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GRC system: Wool Over Eyes (Part 2 of 6)

In the second part of a series of articles on the GRC system, Rajiv Chaudhry examines some of the ways in which the GRC system has caused an uneven playing field in favor of the incumbent. You can read Part 1 here.


 

Are Singaporeans having the wool pulled over their eyes? Let us look at some of the ways in which the playing field here is tilted.

Electoral boundaries and deposits

Critics of the government claim that it manipulates the electoral process by changing electoral boundaries without disclosing the reasons and raising the deposits required to be put up by candidates for election.

Electoral boundaries are determined by the Electoral Boundaries Review Committee (EBRC). The EBRC has no constitutional standingi and there is no law that mandates its creation. It is typically appointed by the Prime Minister just before a GE to review electoral division boundaries and recommend changes. The five-member committee comprises senior public servants and the head of the Elections Department.

Section 8 (1) of the Parliamentary Elections Act (the Act) empowers the minister to specify the names and boundaries of electoral  divisions from time to time.

In other words, the EBRC is not an independent body constituted under an act of parliament but is under the control of the executive branch of government. It submits its report to the cabinet and it is accepted by the government without the need for debate, approval by parliament or oversight by the courts. Once approved, a new map of electoral divisions is published as a fait accompli in the Government Gazette.

Similarly, the Elections Department itself is not an independently constituted body but is under the control of the Prime Minister's office (PMO). It too, is not overseen by the judiciary and there are no independent checks and balances on its activities, other than by the PMO.

The history of electoral deposits, ie the deposits required to be put up by candidates for elections, is rather more straightforward. Starting with a deposit of $500 per candidate in the 1968 and 1972 GEs, it has gone up significantly from election to election, barring the 1984 GE at which it remained the same as in the previous GE, and currently stands at $13,500 per candidate. This represents an increase of 27 times or 2,700% over the course of 10 GE s.

Section 28 (1) of the Act stipulates that the deposit shall be “a sum equal to 8% of the total allowances payable to a Member of Parliament in the preceding calender year, rounded to the nearest $500”. The logic of why the deposit should be linked to an MP's allowance is unclear.

A deposit of $13,500 per candidate means that a slate of six candidates standing for election in a six-member GRC would be required to put up a sum of $81,000 before it can contest the elections. Under the Act, if the number of votes garnered by the candidate or slate of candidates in the case of a GRC falls below one-eighth (12.5%) of the total number of votes polled in that constituency, the deposit will be forfeited.

To field candidates in all 87 seats, a political party would need to put up well over $1 million as a deposit.

It is no wonder some refer to the elections here as Singapore's “Great Wall”.

Campaign period and the media

There are two further ways by which the incumbent government keeps the opposition parties off-balance.

The first of these is by far the greater impediment to the practice of free and open democracy in Singapore. This is the campaign period allowed for political parties to canvass support from voters, after nominations of candidates for election close.

In the 1968 GE, where presumably the old traditions inherited from the British were still followed, a total of 56 days was allowed for campaigning (coincidenially, this was the same elections in which the PAP swept the polls, with 88.8% of the electorate in constituencies that saw walkovers) . In the next seven GEs, the campaign period was truncated to 10 days and in the 2001 and 2006 GE s, they were further shortened to 9 days.

If one were to argue from first principles, the campaigning period is possibly the single most important factor in the electoral process. It is the crucial time that political parties have to communicate their political philosophies and programmes to the electorate. In an open democracy it is therefore essential that sufficient time be given for this process of communication so voters can make their choice at the ballot box with as much information as it is possible for them to gather.

The extreme example of an extended campaigning period is, obviously, the US Presidential Primaries, without doubt the most gruelling political-wringer that any political candidate can possibly go through. Setting this extreme example aside, in most established democracies such as in Britain and India, it is normal for political parties and candidates to have between two weeks  and two months to place their programmes before the people. In the Australian Federal elections where rules are based on the Commonwealth Electoral Act, the polling date can be up to a maximum of 68 days from the date of issue of writsii. Campaign periods spanning 70 days have also been known in Indiaiii.

By denying Singaporeans the opportunity to judge candidates fairly and objectively, for example through television talk shows, the system does our citizens a great dis-service.

The media plays a crucial role in elections everywhere. In Singapore, the print media falls under the purview of the Newspaper (sic) and Printing Presses Act. Section 10 of the act provides for a special class of shares known as “management shares” which can be held only by citizens or corporations  approved by the Minister. Each management share is entitled to 200 votes. The government has always said the media here is in a symbiotic relationship with it for the purpose of nation building. A full discussion of this is not the purpose of this article. Suffice it to say that those who are not in the government feel they do not have an adequate opportunity to express their points of view.

Opposition politicians also say the “mainstream media” (MSM) tends to focus on personalities, rather than policies and that their reporting of  the hustings can be skewed. An example is the large size of the Workers Party rallies in Hougang in the 2006 GE which were not reported in the MSM until after they were posted online by  blogger Alex Au.

Workers' Party rally at Hougang Stadium during the 2006 GE

In practice, the incumbent government has a huge advantage because of the continuing opportunities that it has to place its message before the people in the period between elections and particularly in the run-up to the elections, through the state-controlled media, especially television. The opposition is particularly handicapped by lack of television time, except for brief exposure during prime-time news and selected talk-shows before the elections.

Lack of opportunities for exposure in the media, combined with the short campaigning time between the nomination and polling dates, results in a less than level playing field.

The amendments to the Films Act passed by parliament in March 2009 throw up further barriers for political parties to make and disseminate films with political content, except within certain strictly defined and narrow guidelines.

The real reason: calling the bluff

In Part 1, we saw that minority candidates were consistently returned in significant numbers in each of the elections since independence (and even before independence), including such notable personalities as David Marshall, Devan Nair, S Rajaratnam, E W Barker and Othman Wok. Malay candidates, in particular, were well represented in the early years. It would, thus, appear the system was not “broke”.

So, if it wasn't “broke”, why did it need to be fixed? To find an answer to this question, we need to go back in time to the mid-1980s.

The widely-held view at the time was that the PAP, piqued by the loss of the Anson ward in the 1981 bye-elections (BE) and again in the 1984 General Elections, after having held 100% of the seats in Parliament in four successive elections from 1968 to 1980 (for a total of 13 unbroken years), was out to do everything in its power to ensure that it retained complete control  in Parliament for as long as it could. The PAP, led by the then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, believed it was the best party to rule Singapore and that Singaporeans' long-term interests were best served by having its firm hand on the tiller, unimpeded by any opposition parties snapping at its heels in Parliament.

Joshua Benjamin Jeyaretnam at his moment of triumph in Anson in October1981.

The vacancy in Anson was caused by the elevation to the Presidency of Singapore of C V Devan Nair, who was the then-incumbent PAP MP from that ward. The seat was won by the Worker's Party candidate Joshua Benjamin Jeyaretnam (JBJ), breaking the monopoly of the PAP in Parliament and causing a stunning upset. In the following GE in 1984, JBJ again won the Anson seat and was returned to Parliament for a second time.

In the 1988 GE, the Anson constituency was absorbed into an enlarged Tanjong Pagar constituency and disappeared from the electoral map of Singapore.

End of Part 2.

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.