Papmandering: ‘The art/science of redrawing electoral boundaries, electoral laws and/or the constitution for the purpose of maintaining overwhelming control of Parliament through the mechanics of clearly articulated arguments in favour of an inclusive form of democracy’

We are familiar with the concept of gerrymandering. It is the process by which electoral boundaries are redrawn to produce a distinct advantage for a candidate. Gerrymandering is possible in a first-past-the-post system whereby voting districts that appear to strongly favour an incumbent can be made to swallow up adjacent voting districts that appear to support opposition candidates.

In most countries employing the first past the post system, the principle governing redistricting or redrawing of constituency boundaries is based on the idea of equal representation for voters. Absolute equality in representation is impossible to achieve. However, boundary commissions/committees attempt to find approximate equality in terms of the MP to voter ratio. Considering that the key reason for boundary changes is to take into account demographic changes either due to migration of voters between constituencies or due to voters reaching the age of majority for voting, one finds it unethical that boundary changes could be used to ensure that an incumbent obtains the right number of votes to secure an election victory.

The word gerrymander itself is a combination of Gerry and Salamander. Governor Elbridge Gerry of Massachusets (USA) redistricted his state in 1812 to benefit his party. In particular, a district in Essex County resembled a Salamander because of the artificial redrawing of boundaries. The editor of the Boston Gazette referred to it as ‘gerrymander’ and the name entered the English lexicon through repeated usage.

The beauty of gerrymandering is that nobody can really prove that the redistricting was a purely political exercise as opposed to the legitimate exercise of ensuring equality in voter representation. In Singapore, many observers view boundary changes cynically even though, to be fair, the voter to MP ratio has been kept reasonably proportionate. Based on current practice, district population deviation is kept to a limit of 30%.

Notable amongst electoral regions that fell prey to redistricting would be Eunos GRC. In the 1997 elections, Eunos GRC was eliminated from the map and its residents were split up into neighbouring districts. In the previous elections, Eunos was hotly contested and the PAP team beat the WP team by 45,833 votes to 41,673 votes. In the 1997 elections, it was Cheng San GRC that was hotly contested and although not quite near the close battle of Eunos GRC, the WP managed to obtain approximately 45% of the votes cast. Cheng San GRC did not feature in the 2001 elections.

I don’t propose a detailed study of boundary changes undertaken in Singapore. There are other studies on this phenomenon. What is fascinating about ‘goal post changing’ in Singapore is not gerrymandering. Obviously, it is a practice that is inevitable and at the same time impossible to prove in the first past the post systems around the world. The fascinating twist in Singapore is the use of the following devices:
b) NMP
c) GRC

In my opinion, the PAP’s strategy in relation to the trend in the 1980s of increasing opposition support was to provide dissenting voices a platform in Parliament. The PAP rightly sized up the general mood of the public as one that did not seek a change in the status quo overnight. There were hardcore opposition supporters. There were the PAP loyalists. There were those who felt intimidated by the perceived lack of secrecy of the ballot and would therefore vote for the PAP. There were then the voters who occupied the middle ground. These voters have existed in the 1980s and I suspect that they continue to exist. This segment of the population can be persuaded to vote for the opposition. They see the merit of a continuation of the PAP government but have thirsted and still do thirst for a greater diversity of views and voices in Parliament. Psychologically, the ability to vent one’s frustration in the public sphere is a necessity in any society. It is a case of letting off steam.

I suspect that the PAP assessed that by providing a platform for opposition voices in Parliament without allowing these opposition members from becoming fully empowered members of the Parliament they would be able to release some of the pressure that was building up in the 1980s. The Non Constituency MP scheme was a device to permit losing opposition candidates an opportunity to speak in Parliament. By doing this, PAP could tell the people: Look. You wanted us to form the government and you wanted opposition voices in Parliament. We have changed our electoral laws to allow you to continue to vote PAP MPs into Parliament and at the same time have your wish of hearing opposition voices in Parliament.

In the same vein of airing diverse views and in order to prevent public disquiet, the PAP tinkered with Parliamentary composition by introducing the Nominated MP scheme. This time, non partisan individuals could be introduced into Parliament and they could raise the quality of the debate through their knowledge in their respective fields. The PAP would have seen that this would be a way of assuring the public that a multiplicity of views can and will be aired in Parliament. Besides, the PAP might have hoped that the NMPs would appear to be of a ‘better’ calibre than the opposition MPs thereby diminishing the need for people to vote for the opposition.

I see the current proposal of increasing the number of NCMPs to be the latest in this line of tinkering with Parliamentary composition. Given the noticeable social activism in Singapore over the last few years, the PAP must have realised that they risk the possibility of losing a few more seats to the opposition in the next elections. One pre-emptive strategy would be to assure the people that more opposition MPs will get to sit in Parliament through the NCMP scheme. Indirectly, they are telling the electorate again that you don’t have to vote in an opposition MP for your constituency. All you need to do is to continue to have your PAP MPs and as a bonus you will get an increased number of opposition MPs in Parliament. These guys can bark. But they can’t bite.

From a strategic standpoint, PAP would have calculated that the hardcore opposition supporters would continue to vote for the opposition. But the segment of the population that thirsts for a voice can be persuaded to vote for the PAP candidates as they would be assured that there will be a minimum number of opposition candidates who will end up in Parliament even though they lost.

Part of the process of Papmandering therefore involves tweaking Parliamentary composition through amendments to the electoral law as well as to the Constitution. The other part of the process is to magnify the distortion normally produced by the first past the post system. In the first past the post system, it is possible for a party to gain a disproportionately high percentage of seats in Parliament when compared to the popular vote. For instance, a party can get 65% of the popular vote and still manage 80% of the seats in Parliament. In the United Kingdom for instance, every post WWII government with a Parliamentary majority has failed to obtain more than 45% of the popular vote.

Given the lack of proportionality that is inherent in the system, layering the GRC over it helps to aggravate the disproportionality. With the introduction of the GRC system, it is possible that some MPs that may have lost their individual seats are rescued by stronger candidates in other constituencies. The practice of having a Minister head a GRC team places an apprehension in the minds of voters that if the team loses, the Minister would no longer be able to serve in his office. Weak candidates within the GRC would benefit from the presence of a Minister on their team.

Let us take the Eunos GRC example. In the 1988 elections, Eunos GRC was a 3 member ward. The votes in favour of PAP – 36,500. The votes in favour of WP – 35,221. If the 3 constituencies that were a part of the GRC were single member constituencies in that elections, it is highly likely that at least one of the PAP candidates would have lost his seat. It is likely that Francis Seow would have won a seat in his constituency. In fact, with a vote difference of 1,279 votes, I would not be surprised if 2 PAP MPs had in fact lost to the opposition in the Eunos GRC(if only the Elections Department were to release the detailed results).

The same analysis can be applied to the Eunos GRC of the 1991 elections. This time around it was composed of 4 constituencies. PAP obtained 45,833 votes as opposed to 41,673 for the WP. With a vote difference of 4,160, again it is likely that at least one of the PAP candidates would have lost the seat in a conventional single member seat.

Through the GRC system, the PAP has managed to keep some of its MPs in Parliament where they would otherwise have found it tough going in a single member constituency. The growth in the size and number of GRCs was accompanied by the disappearance of most of the single member constituencies. This is another unique form of electoral management that has ensured the PAP’s continued super-majority in Parliament.

To accomplish this feat, the PAP has utilised not only electoral boundary changes but also changes to the electoral law and the Constitution. At every step of the way, the PAP has utilised innovative arguments to substantiate the need for such changes (the need for guaranteed minority representation being one). Many of us are cynical in the way that we view the reasons. But, there are many amongst the electorate who are convinced by the stated reasons.

This process of electoral management is uniquely Singapore and uniquely PAP. It warrants being called Papmandering. Of course, the point to remember is that none of this is unlawful or illegal or unconstitutional.