By Min Cheong
Equal and fair citizenship is a concept which originated from the political doctrine of Aristotle, undergoing permutations in that it does not necessarily pertain to individuals possessing a direct involvement in governance; instead, it embodies an amalgamation of rights accorded to citizens within legislation which exists as the basis and framework for ensuring vibrant socio-political activity.
As an applied principle, this means that policies created with the intent of upholding equal opportunity and fair participation should not disenfranchise any community within society.
With the General Elections just around the corner, there has been an increased focus on policies that many consider contentious. Prevailing concerns revolve around the seemingly self-serving redrawing of the boundaries which define constituencies across the island-state by the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP), whose members occupy a distinct majority of seats in parliament, and the framework within which voting ensues, with emphasis on the Group Representation Constituency (GRC) system.
Typically, the lines that demarcate Singapore’s constituencies are modified every four years just before General Elections are due, at the advice of the Electoral Boundaries Review Committee (EBRC). Members of this entity are appointed by the Prime Minister and collaborate with the Elections Department, which operates under the purview of the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO).
Political commentators and the public have long remarked that the methodology used to delimit these electoral divisions has not been audited by individuals and groups in society. Although the reasons given by government officials indicate that population and demographic shifts are responsible for decisions to amend constituency perimeters, the relevant statistics have never accompanied the release of new electoral boundaries, and has resulted in widespread speculation that the real reasons are less than politically and ethically justifiable.
Further to that, graphical representations of the divisions appear to advantage the ruling party. Constituencies with residents who have demonstrated a strong preference for opposition parties in previous General Elections have often been subsumed, either fractionally or completely, into others whose members are relatively more partial to the PAP. This year, observers have noted that GRCs held by incumbents who have become unpopular have either been dissolved and absorbed into other constituencies, or had SMCs supposedly meant to fall under their purview carved out of existing GRCs.
Additionally, the period of time between the dissemination of boundary maps and the General Elections is normally between three months to a week, which does not grant the opposition much allowance to strategise and launch their campaigns.
This, coupled with the lack of openness regarding information on the redrawing of boundaries, has resulted in antipathy towards the government and the PAP in particular. Additionally, the perception that the EBRC and Elections Department cannot possibly be totally independent has exacerbated that distrust and led to a stark disconnect between the ruling party and the people of Singapore.
On a more worrying note, the regular manipulation of boundaries in order to retain political supremacy is indicative of an under-confident government; one that would rather machinate the rules in fear than boldly engage its people in identifying and resolving issues of public consequence. The effect of this exclusion from participation is a politically subjugated citizenry, an immured opposition and a disempowered nation.
To compound the asymmetry of inclusiveness, voting in Singapore also comes with its unique set of obstacles – to be specific, the GRC. Conceived with the purported objective of ensuring minority representation in parliament, GRCs function upon a hybridisation of simple plurality voting and a distorted form of proportional representation where a team of Members of Parliament (MPs) stands for election in that electoral division instead of contesting as separate candidates.
The nonpareil feature of the GRC scheme is that at least one of the MPs has to be a member of a minority ethnic community (Malay, Indian or Other). In GRCs, between three and six seats are required to be filled.
The electorate is then compelled to vote for the party (which, incumbent or opposition, has to field the same number of candidates as there are seats) and not individual contenders.
Firstly, this means that the residents of GRCs will not be able to exercise absolute and streamlined voting power in choosing their preferred candidate(s). Compared to those in Single Member Constituencies (SMCs), which is characterised by a one-man-one-vote mechanism (even though the ballot still lists the party and not the candidate), the voting strength of the individual and collective members of GRCs are considerably diluted, which is strangely discrepant.
Secondly, as a result of bloc voting which takes place in GRCs, there is little impetus for any MP within the team to work towards serving the needs of his or her constituents and prove his/her individual competency because it is possible to ride on the coat-tails of the other MPs in the team. However, it does not necessarily follow that there are any truly worthy or popular members in that team; the victorious affiliates might simply have won because other contesting teams could not garner an adequate percentage of votes to emerge first-past-the-post.
Essentially, voting for a team as opposed to individual aspirants also means that it will be significantly less likely that the candidates who eventually fill the seats in the GRC will closely represent and serve the needs of their constituents. Furthermore, with high barriers to entry in contesting a GRC (it costs S$16 000 per candidate to enter the race and opposition parties do not always have the financial and human resources to field teams for many GRCs), these electoral divisions either remain uncontested or do not see a representative number of political parties challenge each other for the territory.
Yet another controversial aspect of the GRC system is the fact that it is used to enter inexperienced political candidates into parliament. This results in untested, possibly unqualified individuals wielding administrative power over the country, which is highly unfavourable because of their lack of legitimacy and practical expertise.
Moreover, with a historically-evident dearth in opposition parties managing to successfully contest GRCs because of the mechanisms in place, there will not likely be a representative marketplace of views and ideas at the legislative level pertaining to important socio-political issues, thereby affecting the quality of discussions and debate in parliament, which will then influence the policies that manifest.
This situation has somewhat improved in 2015, with the Worker’s Party planning to contest 28 of 89 parliamentary seats, and other parties such as the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) and National Solidarity Party (NSP) expressing interest in re-establishing footholds in constituencies they have previously challenged.
Fundamentally though, even if more seats are won by opposition parties, all is still not well. It is crucial to note that the very objective upon which the GRC system was premised has not be satisfactorily fulfilled. The tenets do not apply to all minority ethnic groups equally inclusively; it is stipulated that three-fifths of all the GRCs must be contested by a team that has a member from the Malay community specifically, disadvantaging individuals from other minority ethnic communities.
With the size of GRC teams steadily increasing over the years (with exceptions made in the lead-up to the 2011 General Elections for which the average number of seats per GRC was marginally reduced and seems to have been maintained/bettered for this GE), the proportion of MPs from minority ethnic groups has in fact declined as compared to before the GRC system was implemented because teams are still fielding only one minority racial group candidate.
As such, the application of the GRC system is not at all sufficiently aligned to the notion of genuine inclusion and is in fact counter to that of meritocracy. In a proposed iteration of the GRC system, MPs would contest constituencies as a pair, with one member hailing from a minority ethnic community. However, members of minority racial groups were against the idea because of the concern that it would damage any credibility they possessed in terms of accession to parliament on their own merits of qualification.
Another suggestion was to form an upper house in parliament with seats filled with installed representatives from minority ethnic groups. It was shelved because political leaders felt that politicians should gain a place in parliament through elections.
Therefore, it is interesting to note that the GRC system encapsulates precisely the dubitable practice of providing political contenders access to seats in parliament by means of a process which is both unmeritorious and unrepresentative of the voice of the people.
The GRC system was conceived from apprehension that the non-homogeneous citizenry would vote for candidates along racial lines. However, David Marshall, one of Singapore’s Chief Ministers, was elected democratically by the people despite being Jewish.
Similarly, in 1981, Joshua Benjamin Jeyaratnam won the predominantly-Chinese district of Anson in a by-election. Even though the examples are sparse (and this could be attributed to the nature of political control in Singapore), it does elucidate the fact that race in those cases was not a deciding factor in elections, and is not likely to be now.
Moreover, the fact that candidates are selected by their parties to run in any given district as opposed to getting voted in by constituents based on residency or prior grassroots work amounts to institutionalised disenfranchisement.
Inidividual MPs might not be as concerned about their constituents as they would be if they were chosen and given a genuine mandate to administrate by the people. As a result, a disjunction between the citizenry and government will inevitably manifest because the representation is flawed and illegitimate.
Essentially, politically-motivated practices such as pre-election boundary delimitation and the implementation of policies such as the GRC system as well as the process of candidate-selection foster a socio-political environment that does not engage and include, and is neither equitable nor fair.
In redrawing the lines in the sand, changes to certain institutions and administrative conventions have to be initiated.
- The Elections Department and Electoral Boundaries Review Committee should be designated as independent entities, so that it will be harder for any political party or process to influence outcomes related to the work conducted within both.
- Initial recommendations pertaining to constituency boundaries should be released a year in advance of General Elections along with the relevant statistics that have affected any decisions made regarding changes in district limits.
- Abolish party-based voting in favour of candidate-based voting – GRCs, in terms of number of seats available to be filled, can remain as long as the electorate can select individuals from all the contesting parties instead of party teams.
- Reduce the financial cost of fielding contenders – level the playing field so that there will be more incentive for members of society to consider entering the realm of public service.
- Eliminate race-based politics from the socio-political milieu; it was misguided in conception as well as divisive and unnecessary in practice.
- Individuals who have the intention to run for a seat in Parliament under the General Elections or for the right to govern in any public capacity should be first vetted by their respective constituents before they are even named as a potential candidate.
For the advancement of the nation, it is imperative that more participation in and contribution to socio-politics be encouraged.
This can be done best with policies that are foundered upon equality, fairness and inclusiveness, guided by an administration that upholds its duty of care to the citizenry in recognising that a good government does not rule; it serves – because in a political partnership, according to Aristotle, the self cannot exist without the other.