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GRC system: Wool Over Eyes (Part 3 of 6)

In Part 2 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. Part 3 reveals the reasons behind the move, and also how the PAP has continued to amend the GRC system over the years to further strengthen its near-monopoly of Parliament.


Part 3: The wool grows thicker.

 

Was the formation of the GRCs truly a pre-emptive measure of enlightened benevolence on the part of the majority community, to guard against a situation where minorities in this country might become disenfranchised? The evidence, as outlined in Part 1, does not support this conjecture.

The real reason

Prior to 1988, minority candidates had no difficulty in being elected to Parliament. In the 1984 elections, the last elections before the GRCs were introduced, 16 minority Members were elected, making up 20% of the seats in the House. There is, thus, no evidence that voters have had difficulty in recognizing and supporting capable candidates, whatever his race or religious background.

If we accept this evidence at face value, then we must seek the real reason for the construction of GRCs elsewhere.

After the shock of losing the Anson seat at the 1981 BE and the 1984 GE, the PAP experimented in 1988 with super-wards with blocks of three candidates in each, as a means of raising the ante' for the opposition. In any other country, the loss of just one seat to an opposition candidate out of 75 seats in 1981 or two seats out of 79 seats in 1984 (JBJ and Chiam See Tong) would be considered occasions for bringing out the bubbly. Not so in Singapore where it was considered a sufficiently great disaster as to necessitate the re-drawing and re-designing of the entire electoral process.

That this was an over-kill can also be seen by fact that PAP nemesis JBJ was disqualified from contesting the 1988 GE for irregularities with party accounts, leading to conviction.

The success of the GRC scheme in 1988 gave the PAP a taste of blood. It was demonstrated that these super-wards easily raised the bar for an already emasculated opposition. The loss of seats to the opposition, other than to the unshakeable Mr Chiam, was staunched.

The GRC formula was refined in each subsequent elections, with the proportion of Members of Parliament coming from GRCs rising steadily until it reached the present figure of 89% of the total seats in the house. The GRCs firmly entrenched the incumbent government in the political landscape of Singapore.

In the course of time, the GRCs have come to serve a secondary function, that of allowing neophyte political candidates to ride into Parliament on the coat-tails of seasoned heavy-weightsi. Further, the large number of walk-overs means that many MP s have been able to enter Parliament without having had to go through the baptism of fire at the hustings. The number of candidates elected unopposed rose from 11 in 1988 to 41 in 1991, 47 in 1997, 55 in 2001 and dropped for the first time in 2006 to 37ii. The quality of some of these members, who have never had to face the voters, has been questioned by some commentators.

Strong government

So, what do we make of the Prime Minister's pronouncements in parliament in May 2009?

Governments that have been formed after every elections in modern Singapore have undoubtedly been “strong”. In the first quarter-century or so of independence, this strong hand of government undoubtedly helped to push through many unpopular but necessary reforms, such as compulsory acquisition of land for public projects . These, in turn, helped Singapore to break away from its neighbours with high growth and MNC investments, earning it recognition as a 'Tiger' economy and eventually propelling it into the ranks of near-developed countries in a short period of 30 or so years.

The next 20 years saw a new generation come up, the so-called “post-65-ers” or Singaporeans born after independence. With high growth rates, better education, overseas travel and the technological revolution, came increased aspirations.

Rather than loosening the reins to allow more plurality in the polity, the government has instead chosen to tighten them. Parliament, instead of reflecting the increased diversity of our society, has become less representative with only 34% of the electorate having actually voted for the government in the 2006 elections (see Part 1).

It is shocking that fully 43% of the voters or close to a million people did not get a chance to vote in the 2006 elections. In other words, nearly half the voters were shut out of the electoral process. It cannot be taken as a given that voters in “walk-over” constituencies are automatically, 100% in favour of the unopposed candidates who have been admitted to Parliament.

7 Electoral map of 2006 GE: 7 GRCs totalling 37 seats were uncontested and returned to the PAP. "]
On nomination day[3

The changes

The government's move in 2009 to change some features of the electoral system came, no doubt, after deep soul-searching. It probably realizes that paradoxically, as it seeks seeks to build increasingly stronger fire-walls in the form of super-GRCs, its position is actually becoming less tenable. With only a third of the people having voted for it, disaffection among the population is growing. Perhaps it also realizes, belatedly, that its heavy-handed treatment of opposition candidates in the past (this is a subject for a separate article) has been counter-productive and may one day come back to haunt it.

Crucially, the government finds itself at a loss as to how to deal with the new 'pasar' of the 21st century, the cyber-world or cyber-pasar. It senses a sort of a no-win situation, a 'damned if I do' and 'damned if I don't' sort of bind. More importantly, it feels a loss of control over issues which, rather than being debated in the House, are leaking away into this new medium.

Hence Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's remark that the changes will “give more voice” to the opposition and make Parliament the main “democratic” forum “where important national issues are deliberated and decided”.

However, instead of tackling the issue with honesty, sincerity, integrity and a view to devolving power to where it belongs, ie to the people, the government has once again chosen sleight of hand.

The decision to increase the numbers of Non-constituency MPs (NCMPs) from six to a maximum of nine and make Nominated MP s (NMPs) a permanent feature of parliament by amending the constitution is an exercise in political spin.

Nominated MP s have no constituency or voters to represent and speak for no one but themselves. At best they are in the nature of advisors to the government, although some (very few) such as Siew Kum Hong (now an ex-NMP), have spoken out strongly against the government on specific issues.

NCMPs are losing opposition candidates in an election with the highest number of votes amongst the losers. Because they are losing candidates, they too, do not fully represent an electoral ward. At best, the NCMP scheme might be considered a back-door application of proportional representation (PR), despite the fact that the Prime Minister in his speech in 2009 poured scorn on PR forms of government in New Zealand and Israel. In other words, NCMPs represent a proportion of the voters, making up less than a majority, in the constituencies from which they originate.

With both schemes, NMPs and NCMPs, the caveat is that the total number of each will be capped at nine (so long as the opposition wins less than nine seats in Parliament). Unless the opposition is able to win more than 9 seats at the polls, the total number of such “alternate voices” will be restricted to 18 in a house with 87 seats. This carries no political risk to the ruling party and, in any case, both categories of MPs are barred from voting on matters relating to constitutional amendments, public funds, votes of confidence and presidential impeachment. These restrictions make them rather toothless. Besides, the whole exercise undermines democratic principles as forcefully pointed out in a TOC editorial on 28 May 2009.

In the latest amendments to electoral boundaries announced on 24 February, the number of SMC wards has been increased by 3, in a token nod to long-standing opposition demand for more SMC seats. The concession is relatively safe and is unlikely, by itself, to upset the balance of power in the House.

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.