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Has the GRC system achieved its aims? By Melvin Tan.

20 Years Of The GRC: A closer look (Part One)

The Group Representation Constituency (GRC) system was introduced in 1988. In this two-parter, guest writer Melvin Tan looks back on the last 20 years of the GRC.

Melvin Tan / Guest Writer

One who is aware of local politics would immediately identify the following three as salient features of Singapore’s electoral system : the Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP), Non-constituency Member of Parliament (NCMP) and the Group Representation Constituency (GRC) schemes.

Apart from the above, Singapore’s electoral leanings carry the vestiges left behind by the British colonial authorities, such as the first-past-the-post system and the requirement for an election deposit, although the latter is today determined via the honorarium elected members received instead of the fixed amount still practised in the UK.

While the GRC treads into its 20th year, its existence was recently brought into the limelight again in a special report by the Straits Times in August 2008.

Introduced for the 1988 General Election (GE), GRCs began with three members but at every GE following that, constitutional amendments were made to enlarge it.

By the time of the 1997 GE, and after a couple of adjustments tabled in Parliament, they were fixed at between four to six members.

Over the subsequent GEs in 2001 and 2006, the size of GRCs finally froze – nearly. The exception was the cessation of four-member GRCs.

Since then, no further amendments have been tabled in the House pertaining to the GRC.

Given this, one may conclude that unless the People’s Action Party (PAP) government can find new grounds to expand GRC sizes further, it is unlikely to do so.

Deciphering the justifications

Critics, partisan or otherwise, largely deride the PAP-imposed electoral features as methodologies designed to entrench the ruling party’s hold on power and at the same time, raise the bar on its electoral opponents - the opposition parties.

In 1988, the justification of implementing the GRC system was to ensure the representation of ethnic minority candidates from whichever party, who may not be successfully voted in a predominantly Chinese electorate if he or she meets a challenger from the latter group.

However, with two ethnic Chinese candidates shouldering a minority, as in the original GRC scheme, there would have been little reason to add to the numbers in a GRC.

Population growth, reduction of electoral boundary changes, congregation for economies of scale and the set up of community development councils concerns became later justifications for the GRCs’ progressive expansion.

These rationalisations somewhat fail to appease critics - perhaps for good reasons.

While the GRCs expanded, the number of Single Member Constituencies (SMC) dwindled; from 42 in the 1988 GE comprising half of the elected seats, to only 9 or about one-tenth of elected seats at present.

The increase in the number of elected seats - from 81 in 1998 to 84 in the 2006 GE - is also hardly a hefty increase.

Electoral boundary changes were more drastic after the GRCs came into being, with those which were nearly won by the opposition parties dissected and SMCs carved in and out of some others.

As for economies of scale, several observers noted that since CDCs and town councils largely packaged more than a constituency, a cluster of SMCs could also be categorically grouped under a CDC or a town council.

In the book “The Price of Victory” published by the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies after the 1997 GE, researcher Dr Derek Da Cunha asserted that GRCs are advantageous to the PAP because of the theory of the “law of large numbers”.

The line of reasoning is that the larger an electoral constituency, the higher probability the results would be more in tandem with national sentiments, which would naturally be in favour of the PAP.

This perspective holds its merits and is enhanced by the fact that if a six-member GRC is won by the PAP with five districts going to it and one straying to the opposition, the GRC is still declared won by the PAP and the opposition is denied one less seat.

The “heavyweight” theory

One common criticism is that the GRC facilitates new PAP candidates to ride on the coattail of the party’s major figures, who shelter them for an easier entry into Parliament.

Upon closer examination, there are valid reasons why a number derive of Singaporeans hold this view, because the skeptic would be hard-placed to believe that each PAP GRC team helmed by at least one minister is a mere coincidental arrangement.

Previously, the PAP themselves countered that opposition parties could do the same by getting “heavyweight” opposition members to anchor their GRC teams.

However, this is unconvincing because the average minister receives more public and media exposure than the average opposition party CEC member in lieu of the national portfolios the ministers hold.

The Prime Minister, Senior Minister and Minister Mentor are more often seen on national television and newspapers than opposition chairpersons or secretary-generals.

The PAP’s candidates in SMCs have not been first-timers since the 1991 GE. No new PAP candidate since 1991 has ever been posted to an SMC apart from opposition-held wards.

Therefore, the GRC reduces the chances of yet-to-be-elected prominent opposition personalities from contesting a new PAP candidate and thereby standing a better chance of winning. One may surmise that the strategy of allowing less-known PAP candidates to latch onto “heavyweight” leaders was not thought of when the GRC concept came about.

In the 1988 GE, seven out of 18 new PAP candidates were fielded in the 20 SMCs of the total 81 seats and many three-member GRCs consisted of all backbencher MPs.

Among the three wards of then-Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew and his two deputies, Mr Goh Chok Tong and Mr Ong Teng Cheong, only one - Marine Parade, that of Goh’s - was a GRC.

That is not the case today; PM Lee Hsien Loong and the two former Prime Ministers, the senior Lee and Goh, helm three out of the only five six-member GRCs on the map.

A better opposition, or worse?

Not too long ago in July this year, Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew explained that the PAP had introduced a system that was “trying to force the opposition to gather good candidates that will equal the PAP in integrity and competence so that if the PAP fails, there will be an alternative”.

On first impression, it appears to be well-intended and sensible, but on closer examination of the present political circumstances, it may not achieve MM Lee’s desired outcome.

Whether it was pre-planned or not, the GRC concept allows the PAP to capitalise on the weaknesses of its political opponents who are unable to field candidates in a significant number of wards.

The highest number of candidates fielded by the opposition parties since the 1988 GE was the Workers’ Party with 32 candidates, barely half of the number of the 81 seats up for grabs.

In 2006, it was again the Workers’ Party and the four-party Singapore Democratic Alliance, which fielded 20 candidates each - barely a quarter of the 84 elected seats.

Unlike the PAP, which appears to be able to select its 84 candidates from a larger pool of a hundred-odd potentials, an opposition party has a much smaller pool to select from.

In the event that the number of opposition candidates is at the margin of half the number of total seats, this can spell the difference between whether the PAP returns to power on nomination day or otherwise.

Generally, opposition parties would prefer to field more candidates as it is a display of strength and earns them more publicity and television time; similarly, many voters would relish their wards contested so as to have the opportunity to vote.

Hence, these parties would scrounge for additional candidates to form one more GRC team either from its network who are not adequately prepared to run for office or individuals whom they do not know well enough offering themselves at the last minute.

At times, this leads to embarrassing consequences that manifest during the campaign period.

As a result, the GRC system indirectly serves to diminish the quality of opposition candidates.

While this spells better prospects for PAP candidates to be elected if the flaws of the weaker opposition candidates are exposed, it may not be good for the country if PAP candidates are elected under such circumstances.

The PAP may not see that it as its job to help the opposition but when it claims to be pro-Singapore, it cannot ignore the danger of this.

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About the author:

The writer is a self-confessed partisan blogger, being a member of the Workers’ Party and presently serving in the WP Youth Wing, who owns “a blog @ Singapore”.

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