Reforming the GRC system

GRCs are supposed to be ‘good’ for Singapore – they guarantee a permanent minority presence in Parliament. They started off by combining 3 single-member wards into one GRC, but SMCs were still dominant then. The controversies began when GRCs replaced SMCs as the dominant electoral structure; 3-member GRCs expanded into 4-member GRCs, then 5, 6; and ministers were distributed in all the GRCs to ‘take charge’ of MPs.

These were compounded with the inexplicable carving of GRC boundaries; Marine Parade GRC stretches to Serangoon, central Singapore. Opposition-leaning single-member wards were subsequently absorbed into GRCs, and even GRCs with significant opposition support were dissolved and pieced off. Due to the massive size of GRCs – a typical 5-member GRC would have more than 100, 000 voters, and its relative large size to the entire voter population – the law of huge number kicks in. Unless there is a strong nation-wide swing against the incumbent governing party, it became very difficult for the opposition to capture a GRC, as the electoral outcome of any GRC has a tendency to reflect the national popular vote.

Hence, between 1988 till now, opposition MPs came from SMCs only, when clearly in the same period, some S’poreans wanted more than two opposition MPs in Parliament. The PAP often likes to justify their actions by saying “it doesn’t matter, what works for Singapore is more important”. Yes, GRCs work in the sense that both the ruling and opposition parties must field minority candidates to win elections. Minority representation in Parliament is firmly entrenched, whoever wins or loses. GRCs might have created economies of scales for the running of town councils, but this is more of an after-thought consideration.

It is disturbingly obvious to anyone that mega-sized GRCs which form the majority of elected seats in Parliament have only benefited the PAP. As I mentioned before, and repeated above, the PAP has benefited in three ways:

  • Absorbing opposition-leaning SMCs into GRCs, dissolving opposition-leaning GRCs, or drawing boundaries here and there with no reason – opposition parties are unable to work on shifting grounds, or their supporters’ votes are diluted. Despite the fact that Singapore is a tiny city-state, electoral districts can spring up or splinter, when it is pretty clear the population distribution is even. Who benefits?
  • Physical barriers – Singapore is a city, densely-populated, it shouldn’t be too hard to reach everyone staying within a particular neighbourhood. But in a GRC, multiply this neighbourhood by ten, twenty, or thirty folds. Of course, the opposition can be blamed for not attracting or mustering resources to cover an entire GRC of more than 100,000 voters. In larger countries, a single candidate typically represents such a population size. But Singapore is not that large. It doesn’t make sense to have mega electoral districts in this urban maze. Who benefits?
  • Ministers who ‘anchor’ their team of MPs. New and young candidates are parachuted into GRCs to under-study their more experienced ministers and senior MPs. This political tutelage might be good for any party (even the Workers’ Party candidates in Aljunied rode on Low Thia Kiang’s experience), but voters seem to be at the losing end, as they can’t vote for or against an individual candidate. Their voting powers are again diluted. Of course, when all the candidates are equally good, S’poreans have no problems. But if one is a bad apple… Who benefits?

So should GRCs still stay?  I think all opposition parties have called for GRCs to be abolished, and even ordinary S’poreans too. There are several ways of ensuring minority representation in Parliament (or don’t even need it at all). One way is to declare some SMCs to be fielded by minority candidates only. I think some Chinese would be unhappy why only Malays or Indians have to represent them. Are S’poreans voting along ethnic or religious lines now? I’m not very sure. Such a proposal was probably considered before, and I believe MM Lee discarded it precisely because he believed some Chinese would be upset.

What about reserved seats in Parliament, like an upper chamber? Good idea, but personally I think Singapore doesn’t need it – this is a city-state by political and geographical definitions, I don’t see so many ‘interests’ like rural areas, highlands, tribes etc to be represented. Unless the upper chamber consists of minorities only, to scrutinize legislation which might discriminate against them, but this role is apparently served by the President Council for Minority Rights. Then what about the lower chamber? What about the minority candidates in there?

I think solutions along these lines to ensure permanent minority representation in Parliament always have some trade-offs. What we need is simplicity. So back to the GRCs.

In my opinion, a 3-member GRC is quite ideal. The voter size for each GRC should be capped under 75, 000, so each MP serves about 25, 000 residents. This will slightly mitigate the effects of the law of huge numbers. So with 87 seats in the current Parliament, and with fifteen 3-member GRCs (45 seats), 42 seats will be allocated for SMCs, as opposed to 12 only in GE 2011.  There will still be a minimum of 15 minority MPs, but with smaller-sized GRCs and forming only a slight majority of all elected seats.

Why not two-member GRC? Possible too, but it would seem to voters the minority candidate has to borrow the other Chinese candidate’s help for his election bid. 3 is a good number, with more permutations; 1 minority (Malay or Indian/Others) with 2 Chinese, 2 minorities (Malay & Malay, Malay & Indian, Malay & Others, Indian & Others) with 1 Chinese, and possibly all minorities. More importantly, with smaller GRCs, there won’t be ridiculous Jurong GRC which doesn’t include Jurong West or Chua Chu Kang GRC which covers Jurong West etc this kind of situations. At the same time, there will be many SMCs so that many candidates will have to battle alone, instead of taking shelter in GRCs, which in any case will be smaller and easier to win or lose.

However, no matter how the electoral system changes, it must still follow these principles which many find lacking:

  • simplicity
  • consistency
  • transparency

GRCs or SMCs boundaries should be simple to understand, and easy to know why the boundaries are drawn in such a manner. For example, West Coast GRC covers a swath of area from Jurong Central to Clementi to Sentosa. If residents are puzzled, it is no wonder.

Secondly, Singapore is a city-state. Any boundaries drawn is man-made and should not shift in every elections. If they shift, there must be a valid reason, like population growth.

Lastly, why did the people drawing up the electoral map do this and that? What are their reasons? No one knows them exactly. Unless the PAP embarks on such reforms, they will always be saddled with accusations of unfairness. If they change, they will perhaps make themselves more palatable to all S’poreans.


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