‘to build a democratic society’ – that’s a phrase repeated in schools throughout Singapore on a daily basis. Children and teenagers in this country have been pledging that since the 1960s. As with a great many things that we learn by rote, the national pledge has been uttered by many Singaporeans without passion or respect for nearly five decades.
One of basic pillars of democracy is to have a representative system of government. ‘One man, one vote, one value’. We hear that often enough and many of us take the ‘one man, one vote’ phrase for granted. However, very few amongst us question whether our system of voting secures the other goal of representative government: ‘one value’. We inherited the parliamentary model and the first past the post electoral system from the British. Along the way, our legislature has made significant changes to the system and one has to ask whether our GRC system contributes to or undermines the democratic franchise in this country.
I have blogged about the flaws in the GRC system on a few occasions. They can be accessed at the following links.
For the uninitiated, the GRC system is referred to in academic literature on electoral systems as a “Party Block Vote” system and is used in 3 other countries: Chad, Cameroon and Djibouti. (We are in very good company indeed. 🙂 )
Though the officially stated reason for the introduction of the system was for minority representation, the size of the GRCs has grown from 3 member GRCs to 6 member GRCs. Along the way, other reasons have been raised for the increasing size of GRCs. A few days ago, the PM has announced that he has asked the Electoral Boundaries Review Committee to reduce the size of GRCs (to below 5 members per GRC). In the end, there has been one obvious effect of the GRC system: It has enabled weak PAP candidates to ride on the strength of more well-known PAP candidates from the same team. For example, in the last GE, it is likely that a fair number of PAP candidates would have lost if all the constituencies were SMCs. The GRC system may have helped the incumbent initially but it must be clear to the pap leaders that after Aljunied in 2011, the risk of losing a GRC has become a high probability instead of being merely a remote possibility. The ruling party cannot afford to lose a 6 member or 5 member GRC and in the process lose a heavyweight Minister. If George Yeo, one of the more likeable pap ministers could lose, there is no special favours to be expected from the voters based on the character of individual ministers. I believe that the pap must have figured that it’s better to reduce the size of the GRCs in order to reduce the risk of losing too many ministers.
For now, there’s another issue I wish to raise. The role of the electoral boundary review committee itself. Most readers will be aware of the term ‘ gerrymandering’. Redrawing electoral boundaries in a way that will favour the incumbent. It’s a practice that has existed in UK as well and I have heard PAP apologists assert that gerrymandering happens even in western liberal democracies and that it is not a big deal. This type of argument is equivalent to saying that my neighbour lies and therefore it is acceptable for me to lie and after all telling a lie is not an offence.
Sure, there is no law against gerrymandering but it is politically unethical (some would say that is an oxymoron) and in UK, for instance, developments in electoral law have moved the system slowly away from the gerrymandering influence of the party in power. This has been achieved through limiting the purpose and the scope of boundary review as well as through the creation of an independent Electoral Commission through the passage of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. Through the creation of the EC, the former role of the Boundary Commission has been removed and placed under the Boundary Committee of the EC.
In Singapore, we still have the practice of the Elections Department having control over the conduct of the elections and the Boundary Review being carried out by the Electoral Boundaries Review Committee at the direction of the Prime Minister instead of independently.
What should be the rationale for the boundary review? The short answer: to secure equality of value for the voting public. If we accept the constituency system of representation, then it is important that voters are not adversely affected in terms of Parliamentary representation. If 10,000 voters in a constituency are represented by 1 MP, it stands to reason that it would be unfair if another constituency having 50,000 voters is represented by 1 MP. In countries adopting the First Past the Post System (like the UK), one overriding goal of boundary review is to take into account demographic changes. It is possible that over a period of time certain localities may have experienced a population drain whilst others might have experienced a gain. To account for this, in UK boundary reviews are done between 8 to 12 years after the last review. This would address the changes in population size relative to different constituencies. it is unlikely that demographic changes will be significant within the short space of time that transpires between two general elections. The Singapore practice of carrying out boundary reviews before every election is therefore not reflective of population changes.
In many countries that use the constituency system, it is common to set a base population for a constituency and then provide for an allowance to deviate by a fixed percentage from the base. For example, if the base is 30,000 voters and we work on an allowance of 10% deviation, there could be 33,000 voters in one constituency and 27,000 in another constituency. If we look at Singapore’s constituencies and the past methodology adopted by the electoral boundaries review committee, the deviation can be up to 30%. This kind of deviation, in my opinion, doesn’t allow for equal value for our votes.
To top it all off, the PM has asked the boundary review committee to reduce the size of the GRC s and to increase the number of SMCs. This doesn’t sit well with the idea of ‘one value’ . As it is, the demarcation of GRC and SMCs is arbitrary with no principled basis as to why my constituency should be within a GRC and my friend’s constituency should be a SMC. Before the 2011 elections, there was another review to resize constituencies and again there was no principled basis for that.
Too often, Singaporeans (a majority, at least ) remain unconcerned about our Electoral process. The most sickening Argument I hear is that all is fair in love and in war. That’s not even an argument. It’s an excuse for abuse of the exclusive power possessed by the incumbent. Those that speak up on behalf of the pap on this, please recognise yourself for what you are: A hypocrite. How can you pledge yourself to build a democratic society and then advocate something that undermines democracy? Do yourself a favour. You can stick to your ideas. Just don’t take the national pledge anymore. After all, your beloved FF pointed out that it contains highfalutin ideas.
After 50 Years of Independence, It’s time for us to grow up. We need transparency In the electoral process. We need independent administration of the electoral system and we need to understand and respect the ideal of “One man, One vote, One value.” If you can’t accept this, then the next time that we stand up to take the pledge during national day just shut up and sit down and enjoy the parade and fireworks.