Singaporeans left without a voice in delineating constituencies

EBRC Boundaries

The release of the Electoral Boundaries Review Committee’s (EBRC) report gave Singaporeans a gift for the weekend: a valid excuse to begin elections speculation in earnest, a chance to mock the geographically ridiculous constituencies and argue over the winners and losers based simply on the shifting of lines.

What the EBRC report hasn’t given Singaporeans, though, is a voice.

Singaporeans were kept in the dark when the EBRC was first convened this year – it was a full two months before Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, who has the power to convene the committee as well as provide them with their terms of reference, said in Parliament that the committee had been formed.

Then the report was released, with about one in five voters finding themselves having shifted constituencies overnight through no effort of their own. There are now more Single Member Constituencies (SMC), and the average number of members in Group Representative Constituencies (GRC) has also come down. Apart form the newly-formed (or reintroduced) constituencies, two SMCs, Joo Chiat and Whampoa, have disappeared, along with the Moulmein-Kallang GRC.

I downloaded the EBRC report in the hopes of finding out more about their process and deliberations. Yet I found nothing beyond the list of recommended electoral divisions – accompanied by the number of voters in each division according to the committee’s recommended sizes – and a notice that the government has accepted the recommendations.

And that was that. Beyond the fact that the Prime Minister had asked for more SMCs and smaller GRCs, there was little explanation of the process or the justification for the placement of boundary lines. Readers of the report had no way of knowing how particular areas were deemed worthy of standing on their own as SMCs, while others were lumped together as GRCs.

In the absence of any official justification, Singapore’s online community erupted with accusations of gerrymandering. People pointed towards the removal of Joo Chiat SMC, a constituency the Workers’ Party’s Yee Jenn Jong had narrowly lost in 2011. The reduction in size of East Coast GRC was also seen as a way to cut the People Action Party’s (PAP) losses.

Accusations of the PAP giving themselves an unfair advantage are par for the course during elections. Having the Elections Department under the Prime Minister’s Office simply invites criticism of a skewed playing field, a race in which one of the runners also holds the starter pistol.

The defining of electoral divisions is a crucial part of elections. Early this year Malaysian electoral reform group Bersih 2.0 called out the Electoral Commission in Malaysia for its proposal to redraw electoral boundaries in Sarawak, going to the extent of seeking a court injunction. They were able to do this because Schedule 13 of Malaysia’s Federal Constitution requires the Electoral Commission to disclose its proposals on altering electoral boundaries for feedback and objections from the public.

Publicising electoral boundaries in Singapore – a look into the past

Neither Singapore’s Constitution nor the Parliamentary Elections Act makes such provision for the delineation of constituencies. In fact, section 8(1) of the Parliamentary Elections Act states that

“The Minister may, from time to time, by notification in the Gazette, specify the names and boundaries of the electoral divisions of Singapore for purposes of elections under this Act.”

Yet the principle of allowing voters and candidates to register objections to the drawing of boundaries is not alien to Singapore. When the Local Government Elections Bill was debated in the Legislative Assembly in 1957, it had contained wording very similar to the Parliamentary Elections Act we have today, giving the Minister the power to “specify the names and boundaries of the electoral divisions of any local government area for purposes of elections under this Ordinance.”

John Ede, a member of the Progressive Party, sought to amend the bill so that it would require proposed alterations to be notified in four successive Gazettes and also to be advertised once a week for four consecutive weeks in one English, one Chinese, one Malay and one Tamil newspaper, so that “all persons affected” could make their objections known before any voting in City or District Council elections could take place.

“[I]f the Government does not accept the principle that the delineation of electoral divisions should be subject to public scrutiny and objections if necessary, then it lays itself open to the charge of political manipulation even if it is innocent, and that goes for any other government of the future,” he argued.

There was some debate on Ede’s proposal when he first put it forth on 17 July 1957, and again the following week on 25 July 1957. The Chief Secretary, William A. C. Goode, dismissed Ede’s arguments, saying that

“…the ordinary voter in Singapore has very little personal interest whether he goes to a polling station in a constituency called Cairnhill or one called Tanglin, whatever name you would like to suggest. The first concern of the voter surely is merely that he should be able to exercise his vote with the minimum inconvenience, that is to say that the polling station should be reasonably near his place of residence.”

Yet Ede’s argument had its supporters, and the amendment – albeit with some modifications – was eventually agreed upon.

Lee Kuan Yew, then one of the few PAP members in the Legislative Assembly, agreed with the principle of transparency, and argued for the benefits of justifying the delineation of boundaries to all political parties:

“On principle it is advisable to have the work of this Committee [which decides on the constituencies] placed before all political Parties. If there has been no gerrymandering it would be obvious to everybody, and everybody would then be quite happy. … Nothing would be lost if the reasons for the delineations are placed before an All-Party Committee. If the Committee is fully aware of the fact that any radical alteration to the boundary lines may well lead to a postponement of the elections, that is a responsibility which will be shouldered by every political Party.”

The Local Government Elections Ordinance was repealed in 1960 to be “in keeping with the declared policy of the present Government to have unified administration in Singapore instead of two parallel administrations, namely, Central Government and Local Government.” The principle of advertising alterations to electoral boundaries presumably went with it.

The lack of opportunity for Singaporean voters and potential political candidates to register their objections to the alteration of electoral boundaries – a process that has been criticised for being opaque – simply strengthens an already widely-held belief that constituencies are drawn and redrawn for the benefit of the incumbent. Whether this really is the case or not is practically irrelevant at this point; the notion has already been accepted by huge swathes of the electorate, just as John Ede predicted all those years ago.

What can citizens do?

According to Jack Tsen-Ta Lee, Assistant Professor of Law at the Singapore Management University, the Prime Minister’s decision to alter electoral boundaries is “theoretically subject to judicial review before the High Court on the ground that it is either unconstitutional or a breach of administrative law principles.”

But bringing such a case would be difficult. The applicant would first have to prove that he or she had sufficient standing to bring such a case before the courts. And even if he or she succeeded in convincing the court on this point, there would remain the difficulty of arguing that the redrawing of the boundaries was unlawful.

“[C]an it be said that the adjustment of a constituency boundary has breached one or more administrative law rules? Let’s take one of them — when making a decision, a public authority must take into account all mandatory relevant considerations, and must not take into account irrelevant ones. If the applicant argued that the PM had failed in the former respect, he could counter this by arguing that he had appointed the EBRC to look into the matter, and the Committee had considered all mandatory relevant considerations such as the change in the number of voters, etc. If the PM is able to convince the court that no major considerations have been overlooked, then he would not have acted unlawfully,” said Lee.

On top of these difficulties, Lee says the High Court could simply decline to hear the application on the basis of the subject matter being “not justiciable”, which means it is “inappropriate for determination by a court because it is really a political rather than a legal issue.”

The last, but not least, hurdle would be the matter of time; it is unlikely that there would be sufficient time for a case to move through the courts between the release of the EBRC report and the writ of elections being issued.

“If the PM declines to wait for the outcome of the case but pushes ahead with the election timetable, would the High Court issue an injunction to halt the election process?” Lee said. “Again, this has never been done before, so it’s hard to know whether the Court would take such a step. Again, it could be said that an injunction of this sort is inappropriate as it would be an interference with political processes and thus a violation of the separation of powers.”

It seems then that the legal route is unlikely to bring success in pushing for a public consultation period on the redelineation of constituencies. With this route more or less unavailable to us, the onus then falls on political parties and concerned citizens to work together to find ways to demand electoral reform, not just for this elections – for which it is probably already too late – but for all the elections that will come after.