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GRC system: Wool Over Eyes (Part 4 of 6)

In Part 3 of a series of articles on the GRC system, Rajiv Chaudhry reveals the reasons behind the GRC system, and also how the PAP has continued to amend the GRC system over the years to further strengthen its near-monopoly of Parliament. In Part 4, he calls for the Government to truly ensure proportional representation for minority races.


Part 4: Cutting The Wool

Proportional representation for minority races?

To go back to the first principles stated in the Parliamentary Elections Act, the main  purpose of GRCs is to ensure minority representation in Parliament. The assumption is that in a racially dispersed Singapore, minorities will find it difficult to get themselves elected without some form of affirmative action.

If the Government is serious about this objective and sincere in its motives, and GRCs are not merely an electoral ploy to skew the playing field in favour of the ruling party, it must take steps to clearly lay down the principles in the constitution so that they are institutionalised and enshrined in the electoral process. Racial percentages in Parliament should ideally reflect percentages of the minority races in the population at large.

The most effective way of achieving this is for the number of seats for each minority group in Parliament to be fixed and for the representatives to be elected directly by each minority group on a national basis ie Malays elect Malay MPs, Indians elect Indian MPs and so on.

Such direct elections should make up the difference, if any, between the numbers determined by the racial percentages and the actual numbers elected on normal party tickets. For example, if Malays have 15 seats in a 100 member house and only 5 are elected directly on party tickets, the remaining 10 seats should be filled from a slate to be put up by the community at large.

Since the minority races make up only 25% of the population, it is unlikely that such direct elections will either undo the benefits of years of homogenisation that PAP housing policies have brought about or overwhelm majority views in Parliament. The fear that such direct elections might re-introduce unhealthy race-based politics which have largely been stamped out over the years are overblown. Our constitution provides for equality before the law. Further, suitable safeguards and “OB markers” can be put in place to determine what is or is not allowed in the political process. If this can be successfully done, it could take Singapore politics to a new level of maturity. Such direct representation should result in each community's interests being more faithfully represented in Parliament and for an overall more constructive engagement with the minority communities.

Lessons

MM Lee with Charlie Rose

When Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew was interviewed by Charlie Rose, the Emmy award winning TV journalist on PBS, an American channel, he was asked the question all foreign journalists love to ask him: “Mr Lee, you have a reputation for being an authoritarian person. What do you have to say to that?”

Without batting an eyelid, Mr Lee replied “Well, the people have elected me in free and fair elections, time and again, have they not?”

Well, Mr Lee and his government have certainly been elected time and again. But, in the light of the evidence presented here, have the elections been free and, more importantly, fair?

Free and fair?

There is little dispute that elections in Singapore are generally peaceful and free. The electorate is able to exercise its franchise freely, without coercion and in secret. Although ballot papers are numbered, there has never been any allegation of improper use of ballot paper serial numbers since elections began in Singapore in 1948.

Nevertheless, lingering doubts remain in voters' minds regarding the anonymity of their vote. To remove these residual doubts, the process of physically checking voters in at the voting booth against their registration numbers and the issuing of numbered voting slips should be delinked. This can be easily done by allowing voters to draw the voting slips at random, after they have been admitted. This should assuage the concerns of both the government, for control and checks over the voting process, and voters who might harbour doubts about the traceability of the voting slips. This simple change will, in itself, go a long way towards removing the climate of fear under which so many Singaporeans dwell.

What about the issue of fairness? Here the evidence is much more skewed.

The first premise of a free and open democracy is that the people must be able to elect the representatives that they wish to elect. For this to happen, there should be no unfair barriers preventing those who wish to represent the people from standing for election.

The corollary to this is an independent press, unfettered by obligations to any political overlords or indeed, to any other masters (sometimes it is beholden to powerful business interests, which can be  almost as unhealthy).

Political parties must have ample opportunity to canvass votes.

And the representatives so elected must have empathy for and know their constituents and their needs intimately. (More information on this subject can be found here)

Seen in this light, the Prime Minister's singular obsession with “strong” governments to the exclusion of other political virtues is both misplaced and indicative of a lack of confidence in the electorate. It is symptomatic of immaturity in the whole body politic resulting from years of overly strong, top-down government.

After a long period of sustained strong growth and spectacular economic success, it was to be hoped, indeed, expected that the political space would blossom into one of greater maturity and openness.

Instead, the Government has chosen to remain behind its barricades. The implication behind the Government's pronouncements in 2009 on changes to the electoral system is that less “strong” governments will lead us down the slippery path to ruination. Our small size and lack of resources is cited as the reason for this caution.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

I would submit, without hesitation, that it is in the best long-term interests of the country for a plurality of responsible political views to emerge. These views need to be debated in the open market-place of ideas, both in and out of the legislature. A monopoly on ideas and political processes, like monopolies of any other kind is stifling, inefficient, atrophying and ultimately ruinous for the country.

This emphasis on strong governments has enfeebled the body politic in Singapore. In the event of a “freak election” in which the government is voted out, the country is poorly positioned with frail and inadequately prepared opposition parties. These parties have neither the experience of running a government nor do they have the depth of membership to be able to put up a full slate of ministers. Such are the consequences of the “banyan tree” political system that Singapore has been under these past 45 years of independence.

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.