GRC system: Wool Over Eyes (Part 1 of 6)

With the General Elections just around the corner, we thought it is time to look at the election system and its historical development in Singapore. In a series of articles, Rajiv Chaudhry examines the Group Representation Constituency system and asks whether it serves us well. He concludes that the longer term interests of Singaporeans will be best served by a return to Single Member Constituencies, with an element of Proportional Representation to safeguard minority interests.

‘Strong Government’ at what cost?

Two years ago, the government introduced a number of measures for political reform in Singapore.   In his speech to parliament, the Prime Minister (PM) justified the changes to Singapore’s electoral system as a continued evolution of our democratic institutions. The underlying basis for the reforms was said to be the over-arching need for the electoral process to produce “strong governments” while at the same time allowing “alternative voices” to be heard in Parliament.

Has this obsession with “strong governments” been taken too far? Has it become an objective in itself, rather than a means to an end? I suggest it has. This obsession has, in my view, resulted in a weakening of the body politic in Singapore and the atrophying of our democratic institutions.

The Prime Minister prefaced his remarks by saying Singapore’s political system is based on the British model of Parliamentary democracy but “we have evolved it over time in response to changing needs and our own circumstances”.

The question is, evolved in response to whose changing needs and whose circumstances? Was “our own circumstances” a Freudian slip?  Do these circumstances refer to the ruling party’s (PAP)  in particular, rather than Singapore’s in general?

While the governments produced under the present system have undoubtedly been strong, have they, more crucially, been truly representative of the wishes and aspirations of the people? The Prime Minister in his speech introducing the changes said “the …… changes will ……. strengthen its (Parliament’s) role as the key democratic institution where important national issues are deliberated and decided”.

Let us examine whether Parliament is, indeed, democratic as the Prime Minister suggests.

Voter representation

When independent Singapore held its first General Elections (GE) in 1968 a total of 759,367ii voters were represented by 58 elected members in parliament. Each member represented some 13,000 voters. Over the course of the next 10 elections, the number of voters represented by each Member of Parliament (MP) rose steadily:

Table 1

Year No of voters No of MPs Voters per MP
1968 759,367 58 13,093
1972 908,382 65 13,975
1976 1,095,817 69 15,881
1980 1,290,426 75 17,206
1984 1,495,389 79 18,929
1988 1,669,013 81 20,605
1991 1,692,384 81 20,894
1997 1,881,011 83 22,663
2001 2,036,923 84 24,249
2006 2,159,721 84 25,711
2011 2,350,217 87 27,014

After the 2011 GE each MP will represent some 27,000 voters, an increase of over 100% since independence.

If Singapore had continued to use the same ratio of MPs to voters as in 1968, there would need to be 180 MPs in the next parliament instead of the 87 that have been proposed.

So it might be argued, firstly, that Singaporeans are under-represented in Parliament.

Group Representational Constituencies

Group Representation Constituencies (GRCs) were introduced for the first time in 1988 when 13 three-member GRCs were established, forming 48% of the seats in parliament. By 1997 the percentage of GRC seats had risen to 89% of the total and there they remained until the changes announced by the government last week:

Table 2

Year No of GRCs Average members per GRC Total GRC seats Percentage of GRC seats
1988 13 3 39 48
1991 15 4 60 74
1997 15 4.93 74 89
2001 14 5.36 75 89
2006 14 5.36 75 89
2011 15 5 75 86

In the meantime, single-member constituencies (SMCs) went down from 100% in the first five elections to 52% in 1988 and 11% in 2006:

Table 3

Year No of SMCs Percentage of total
1988 42 52
1991 21 26
1997 9 11
2001 9 11
2006 9 11
2011 12 14

The latest changes leaves the number of GRC seats unchanged at 75, although reducing their percentage slightly in an expanded house. SMC seats have been raised by three.

Minority candidates

The primary purpose of GRCs was, ostensibly, to safeguard the representation of minority races in parliament. At the time the change was made, the government did not offer any emperical evidence that minority candidates were in any way disadvantaged or had had difficulty in being elected.

Let us see how these candidates fared in the years since independence.

Between 1968 to 1984 minority MPs  made up between 20 and 31% of the seats in each parliament:

Table 4

Year No of minority MPs Percentage
1968 18 31
1972 16 25
1976 17 25
1980 18 24
1984 16 20
1988 15 19
1991 17 21
1997 18 22
2001 22 26

After 1988 they comprised between 19 and 26% of the seats showing, in fact, a slight drop.

These figures show that minority candidates made up between a fifth and a third of the total number of seats in parliament both before and after the introduction of GRCs. It might therefore be said that no special measures need have been taken to “protect” the minority candidates.

The government argues, though, that the homogenisation of the races through its public housing policies which did away with kampongs and racial enclaves would have made it difficult for minority candidates to be elected in the future. This thesis was never put to the test.  The introduction of GRCs was regarded as a pre-emptive move to preserve minority interests.

Increased barriers to entry and disenfranchised voters

The major effect of the introduction of GRCs upon the political landscape of Singapore was the increased barrier to entry for opposition candidates as can be seen from the number of uncontested seats in the GE s, other wise known as “walkovers”.

After the PAP’s whopping victory in the 1968 GE in which 88.8% of the electorate were in constituencies that saw no contest, the percentage of voters who did not get a chance to vote because of walkovers between the 1972 and 1984 GE s dropped to an average of 29%, or to less than a third of the electorate:

Table 5

Year No of voters in walkover constituencies Percentage Average percentage 1972 – 1984
1968 674,484 88.8
1972 95,456 10.5
1976 238,520 21.8
1980 605,285 46.9
1984 550,765 36.8 29

Between 1988 and 2006, the percentage of voters shut out because of walkovers increased to 46.5% or nearly half the electorate, despite the low figure of 13.1% in 1988. The average for the four GE s from 1991 to 2006 was, in fact, 55% or well over half the electorate.

Table 6

Year No of voters in walkover constituencies Percentage Average percentage 1988-2006
1988 219,175 13.1
1991 844,668 49.9
1997 1,115,679 59.3
2001 1,361,617 66.8
2006 936,279 43.4 46.5

The actual number of voters who did not get to vote between 1997 and 2006 averaged 1,137,858 in each of the three GE s or an average of 56% of the electorate. Well over a million voters were dienfranchised.

If such a significant percentage of the voting population did not get an opportunity to cast their vote, can it truly be said that the candidates returned from these GRCs were elected by popular mandate?

The actual number of votes cast for the winning party, the PAP, in the 2006 GE in the contested wards was 748,130.  As a percentage of the total number of 2,159,721 registered voters in 2006, this number works out to 34.64% or slightly over one-third of the voting population.

When viewed in this light, the election result look quite different from the claims made by the winning party in its post-election press-releases. In 2006, for instance, the PAP claimed to have won 66.6% of the “valid votes”.

Can the PAP truly claim the mandate to rule, given that over half the voting population did not get a chance to vote in the past three elections?

Crucially, if the government believes its own claim that it has consistently “delivered” on its promises and helped improve the lives of Singaporeans from GE to GE, surely it should have no compunctions about putting its claim to the litmus test of elections, even in uncontested GRCs?

Or, can it be that the GRCs have quite another purpose, other than the one mandated in the statute books?

Rajiv Chaudhry is a member of the Reform Party and a contributor to TOC. The views expressed are his own. The articles were written in 2009 before he joined the Reform Party.

The article also appeared at

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