Monday, 27 July 2015

Elections Fair Play: Whose criteria and who decides?

Election season tends to spark debate over the fairness of decisions, including those related to the electoral boundaries report released yesterday. But what is fair?
By Willie Cheng, Published The Straits Times, 25 Jul 2015

Now that the report of the Electoral Boundaries Review Committee has been made public, debate over when the general election is likely to be held and whether the Government will be fair to the opposition and electorate, will gain momentum.

In most discourses, "fairness" is a subject that is both fairly common and complicated. What is fair often depends on one's perspective.

To illustrate the difficulties, my wife and I, in our ministry with engaged couples, often pose the following situation: Suppose a newly married couple, A and B, agree to contribute part of their salaries towards a joint bank account. A earns $1,000 a month and will contribute $500 to the pool. What is the "fair" amount for B, who earns $2,000 a month, to contribute?

One of three answers can be justified for B's contribution: $500 (same amount contribution), $1,000 (same percentage contribution), or $1,500 (same amount of $500 retained for personal expenditure by A and B each).

The point is that agreeing on what is fair is not straightforward even between two people who love each other and agree to be fair to each other. Imagine the scale of difficulty between participants with a more distant relationship and, especially, between Government and citizens.


Discussions about fair share (or fairness in outcome and results) can be more effective if the basis and yardstick for sharing are established at the outset, otherwise, the arguments can go round in circles. Whether in national or personal discourse, there are only three main bases by which goods can be shared or rights established: equally, by merit, or by need.

Equality among persons tends to be the starting point of close relationships and citizenship rights. For example, equal voting rights for all persons is a given in modern democracies. This is why there was considerable resistance to the then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew's suggestion in 1984 to tweak the one-man-one-vote system after the PAP lost two seats to the opposition. The tweak never happened.

Distribution of goods by merit is the trademark of a performance- oriented society that supports, and is modelled on, free market economics. Thus, goods of high quality and value (as perceived by customers) command higher prices, and employees who perform better are paid more.

Singapore is largely a performance-oriented society, a meritocracy that Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong describes as "a value system by which advancement in society is based on an individual's ability, performance and achievement".

Distribution by need, on the other hand, recognises the inequality of people's capabilities and circumstances. It can go against the principle of merit. However, every society has a segment of disabled, poor and other disadvantaged people that governments and citizens generally agree should receive preferential treatment to help level the playing field.

Where there might be agreement on the principle of distribution by need, there often could be disagreements about the yardsticks. At which income level, for example, should the state define a person as being poor in order to qualify for welfare benefits? Or what constitutes a disabled person for the relevant disability grants and schemes?

In other words, agreeing on the bases and the yardsticks for those bases can help shortcut many angst-filled discussions about fairness. What complicates matters, though, is that the three bases discussed can often be conflated and the yardsticks for the same basis can differ.

For example, the one-man-one- vote principle is not exactly that - those who are younger than 21 years old are excluded. The rationale is that they are insufficiently mature to exercise their vote. Even if one can accept this merit-based exception to the equality basis, one could still argue against the yardstick used for merit. Full-time national servicemen, for instance, might ask why an 18-year-old can qualify to defend his country, but be denied the right to vote.


Related to the idea of fair share is fair play, or fairness of process. Simply put, a fair process should lead to a fair outcome as defined by the agreed bases and yardsticks.

While the notion of fair play has its roots in sports, the spirit of fair play is now widely recognised as an important aspect of improving the quality of human well-being, and building a better and more peaceful world. However, what constitutes fair play can be subjective. Through the centuries, philosophers have identified several key characteristics of fair play: consistency of treatment across people and time, transparency of information, ability to speak without fear of retaliation, and remedial action when faults are found. Above all, there should be a fundamental commitment to "do what is right and fair".


In politics, matters become even more complicated because the main players are, naturally, on opposite sides of the political fence.

Their differences of opinion on fairness may be easier to understand if we dissect them from the standpoint of which specific aspects of fair share and fair play they are making central to their arguments.

The PAP Government has often been criticised for being unfair to the opposition and the electorate in several areas: lack of transparency, such as the timely disclosure of the formation of the Electoral Boundaries Review Committee; redrawing of boundaries bordering on gerrymandering; favouring constituencies that support it over opposition ones in constituency- improvement projects; the Group Representation Constituency (GRC) system; access to the media; and the first-past-the-post (as opposed to the proportional representation) system.

Some of these criticisms relate to fair share, but most relate to fair play. The PAP's position on these matters is simple: The electoral system is based on fair share by merit - may the best man or woman win. Fair process means staying within the rules of the game and it has done so. Whichever side wins has the right to protect its advantages and it would be foolhardy to concede such advantages to its opponents.

An argument that the PAP Government usually uses for both fair share and fair process is equality-based: This is a system we inherited from the British, and these practices are also present in other democracies.

Sometimes, the PAP also uses the need-based approach. For example, the GRC system that it introduced is designed to ensure that the minority races are not disadvantaged, from not having representation in Parliament.

However, critics who agree with that need often disagree about the yardstick used. They argue that a GRC should not have more than three candidates, otherwise it has gone unfairly beyond the need for minority representation.

Those who oppose the PAP's position on electoral matters tend to argue from a need or equality standpoint about fair share. They also question whether there has been sufficient fair play.

Democracy, they say, requires an effective opposition in Parliament. First, there must be a level playing field. Second, by being the incumbent and being so dominant, the PAP Government should do its level best not to take actions which, while legitimate under the rules of the game (which the PAP controls or influences), would unfairly disadvantage the opposition relative to the PAP.

The PAP would likely counter that it has already recognised the need to have alternative voices in Parliament through the Non-Constituency MP and Nominated MP schemes.

In turn, critics would argue that a key aspect of fair play and the integrity of the electoral process requires transparency. Timely disclosure and equal access to information are critical aspects of that transparency.

And so the arguments go round and round. The good news is that it is the electorate that finally, and collectively, decides. It behooves the parties to frame their arguments of fairness, or unfairness, in terms of the different bases of fairness, the yardsticks they are using, and the characteristics of fair play. It would then be up to the electorate to judge whether these are aligned with its own value system.

The writer is a former management consultant and the author of Doing Good Well.

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