The Workers’ Party (WP) former Non-Constituency Member of Parliament (NCMP) Yee Jenn Jong on Saturday (26 June) voiced his disagreement with Finance Minister Lawrence Wong’s defence of the Group Representation Constituency (GRC) system, calling it “a convenient tool” for political dominance.
He was responding to Mr Wong’s speech at a forum on race and racism in Singapore last Friday (25 June), which was organised jointly by the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) and the S.Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS).
In his speech, Mr Wong cited the racist incidents which have appeared in the news lately, noting that these have shown that the GRC system is still needed as Singapore has not arrived at a state where its people are free of racial discrimination.
The GRC system was implemented in 1988 to ensure minority representation in Parliament. Under the system, at least one of the candidates in the team must be a member of a minority group.
“I respect the views of Singaporeans who believe we are ready to move beyond race, and so think we no longer need the GRC system. Believe me, nobody would be more pleased than the PAP leadership – past and present, from Lee Kuan Yew and S Rajaratnam onwards – if one day we no longer needed the GRC system to ensure sufficient minority representation in Singapore.
“But we are not yet totally immune to the siren calls of exclusive racial and cultural identities. Neither have we reached a ‘post-racial’ state. Surely recent events have, if anything, confirmed our caution,” he remarked.
Mr Wong further shared that the implemented policies would ensure that the majority wouldn’t abuse its dominance, and that the system also ensures that no party could prevail by narrowly appealing to any specific race and religion.
In response to the Minister’s remarks, Mr Yee said in a Facebook post on Saturday that he is opposed to Mr Wong’s assertion on the GRC system, as he argued that the system – which was meant to ensure racial representation – has become “a convenient tool for political dominance”.
“Race issues are real but let’s not hide behind race issues and hijack the electoral system,” the politician wrote.
He pointed out that the push for racial representation had only started when the ruling party People’s Action Party (PAP) lost its first seat post independence to the late Joshua Benjamin Jeyaretnam in 1981, who then became the first opposition politician to win a seat in Parliament.
“In 1982, the late LKY first mooted the idea of twin constituencies to bring minority candidates in with other candidates. The idea was rejected and instead 3-man GRCs were formed and implemented in the 1988 GE.
“This was after PAP, with its Chinese candidate, lost its first ever seat post independence, ironically to a minority, the late JBJ. LKY was concerned that minority candidates would lose in future elections to stronger opposition candidates.
“Thus, the idea of race representation in parliament came after PAP started to lose, and it does not like to lose, not even a single seat. The opposition however, took their first ever seat with a minority candidate,” he explained.
The GRCs in Singapore has since “grew bigger”, with the efficiency for management of town councils becoming the main rationale of this expansion. But Mr Yee opined that GRCs were used to “fend off the opposition”.
Take Joo Chiat SMC for example. In the 2011 GE, Mr Yee came within one per cent to winning Joo Chiat SMC and lost to PAP candidate Charles Chong. The constituency was later absorbed into Marine Parade GRC just one month before the 2015 GE.
“Remember that in 1991, the PAP lost 4 single seats. There were stronger opposition candidates and they were mostly targeting the SMCs.
“At one stage, we had two 6-man GRCs – AMK and Pasir Ris, coincidentally cutting off a growing WP which was using Hougang and Aljunied as their base to grow outwards.
“At the same time, SMCs that the WP had been doing well in were constantly moved into the strong nearby GRCs, again coincidentally after a weak showing by the PAP in the previous GEs,” he noted.
The “brilliant GRC fortress strategy” has began to backfire the PAP as the ruling party too can lose GRCs, said Mr Yee, noting that this could be part of the reason why the maximum size of GRCs was cut to five members.
“As long as good candidates can be found on the alternative camp, the GRC as an election fortress will not be so effective,” he asserted.
Mr Yee also mentioned about his book “Journey In Blue” which was launched in January, where he shared how he was nearly stopped from being a candidate in 2011 by people who were closest to him.
“I saw how real the fears were then. Without real competition, the incumbent tends to become complacent,” he noted.
As such, Mr Yee believes that “an honest conversation” about how the electoral system should run in Singapore is more needed.
“I had long listed my issues with the way EBRC is structured and the lack of time from change of boundaries to the calling of GEs, and with the way upgrading and other mechanisms were used for votes,” he said.