In Parliament this week, PM Lee put forth a view that Singaporeans vote for the opposition while expecting his People’s Action Party (PAP) to remain in power. Mr Lee recounted that Senior Minister Teo Chee Hean had told him about a resident who was left “perturbed” because her friends encouraged her to vote for the opposition since “the Government would still be in charge”.
Calling those who vote for the opposition in the hope that others will re-elect the Government “free riders”, Mr Lee asserted:
“If you say vote against the Government because somebody else will look after getting the PAP Government and you just become a free rider, and you vote opposition, no harm, the PAP will still be there, then I think the system must fail.
“Because the system can only work if people vote sincerely, honestly, in accordance with what they really want, and to produce the result, which matches their true intentions, and if they vote tactically, the consequences must be one day, they will get the result, which they mark the x for, but which they did not intend.”
Mr Lee added that this was the wrong thing to “teach people.”
WP chief and Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh challenged Mr Lee’s view and said: “I don’t think the residents of Aljunied, Hougang for 30 years now, and even Sengkang, as a result of the results of the last election, would appreciate being called free riders.”
Asserting that voters cast their ballots for the opposition because they “know an opposition in Parliament is ultimately good” for Singapore, Mr Pritam said: “We are not just doing nothing, having been voted in. We are not just letting the other guy, the government of the day, do something.
“We’ve got to do what we have to do, we got to run the town council which is why Mr Lee Kuan Yew conceived of the town councils in the first place. Because if you want to move forward in the system as an opposition member of parliament, you’ve got to prove your worth in the town council.”
Mr Lee acknowledged that Mr Pritam has a “desire to do right by Singapore” and said, “I think it is good for Singapore that you have honest people in the opposition, people who believe in what they are trying to do. People who will stand up and fight for their ideals and, from time to time, disagree very strongly with the government. I think that is entirely reasonable.”
Despite this, Mr Lee was firm on his view about free riders. Asserting that voters will end up with a government they do not want if everyone votes for the opposition thinking someone else will vote for the ruling party, he said:
“But if you say, vote for me, somebody else will vote for the PAP, and therefore the PAP will be the Government, that the economists will call a free rider. It means that you are taking advantage of somebody else who is doing their duty of electing a government for the nation.”
Mr Pritam’s colleague Jamus Lim disputed Mr Lee’s view in a Facebook post, later that evening. While Dr Lim, an economist, felt that many points Mr Lee made in his parliamentary speech were thoughtful and insightful, he disagreed with his opinion that certain opposition voters are “free riders”.
The Sengkang GRC MP explained that a free rider is “an individual (or group) that reaps the benefits of the actions of others, without paying the cost (or underpaying for it).” He said that the term ‘free rider’ is used in economics to describe “a form of market failure, and characterizes nonexcludable goods (those whose use cannot be restricted).”
Reiterating the fact that his party would not have formed the government even if it won each seat it contested, since it only contested 21 seats out of 93 seats in Parliament, Dr Lim said the free rider claim is worth exploring from an economist’s view.
Pointing out that those who voted for the opposition had to overcome their fear of the untested to do so, he wrote:
“Parliament seats are excludable: when a PAP MP is elected, the opposition is necessarily prevented from accessing it. Moreover, in Aljunied, Hougang, and Sengkang, the votes were potentially costly: it required trust in our candidates, that we would be good town councilors and MPs. Yet voters were willing to do so.
“This does not strike me as consistent with free riding. Moreover, our sense—having spoken to voters in the aftermath—is that they did not vote tactically (for the WP, hoping that the PAP would still form government). If anything, they overcame their fear of the untested, and voted for the WP regardless.”
Echoing his party leader’s view that it is unfair to characterise opposition voters are free riders, Dr Lim said: “What is true is that they voted with their hearts, and with the conviction that some alternative voices were needed. Sure, they did so with some reassurance that the PAP would likely continue to form government. But it certainly wasn’t because they were looking for a free ride.”
A free rider, as defined in economics, is an individual (or group) that reaps the benefits of the actions of others,…
The notion that voters could end up with a government they do not like if they vote for the opposition in the hope that others would vote for the PAP is one that has been floated by prominent ruling party politicians for some time now.
During the 2020 general election, former Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong, warned against “unintended” election outcomes. He said that if voters “vote for the opposition to ensure checks-and-balances in Parliament, even though they still want the ruling party to form the government, then an unintended election outcome is entirely possible”.
Opposition parties, including the WP, criticised such comments as a ploy to get voters to elect the PAP. The opposition accused the PAP of employing scare tactics by suggesting that Singaporeans could unintentionally replace the Government with the opposition if they vote to create checks and balances in Parliament.
As Mr Goh warned against an “unintended election outcome”, Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing asserted that the three biggest opposition parties — the WP, the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) and the Progress Singapore Party (PSP) — could join forces and form a replacement government.
Mr Pritam hit back that such a prospect is unrealistic, during the campaign trail. “It took 16 years after our independence for the opposition to win even one elected seat, and 23 years after 1988, when the GRC system introduced, for the opposition to win one GRC,” pointed out Mr Pritam, referring to the WP’s J.B. Jeyaretnam winning the Anson seat in the 1981 by-election as well as his team’s victory in Aljunied GRC in 2011.
He asserted: “Let’s put this fear-mongering in perspective, and I hope that the historical look-back is helpful in terms of how realistic this prospect that (Mr Chan) says is possible. I don’t think it is possible at all.”
PSP chief, Dr Tan Cheng Bock, a former PAP MP himself, echoed that it is “very unlikely” that the opposition would be elected in enough seats to form a replacement government and dubbed Mr Chan’s warning of a freak election result a ploy to scare voters.
Only the WP was elected to Parliament in the 2020 general election while two PSP was appointed to two Non-Constituency Member of Parliament seats. The WP has 10 parliamentarians in the House, compared to the PAP’s 83 MPs.