GRC system: Wool Over Eyes (Part 5 of 6)

In Part 4 of a series of articles on the GRC system, Rajiv Chaudhry calls for the Government to truly ensure proportional representation for minority races. In Part 5, he refutes the justifications the Government has given for the need for GRCs.


Part 5: Don't follow the sheep

It is debatable as to whether GRCs, being super-constituencies with voter numbers ranging between 93,000 and 185,000 in the 2006 GEi can provide the kind of linkage between voters and their representatives that is ideally needed for a well functioning democracy.

MPs from GRCs do not appear to have the same degree of identification in voters' minds as those from SMCs because of the “dilution” in the image of each MP in the constituents minds. At most, only the senior MP or MPs hold the “drawing power” and are identified with the GRC while the images of the rest tend to be subsumed within that of the team.

GRCs have also been criticised  because they are seen as a route for back-door entry into Parliament for many. A number of MPs who are currently in Parliament are not seasoned politicians who have come up through the traditional route of grass-roots work in their constituencies and the rough and tumble of electoral politics but are novice politicians. A sampling of their designations, mentioned in the nomination papers in the 2006 GE is as follows: director, deputy general manager, chief executive officer, engineer, eye surgeon, polytechnic manager, human resources manager, lawyer, union assistant secretary-general, parliamentary secretary and senior parliamentary secretary. (The last two are civil servants who have been co-opted into the political process).

The PAP says that it finds it hard to find talented people to join it or to enter public life. It says Singaporeans are “too comfortble”. I would submit there are many talented Singaporeans who are willing and able to serve the country and would do so if the barriers to entry into politics were not so high. The emphasis on paper qualifications and “scholars” (again the subject of a separate article) can be counter-productive beyond a point.

By raising one more barrier for the opposition, the GRCs have created a vicious cycle. The more insurmountable they are, the more difficult political parties find it to contest them.

The PAP too, must surmount these barriers but it has had a head start and commands a huge electoral machinery. With its intimate relationship with grassroots organizations, the civil service, the armed forces, trade unions and government linked companies it has a substantially larger pool of people to draw upon.

Additionally, while the intention behind the GRC system might be laudable, in practice it has had the effect of relegating the minority races to a permanently subsidiary role. This is demeaning and detracts from the self-respect that each minority race candidate is entitled to have as citizens with the right to stand for elections to Parliamnent in his or her own right in every instance.

Finally, the GRCs do not lend themselves to the kind of intimate voter-representative bonding for which small SMCs holding some 10,000 voters or so are ideally suited. It is in these small constituencies that democracy (“government of the people, for the people and by the people in the words of Abraham Lincoln”) works best.

The Prime Minister, in his speech to Parliament on 27 May 2009 admitted as much when he said “Each MP has to look after his own ward, hence (it is) not easy for him or her to get to know voters in all the other wards (in a GRC)”

The Emperor has no clothes

The government's main justifications for retaining the GRC system as the backbone of Singapore's electoral politics are that:

1. They ensure multi-racial representation in Parliament

This has already been examined in Part 1 and seen to be without basis, the problem never having existed in the first place. This is in the nature of a phantom argument.

2. Encourage political parties to appeal to all races with moderate policies and not any one race with chauvinist or extremist policies

The politics of extremism has not been an issue in Singapore so far. In any case, there are ample safeguards in our constitution and security apparatus to act as a safeguard against it, should it ever arise. A proper anti-terrorism law would also go a long way towards addressing any genuine threats that might crop up.

In any case, GRCs in themselves are unlikely to be able to prevent the rise of such extremist parties, if causes for their rise exist. In fact, it can be argued that by denying such groups legitimacy through the electoral process (GRCs, by acting as barriers to entry do just this), there is a danger of driving them underground, thereby producing the opposite effect to the one intended.

Since, however, minorities in Singapore are just that – minorities - , it is unlikely that race based politics will ever pose a major threat at the national level unlike, say, PAS in Malaysia whose appeal is more broad based. So, this would appear to be another spurious argument, in the nature of a cover for perhaps a different motive.

3. They enable pooling of resources to provide economies of scale to run Town Councils more efficiently

This is the ultimate fudge. It is a blurring of boundaries between the need for voters to be represented in Parliament (a legislative function) and the need for managing Town Councils (an administrative function). The suggestion is that teams of MPs are neded in large constituencies for greater efficiency. This is a fallacy-ridden argument. The two roles, the legislative function and the administrative function, are quite distinct. While they can be combined in the same individual or group of individuals, the former must never be subsumed by the latter.

In a democracy, the legislative imperative must always take precedence and, as argued previously, this function is best discharged in small, single-member wards.

Town Councils can always be made up of a group of SMCs to provide economies of scale and pooling of resources. If rules are properly drawn up, there is no reason why the government and opposition wards should not be able to combine to run Town Councils. Community Development Councils (CDCs) already include opposition wards.

4. Put a premium on parties that can field credible teams and so demonstrate that they are fit not just to become MPs (sic) but to form government

This argument has a circular ring to it. So long as GRCs remain a near insurmountable barrier, opposition parties will never be able to develop and mature and thus put up “credible teams”. Does the government expect the opposition to run before it can walk?

It says the GRCs are designed to encourage responsible and credible opposition parties to emerge. How exactly is this likely to happen when the opposition is fractured, weak and hobbled (for reasons stated in Part 4) to start with?

Besides, the argument can be carried to an extreme with an absurd conclusion (reductio ad absurdum) : if the objective is “to require a challenger to field a strong team and offer a serious alternative” then conceivably the whole of Singapore can be declared a single super-ward*, requiring any challenger to field a complete slate of candidates. This would, in theory, produce an even stronger team, if “strength of the team” is the only criterion.

The truth of the matter is that the number of GRCs, the number of SMCs, their boundary delineations and sizes are all arbitrarily decided by the government, no matter how they are clothed in Parliament. With a super majority in Parliament, the government can bend the political process to its will at any time.

Is it any surprise, therefore, that the only two six-member GRCs that have been retained for the forthcoming GE (Ang Mo Kio and Pasir-Ris Punggol) are the ones from which the PM and one of the Deputy Prime Ministers are incumbents? GRCs, quite obviously, are fortresses designed to protect the High Command in the electoral battlefield. We need look no further for evidence that the larger the GRC, the more impregnable they are tacitly considered to be.

* This is not as far-fetched as it sounds: there are precedents, for instance in Israel which does not have any separate electoral divisions.