By Howard Lee
When Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong convened the Electoral Boundaries Review Committee (EBRC) two months ago in May 2015, the group that was given the task of defining which constituency citizens casts their votes were given two objectives:
“The Committee should take into consideration significant increases or decreases in the number of electors in the current electoral divisions as a result of population shifts and housing development since the last boundary delineation exercise.
To create more smaller Group Representation Constituencies and fewer 6-member ones, so that the average size of Group Representation Constituencies does not exceed five.”
When the revised boundaries were announced in July 2015, more than a few might have been disappointed. The revisions saw a net increase of one Single Member Constituency (SMC), but not before two SMCs were wiped out. Of some comfort might be the reduction of three five-member Group Representative Constituencies (GRC) in four-member GRCs, but again not without the one four-member GRC was again wiped out. And disappointingly, the two six-member GRCs have remained.
In what would appear to be a well-thought-out exercise, some might have forgotten to take a look at the numbers and how the constituencies are moved around, and whether such movements did indeed answer to the EBRC’s charter.
Possible to immediately have more SMCs?
If we were to compare the changes in population from the last time the boundaries were redrawn to just before the EBRC made its recent changes, we would be able to identify the wards that saw the greatest increase in population.
|Constituency (current)||MPs (current)||Total electors|
|% change from 2011 to 2015|
|Hong Kah North||1||27,691||28,131||1.59|
|Chua Chu Kang||5||158,552||166,314||4.90|
|Ang Mo Kio||6||178,933||181,373||1.36|
Among them, Sengkang West SMC and Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC saw the greatest percentage increase in population, while in absolute figures, wards like Nee Soon and Sembawang also saw increases of more than 10,000 electors.
We can also see that the two SMCs that were wiped out, Joo Chiat and Whampoa, did not experience any great drop in population – definitely no more than Radin Mas, and both still larger than Potong Pasir SMC. Why then was it necessary to merge them into other wards? The EBRC did not explain.
On the other hand, Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC saw an increase in population by about 38,000 electors – not surprising given that it is a relatively new estate with recent major housing developments. However, this increase easily exceeded the working range that the EBRC said it used to determine the number of electors in each ward. This means that would have been possible to create another SMC within Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC. Presumably, that was done to create the current Punggol East SMC. Why wasn’t this done again now? Again, the EBRC did not explain.
|Type of Constituency||Number of Electors|
In effect, what we saw in the breakdown of numbers was that there were a number of “easy wins” that the EBRC could have used to increase the number of SMCs to well exceed its objective of having at least 12 SMCs. Would it have been that difficult?
Moving around to more GRCs?
Pasir-Ris Punggol GRC is not the only ward where there seems to be no effort made in carving out an SMC. Sengkang West SMC saw an increase of about 12,700 electors – again, another new estate with recent housing developments. Its current size could have prompted a split into two SMC. Instead, we saw that a good 9,000 electors could have been parked under Ang Mo Kio GRC, the Prime Minister’s own ward – essentially, going back to where the SMC was first carved out.
In fact, we also saw that Ang Mo Kio GRC could also have absorbed some of the excess from Pasir-Ris Punggol. Ang Mo Kio is not a small GRC – at its current elector population of nearly 179,000 electors, it is very close to the limit for a six-member GRC. Why would the EBRC think it prudent to further add to that, given that PM Lee might even have less time for his constituents? The EBRC did not explain.
Indeed, both Ang Mo Kio and Pasir-Ris Punggol GRCs are bursting at the seams, and heading into the next general election would see each taking on in excess of 187,000 electors, very close to the upper limit of the EBRC’s working range. Why would the EBRC think that this is best for the constituents, and why has it not considered breaking they two large GRCs into two smaller ones? The EBRC did not explain.
In fact, if the EBRC’s charter includes reducing the number of six-member GRCs, what is to stop it from splitting up both Ang Mo Kio and Pasir-Ris Punggol GRCs? Both could have easily accommodated the split with likely very need to move blocks of electors around. Again, the EBRC did not explain.
The mode of operation also seems to be similar for the new GRCs. There seems to be a glass ceiling set at four for the EBRC when it comes to creating new GRCs. Even if we can accept that Joo Chiat, Whampoa and Moulmein-Kallang should be wiped out as electoral districts, why have they been merged with other areas to form larger GRCs?
For instance, electors from parts of the former Moulmein-Kallang would now be served by an MP-to-elector ratio of 1 to 26,000 under five-member Tanjong Pagar GRC, when it would have been 1 to 22,000 if left on its own as a four-member GRC. Has it not occurred to the ERBC that smaller GRCs might actually serve citizens better? The EBRC did not justify.
Lack of clarity and transparency – why wouldn’t we cry “gerrymandering”?
If anything, the EBRC’s complete lack of clarity and transparency on how it made its decisions leaves a lot to be desired. IF anything, it appears to be little more than a paper exercise. Despite the many high-level civil servants on the committee, there seems to be very little strategic directions on how electoral boundaries are to be drawn.
In fact, the entire exercise seems to be executed on a very micro perspective of moving numbers around to fit within a benchmark – such as would be expected of junior civil servants who are very familiar with each district and how shifting boundaries would add or subtract the necessary numbers to fit that benchmark – without thinking of how such movements are effective in answering the EBRC’s objectives, nor how alternative actions might better serve citizens.
Who set those benchmarks for them to work with? Have they been told to merge specific constituencies or leave others alone? Why does there seem to be such arbitrariness in how the electoral boundaries are redrawn, even by the EBRC’s own terms of reference?
Without better accountability for its actions, why should the EBRC have any reason to think that they would not be accused of being complicit in gerrymandering on behalf of the ruling party?