NGO Think Centre reiterate call for GRC abolishment, PA replacement by more ‘politically neutral’ organisation

Human rights and civil society non-governmental organisation (NGO) Think Centre repeated its call for the abolishment of the Group Representation Constituency (GRC) system and the replacement of People’s Association in favour of a more “politically neutral” organisation.

In a statement on Tuesday (11 August), Think Centre branded the GRC system as “a political double-edged sword that is detrimental to Singapore’s political development”.

The NGO recommended reverting to single-member constituencies to ensure that every Member of Parliament earns “the mandate required to make it into the legislature rather than riding on the coattails of more popular politicians”.

“Furthermore, the current GRC system is illogically and unfairly tied in with the running of town councils. Past criticism and events have proven that this arrangement holds the Singaporean voter hostage and strengthens the politics of fear,” Think Centre added.

Think Centre also highlighted that grassroots organisations related or run by the People’s Association (PA) “always deferred to the designated representative from the PAP rather than the elected MP” from the alternative party.

Thus, government funds allocated to constituencies won by alternative parties “are not always managed by its elected MPs”, the NGO said.

The Mayor positions appointed through the PA also creates “a strange duplication of work which sometimes conflicts with those of the elected MPs”, said Think Centre.

“It is a waste of taxpayers’ money and their job scope too vague to warrant the amount spent on them and their office,” the NGO stressed.

Think Centre also advocated for the removal of the Election Department (ELD) from the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO).

The ELD, it said, should be “staffed by independent civil servants” and must include “broader representation from all walks of our society such as representatives from professional associations, civil society groups, non-government organizations, voluntary welfare organizations”.

“An independent Election Department would bolster Singaporeans’ trust and confidence that the institution would be neutral and objective in the drawing up of future electoral boundaries, and would disabuse notions of conflict of interest between the incumbent ruling party and the department,” said Think Centre.

The NGO noted that the increase in alternative party representation in the new Parliament term is a sign that Singaporeans are beginning to reject “the usual intimidating tactics and illiberal laws deployed to oppress candidates from alternative parties”.

However, it stressed that “much more is needed to improve the state of democracy and freedom of expression for the benefit of Singapore’s political maturity”.

“Singaporeans need to re-think about the adequacy of our current political system and prepare for discussions for reforms that will enable us to build a “new normal” that respects human rights and democratic participation,” said Think Centre.

Think Centre also called for “a new social contract where economic and social justice must be guaranteed along with respect for human rights”.

It observed that the COVID-19 pandemic has “refocused public discourse on the poorest in the country, which also happens to be the world’s most expensive city to live in, along with Osaka and Hong Kong”.

“Many economists and senior statesmen have advocated for a minimum wage to allow all citizens to lead a life of dignity and decency but all appears to have fallen on deaf ears again.

“We need better access to healthcare, including mental wellbeing, and remove the systemic discrimination between migrant and local workers by ensuring their protection under equitable labour laws that are in line with the ILO [International Labour Organisation]’s decent work agenda,” said Think Centre.

Govt should conduct active surveys on migrant workers, establish safe repatriation plans with embassies and consulates: Think Centre

Earlier this month, Think Centre encouraged the Government to carry out an active survey of migrant workers in Singapore — especially those living in dormitories — and to form safe repatriation plans with embassies or consulates of their respective countries.

Think Centre said — in light of the recent suicide attempts among migrant workers living in dormitories — that the “mental fatigue” that affects most of Singapore’s population at large as a result of COVID-19 measures is likely heightened among migrant workers as they are subject to additional restrictions.

“Even those not in quarantine are isolated in the confined space and conditions of dormitories in perpetual “Stay Home Notice”.

“They are also expected to adhere to a stricter control regime tied with punitive consequences in case of compliance failure,” said the NGO.

Ensuring better and fairer treatment of migrant workers during and after the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly in terms of giving them access to the necessary levels of physical and mental healthcare, will help mitigate or at least alleviate the burden they shoulder.

“Many of them still live in crowded conditions, face prolonged uncertainty over employment and income, risk of infection, it would be inevitable that their mental health would suffer.

“Furthermore, current conditions also risk exacerbating pre-existing health issues, disability and disease among these workers.

“Even with regular communication, migrant workers’ limited ability to help their families thousands of miles away heightens risks of anxiety and depression among them,” said Think Centre.

Establishing “a standing working group for the duration of the pandemic involving civil society organisations, trade unions, [and] employers” is among some of the ways in which the goal to better migrant workers’ living conditions can be materialised, the NGO suggested.

Such a group, said Think Centre, will “preemptively address the pandemic-driven issues of non-payment of salaries by employers, broaden social protection of migrant workers to mitigate disruptions such as sudden loss of job/income, and promote and protect their physical and mental wellbeing both at places of work and rest”.

Stakeholders such as migrant workers’ organisations, migrant-oriented services offered by faith-based organisations, professional counselling services, and language interpretation services should also be taken into account in such efforts, the NGO added.

Think Centre also proposed that the Government should work with the consulates and embassies “of the main sending States to develop a just and safe repatriation response plan” when dealing with the issue of “stranded migrant workers in distress who expressly wish to return to the country of their origins”.

The NGO noted that Singapore is a signatory to the recent ASEAN Consensus on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Migrant Workers, which obliges Singapore as a Receiving State to “protect the fundamental human rights, promote the welfare and uphold the human dignity of migrant workers through appropriate measures that ensure fair treatment towards migrant workers and prevent abuses, exploitation and violence towards them”.

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