At the Singapore Bicentennial Conference held at Raffles City yesterday (30 Sep), Professor Paul Tambyah who is also chairman of the Singapore Democratic Party asked Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat if there was a “good reason” that the Electoral Boundaries Review Committee (EBRC) was not completely independent of the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO).
Prof Tambyah noted, “The election boundaries currently are decided by independent civil servants, but ultimately the reporting officer is somebody in the PMO.”
In his reply, DPM Heng said that the committee is independent and not politically motivated. To do the electoral boundaries properly, population, demographic and other changes have to be looked at, and this requires the views of independent experts, DPM Heng added.
“So, if you look at what they have done, the constituencies, Potong Pasir remains where it is today, Hougang remains exactly the same as it is, and Aljunied in the last election remained as it is,” he tried to explain. “So, I hope you do not doubt the independence of this commission, that they are doing what is right.”
But Prof Tambyah countered, “(They) still report to the Prime Minister.”
DPM Heng responded, “Unless you are saying they have been politically motivated… but you yourself said they are independent!”
The EBRC was formed last month on 4 Sep, seen as the first formal step towards the upcoming GE.
Past habits of re-drawing electoral boundaries
It’s true that constituencies that are held on hand by oppositions do not get redrawn thus far, probably due to the fear of public backlash which may cause the ruling party to lose even more votes.
However, it has been observed that weaker constituencies where the ruling party won by a razor thin margin would likely be redrawn and subsumed into a neighboring stronger constituencies in subsequent elections.
Critics pointed out that this was to prevent the weaker constituencies won by the ruling party from falling into opposition hands in future elections. Certainly, there are no shortage of examples going through past election results:
1. During the 1991 GE, SDP’s Sin Kek Tong secured 47.7% in Braddell Heights. PAP’s Goh Choon Kang beat him by only 1,169 votes out of 27,444 electors. Despite being a SMC from 1976, it was merged into Marine Parade GRC in the subsequent 1997 GE.
2. Then there was Bukit Batok, a SMC established since 1972. During the 1991 GE, PAP’s Ong Chit Chung won Bukit Batok with 51.8%. He beat SDP’s Kwan Yue Keng by only 858 votes out of 24,908 electors. But in the next 1997 GE, Bukit Batok disappeared and was merged into Bukit Timah GRC.
3. Changi SMC was also deemed a weak constituency after the 1991 GE. In Changi, PAP’s Teo Chong Tee beat WP’s Tan Bin Seng by a mere 1,391 votes out of 24,886 electors. PAP won with 53%. Changi had been around as a constituency since 1951 when Singapore was in a partial self-governing phase under the colonial government. But came 1997 GE, Changi SMC was completely disbanded with most part (including Pulau Ubin) absorbed into Siglap ward in the newly created East Coast GRC. PAP won in East Coast GRC through a walkover at the 1997 GE.
4. And in recent times, Joo Chiat SMC was also axed when it was seen “dangerously” close to losing to oppositions during the 2011 GE. Joo Chiat SMC was carved out from East Coast GRC during the 2001 GE. However, PAP’s votes in Joo Chiat kept dropping, GE after GE, thereafter:
- 2001 GE: PAP won 83.6% with 12,388 majority
- 2006 GE: PAP won 65.0% with 5,646 majority
- 2011 GE: PAP won 51.0% with 388 majority
- 2015 GE: merged into Marine Parade GRC
5. Even GRCs were not spared. With the establishment of the GRC system in 1988, Eunos GRC was one of the then newly established GRCs. In 1988 GE, PAP scraped through by winning with a razor thin 50.9%. To counter the potential loss in the next GE, the GRC was expanded from 3 to 4-person one, thereby, increasing the number of electors from 75,723 to 92,728 for the 1991 GE. Still, PAP only managed to win with 52.4%. Thereafter, Eunos GRC was disbanded and redrawn into East Coast GRC, Aljunied GRC and Pasir Ris GRC for the 1997 GE.
Perhaps DPM Heng might argue that it’s just a pure coincidence.