In January 2015, when questioned about whether the Electoral Boundary Review Committee (EBRC) had been set up, Prime Minister Mr Lee Hsien Loong said: “When we set it up, everyone will know”. (“PM Lee: Electoral Boundaries Review Committee yet to be set up” – Straits Times 16 January 2015)
Today (13 July 2015), the Prime Minister told Parliament that the EBRC had been formed two months ago and was now in the midst of preparing its recommendations for submission. The Prime Minister revealed this statement in response to direct questioning by two Members of Parliament: Workers’ Party’s Mr Yee Jenn Jong and PAP’s Mr Arthur Fong.
The worrying fact remains that the EBRC had already been convened two months ago without public knowledge. That the news of the EBRC’s formation only surfaced today upon questioning characterizes the secrecy and the lack of transparency surrounding the EBRC. The EBRC’s processes are obscure and their considerations are hidden from the public eye. The only insight into EBRC and their work is from the EBRC reports that are presented to Parliament before elections.
The term ‘gerrymandering’ – the discriminatory redefining of electoral boundaries, has often been hurled at the EBRC during elections. If one looks toward the lack of transparency, independence and other checks against abuse of power, it becomes apparent why there is deep-seated distrust towards the EBRC.
Lack of Political Neutrality
Firstly, the EBRC does not have the appearance of political neutrality. The EBRC is chaired by the Cabinet Secretary, who reports to the Prime Minister. This itself is already a compromise of its political neutrality, as the Prime Minister holds executive control over the decision-making process.
In comparison, the Boundary Commission for England works independently from the government. It is described as an advisory non-departmental public body. Moreover, the UK’s elections watchdog, The Electoral Commission comprises a diverse group of people with experience in the public and private sector.
This is what our EBRC should become – an organization independent of government influence and represented by a diverse group of citizens.
Lack of Transparency
Secondly, the EBRC and its processes are characterized by secrecy and a lack of transparency. The secrecy can be readily observed by the fact that the EBRC had already been convened two months ago, but its formation was only announced today.
Moreover, the past reports issued by the EBRC are often sparsely worded documents with little explanation behind the very processes that have a large impact on society. The EBRC lists several key instructions that it follows in its recommendations, but apart from that, there is precious little said about the considerations taken to recommend the number and boundaries of GRCs and SMCs.
Furthermore, the revised boundaries are invariably released close to Nomination Day – giving political parties restricted time to come to terms with the shifted GRC and SMC boundaries and the changed political map.
Call for Reform
The EBRC doesn’t just set the goal posts of the general elections: it determines how the entire playing field will look by delineating constituency boundaries. Unfortunately for the electorate, the playing field is a very uneven one. The EBRC and its processes are in sore need of reform.
I call for more transparency in the deliberations of the EBRC. The rationale behind the drawing of boundaries must be made known and debated in Parliament to ensure that the system is just and fair. There simply has to be increased transparency in a process that has the power to shape, divide and categorize Singaporean society.
I call for the EBRC to be comprised of a diverse group of individuals from the public and private sector. It must not simply comprise of civil servants.
Above all, I call for the EBRC to be an independent, impartial body, free from the purview of the Prime Minister’s Office.
Call for Accountability
In the democratic process, there is no power greater than that of the vote. Who we get to vote for, how constituency boundaries are delineated, and when these delineations are announced are important determinants in the free exercise of our democratic choice.
The EBRC and its processes have to be held accountable to the voters whose lives it will affect.
This post was first published on Jeannette Chong-Aruldoss‘s facebook page. Jeanette is a practising lawyer, a member of the Singapore People’s Party and former Secretary-General of National Solidarity Party.