Straits Times: A House enthralled

PARLIAMENT

Arguments and barbs fly in by-election debate; an attempted hijacking of motion and failure of equipment also add spice

BY JEREMY AU YONG


WP chairman Sylvia Lim caught many off-guard by suggesting an amendment of the motion – which would turn it into a call to abolish GRCs.

NOMINATED MPs Thio Li-ann and Loo Choon Yong thought they were taking aim at by-election laws.

Little did they know that Non-Constituency MP Sylvia Lim would step into their spotlight to take a potshot at group representation constituencies (GRCs).

The debate yesterday over a motion on refining by-election laws might have lasted over four hours, but this was one parliamentary sitting that nobody would have described as dull.

Apart from the attempted hijacking of the motion by the Workers’ Party (WP) chairman, the session also saw MPs trading barbs, equipment malfunctioning and one MP saying he had changed his mind about supporting the call to fine-tune the laws.

It all started routinely enough.

At 3pm, the end of the question-and-answer session, Professor Thio stood to present the motion on by-elections that she and Dr Loo had filed.

She had been given one hour, and proceeded to make the most of her time with a speech that ran to 18 pages. She argued her points forcefully, elaborating and illustrating in parts with details from personal experiences.

At one point, when speaking about laws that protect minorities, she recounted her time as a doctoral student in Cambridge in England: “I spent many wearying hours huddled over dusty legal tomes with a comforting chocolate croissant and instant Nescafe coffee mix, studying how minorities were protected, from the Middle Ages to our Modern Age.”

It was not the last time that a chocolate croissant would be invoked in a parliamentary speech.

But the drama really began when Ms Lim stood up to speak. She sprang two surprises:

First, that the WP would not support the motion because it entrenches the GRC system – a concept the party has never accepted.

The second, the bigger surprise, was that she wanted to amend the motion.

What it amounted to, in fact, was a complete re-writing of it, as Ms Lim deleted almost the entire motion and replaced it with a call to abolish GRCs.

The move caught many off-guard. But like any good TV drama, Parliament took a 20-minute break, creating suspense before the ending could be revealed.

And when it came, the ending was something of a damp squib.

At the resumption of the session, Leader of the House Mah Bow Tan pointed out that Ms Lim’s proposed amendments were not relevant to the original motion that had been filed.

Parliament Speaker Abdullah Tarmugi agreed, struck out the amendments and suggested that Ms Lim file a separate motion later to debate the GRC issue.

Opposition MP and WP secretary-general Low Thia Khiang (Hougang), who spoke later, disagreed that Ms Lim’s amendment was irrelevant.

He said that the problem with having by-elections in a GRC was rooted in the problem of the GRC itself: “Members who speak on the motion speak at length about the original intent of the GRC. This is great evidence of its relevance (to the debate on by-elections).”

To push his point further, he focused most of his speech on the ills of the GRC system – only to be told twice by Deputy Speaker Matthias Yao to confine himself to the issue at hand, which was on by-elections.

Mr Gautam Banerjee, the only Nominated MP who opposed the motion yesterday, originally intended to support it.

But he changed his mind after listening to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s speech.

Mr Banerjee said: “Having heard the Prime Minister, I am satisfied that we do not need to change at this time our electoral system.”

Another MP who opposed the motion was Mr Hri Kumar Nair (Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC). And he couldn’t resist taking a swipe at Prof Thio in his speech.

Citing her comparison of a GRC that is short of MPs to the Beatles without Paul McCartney and John Lennon, he said: “We are not dealing with the Beatles or the Bangles. Not even Earth, Wind and Fire.”

He also responded to her chocolate croissant remark: “Singaporeans know the difference between substance and form. They are less concerned with dusty books and chocolate croissants.”

Prof Thio responded with some harsh words for him, accusing him of misrepresenting one of her points: “We were not suggesting the blind transposition of foreign models. I think Mr Nair said that, I think that was a cheap political shot…”

There was still time for a few more surprises near the end. Prof Thio did not know the procedure for calling a division in the vote and ended up asking for it three times.

A division is when MPs record their stands electronically instead of just voicing it with an “aye” or a “no”.

During the vote-taking, Mr Sin Boon Ann (Tampines GRC) and Nominated MP Kalyani Mehta complained their machines weren’t working and registered their votes verbally. He voted “no” and she voted “yes”.

jeremyau@sph.com.sg

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Channel NewsAsia: Activists want more space for public and outdoor demonstrations

By Imelda Saad

SINGAPORE: Political observers and civil activists have welcomed the government’s move to ease rules governing the Speakers’ Corner.

The site will now be managed by Singapore’s National Parks Board (NParks) instead of the Home Affairs Ministry and public outdoor demonstrations will be allowed there.

However, many activists also want the political openess to extend to other pockets around the island.

22-year-old Choo Zheng Xi was possibly one of the youngest Singaporeans, at age 14 then, to speak at the Speakers’ Corner when it opened eight years ago. He touched on topics such as public transport costs and the lack of an opposition voice in Parliament which he felt were relevant issues.

However, he has not spoken there since, preferring to take his discourse online.

Choo Zheng Xi, Editor, The Online Citizen, said: “What is the larger applicability of this openess? Will it forever be confined to a green patch here? Or will it be broadened throughout the country?

“I think unless you want to forever keep this as a symbol or as an excuse, you need to be genuine about liberalisation and apply it to the country as a whole.”

Some said it is all about visibility as some events cannot be confined to a specific area.

Zheng Xi, a final-year law student, cited the Myanmar Peace Awareness Day as an example. The event was organised by Singapore’s three universities in October last year.

The students had wanted to hold an outdoor candlelight vigil but their application was turned down by both the Office of Student Affairs and the Police.

Zheng Xi continued: “We would prefer to have some events at a venue that means something to us. So when we were organising the Myanmar Peace Awareness Day, it was a student effort and we wanted to hold it on campus. So to say that we could hold it here, I don’t think it makes much sense.”

NCMP Sylvia Lim, Chairman, The Worker’s Party, said: “Visibility is very important. People want to be seen and they want to be seen in a group to show that there is some weight in public opinion behind a certain measure or against a certain measure. So to confine people to the Speakers’ Corner might defeat the purpose.

“I think you might recall that some time back, Workers’ Party applied for a permit to hold a mass cycling event to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the party. It was turned down and we were told to cycle in a stadium and I think that just defeats the purpose of such an activity. I think the question is – is this step too much of a baby step?”

Others want clarification on the Miscellaneous Public Offences Act which disallows illegal assemblies, and the Public Entertainments and Meetings Act, now that outdoor demonstrations will be allowed at the Speakers’ Corner.

In fact, Zheng Xi is already mulling over a gathering, on the public transport fare hike.

But will the new rules inject life back to this sleepy corner of Singapore?

Many people Channel NewsAsia spoke to seem to have already forgotten about the Speakers’ Corner.

One man said: “I see some people playing soccer here, for recreation. Other than that, I don’t really know what it’s for.”

Previous reports said about 400 people registered to speak at the Speakers’ Corner in its first year, but the numbers dwindled drastically to just 26 in 2006.

Details on the new regulations are expected next week. Singapore’s Home Affairs Ministry and NParks are expected to give details on the new regulations next week. – CNA/vm

Posted in 2008 08. Comments Off on Channel NewsAsia: Activists want more space for public and outdoor demonstrations

Straits Times: GRCs: 20 years on

INSIGHT
SATURDAY

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

BY LYDIA LIM & ZAKIR HUSSAIN

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.

lydia@sph.com.sg

zakir@sph.com.sg


HER REACTION TO GE
“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


AGAINST

Tool to strengthen PAP’s hand?


RAISING THE BAR
“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.”

Straits Times: Watching, waiting for a second awakening

>> THINKING ALOUD

BY PAUL JACOB
Deputy Political Editor

THE People’s Action Party has had its sights trained on the Workers’ Party (WP) for some time now.

Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong’s remarks just last week, in the opposition-held Hougang constituency, was but the latest salvo fired.

On the face of it, the critique of the party, the approach that its leaders take and their performance in Parliament suggest that the PAP will continue to spare no effort to win back the ward that has been in opposition hands since 1991.

I’d like to suggest another theory.

For the longest time, critical though the ruling party’s leadership has been of the opposition here, the presence of Hougang MP Low Thia Khiang and the long-serving Potong Pasir MP Chiam See Tong has been described as being the kind of opposition that Singapore can live with.

Both MPs – Mr Low is in his 17th year and Mr Chiam is now 24 years in Parliament – have been lauded by their PAP opponents for having carved out a route of responsible, credible and non-confrontational opposition politics.

They received kudos for having worked within the system.

If such compliments have been embarrassing, I for one can scarcely recall anyone from either Mr Low’s or Mr Chiam’s camp disagreeing with or distancing themselves from that notion.

Indeed, by his own admission, Mr Low is comfortable in having a role which is to serve as no more than a check on the Government – and not to be an alternative to it.

“Since the Government has been elected to do a job and to deliver its promises to the people, it should be given the opportunity to perform and to prove its worth. I play the role of a watchdog to check whether the Government has delivered its promises or has short- changed the people,” he told The Straits Times in April.

This was shortly after Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, interviewed by the newspaper Lianhe Zaobao, spoke about the standard of parliamentary debate and noted, among other things, that opposition MPs seldom debated in direct opposition to the Government.

Mr Chiam did not speak as much now, and Non- Constituency MP Sylvia Lim – who is the WP chairman – spoke carefully and seemed restrained, he observed.

As for Mr Low, PM Lee said the WP secretary-general seldom debated the core substance of policies and seemed more keen on catching the Government on its shortcomings, “so as to embarrass it”.

In fact, as PM Lee and others also noted, the Nominated MPs have created much more buzz.

PAP organising secretary (special duties) Ng Eng Hen, who is also the Education Minister, followed up PM Lee’s comments with a similar critique of Mr Low in the party’s newsletter in June. SM Goh, speaking on Mr Low’s own Hougang turf last Saturday, was the latest to deliver a blast.

Such comments and criticisms mirror the increasing chatter online in recent months against the WP for what is arguably its muted performance in Parliament and on the political scene since its stellar showing at the 2006 General Election.

That success translated into Mr Low’s re-election by a wider margin, Ms Lim’s entry into Parliament as Non-Constituency MP, and a weight of expectation that the party would build on its strong showing and be able to engage the PAP in a more concerted fashion, providing alternatives to policies and weighing in on big issues.

Remarks of the kind that Mr Low have made about where he sees its role have drawn strong criticism from among expectant Singaporeans and non-PAP fans.

They want to see sparks fly and appear attracted to a more combative and confrontational style. The preferred outlet for their political angst is increasingly the Internet where the WP lacks a significant presence.

This means that the likely beneficiary of this disappointed crowd is the likes of the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) and some of those in its leadership, like Dr Chee Soon Juan – notwithstanding his bankruptcy and the legal action against him.

I don’t expect that this situation sits well with the PAP.

While I’ve never believed that it has been concerned about the SDP per se, I would be surprised if it has not been perturbed by the kind of politics it advocates – especially given the PAP’s known preference for opposition politics of the sort that Mr Low and Mr Chiam have provided.

But if the WP comes to be regarded by the PAP’s own critics as being no better than its political appendage, and with Mr Chiam being seen as an ageing opposition icon – relatively inactive, with no clear successor and seemingly content to operate within the boundaries of Potong Pasir – then where will such voters turn to fill their void?

An all-PAP Parliament is not an impossibility given the right conditions and circumstances. But I do not think it will sit well with the electorate of this day and age. Nor, I daresay, with the PAP itself.

Solution?

I’d light a fire underneath Mr Low and the WP. Early.

I’d want to prod them into demonstrating the political muscle they suggested they had after their showing at the polls in 2006. Mr Low cast that election as a referendum on the future of the opposition in Singapore and asked voters to signal that they wanted opposition politics to stay.

Mr Low tends to keep his cards close to his chest and is not one to show his hand. And as he demonstrated in 2006 when the PAP threw considerable firepower and incentives in the attempt to win back Hougang, he will pick his moments and can respond aggressively when he needs to. As will residents there.

It will be interesting to watch and see if the recent PAP salvos produce a second WP awakening.

Or will Mr Low and the party choose to remain in their present comfort zone and risk others stepping in, by default, to fill any void that is then generated?

pjacob@sph.com.sg