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Supermajority PAP Parliament dismisses motion to abolish GRC system, overlooks allegations of gerrymandering

SINGAPORE — A motion to abolish the Group Representation Constituency (GRC) system in Singapore was dismissed on Wednesday (5 Jul) by the supermajority of the People’s Action Party (PAP) in Parliament, as well as by Nominated Members of Parliament (NMPs).

The GRC system, a pivotal part of Singapore’s electoral system since its introduction in 1988, was initially introduced to ensure multiracial representation in Parliament.

However, the PSP NCMPs and several opposition members argued that it could potentially serve as a tool for PAP to gain an electoral advantage and potentially undermine the democratic process.

Ms Poa initiated the debate, asserting that the political manipulation had overshadowed the GRC system’s initial intent of guaranteeing minority representation. She contended that the system poses barriers for opposition parties in assembling a team to contest a GRC, as this requires a significant amount of resources and manpower.

Ms Poa also suggested alternatives to the GRC system, including a proportional representation system and the NCMP scheme for minorities. She expressed confidence that minority candidates could stand independently and win elections.

However, she also recognized the importance of multi-racial representation in Parliament, which is why the PSP proposed two alternatives to ensure it.

“The beauty of the NCMP scheme is that it does not kick in when not needed. But if it is needed, if not enough minority candidates can win on their own, then we need to know why and address the underlying issues head-on instead of sweeping it under the GRC carpet. Racism exists in all spheres, not only in elections,” said Ms Poa.

Minister-in-charge of Public Service and Education Minister, Mr Chan Chun Sing, rebutted both suggestions, pointing out potential drawbacks and complexities each option could introduce.

Mr Leong Mun Wai, Ms Poa’s PSP colleague, provided a historical perspective on the discussion. He voiced his scepticism about the expansion of the GRC system to include up to six members from the 1997 General Election onwards, an action taken after the opposition won an unprecedented four parliamentary seats in the 1991 polls.

From a democratic standpoint, he said that the GRC system should be regarded as one of the most undesirable electoral rules in the world.

“It magnifies the seat share of the PAP beyond its voting strength and creates opportunities for the manipulation of electoral boundaries for partisan purposes. Over time, it breeds cynicism and disillusion in our political system as the views of the public are not properly reflected in the election results.” said Mr Leong.

Mr Leong also noted in his exchange with Mr Chan that many Singaporeans, including him, view the GRC system as being introduced not just for promoting multi-racial harmony, but also out of concern over the one man, one vote policy in Singapore by the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew in 1984 following the first loss of a parliamentary seat to the late Joshua Benjamin Jeyaretnam at the Anson SMC by-election since Singapore gained independence in 1965.

He criticized the reasoning that the change was made to establish community development councils, expressing his doubts about the justification and its implications.

Mr Leong suggested that the GRC system was used to hamper the opposition’s chances, alluding to potential gerrymandering where boundaries are redrawn advantageously for the ruling party.

He further emphasized his stance by characterizing the GRC system as one of the most undesirable electoral rules globally.

Referring to the Workers’ Party’s 2020 manifesto, where his party is in favour of replacing the GRCsystem with Single Member Constituencies (SMCs), Leader of the Opposition, Mr Pritam Singh, expressed the belief that Singaporean society has matured beyond voting solely along racial lines and suggested that the continued existence of the GRC system could unintentionally reinforce the racial divisions it was intended to ameliorate.

Mr Singh sharply questioned the inconsistencies surrounding the alteration of electoral boundaries, highlighting the phenomenon as an issue of gerrymandering.

He cited the specific examples of Fengshan and Joo Chiat, previously tightly contested SMCs, becoming parts of a GRC, questioning the rationale behind such decisions.

The Leader of the Opposition further called out the ruling PAP for what he perceived as the employment of the GRC system in a cynical way, leading to a deeper public distrust in the system.

Drawing from the insights of his predecessor Mr Low Thia Khiang, Mr Singh further highlighted the inherent issue of the GRC system being a political football.

He noted that SMCs that have seen tight contests invariably become GRCs, thereby increasing the difficulty for the opposition.

Mr Singh asserted, “So I don’t think the PAP can walk away from any topic on the GRC by saying multiracial ism is important for Singapore. We all agree with that. But what of the matter when the rubber meets the road?”

Mr Singh ended his questioning by urging the house, including Mr Chan Chun Sing, who is the Minister-in-charge of Public Service and Education Minister, and the Nominated Member of Parliament, to defend the GRC system against accusations of gerrymandering.

In response, Minister Chan avoided answering Mr Singh’s question and diverted to the perspective centred around Singapore’s racial and religious integration progress rather than directly addressing the gerrymandering accusation.

He emphasized the nation’s ongoing journey towards achieving racial harmony, arguing the need to be wary of the realities that the nation is still confronting.

The issue of gerrymandering was further addressed by Senior Minister Teo Chee Hean, who, while not directly responding to Mr Singh’s pointed observations regarding specific instances of boundary changes, offered a broader perspective.

SM Teo reminded the house that boundary changes are not exclusive to GRCs, and that Single Member Constituencies (SMCs) have been reshaped as well.

However, he did suggest that if Mr Singh was so inclined, he could make a formal request for all GRCs to become SMCs.

Following the debate, Mr Singh reiterated his stance by underlining the Workers’ Party’s preparedness to contest any constituency on an SMC basis.

He urged the government to encourage the Electoral Boundaries Review Committee (EBRC) to provide a more detailed report when redrawing boundaries.

He criticized the latest EBRC report for being terse and not providing a detailed explanation for the changes in the recent alterations to the electoral boundaries.

Other members of parliament also chimed in with their perspectives. Mr Louis Chua Kheng Wee, an SMC member from the Workers’ Party, echoed Mr Singh’s sentiments and stated that it was time to re-evaluate the GRC system.

He suggested that its original purpose had been fulfilled and that minority representation could now be achieved through other means.

Mr Janil Puthucheary, the Minister of State for Health, argued that the GRC system not only ensured multiracial representation in parliament but also ensured that the needs of the minority groups were understood and prioritized by the majority.

Mr Puthucheary also pointed out the need for minority candidates to win on their own merit and not be merely included in parliament as tokens. He echoed Mr Chan’s sentiments that Singapore must find its own way of governance.

Murali Pillai recounted his personal experience as a candidate in the Bukit Batok SMC, highlighting the high level of pressure he faced.

He argued that this pressure would be significantly amplified for minority candidates in a Single Member Constituency (SMC) system, and hence the GRC system provides an essential safety net.

Mr Pillai also pointed out that the GRC system allows minority members to be elected and consequently fosters a sense of belonging among the minority communities.

However, Mr Singh pointed out that the results from a survey conducted by the Insitute of Public Policy and Channel News Asia, which compared survey results from 2013 and 2018, showed that millennials were found to be more welcoming of racial diversity.

The IPS survey also showed high levels of interracial and religious trust in Singapore, with most indicating an interest and willingness to interact with and get to know other cultures.

“But the reasons why I pulled out those quotes was to put into perspective … with respect, MP Murali’s experiences and some of the issues that you raised, just to provide a balance to some of the arguments on race and religion issues.

“Fundamentally, there are some systems out there that can accommodate, in my view, a racially balanced parliament,” Mr Singh added.

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