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Disassembling GRC system benefits PAP (Part 1 of 3)

~ By Shiwen Yap ~

The term GRC (Group Representation Constituency) denotes a constituency and an electoral division within Singapore, where MPs are voted in as a group, with the voters choosing on a party rather than an individual basis. The primary reasoning behind such a scheme by the PAP-dominant legislative branch of government is that such a system guarantees the representation of a candidate from a minority ethnic group – with at least one MP being a member of the minority group. This scheme came into effect in 1988, prior to which all constituencies were SMCs (Single Member Constituencies).

It has been utilised successfully to maintain the PAP hold on the legislative branch, though this has brought about the suggestion of gerrymandering by critics, due to the redrawing of electoral boundaries and the permitted deviation of 30% for each GRC, which can create differences in the voting power of the electorate across different wards and differing workloads for each MP (Tan, 2010). It has suffered several criticisms levelled at it, as well as allegations that it has failed to fulfil the primary purpose of ensuring minority representation and reduced the voting power of the individual Singapore citizen.

The advantages and disadvantages of the GRC model are presented and evaluated here for objective assessment, through the perspective of a cost-benefit analysis. The current view suggest that it may be to the PAPs advantage to abandon the GRC model and return to the SMC system, or to tweak the GRC model and limit the maximum number of representatives to 3 individuals on a team, with a suggested margin of between 5-10% in population.

Advantages

The advantages suggested by the GRC model and commonly cited by its supporters, primarily the PAP, are that it entrenches and assures minority representation within the legislative branch of government (Constitution,1991).

Article 39A(1)a of the Constitution also permits a maximum of 6 MPs per GRC, stated that this was primarily in order to ensure that a ward with a rapidly growing population has sufficient management and representation (Goh,1996).

Another advantage suggested by this model was the reasoning that with greater access to a larger population of constituents, combined with a diversity of views offered by the different MPs in a GRC team, their effectiveness at providing representation in Parliament to a wider range of views from the citizenry is made possible.

However the deficits far outweigh any advantages granted by the GRC in terms of economies of scale as well as administration and representation, as well as lending credence to regime critics and intelligentsia, lessening the legitimacy of the PAP regime. The GRC Model is fundamentally unsound and disadvantages the PAP in the long term.

The criticisms offered up by critics of the GRC model are that it weakens the voting power of constituents, weakens the relationship between the voter and their MP, entrenches and encourages and emphasises communalism in the form of ethnic allegiance rather than national allegiance and diverts away from the original premise of protecting minority representation.

It also suggests and creates a perception amongst the public – as well as lend credence to allegations of critics – that the PAP is an immature and petty political institution. It suggests a lack of faith in its political branding and insecurity, as well as a lack of respect towards the electorate via the reduction of the power of their vote.

Impaired Voting Power

To quote from Eugene Tan (2010) who analysed the case for redrawing electoral boundaries in relation to the GRC by the EBRC (Election Boundaries Review Committee):

In reviewing electoral boundaries, the EBRC operates on a 30-per-cent deviation rule. Let's assume the ratio of one MP serving 26,000 voters is maintained; the number of voters in an electoral division can range from 18,200 to 33,800 (30 per cent plus/minus of 26,000). Extrapolating from this, a five-member GRC can have between 91,000 and 169,000 voters – the difference between the minimum and maximum number of voters being a whopping 86 per cent!”

He went on to note that the review and subsequent redrawing of boundaries affected ”the principle of fair and balanced representation and results in different "workloads" for MPs. This also has implications for the equality of votes. A voter in a five-member GRC with 91,000 voters has effectively more voting power since it returns as many MPs as another five-member GRC with 170,000 voters.”

The wards of Aljunied and Tanjong Pagar during GE 2006 were compared to present the resulting discrepancy, noting that while Aljunied GRC, headed by a team of five, had a population of 145,141 voters, the six-man ward of Tanjong Pagar GRC had only 3,000 more voters. Potong Pasir, the smallest SMC and represented by Chiam See Tong, had a population of 15,888 voters while the largest SMC, Bukit Panjang, had 30,452 voters. This created a case where the power of the voters was impaired, due to the difference in numbers across the wards (Tan,2010).

Under the current GRC system, the guide ratio of MPs to their constituents can be as much as 26 000 constituents to 1 MP, implying the number of voters within an electoral division can vary between 18 200-33 800 voters. This results in a five-member GRC being able to possess between 91 000-169 000 voters, a difference of 86% and beyond the permitted 30% deviation. In functioning electoral systems of far larger countries with more uneven spreads of population, the deviation is closer to 5%, as in the UK and New Zealand, while Australia permits a maximum deviation of 10% (Tan,2010).

Finally, it creates unequal voting power across the electorate. In a GRC a single vote returns 4-6 candidates into power, compared to a vote in an SMC which returns a single representative to power. Compared to an SMC, the power of a single vote in a GRC is greatly reduced and prevents voters from ejecting an unpopular individual (Tan,2007). This prevents the PAP from accurately assessing a mandate in a ward. It also allows for the retention of unpopular individuals, weakens the PAP mandate and disenfranchises the electorate, as well as weakens the affinity of the electorate towards the PAP.

In summary, GRCs allow for the retention of unpopular individuals who pose liabilities to the PAP via their unpopularity and lack of mandate from the people or the insertion of unpopular individuals which further weakens any existing PAP mandate, as in the case of Tin Pei Ling in Marine Parade GRC, which resulted in a reduction in the total percentage of votes, despite the presence of a PAP stalwart in the form of Goh Chok Tong (Ouyang,2011).


The second of this three-part series will be published tomorrow
The full list of references is available for inspection here

Headline illustration courtesy of Sei-ji Rakugaki

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