Singapore — Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s remarks in Parliament earlier this week about free riders have ruffled more than a few feathers.
On Wednesday (Sept 2), he referred to Singaporeans who voted for the opposition while expecting the People’s Action Party (PAP) to remain in power as “free riders”.
“But if you say, vote for 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’re taking advantage of somebody else who’s doing their duty of electing a government for the nation,” Mr Lee said.
Workers’ Party (WP) head and Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh responded by saying: “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.”
WP MP Jamus Lim, an associate professor of economics, voiced his view in a Facebook post, explaining 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 wrote that the term is used in economics to describe “a form of market failure, and characterises non-excludable goods (those whose use cannot be restricted)”.
What voters did in Aljunied, Hougang and Sengkang did not strike him “as consistent with free riding”, adding, “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”.
Writer Sudhir Thomas Vadaketh has also weighed in on the issue and, like A/Prof Lim, has tackled it from the point of view of economics.
Mr Vadaketh wrote: “There is really only one scenario when economists use the concept of ‘free riders’ in the context of voting behaviour: When describing people who choose not to vote in democracies where voting is optional, such as the US.”
This, he added, does not apply to Singapore, since voting is compulsory.
“Lee is the first person I’ve heard use the term ‘free rider’ on people who actually show up to vote…. In other words, Lee’s description of what ‘the economists will call a free rider’ is just plain wrong. I have never heard an economist use free rider in that way.”
Moreover, Mr Vadaketh asked that, if the Prime Minister’s logic were to be followed, would this not make voters for the PAP free riders as well?
Pointing out that many of the PAP’s supporters are against the idea of the party controlling the entire government, believing that this type of monopoly is not good for Singapore, he wrote “allow me to replicate Lee’s inelegant co-option of an economic concept, and let’s go along with his logic”.
“If indeed there are opposition ‘free riders’, aren’t there also PAP free riders?
By Lee’s logic, aren’t PAP voters who want an opposition presence in Parliament actually free riding on the voters of Aljunied, Hougang and Sengkang?”
Calling Mr Lee’s statement about “free riders” “an awful thing for a country’s leader to say about its voters”, Mr Vadaketh listed five reasons why he believed this is so, which may be found in full here. /TISG
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