A free ride: Singapore’s prime minister in a muddle

Often when Singaporean politicians stray from the script, they produce gems, phrases for the ages, words destined for internet meme stardom.

Yesterday I was on my way home from town when four buddies messaged me on separate chats: “Did you hear what he just said?”; “Did you see the exchange?”; “Free riders? Hmm.” 

Like the fan who is late to the game and has missed the opening goal, I scoured YouTube as soon as I got home. 

I watched Lee Hsien Loong, Singapore’s prime minister, describing a segment of opposition voters as “free riders”, in a parliamentary exchange with Pritam Singh, the leader of the opposition.

Mr Lee was specifically referring to Singaporean voters who voted for the opposition even though they expected the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) to win the election.

“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.” (Video at the bottom.)

This is an awful thing for a country’s leader to say about its voters. Here are five reasons why.

1. Economics 101 FAIL.

Lee has used the concept of “free rider” wrongly.

Before explaining why, definitions. Part of me is glad he mentioned “free riders” because it points to an area of micro-economics that I find quite interesting, dealing with private vs public goods, those one can expect markets to produce, or indeed fail to produce.

The free rider problem generally exists when dealing with public goods such as air and street lighting. Those are “non-excludable” and “non-rivalrous”. You can’t exclude somebody from the benefits of public goods like street lighting (i.e. non-excludable). And one person’s use and benefit from it does not rival somebody else’s (i.e. non-rivalrous). 

Private goods, by contrast, are excludable and rivalrous. When I eat my plate of steamed cockles, I can exclude you (excludable); and when I finish the plate, you cannot eat it (rivalrous). The hum is gone.

Largely because it is difficult to charge “free riders”, the free market is unlikely to provide public goods like street lighting. Hence the government usually has to.*

Back to Lee and politics, 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.

Those who vote are spending their time and energy—imagine travelling for hours from rural areas to voting booths—in order to perform their civic duty and deliver a government to office.

Those who stay at home—perhaps reasoning that their single vote will make little difference to the outcome—are effectively banking on the effort and goodwill of voters to keep the democratic country going. 

The non-voters are apparently “free riding” on the voters. Excessive free riding (non-voting) can lead to a collective action problem where the “market”, i.e. the electoral process, fails. What if nobody turns up to vote?

This is not the case in Singapore, where voting is mandatory. Lee is the first person I’ve heard use the term “free rider” on people who actually show up to vote.

When people actually go to vote, of course they have unique voter preferences and expectations. Some might want the PAP in power with a lower majority. That is perfectly reasonable. Nobody is free riding off anybody else. If the PAP loses the election, that is not a “market failure” of any sort.

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.

Aside: read Sendhil Mullainathan, professor at the University of Chicago, describing the free rider problem in voting. Do note that not all economists view staying home on polling day as “free-riding”, i.e. to not vote may itself be a legitimate rational choice.

Note: should be obvious from my phrasing above, but I am just a writer who occasionally reads about economics. Not a serious practitioner in any way. For my writing, I rely on the economists I interview, including the one person for this piece.

2. Why do Singaporeans vote for the opposition?

Voting theory, voting behaviour, electoral preferences: these are rich areas of study in political science, constantly evolving, partly because humans have complex motivations.

A few things to consider.

A survey conducted by Quad Research in early April found that 33% of Singaporeans had decided to vote for the PAP; and 14% for the Opposition. Some 53% were still undecided. 

Among other interesting nuggets: Singaporeans are increasingly of the belief that the state (rather than the individual) has a responsibility to provide “decent housing, healthcare, education and enough to live on.” 

The proportion of Singaporeans who believe this rose from 66% in 2015 to 73% in 2020.  Breaking that down, some 79% of opposition voters thought so; compared to 70% of PAP voters.

Meanwhile, a survey conducted during the campaign by Blackbox Research found that 47% of Singaporeans agreed with the opposition messaging (e.g. about diversity of voices in parliament) while 53% agreed more with the PAP’s economy-driven message.

Put another way, even though 47% of Singaporeans agreed more with the opposition’s message, only about 39% voted for it.

In parliament yesterday, Lee relied on an anecdote about a voter speaking to Teo Chee Hean, senior minister: “Mr Teo, is it true? My friends tell me it’s ok to vote for the opposition. Because the government will still be in charge…and the PAP will work even harder for you.”

From a PAP leader, the obvious retort should have been: “Don’t you think we work hard enough? What have we not been doing well?”

Instead of trying to understand why Singaporean voters are drifting towards the opposition, Lee seems eager to label these people as “free riders”.

This, in my opinion, is at best ignorant and at worst insulting. 

Indeed most Singaporeans are, from my conversations, quite sophisticated in how they think about their vote.

3. By that logic, are PAP voters free riders too?

The day after the elections, a couple of long-time PAP loyalist friends told me something to the effect of: “Almost all Singaporeans will be happy with this result.”

Strange. The PAP garnered only 61% of the vote which, by its own admission, was disappointing. So what did my friends actually mean?

Well, there are many PAP supporters who do not want the party to control the entire parliament. Though Singaporeans expect the PAP to compete for every seat—a legacy of its close association with the country—many of its supporters do not want it to win every one. 

They think a monopoly is not good for this country. 

(There is nothing unusual about this. I have BJP-supporting friends in India who think the party’s current dominance there is unhealthy.)

So, 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?

4. You are not a free rider if you believe you may be penalised.

Perhaps the simplest argument against Lee’s notion of free riding is that historically the government is believed to have penalised voters in opposition wards.

Public funds contributed by all taxpayers have seemingly been allocated preferentially towards PAP wards for estate upgrading.

You can’t be a “free rider” if you believe that you will be penalised for free riding.

(Other relevant sources: “Why so many Singaporeans voted for the opposition”, The Economist, July 12th 2020; “Lift upgrading no longer a hot-button issue”, Straits Times, Oct 2nd 2016)

5. Are immigrants and others also free riders in terms of national defence?

Lee Hsien Loong has unintentionally, and perhaps unknowingly, focussed attention on the people who are, in many Singaporeans’ views, free riding in this country. This comes at a politically inopportune time, of heightened interrogations into the benefits of high immigration to Singapore. (Alongside a bit of ugly xenophobia.)

National defence is one of the public goods most often cited in economic textbooks vis-a-vis free riders. In the absence of the state, the free market will likely not produce a national defence force for any given polity, defence being non-excludable and non-rivalrous.

Singapore has a much higher foreign population than other democracies with conscript armies. Hence in Singapore, a small minority of people in this country (most male citizens and some male PRs) are responsible for serving National Service for two years at very low wages.

While the overall defence expenditure is collectively funded through taxes, that two-year burden falls disproportionately on a small group. Should male conscripts be compensated even more by the other “free riders”?

There is no easy answer to this conundrum. It is unfortunate that this has become a rallying cry for xenophobes. My sense is that National Service needs to be reformed so that those who perform it do not feel like the others are “free riding”.

The apparent national defence “free riders” include all females, though unsurprisingly Singaporeans, like people anywhere, are more likely to glare at migrants than their mums.

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* Or even if the market does provide some of the public good—consider a tycoon who pays to light the street outside his/her house—it does so at a socially sub-optimal level, i.e. insufficient.

The free rider problem also speaks to theories of Collective action and the Tragedy of the Commons.

Globally, it is particularly relevant to conversations about action on climate change, e.g. why should EU citizens pay a carbon tax that might benefit “free riders” in China through reduced global warming? 

In Singapore it is relevant because there are regular policy debates about privatisation and nationalisation, everything from electricity to the MRT.

Note: “Common goods” such as fish stocks in international waters are non-excludable but rivalrous. “Club goods” are excludable but non-rivalrous, to a point.

Source: Lumen Learning

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23 thoughts on “A free ride: Singapore’s prime minister in a muddle

  1. As I recall (please correct if I attribute it wrongly), it was in fact Goh Chok Tong who used the concept of ‘free riding’ to justify penalising opposition wards by e.g. reducing government spending. They get the benefit of good government (i.e. PAP) without paying the cost (voting PAP rather than having fun with their frivolous Opposition vote). Therefore, not upgrading their HDB gives them an incentive to not free-ride on their fellow citizens who do their duty by ensuring a good government stays in power and thereby also ensures their HDB units retain their value…

    1. Thanks! May be the case that Goh first mentioned. Can’t find via a quick Google. Obviously I find that argument (if made) problematic for all kinds of reasons, not least the assumption that good government only comes from one party.

      1. There is a recent video where a resident of an opposition ward asked PM Lee about this and he proudly admitted the PAP government has the right to do it!

  2. Dear Sudhir,

    Could you explain (from economic theory) why the PM is wrong rather than just say that no economist would call it so?

    (Sorry, non-economist here.)

    1. ETA: Following Ed’s question, I amended some bits of the text to make clearer the theoretical issue with Lee’s argument.

      Hi Ed, I am not an economist either, as mentioned. But from my limited understanding of the concept, this is why he is wrong: he is conflating voter preferences and expectations with a free-rider type market failure.

      A free-rider problem exists when those who benefit from a good or service do not pay for it; hence with public goods, as mentioned, there may be under-provision of them. The market fails.

      In terms of voting, excessive free-riding might result in a collective action problem, if nobody goes to vote. The “market”, i.e. the electoral process, might fail.

      But when people actually go to vote, there is no free-rider problem. Some voters want the PAP in government with a higher percentage of votes/seats so they adjust their voting based on their expectations of others’ preferences. Some want the PAP in government with a lower percentage of votes/seats and do accordingly. Those are just voter preferences and expectations. Nobody is free-riding off anybody else.

      If the PAP loses the election, that is not a “market failure” of any sort.

      Hence his use of the term is wrong.

      1. Sudhir,
        PM did mention that he can accept PAP being voted out by a better party/candidate. He cautioned against an accidental outcome due to the distorted voting behaviour.

  3. In many chats groups. Response is- this was uncalled for and people find it offensive.
    Blasting the opposition is part of his job BUT insulting the population was never in his oath of office.
    He must not take other people’s view and echo it as his own . If he continues this random path he will stir a sleeping giant group of voters who will inevitably isolate the party.

  4. Thank you Mr Vadaketh,

    You courage of standing out to correct the most lousy PM of Singapore history was much appreciated.

    This country have less hope each day for as long as such leader and his team is running the nation. Set strict standards for others but forgiving in its own kind.

    Lee Kuan Yew was a great leader as he was strict, setting high standard to both his opponents and to himself, his team. Yet the world is fair, he (or we) got the retribution of such off spring in running tge nation.

      1. To Anonymous,
        Why is it not fair? The people deserve their government. Free rider or not, nothing is free and free is nothing.
        In histories, there were great leaders building nations, and only to pass his legacy to off-springs that bring it down.

  5. Sudhir,
    Why should one feel offended if he/she had voted genuinely for the oppositions without expectation of PAP winning the election? PM was referring to the distorted voting behaviour like the “free riders” in an economy that can lead to failure of our election system.

    1. Election system does not fail until the constitution is broken.
      When one day a person need to be “certified” to be eligible to stand for MP nomination, that is a day when the election system fails. Just like our presidential election system.

      How does one defines “distorted voting behaviour”? A degree holder votes better and ITE graduates? Or a dregree hold should have give 3 votes but an ITE only 1? There is no “distorted voting behaviour” but only distorted view of how voting should behave.

    2. If somebody votes for the opposition, that means they are disappointed in the PAP in some way, whether at the local or national level. It does not represent “distorted voting behaviour”.

      If the voter expects the PAP to win the election, and ultimately the PAP loses, that is not a “failure” of any sort. All it means is that the voter’s electoral prediction was wrong.

  6. The PM was talking cock. As simple as that. And this was not his first occasion for cock-talking. Cock-talking seems to be a part of his intellectual repertoire.

    1. Calvin Cheng is wrong. The intellectual mistake he and Lee Hsien Loong make is to confuse public goods with democratic outcomes.

      The PAP being in power is not a public good. If the PAP is not delivered to power, there is no collective action problem. That is simply the product of democratic choice.

      The only free rider collective action problem that exists vis-a-vis elections is if nobody goes to vote in democracies where voting is optional, as mentioned in article.

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