‘The 70% voted for this’: All the GE2020 numbers to look out for and what they mean

Mothership Explains: There's more to election results than who won in which constituency. Look out for these numbers and understand their significance a bit more.

Nigel Chua| June 26, 2020, 07:05 PM

You've probably heard by now – the general election (GE) has been called, with campaigning to start on June 30, culminating in Polling Day on July 10.

To put it mildly, there's a fair bit at stake this time around, including questions of which party will come out tops in potential three-cornered fights, whether the ruling party will get the "fresh mandate" they seek, and whether Singaporeans will get the government they deserve.

Here, we track some of the key results that Singaporeans can look out for in this election, looking at the overall vote share, seats in parliament, voter turnout, and more.

To help explain why these results matter, we tabulated all the numbers since 1988, when the GRC system was first implemented.

Which brings us to the first notable GE statistic:

1. Overall vote share

A well-known online saying in discussions on politics in Singapore goes: “the 70 per cent voted for this”.

It's perhaps the best-remembered statistic from GE2015.

The significance of "70 per cent" came from the 69.86 per cent overall vote share the PAP garnered in GE2015.

Out of the total of 2,260,379 votes that were cast across all constituencies in 2015, 1,579,183 were for PAP candidates, translating to 69.86 per cent.

The saying “the 70 per cent voted for this” came to be cited as a cynical rejoinder in online forums and comment sections.

It was used as a response to any perceived injustice or error on the part of government agencies, as if to say that blame should be placed on the Singaporeans who voted for the PAP in 2015 for the current state of affairs.

Screenshot via “United Singaporean” on Facebook.

Screenshot via Mothership.sg on Facebook.

Screenshot via Mothership.sg on Facebook.

According to comments such as these, "the 70 per cent" were at least partly responsible, as they had given PAP the strongest mandate in more than a decade, through their votes.

(The last time their vote share was this high or higher is when the PAP achieved a 75.29 per cent vote share in the Nov 2001 elections, which took place in the wake of the Sep. 11 attacks, and saw just 13 of the 23 wards being contested.)

Overall PAP vote share and proportion of seats in parliament. Data from eld.gov.sg.

Significance of overall vote share

The significance of the overall vote share lies in the fact that it is often used as a gauge of the overall sentiment of Singaporeans towards the ruling party, including by the ruling party itself.

As the late founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew said in a 2009 interview, “My policies have been endorsed by the electorate every four to five years by a clear majority, never below 60 per cent,” citing the overall vote share as evidence of majority support for the PAP government’s policy.

More recently, Minister for Trade and Industry Chan Chun Sing said, in a May 2020 interview, that the current government "would like, when the opportunity arises, to have a strong mandate".

That aside, the overall vote share by the ruling party has limited use on its own, as the vote share between the ruling party and other parties does not always match up with how many seats each will have in parliament.

This comes down to the “first-past-the-post” system, coupled with how politicians are elected in teams in GRCs, where 100 per cent of a five-person GRC team is elected even if they only managed to get slightly more than half the votes.

Taking that hypothetical example to the extreme, a party with just over 50 per cent the overall vote share in each constituency will still win 100 per cent of the seats.

Which is why it’s important to look at overall vote share alongside the percentage of seats held by the ruling party:

2. Proportion of PAP ruling party seats in parliament

The 2015 elections saw some 70 per cent of votes (a considerable majority in this case) translate to 93 per cent of the seats in parliament (an overwhelming majority).

The acerbic tone in “the 70 per cent voted for this” could perhaps also be explained by this disparity.

Significance of ruling party’s seats in parliament

Passing or amending laws

The significance of the proportion of seats held by the ruling party specifically lies in the fact that members of the party in charge can use their majority to out-vote any opposing voices when it comes to passing or amending laws.

Decisions made in parliament are to be “determined by a majority of the votes” as per Article 57(1) of the Constitution.

This is especially significant in Singapore, where MPs vote along party lines almost all of the time, thanks to the Party Whip, whose role it is to “ensure that there are always sufficient party members in the Chamber to support the party's position and that MPs vote according to the party's line”.

The whip is only lifted in rare cases, with the most recent occasion being PM Lee Hsien Loong’s dispute with his siblings (which turned out to be a mostly-symbolic move anyway, since there was no bill to be voted on).

Amending the Constitution

And since the ruling party has held more than two-thirds of the seats in parliament in all recent elections, it could also push through amendments to the Constitution, which require “the votes of not less than two-thirds” of MPs, as per Article 5(2) of the Constitution.

This does not mean that the ruling party can, or will, change the Constitution as and when it wants to, though.

It will still have to concern itself with the opinion of voters, as shown by the 2017 constitutional amendment to allow presidential elections to be reserved for minority groups amounting to a “political minus” (at least in the short term), PM Lee Hsien Loong conceded last November.

PM Lee Hsien Loong speaking at the Swearing-In Ceremony for President Halimah Yacob. Screenshot from video by PMO on YouTube.

3. Total number of constituencies and elected MPs in parliament

There’s been an increase in the total number of constituencies and elected MPs in parliament over time.

This is no surprise, since the number of Singapore citizens above the age of 21, and hence the number of electors, has been increasing as well, and in fact, slightly more quickly than the number of MPs has increased over the years.

This can be seen in the increasing number of electors per elected MP in each election, set to reach an all-time high of 27,900 electors per elected MP on average.

* Number of electors in the latest Registers of Electors as of April 15, 2019, according to the Electoral Boundaries Review Committee. Other data from eld.gov.sg.

There is, in fact, a roughly fixed ratio between the number of MPs representing each constituency and the number of electors in that constituency.

Each elected member of parliament will represent between 20,000 and 38,000 electors, as stipulated in the Electoral Boundaries Review Committee report dated Mar. 13, 2020.

Type of Constituency Number of Electors
From To
SMC 20,000 38,000
3-MP GRC 60,000 114,000
4-MP GRC 80,000 152,000
5-MP GRC 100,000 190,000
6-MP GRC 120,000 228,000

Data from Electoral Boundaries Review Committee report.

4. Number of constituencies contested

There is an increasing trend of more constituencies being contested since 2001, both in absolute terms and as a proportion of the total number of constituencies.

This culminated in 2015, our most recent parliamentary election, where a record 100 per cent of constituencies were contested for the first time since 1963.

Number and proportion of constituencies contested.

While more than 90 per cent of constituencies were contested in 1988, this fell to a low point of 56.52 per cent in 2001, in tandem with the decrease in the number of single-member constituencies.

This could possibly be explained by the fact that it is easier to contest an SMC than a GRC, since teams contesting GRCs would — obviously — require more candidates to be fielded, in addition to meeting the requirement of having at least one member from a minority community.

Notably, it wasn’t till 2011 that the PAP conceded any seats in a GRC to another party, with the Workers’ Party (WP) winning Aljunied GRC, a five-member GRC.

Workers' Party supporters celebrating as the results for Aljunied GRC are announced on May 8, 2011. Image via 154media on Youtube.

Thus, the increase in the number of constituencies contested from 2001 is a sign of the growth of opposition parties since then.

In the 2015 election, nine political parties were vying for seats. In contrast, only four parties contested seats in the 2001 election.

The full lineup of parties contesting in the upcoming election remains to be seen, though at this point, it is likely that almost all constituencies will be contested:

5. Voter turnout

The voter turnout in Singapore has historically been high, hovering near 95 per cent, one of the reasons being because it is compulsory to vote by law.

Voter turnout.

Significance of voter turnout

According to the Elections Department of Singapore, voting is “a civic responsibility to be exercised by citizens to choose and elect their leaders in a democracy”, and a “fundamental right of citizenship”.

In theory, the more people come out to vote, the better it reflects on the state of democracy in the country. It reflects that the citizenry is interested in the outcome, and is politically active in expressing their preferences for the next government through voting.

Reasons for not voting

A low voter turnout could possibly be explained by the following:

  • Loss of confidence in the electoral process (for example, because a voter fears that their vote will not be kept secret)
  • Seeking to protest the entire election, as might have been the case in Poland where, Reuters reports, a group of former leaders urged voters to boycott upcoming elections (which were later cancelled).
  • Voters had valid reasons for not voting, such as being ill, or overseas.

As such, the lower numbers of voters in the recent two elections do not in themselves point to anything amiss, since data from ELD does not disclose how many voters had valid reasons for not voting.

“Penalties” for not voting

Now, most Singaporeans do know that voting is compulsory by law. But here’s something not many may be aware of: the penalties for not voting are, to be honest, hardly penalties at all.

Choosing not to vote in an election in Singapore just gets you struck off the register of electors. To get your name restored to it, you’ll be charged a S$50 fee, which can be waived if you have a “valid and sufficient reason for not voting” (such as being sick, or overseas for work, study, or leisure).

Which is arguably easier than if you were looking for a reason not to show up at work one day. (Not that we’re saying you should skip work or voting unless you actually have a valid reason to do either, though.)

What else may influence voter turnout?

Compared with many other countries, voting stations here are relatively accessible since all of us live in urban areas, according to World Bank statistics.

Every polling day is a public holiday, which facilitates voting, as per Section 35 of the Parliamentary Elections Act.

Civil servants assisting with vote counting at GE2015. Image via Gov.sg on Youtube.

Civil servants are mobilised to make sure things run smoothly, with some 30,000 having been appointed in 2018, according to the Straits Times (ST).

It remains to be seen whether the upcoming election will have a similarly high participation rate, given how it is going to be held in the midst of an ongoing global Covid-19 pandemic.

Newly-passed legislation to ensure safe elections forbids those under quarantine from voting.

At this point, it’s still not clear whether those on Stay-Home Notices at home or on MC will be allowed to come out to vote, depending on their status at the time:

In view of these restrictions, as well as heightened concern over the spread of the virus in the community, it’s possible we might see a higher number of voters who are unwell who decide to stay home to be safe, even if they only have mild, non-Covid-19 illnesses.

6. Number of spoilt votes and no-shows

A campaign in the UK actually encourages voters to spoil their votes, which, according to their website, seeks to put forward the message that “the choices on offer are just not good enough”.

Ways of spoiling one’s vote include leaving the ballot paper blank, or voting for more than one candidate.

Just as some may choose not to vote in elections to show their displeasure with the electoral process, voters can also execute a similar protest by spoiling their votes.

There could also be some voters who inadvertently spoil their votes because they don’t know what they are doing.

Rejected votes. In Singapore, the official label for spoilt votes that can’t be counted for any candidate is “rejected votes”. The official term “spoilt votes” refers to ballot papers that voters find to be improperly printed, or which they have marked wrongly. These papers are exchanged for fresh ones at polling stations before those votes are cast, and the total number of these are counted as “spoilt votes”.)

The numbers of rejected votes in Singapore has stayed relatively low in all the recent elections, at around 2 per cent.

7. The number of NCMP seats allocated

The Non-Constituency Member of Parliament (NCMP) scheme provides a certain minimum number of seats for opposition politicians by allocating NCMP seats to the “best losers” among them, i.e. those who had the highest vote shares among unelected opposition candidates.

The scheme was introduced in 1984 with a minimum number of three opposition MPs, which was raised to nine in 2009.

In 2016, though, this was raised to 12, together with changes to the scheme that now give NCMPs full voting rights, equal to those of elected MPs. These changes will take effect for the upcoming and future elections.

Controversy over the scheme

The efficacy of the NCMP scheme in being able to improve the political system has been questioned, though:

Rejection of NCMP seat

There have been cases of opposition MPs who rejected the seats they were offered.

After GE 2015, The Workers’ Party’s Lee Li Lian declined to take up the NCMP seat offered to her, after she lost the Punggol East SMC seat narrowly to the PAP’s Charles Chong, with a vote share of 48.2 per cent to his 51.8 per cent.

When the WP identified Daniel Goh to take the seat instead, alongside his East Coast GRC running mate Leon Perera (Perera was taking up the NCMP seat allocated to the team that contested in East Coast GRC), a heated debate ensued in parliament over how this would be done or whether it should be allowed.

Here’s how that played out:

Daniel Goh eventually took the seat, responding tactfully to his critics:

But this was not the first time an NCMP seat had been refused, with M. P. D. Nair of the Workers’ Party having turned it down following the 1984 elections. The seat was then offered to Tan Chee Kien of the Singapore United Front, who also turned it down, leaving the NCMP seat vacant.

More elected opposition MPs = less NCMPs

If there are more opposition MPs elected, there will naturally be less NCMP seats available.

The nine opposition seats in parliament now are occupied by three NCMPs and six elected opposition MPs, after the 2015 election.

Had none of the opposition MPs been elected in 2015, there would still be nine opposition seats in parliament today.

In other words, the NCMP scheme has been set up such that it is not possible for the opposition parties to have more than the allocated number of NCMP seats, except in a case where there are more opposition candidates elected as MPs than the number of NCMP seats.

Mothership Explains is a series where we dig deep into the important, interesting, and confusing going-ons in our world and try to, well, explain them.

This series aims to provide in-depth, easy-to-understand explanations to keep our readers up to date on not just what is going on in the world, but also the "why's".

Top image via Gov.sg on Youtube