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GRCs and gerrymandering – the root causes of problems: Sylvia Lim

The following is the parliamentary speech by NCMP and Workers' Party Chairman, Ms Sylvia Lim.

Sir, I next move on to the changes of the composition of Parliament.

First, entrenching Nominated MPs in the system.

The Workers’ Party’s position on NMPs remain the same and I do not intend to repeat what we have said through the years. In summary, we do not support having MPs who do not participate in the electoral process. We have voted against all motions to have NMPs in the past and we will oppose their entrenchment.

I will focus the rest of my speech on the change to Non-Constituency MPs.

Sir, clause 3 amends Article 39 to increase the maximum number of NCMPs of Parliament from six to nine. The Workers Party will oppose the amendments on the fundamental principle that having NCMPs is not the way forward to make our political system more robust. This change is an attempt by the Prime Minister to make a bad situation better. Yes, it improves the current situation and will give some recognition to the desire of voters who supported opposition candidates in large numbers.  However, the fundamental problem should be tackled at its root cause – the GRC system and gerrymandering.

Let me elaborate.

Last May, the Prime Minister told the House that the rationale for the increase in NCMPs was to encourage a wider range of views in Parliament, including opposition and non-government views. He said that it will generate more robust debate and improve policy formulation. The most important reason for the change, according to him, was to keep Parliament in sync with the concerns and aspirations of Singaporeans, and strengthen the role of Parliament as a key democratic institution where important national issues are deliberated and decided.

Sir, it is good that the Prime Minister has an open mind towards alternative views. However, his vision of Parliament now seems to be a sort of feedback unit or even as a talk-shop. Is that all that Parliament as an organ of state should be? What happened to Parliament being a collective mandate of representation where each MP who is there has a right to be there to make decisions for the people because the people have so elected?

Under the doctrine of separation of powers, Parliament has a critical role as a check on the executive government. Parliament can only be legitimately formed after the General Elections when the people decide who should be in Parliament to represent them. Even the PAP boasts that it faces the people every five years to get a mandate but instead of acting in the national interest the PAP government has over the years tinkered with the electoral system for its political ends.

Allow me to trace some history, in case some of us have forgotten.

Sir, the NCMP scheme was introduced in 1984. This was soon after the PAP lost just one elected seat in the 1981 Anson by-election, captured by the Workers’ Party secretary-general, the late Mr JB Jeyaretnam. However, the NCMP scheme did not stop the people from voting for the opposition. In the 1984 GE, Mr Jeyaretnam retained his Anson seat with a larger majority and in addition, Mr Chiam See Tong won convincingly in Potong Pasir with 60 per cent. Earlier DPM Wong in his Second Reading speech mentioned that the Workers’ Party had rejected the NCMP seat in 1994 but I think he was mistaken. It was actually in 1984.

Sir, at that time in 1984 there had emerged a trend of declining support for the PAP. The PAP then came up with a double-whammy to secure its political power – GRCs and gerrymandering.

The ruling party introduced GRCs in the 1988 GE. This was avowedly for the purpose of minority representation despite the fact that minority candidates were still defeating Chinese candidates at previous GEs. The GRCs started with three-member groupings at that GE, 1988. The Workers Party team at Eunos GRC, consisting of Dr Lee Siew Choh, Mr Francis Seow and Mr Khalid Babu, secured 49 per cent of the vote against the PAP team.

By the next GE, 1991, GRCs had been expanded to four-men teams. However, there were still 21 single-member seats. At that election, voters elected four opposition MPs into Parliament [from] SMCs, including the Workers’ Party’s Mr Low Thia Khiang. This was the largest number of opposition MPs elected since the Barisan Socialis’ walk-out in the 1960s.

Sir, in the following GE in 1997, GRCs were again expanded to even six-men GRCs. No longer was there an attempt to explain these mega-GRCs as securing minority representation. Instead the excuse of economy of scale for town councils and community development councils was used. Despite that, the Workers’ Party team in Cheng San GRC scored 45 per cent with its team including Mr Jeyaretnam and Mr Tang Liang Hong.

By this GE, 1997, the PAP’s expansion of the GRC saw only nine SMCs left, a drastic reduction from the 21 at the previous GE. Such was the PAP’s need to dominate. This tiny number of nine has been with us till today such that when the Prime Minister announces an increase of SMCs from nine to twelve, we hail this as progress.

Sir, over the years the PAP itself has admitted that the GRC serves its party purposes. In 2006, Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong noted that having GRCs helped to recruit PAP candidates since, quote: “Without some assurance of a good chance of winning at least the first election, many  able and successful young Singaporeans may not risk their careers to join politics.” Unquote.

Minister Mentor had also commented then on the GRCs being useful training tools since the Health Minister, who had been with him in Tanjong Pagar GRC from the previous GE, quote, “should be ready to lead his own GRC team”, unquote, in the coming 2006 elections.

Sir, the other twin pillar of the double-whammy is gerrymandering. The entire electoral boundary re-drawing process is completely shrouded in secrecy, chaired by the secretary to the Cabinet. There are no public hearings, no minutes of meetings published. The revised boundaries are released weeks or even days before Nomination Day. The report makes no attempts to explain why certain single seats are retained, and others are dissolved, nor why new GRCs are created or old ones re-shaped. Voters have changed constituencies at successive elections without moving a single step. Adam Road is now Tanjong Pagar, Serangoon Central is Marine Parade. Coincidentally, constituencies which showed strong opposition support are broken up or merged with others. Today, we no longer have Eunos GRC or Cheng San GRC.

Sir, a few days ago the Prime Minister appeared in a television interview with  American journalist, Charlie Rose, and spoke of the importance of the moral right to govern. How does abusing the GRC system and gerrymandering square with the moral right to govern?

Sir, in addition, there are serious limitations to NCMP seats and it is important to highlight to Singaporeans these limitations.

Besides not being able to vote on critical matters, we are considered as lacking in official capacity to represent the people. This was brought home in 1997 when Mr JB Jeyaretnam, who was then NCMP, filed a Parliamentary question asking whether any directive had been given to government departments not to reply to letters sent by him as NCMP. In the exchange which followed, the Home Affairs minister reiterated the fact that NCMPs do not represent any particular constituency and therefore the government departments would only respond to letters by elected MPs or grassroots advisers on behalf of residents in those areas.

I have my own experiences of this reality.

I have been doing house visits in Aljunied GRC for several years. The residents have raised certain concerns to me which I have highlighted in Parliament as issues, where appropriate. However, I have no official capacity to write letters on their behalf regarding their specific cases though I very much want to.

In addition, an NCMP has no physical base. Under the Town Councils Act, the incumbent MP will be in charge of the town council which controls the use of common space. As for the community clubs, these are in the hands of the People’s Association. It is next to impossible for an opposing candidate to be allowed to use a space to organize activities or dialogues. We have applied for permission to use spaces in PAP wards and received expected rejections.

On the other hand, ruling party hopefuls in opposition wards are appointed advisers to grassroots organizations, thereby apparently  having status to liaise with HDB and other government departments on behalf of residents.

Sir, it may well be that the PAP wants complete dominance with non-PAP voices provided through the NMP and NCMP schemes. But what would happen if the PAP starts to falter or be corrupt? A good political system is one which can provide sustainable checks on the ruling party through the people having real bargaining power through the presence of elected opposition members. This will serve as a strong incentive for the ruling party to perform and pay heed to the people’s desires. Elected opposition members are a manifestation of a challenge to the ruling party not just in Parliament but on the ground.

It is not in the national interest to promote a system where the survival of the country become so intertwined with the fate of one political party that the people are left hostage.

Instead of worrying about the MPs’ debating skills, the Prime Minister should worry more about whether each of his MPs has the support of the people which an SMC system will automatically cure.

In conclusion, sir, let me summarise.

By this Bill, the Prime Minister is trying to make a bad situation better but increasing NCMPs is not the solution towards a more robust political system. The root causes of our current problems are the abuse of the GRC system and gerrymandering. These have curtailed the expression of the people’s desires at the elections and instead promoted the ruling party’s own agenda. The PAP has created the problem which it is trying to solve. But we should instead tackle the root causes for a more lasting and sustainable political future for Singapore.

Sir, for these reasons, the Workers’ Party opposes the Bill.

The member for Hougang will vote against the amendment as I cannot vote.