By Howard Lee
It is perhaps to be expected that opposition Members of Parliament would be concerned about how the boundaries for electoral divisions have been drawn. The shifting boundaries, without the accompanying clarity from the Electoral Boundaries Review Committee (EBRC), have been the subject of criticism of gerrymandering, particularly in favour of the ruling party.
It is right that opposition parties at least have an oversight over the process, which prompted the series of questions in Parliament to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. And his reply on the composition of the EBRC is, of course, to be expected – it will be made up of senior civil servants who know how best to carve out the estate.
The assumption is that handing the carving process to the civil service is by default putting the best expertise in the system. While we cannot dispute that, the question is less about expertise than about fairness to the contesting parties and to voters alike.
If we piece together the beginning and end of what PM Lee was quoted by media as saying, we get this little bit of inconsistency:
“As per past practice, the committee is chaired by the Secretary to the Prime Minister. It is now in the midst of its deliberations and will make its recommendations to me when ready…As for bringing in political parties I’m not sure that’s entirely a good idea. The Americans do it with political parties, and the way it is done is usually that the sitting members (of the House of Representatives) decide on a demarcation. And usually what happens is that they carve it up among themselves. It’s a political deal and I think that’s not a good arrangement and it’s best we leave this to the civil servants to work at.”
While the EBRC clearly does not have the influence of any political party in it, to prevent the “political deal” that PM Lee believes is inherent of the American system, it is not clear from his statement that the entire process is completely apolitical.
The EBRC makes its recommendation to the PM, who is himself the secretary-general of a political party – the biggest one, I might add, who holds the majority of the votes and is in no doubt fully aware of how voters have voted across segments within and between constituencies. After the recommendations, is there further deliberation by the PM before the final boundaries are drawn? If so, how much deliberation and redrawing are we looking at?
The PM, however, did not commit on his non-involvement in the process. In fact, all he would say is:
“I don’t believe it is helpful to have every twist and turn in minutes reported and published. I think the committee’s report is the final word.”
Indeed, we should not doubt that the civil servants in the EBRC would make a fair judgement on where the boundaries should lie. The problem lies with the transition from the EBRC to the Prime Minister, who also heads a political party. Can we expect the secretary-general of a political party to remain impartial to the process and avoid gerrymandering? Are we that different from the Americans?
The issue, then, is not one of political influence, but transparency. Clear sight of what went into the EBRC’s deliberation would provide greater clarity on why a segment of residents have been moved into another constituency, and we should not fear asking the civil servants to be accountable for their decisions, if indeed we do believe their decisions to be made impartially and with clear expertise in the matter – they are paid by the public, and to the public must they answer.
Of what interest is it to the public? For political parties, this is essential for them to know that the estates they have been working hard in does not have half of its composition suddenly shift to another ward, whose MP might not even have been working the ground.
For residents, concerns range from a sense of belonging to familiarity with the MPs who have been working in the area, rather than being asked to vote for an MP who might not even have shown up in the estate, since the MP himself would presumably not even know that this group of residents have been added to his constituency. We saw this happening to parts of the current Aljunied GRC, where the same group of residents have gone from Cheng San to Marine Parade to Aljunied wards, in as many general elections, all the time seeing different MPs. Is such a lack of continuity of any value, either administratively or for residents’ sense of community?
As such, the call for independent assessors to be placed in the EBRC is a reasonable one, one which the PM did not rule out. That would have been the minimum that can be done, to ensure that changes to boundaries are made in the best interest of residents, and in fairness to all political parties, including the ruling PAP.
The deliberations of the EBRC should also be made transparent – we need not have to go into the blow-by-blow account that the PM fears, but the rationale for each shift in boundary must surely be clearly justifiable – to demonstrate that there has been no political influence in the process. This protects not just the interest of all parties, but the integrity of the ruling party, whichever it may be, that it governs a system that puts due process into this important act of democratic participation.