~ By Shiwen Yap ~
In Part 1 of this series published yesterday, I argued on the deficit of the GRC System and how the model 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.
In Part 2, I contend that the GRC system unnecessarily exposes PAP to criticisms of gerrymendering.
MP-Voter Relationship Weakened
It is also noted that the relationship between the PAP MPs and their constituents is weakened by the GRC model. The credibility and accountability of candidates within a team can be reduced, because the more credible members are seen as using their esteem with the electorate to shield less popular members from being voted out. The relationship is between the team of MPs and the electorate rather than between the individual MP and the electorate (Singh,2006).
Retaining unpopular candidates by such a method thus weakens the affinity of the citizens and the PAP mandate with such an arrangement. It also works to lessen the credibility of an established representative by association. Steps were taken to amend this in 2009 (Lee) by the introduction of more SMC wards and downsizing GRCs. However this only alleviates the problem rather than solving what remains a structural deficit of the election process and a liability towards the PAP.
Entrenchment of Racial Attitudes and Diversion from National Identity
The adoption of the GRC model emphasises a sense of racial consciousness in the attitudes of individuals and may very well contribute to dividing the different ethnicities along community lines. It can result in questioning the legitimacy of any minority candidate, as the electorate would question whether they are selected based on a quota rather than their merit (Think Centre,2002).
The PAP may reply that minority candidates have undergone stringent selection and vetting processes but this has ultimately been cast into doubt with the revelation by MP Charles Chong that the PAP has experienced difficulty in recruiting candidates and has been fielding and second and third tier candidates since 2006 (Seah,2011 & SatayClub,2011). This then calls into question the calibre of minority representatives given the small pool of candidates to recruit from in the first place.
Such a system arguably also affects the personal esteem of the minority candidate, as they would not then be sure whether they were elected based on the affinity of the electorate for them or due to the model itself and the team they were part of. It creates the insinuation that were they to contest an SMC, they would lack the merit and credibility as individuals to succeed and that they are of insufficient ability (Think Centre,2002).
It also creates and perpetuates a perception of disrespect to the electorate and to the Chinese majority by assuming that a Chinese electorate will vote according to the primordial instincts of race, culture and language rather than on the merit of the candidate (Think Centre,2002). We know this not to be the case based on three precedents.
The first precedent is of JB Jeyaratnam, a Singaporean Indian and Worker's Party MP, who won a by-election in the Anson ward in 1981. This ward was populated by a Chinese-majority population. A more recent precedent is of the election of Michael Palmer, a Eurasian PAP MP, in the Chinese majority ward of Punggol. The third precedent is the historical case of David Saul Marshall, a Singaporean of Indian Baghdadi Jewish descent, who was the first Chief Minister of Singapore from 1955-1956 (Rahim,1998).
A continued use of the GRC model presupposes that the Singaporean Chinese community will continue to exhibit alleged primordial behaviour (Think Centre,2002) when this has been explicitly shown not to be the case in the two precedents of David Saul Marshall and JB Jeyaratnam. This illustrates that at two different points in history, the ethnic origin of a political candidate has negligible bearing on their election or attraction to the Chinese majority, at both a local and national level.
It also contributes to disenfranchising the minority communities for simple reasons. Such communities are granted dignity, empowered and enfranchised within the nation as well as granted affinity by the provision of equal opportunities and equal treatment to develop and succeed (Think Centre,2002). A fitting statement to describe the situation is that: “Minorities do not want to feel good because we have legislated representation, we want to feel dignified that we have men and women who have fought a good fight to enter parliament on their merits”
In purely political and ethical terms, this works to the PAPs disadvantage by alienating a desired electorate segment and weakens the mandate, working against stated PAP social interests. It works against social harmony and is divergent with the goal of forging national unity and a national identity.
Constant Boundary Shifting
The large deviation rule allowed in designating the boundaries of a constituency means a higher tolerance for the size of any single electoral division. Theoretically, this should reduce the need to redraw boundaries. The creation of oddly-shaped electoral boundaries also erodes the sense of identity of voters (Tan,2010; Think Centre,2002).
An example of the case in being is of the placement of Braddell Heights being part of Marine Parade GRC despite its proximity to Macritchie Reservoir rather than East Coast Park. Another example may be the prior placement of Dunearn Estate and the Stevens Road neighbourhood area within the Tanjong Pagar GRC before the subsequent shift to Kallang-Moulmein GRC in 2011.
This then creates the suggestion of gerrymandering. The lack of transparency in the boundary shifting process then feeds the public perception that the PAP conducts itself unethically and undermines both the long-term mandate of the party as well being a barrier to the opposition, which has been elaborated on (Tan,2010).
The EBRC (Election Boundaries Review Committee), responsible for overseeing the setting of electoral districts, has to respond to the legitimate expectations of a more educated electorate sensitive to fair play, ethical conduct and the voter enfranchisement. Any reasoning behind the shifting of boundaries must not only be sound, it must be articulated and substantive in accomplishing this (Tan,2010).
Voters are entitled to know why boundaries are drawn or shifted, and the process of how they are accomplished. If not accomplished and explained “...it sho uld not be surprising if Singaporeans view the redrawing of boundaries as being calculated to undermine the Opposition or, at the very least, not disadvantage the ruling party” (Tan,2010).
Criticisms of Favouring Incumbents at the Cost of The Opposition
The GRC model exposes the PAP to criticisms of gerrymandering as the GRC model presents a high threshold and indeed works to our advantage, as acknowledged by Goh Chok Tong due to the PAP ability to field credible teams or teams with strong anchors that appeal to the electorate (Mutalib,2002). This works to entrench PAP dominance by creating an artificially high barrier of entry for political opposition factions who have to invest far more resources in breaching the GRCs, due to the vote threhold increasing for them (Singh,2006).
As an illustration, currently each candidate running in a GRC is required to deposit a sum of equal to 8% of the total allowances payable to an MP in the calendar year preceding the election, rounded to the nearest $500, under Section 28 of the Parliamentary Elections Act. Under the same section, should a candidate not attain at least an eighth of the total votes within the GRC, they are then required to forfeit their deposit.
A common criticism is that this results in a large number of walkovers, due to the inability of the political opposition factions to match the resources of the incumbent PAP. To date, the only breach achieved into the political fortress created by the GRC model is by the Worker's Party of Singapore, who contested and won the Aljunied GRC (Loh,2011).
This action of creating political barriers and not engaging in treatment of parity with other parties erodes the PAPs political branding by creating an image of unethical and non-virtuous conduct, weakens the mandate in the long term by denying the dissent inherent in any diverse society and causes the loss of ground amongst the supporters of the opposition, whom the PAP desires as support. Treating the opposition as such, with an increasingly educated, politically aware and informed population, only serves to polarise via ideology and create the seeds of partisanship – a distinct disservice to national interests.
Minority Representation Lessened
The official justification behind the GRC system has always been to entrench minority representation in Parliament and as a result ensure their views as a community are voiced in the political landscape. This reasoning has no rational basis and presents a vulnerability that critics can exploit with an increasingly educated and politically aware population. It has also failed, in fact decreasing the proportion of minorities in Parliament.
As stated before, using this reasoning as a basis for the GRC scheme is unsound. All PAP minority candidates fielded have won regularly, even in SMCs, with the only MPs losing their seas being of Chinese descent, with one case being the loss to a Singaporean Indian candidate in 1984. This was again in Anson, where Ng Pock Too lost to Joshua Benjamin Jeyaratnam (Parliamentary General Election,1984) who had triumphed there at a by-election in 1981 (Rahim,1998). The other candidate who lost was Mah Bow Tan to Chiam See Tong in Potong Pasir.
Under the GRC model, as the size of a GRC increases, the minorities have less representation overall as the proportion of minority candidates per GRC decreases. As the minority candidates already form a numerical minority in Parliament, this dilutes minority representation even further (Rahim,1998).
The last 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