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Thursday, May 12, 2011

GRCs – where do we go from here?

The Group Representation Constituency system was introduced in the 1988 elections ostensibly for the purpose of ensuring minority representation in Parliament. In the 2011 general elections, the PAP has lost 2 of its ministers through the loss of Aljunied GRC. The Workers’ Party raised the stakes by placing its best candidates in Aljunied knowing that the closet election battle in the last election was fought in this GRC. They won the bet.

Now, more than ever before, there is an urgent need to talk about the GRC system. There is an urgency to deal with this system whilst PAP supporters themselves are bitter with the loss of George Yeo. For a long time, opposition supporters have maintained that the GRC system unfairly disadvantages opposition parties and favours the incumbent. Well, it is equally dangerous for the PAP: the loss of a GRC means the loss of at least one or two ministers depending on the particular GRC.

Let us examine the stated rationale for the GRC system and whether it has any merits:

Minority representation

The official reason for the introduction of the GRC system in 1988 was to ensure that candidates from minority races can still be represented in Parliament. Was Singapore in danger of voting along racial lines back then in the 1980s? The evidence shows that PAP candidates of Indian and Malay origin had little difficulty in defeating Chinese opponents from opposition parties. Equally true is the fact that the first opposition MP to enter into Parliament was JB Jeyaretnam of the Workers’ Party in a constituency where the majority of residents were Chinese. The truth is that Singaporeans had not been voting along racial lines as at 1998 and it remains true that Singaporeans have not been voting along racial lines since then.

Indeed, one would be hard pressed to find a Singaporean who would vote along racial lines. Most Singaporeans can be classified into pro-PAP, anti-PAP, pro-a-particular-opposition party or just simply apathetic or unconcerned.

People vote along racial lines? Here in Singapore? We don’t buy that.
We may be told to rewind the clock back to the 1950s and 1960s. We may be told that racial divisions were real and were about to tear our society apart. We may be told that even though we notice such divisions today, they are still there below the surface waiting to blow up in our face at the slightest instigation.
If we are to believe that, then we must accept that 4 decades of nation building has been a failure; 4 decades of talking about racial harmony has been a failure; 4 decades of attempting to build a Singaporean identity has been a failure. But, I find that hard to accept.

Sure. There are racists in Singapore. There is racial discrimination here and there. Singaporeans have racial stereotypes about each other. But, to the credit of the Chinese majority in Singapore, they have never derided their politicians because of their race. Many minority race candidates from the PAP and the opposition have been received well by the Chinese majority. We are not in danger of slipping into a race based voting pattern. I know of so many Chinese friends who speak adoringly of JBJ and have a lot of contempt for LKY. Race has not been a factor in the way that the majority race votes in Singapore and with the high degree of tolerance and integration that we have amongst Singaporeans, it is unlikely that race will become a factor in the foreseeable.

So, the need to ensure minority race protection is nothing more than a hypothetical argument. In 1988, the PAP government was trying to ‘solve’ a hypothetical problem. Now, let us assume for a moment that minority race representation in Parliament is an issue to be catered for. Is the GRC system necessarily the best way to deal with it? Can’t such protection be ensured through a minimum quota of seats in Parliament? Under the present system, there are 15 GRCs. That translates into a reservation of 15 minority race seats in Parliament. If minority race representation is the true reason for introducing the GRC system, I suggest that a better system of ensuring minority race representation would be to reserve 15 constituencies as minority race seats. Any political party fielding candidates in those constituencies must field a person from a minority race. (I am personally opposed to this idea of creating a quota. But, playing ball with the PAP’s officially stated rationale, an alternative and better approach to the GRC would be a SMC system with a fixed quota for minorities)

What the GRC system really does is that it shields weaker candidates from electoral defeat. Back in 2009 I had blogged about manipulation of the electoral system and in that context the following analysis of Eunos GRC is something stand by still:

“Given the lack of proportionality that is inherent in the system, layering the GRC over it helps to aggravate the disproportionality. With the introduction of the GRC system, it is possible that some MPs that may have lost their individual seats are rescued by stronger candidates in other constituencies. The practice of having a Minister head a GRC team places an apprehension in the minds of voters that if the team loses, the Minister would no longer be able to serve in his office. Weak candidates within the GRC would benefit from the presence of a Minister on their team.

Let us take the Eunos GRC example. In the 1988 elections, Eunos GRC was a 3 member ward. The votes in favour of PAP – 36,500. The votes in favour of WP – 35,221. If the 3 constituencies that were a part of the GRC were single member constituencies in that elections, it is highly likely that at least one of the PAP candidates would have lost his seat. It is likely that Francis Seow would have won a seat in his constituency. In fact, with a vote difference of 1,279 votes, I would not be surprised if 2 PAP MPs had in fact lost to the opposition in the Eunos GRC(if only the Elections Department were to release the detailed results).

The same analysis can be applied to the Eunos GRC of the 1991 elections. This time around it was composed of 4 constituencies. PAP obtained 45,833 votes as opposed to 41,673 for the WP. With a vote difference of 4,160, again it is likely that at least one of the PAP candidates would have lost the seat in a conventional single member seat.

Through the GRC system, the PAP has managed to keep some of its MPs in Parliament where they would otherwise have found it tough going in a single member constituency. The growth in the size and number of GRCs was accompanied by the disappearance of most of the single member constituencies. This is another unique form of electoral management that has ensured the PAP’s continued super-majority in Parliament.”


The fact is that through the GRC system PAP had managed in the early years of its introduction to avoid losing seats in Parliament to candidates that would have posed a serious threat in Parliament such as Francis Seow and Tang Liang Hong. Single member constituencies that were too hot for the PAP to handle such as Bukit Batok, Bukit Gombak and Ulu Pandan (amongst others) were quickly obsorbed into GRCs. The GRCs started growing in size from the original 3 member groups to 5 and 6 member groups. Over time, it has also become evident that the GRC system is a useful way by which the PAP is able to regenerate itself and to train newbies. Every new candidate introduced in a general election by the PAP is shielded by a Minister or two in a GRC. People would generally not dare to vote out a minister and the new candidate would effectively be protected that way. This rationale has been evident in the PAP rhetoric in the last two elections and in fact it was elevated to a new level in this election this year.

PAP ministers have been repeating the warning that a Minister could be lost if voters went against the PAP in a GRC. In the 2006 election, much was made about George Yeo’s experience and credentials as a Foreign Minister. In the 2011 election, we have seen again how the PAP made much ado about the possibility of losing a Minister if Aljunied GRC were to be lost.

So, it has come to pass. Aljunied has been lost to the Workers’ Party. The residents of Aljunied have rejected the PAP’s arguments. The desire for a voice in Parliament has been so overwhelming that the WP team in Aljunied pulled off a vote swing of 10% in a GRC where precincts were moved out into Ang Mo Kio GRC and precincts were brought in from Marine Parade in an attempt by the incumbent to dilute pro-opposition votes.

Low Thia Khiang said on nomination day that it is time to teach the PAP a lesson. Well, the lesson has been delivered. But, has the PAP learnt anything?

And there is one more thing. This election has really exposed the GRC system in a big way. Tin Pei Ling can become an MP. Half a dozen faceless individuals in the PAP ranks can become MPs. But, George Yeo, Tan Jee Say, Vincent Wijeysinha and several other credible individuals can be left out of Parliament. The net effect: the GRC system is inherently inefficient in delivering the best outcome. The most credible candidates would enter Parliament in a straight one to one contest. But, in a system that shields the incompetent, Parliament suffers in quality.

To summarise:
1. I don’t buy the argument that GRCs protect minorities.
2. If we really want to protect minorities, we could have a fixed quota of SMCs for that purpose.
3. GRCs have favoured the PAP because of the all-or-nothing effect that they produce
4. GRCs permit less than competent candidates to enter Parliament through the presence of Ministers
5. When a GRC is lost due to backlash, a good PAP candidate can be lost along with the whole team

There is one more point that I did not make above. The first past the post system that we have inherited from the British is not representative of the votes of the people. The GRC system amplifies this problem and our Parliament has become dramatically unrepresentative. 6 seats out of 87 seats as representation for 40% of the population that voted for the opposition? That is atrocious.

3 comments:

David Teo said...

Good arguments. Should have circulated this to all GRC contesting parties for them to deliver during their rally speeches. DT

Subra said...

To be fair to WP they did address the GRC issue in the course of the campaign and they have brought it up in Parliament a number of times.
I attended the WP rally at Serangoon Stadium where Low Thia Khiang spoke about the GRC system and how it has served the incumbent when they got rid of Cheng San and Eunos and they redrew Aljunied.
Most of the people in the crowd were chanting 'kelong'.

But, I guess in a rally speech you can't go into details and specifics. One would start to lose the audience after a while.

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