Straits Times: GRCs: 20 years on


Twenty years after the birth of GRCs, Insight looks at how the growth of group representation constituencies, an innovation unique to Singapore, has shaped the electoral landscape


BUAY song.” That Hokkien phrase sums up the dissatisfaction that GRCs arouse among a significant number of Singaporeans.

The reason: These giant constituencies have hampered the ability of opposition parties to contest elections, and hence deprived many Singaporeans of the chance to vote.

Mr Philip Low, 60, a kitchen steward in a hotel, says: “I haven’t voted in 20 years. People should have a choice.”

The Government introduced group representation constituencies, or GRCs, in 1988 to ensure a minimum number of representatives from the minority races in Parliament.

At that time, each of the 13 three-member GRCs had to have at least one candidate of a minority race.

Today, though, GRCs have swollen in size and dislike of them seems to cut across age and race.

Ms Kumari Ravendran, 22, who is studying for a diploma, says: “GRCs make it hard for us to vote out an MP we dislike.”

Mr Razali Puasa, 27, a teacher, is against the way GRCs are used to “swallow up” areas where opposition support is strong.

“I think people are race-blind now,” he adds.

GRC critics like them could make up close to half of the voting population, going by an Insight straw poll of 100 Singaporeans of voting age carried out this week.

If given a choice, they would opt for smaller GRCs or more single-seat wards.

On the other side of the fence, however, were those who said they have no issues with the current five-member and six-member GRCs. These formed the majority, albeit a small one at 53per cent.

This group was split evenly between those who support GRCs because they are the choice of a government that remains effective and efficient, and those who have no preference because they have no interest in politics.

Housewife Salamah Matnam, 48, believes GRCs help to “guarantee multiracialism”.

Mr Sivam Pillay, 40, a company vice-president, believes GRCs are “a good thing”.

“It’s not the job of the Government to make things easy for the opposition,” he says.

Mr Tan Chwee Kee, who at age 81 still works as a clerk, says: “I leave it to the Government. I’m happy with the way things are.”

To be sure, the poll was far from scientific. A number of people were left out because they did not know what GRCs are and it proved difficult to do proper interviews with them.

But beyond these perceptions, how have GRCs actually changed the electoral landscape over the last 20 years?

The GRC growth path

THESE were the vital statistics of GRCs at birth in September 1988: 13 three-member GRCs meant 39 GRC seats in all, out of a total of 81 elected seats in Parliament.

But by the November 2001 polls, there were nine five-member GRCs and five six-member GRCs. The number of GRC seats rose to 75, or 89 per cent of all elected seats.

The number of single-member constituency seats fell to just nine.

That configuration remained unchanged at the most recent polls in May 2006.

The People’s Action Party (PAP) Government has all along regarded GRCs as a way to achieve both minority representation in Parliament and efficient management of housing estates.

But as National University of Singapore adjunct professor Kevin Tan pointed out in his 2005 book on Singapore’s Constitution, that conflation begs the question: Which objective has priority?

The Parliamentary Elections Act was changed in 1991 and again in 1996 to increase the maximum number of MPs per GRC from three to four, and then to six.

Both times, the Government cited estate management concerns rather than multiracialism as reasons.

In 1991, it said the change was to minimise boundary changes for GRCs which had grown too big for the number of MPs serving them.

In 1996, it said the new community development councils needed a critical mass of residents to be effective.

These changes have diluted the importance of multiracial representation as the reason for GRCs.

Now that GRCs can each have up to six MPs, the minimum number of MPs from minority groups required under the law has actually fallen to 13, or 15 per cent of all MPs.

That is lower than the 25 per cent share of the population that is non-Chinese.

In practice though, the percentage of non-Chinese MPs has risen steadily in the last 20 years, from 16 per cent in 1988 to the current 27 per cent.

But the fact that the statutory minimum stands at just 13 MPs shows how the twin goals of multiracial representation and municipal rationalisation can pull in different directions.

As larger GRCs took shape, the share of constituencies where the PAP enjoyed walkovers also rose, from 13.6 per cent in 1988 to a whopping 64.7 per cent in 2001.

In that year’s general election, only 33 per cent of eligible voters had a chance to cast their ballots.

That election galvanised a young law lecturer named Sylvia Lim into action.

“Only one-third of the seats were contested,” recalls Ms Lim, now the Workers’ Party chairman and a Non-Constituency MP.

“That was why I joined the opposition.”

In 2006, the tide turned, with the opposition contesting 47 out of 84 seats. It marked the first time since 1988 that the PAP was not returned to power on Nomination Day.

In a way, the opposition’s strong showing in 2006 undercut its longstanding argument that large GRCs render it near impossible for opposition members to mount contests against the PAP.

But perhaps they were better able to do so in 2006 because Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong directed the election in a way that seemed fairer to the opposition.

Electoral boundary changes were kept to a minimum. The boundaries of single-seat wards and GRCs that opposition members held or openly coveted remained unchanged.

The gap between the release of the boundaries report and Polling Day was also the longest since 1996 – two months and three days.

Workers’ Party chief Low Thia Khiang commended the longer notice as “an improvement” on previous polls.

Political observers read the change of tactics as the Government’s attempt to address creeping cynicism about the electoral process.

So, are further changes on the cards?

Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong sparked speculation last week when he spoke about possible refinements to the political system at a National Day dinner in opposition-held Hougang. He also conceded that the “status quo cannot last forever”.

Might GRCs morph further in the future?

Various suggestions have been made on ways to ensure multiracial representation, but the decision on whether or not to take these up remains one for the ruling party.

Singaporeans like brand manager June Soh, 30, accept GRCs for now. But if the Government slackened, she would want more political contests. She worries that GRCs will stand in the way.

“If the Government is no longer as efficient as it is today, then large GRCs will be an issue because they mean people won’t have much choice at the polls,” she says.

“Only one-third of the seats were contested. That was why I joined the opposition.”
MS SYLVIA LIM, now Workers’ Party chairman, on the 2001 General Election


Tool to strengthen PAP’s hand?

“Eunos has been traditionally a Workers’ Party stronghold, but it’s now split into two GRCs. The intention of the PAP is crystal clear.”
HOUGANG MP LOW THIA KHIANG, in 1996, when Eunos GRC, which the PAP won by close margins in two previous elections, was cut up and regrouped into new GRCs

TO OPPOSITION members, group representation constituencies (GRCs) are a political tool to further strengthen the PAP’s hand.

They point to how they are synonymous with gerrymandering, gobbling up certain seats and organising others to make them hard for the opposition to win, or even contest.

For instance, when GRCs first came about in 1988, constituencies with a history of high opposition support, such as Anson, disappeared.

In 1996, Eunos GRC, which the PAP won by close margins in two previous elections, was cut up and regrouped into new GRCs.

And Braddell Heights, where Singapore People’s Party candidate Sin Kek Tong nearly won a seat in 1991 and planned to contest, was made part of Marine Parade GRC.

Said Hougang MP Low Thia Khiang then: “Eunos has been traditionally a Workers’ Party (WP) stronghold, but it’s now split into two GRCs. The intention of the PAP is crystal clear.”

Neither was Mr Low, the WP secretary-general, surprised when Cheng San GRC – which saw a fiery fight in 1997 – was split up in 2001.

“I have said in Parliament before that, maybe, one day, there will be only five GRCs – north, south, east, west and central,” the WP chief said then.

To date, the opposition has not won a single GRC.

WP chairman Sylvia Lim says GRCs raise the bar for opposition parties, while lowering the bar for new PAP candidates.

They also shift the focus of a fight away from the individual to the team and party.

Ms Lim, who became a Non-Constituency MP after her WP team got 44 per cent of the votes in Aljunied GRC in the 2006 General Election, says that contest required a “considerable” amount of resources.

There is also the feeling that the justification for GRCs seems to have moved away from multiracial representation and economies of scale for town councils, to saying that without them, women or fresh faces cannot be elected.

There are other ways to ensure minority MPs, Ms Lim feels, citing proportional representation for minority candidates in other countries.

“You should want to trust in the wisdom of the voters, that’s what democracy is about,” she tells Insight.

To Potong Pasir MP and Singapore People’s Party chief Chiam See Tong, voters choose on the basis of merit, not race.

Still, the WP is resolved to win a GRC. At its 50th anniversary celebration last year, Mr Low set his party the target of winning a GRC at the next election.

Ms Lim tells Insight: “We want to break the GRC barrier, the mindset that we cannot win one.”

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