except for minor modifications. In 1990, the Government introduced the Nominated MP scheme to bring in non-partisan voices to add to parliamentary debate. In 2010, Parliament revamped the inactive Non-Constituency MP (NCMP) scheme, which gives a limited number of seats to the top losing candidates. This was to ensure a minimum number of opposition candidates in a Parliament dominated by the ruling People's Action Party (PAP).

With the emergence of younger voters and social media, there is more desire for participation in the decision-forming process. The 2011 General Election and the two recent by-elections - both lost by the PAP - have revealed a gap in expectations and communication between voters and the Government.

One way to alleviate the problem is to modify the NCMP scheme, or add on to it so it has features like those in Taiwan.

For instance, we can add 10 more seats for Non-Constituency MPs, open to all parties that contest and divided according to their vote share. If the PAP's total share of the votes is 60 per cent, it will be allocated six seats, and the major opposition parties will have the remaining four, to be split in proportion to their share of votes. These new NCMPs will have the same responsibilities and rights as all other MPs, except they do not do constituency work.

The PAP NCMPs are also eligible to be appointed as ministers. This will also reduce the difficulty of enticing bright talents to serve in Parliament and the Government. Good candidates would not be denied a seat in the service of the people if such a system is adopted.

To be sure, electoral reform is serious business, and requires much discussion. Hong Kong and Taiwan have made changes to their systems. Perhaps a careful study of their experiences will lead Singapore to embark on some changes.

The writer was a PAP MP from 1991 to 2001. He served as Singapore's trade representative in Taipei from 2002 to 2007, and as consul-general in Hong Kong from 2008 to 2012.

This story was first published in The Straits Times on March 23, 2013

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