Tag Archives: voters

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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A Brief History of Elections II: 3-way fights

Since the introduction of GRCs in 1988, only one GRC has faced a fight with more than two parties – Marine Parade GRC in the 1991 by-elections. And it is a 4-cornered fight to boot.

% of votes. Source: Elections Department

As you can see, the PAP received nearly three-quarters of the vote (72.94), while the SDP, with its name recognition coming after its recent 1991 general elections success, took under a quarter (24.5). The NSP and SJP, both relatively new and unknown parties, lost their electoral deposits. But this by-elections was special. It came a year after the general elections, as then PM Goh wanted a stronger mandate, and for JBJ to contest against him. A new candidate, Teo Chee Hean, was also introduced.


What are the lessons for the opposition parties? Don’t fight the PM himself, of course! But WP came up with roughly 33 percent of the votes in Ang Mo Kio GRC in 2006. Secondly, in a 3-cornered or 4-cornered fight, one or two parties are bound to lose their electoral deposits i.e. <12.5 percent of votes polled.

% of votes. Source: Elections Department

For example, in 1991, the WP challenged the PAP in Bukit Merah. There was an Independent candidate who threw in his hat, and of course, lost spectacularly, polling 1.63 percent. Lesson for Andrew Kuan, who might run in Joo Chiat? 😛 But he seems rich enough to lose the deposit… This example uses an Independent in a SMC. What about parties in a SMC?

% of votes. Source: Elections Department

Chua Chu Kang SMC, 1997. Unfortunately for the DPP, the Independent candidate was better than them, and the DPP guy lost his electoral deposit. Even if the Independent’s and the DPP’s votes went to the NSP candidate, he still could not beat the PAP MP. There was no such nonsense of splitting the non-PAP votes: in this SMC, the PAP held sway. Learning points? New political parties in 3-cornered fights are extremely vulnerable. By 1997, NSP was in its third elections and would have gained some name recognition. If the youngest and probably smallest Reform Party fights the more established parties NSP or SDP in some SMCs, well, history has shown the Reform Party would be at a disadvantage. And that might mark the start of the end for its embattled leader. But that said, the Reform Party is different from the DPP, and 2011 is different from 1997. Just a point they might wanna bear in mind.

I can’t find an example in recent electoral history (from 1980s) of a SMC which was contested against the PAP by two established parties. So 2011 might make history: 1) a second GRC seeing more than two contestants, 2) two well-established opposition parties entering the contest, not one strong and one weak. I’m referring to Moulmein-Kallang, and there’s no example from past elections. It seems bleak for one of the two opposition parties though – one party has a very good chance of scoring under 12.5 percent. But which party, NSP or WP? While the WP is the older and more experienced of the two, the NSP has gradually increased its popular vote share, first by itself, later by being part of the SDA, where it contributed the most candidates among the component parties. And judging from its chief Goh Meng Seng’s blogs, the NSP seems to have strengthened itself for the coming elections.

Of course, the best scenario for them is for one of them to win. There are a few subsets: 1) X wins majority, by marginally – obviously Y would poll so low to lose its electoral deposit, and 2) X wins the most, followed by Y, and PAP loses its electoral deposit, 3) X wins the most, followed by PAP or Y, and no one loses electoral deposit. Go permute the possibilities yourself.

As I mentioned in a previous blog, 3-way fights are in fact beneficial for voters to choose the party and the ideology which they can best identity with. Assuming the parties got ideologies and policies in the first place lah. But analyzing from the opposition’s perspective, 3-way fights breed uncertainty and tension for them. They might appeal to ‘fringe’ views or say something outrageous or shocking during rallies. Dunno them, if they are despo enough.

As for the SMCs, the principle I teased out from past examples is the same too. 1) One party has a good chance of losing very badly and 2) Newer and smaller parties are at a disadvantage. It seems the SDA and WP might face the PAP together in some wards. I suspect WP might come up tops, given their experiences. And the bad press surrounding SDA doesn’t help them.

Besides giving voters a greater variety of choices, these 3-cornered fights can ultimately consolidate the opposition scene in S’pore. SDA, with only two remaining component parties, seems to be on the verge of certain electoral extinction: it is losing relevance. A quick scan through the elections results shows the PKMS has been consistently beaten, and the SJP is a virtual unknown besides its name. In wards where there are 3-cornered fights, the party which polls after the PAP (assuming they lose) would have the strongest say to contesting there again. That is if the ward never vanish lah. And that would force the worst-performing parties to 1) go other wards and engage in other 3-cornered fights, or 2) improve their electability by better campaigning or better policies etc. The latter is what will benefit voters.

In the next blog, I’d touch on the popular votes and number of seats contested by the opposition parties.

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A Brief History of Elections I

Electoral boundaries. Source: The Online Citizen


General elections take place in a context, and this context includes a bit of history. As S’pore is a city-state, in terms of geography and demography, it is highly homogeneous. There are no rural-urban, highland-lowland, coastal-inland divides, because S’pore is highly urbanized. Furthermore, the bulk of the population resides in HDB flats, so Tampines isn’t much different from Jurong, or Woodlands from Punggol. It is nearly impossible for politicians to exploit geographical differences or base politics on locations. There is no concentration of the poor or rich such that their votes can swing an election. The population is also overwhelmingly Chinese, and there is no discernible ethnic enclave, such that in each constituency, it is more or less reflective of the national average. But in some places, like Tampines, the Malays have an above-average presence. Yet there is scant evidence to suggest minority ethnic or religious groups vote as a bloc.

While S’pore has beeb criticized as a one-party state, technically such a term should have been dropped from 1981, with the Anson by-elections producing the first opposition MP since independence. Since 1981, Parliament always has at least 1 non-PAP MP. The number of political parties taking part in each elections is relatively high for a tightly-controlled country.

Number of political parties/indpts in GE. Source: Elections Department

As you can see, 2006 seems to be the exception rather than the norm of the number of political parties in the elections. Independents are lumped together as one group for convenience. In 2011, it is expected 8 parties will contest the elections (PAP, WP, SDP, SPP, SDA, NSP, DPP, Independents). Though more parties means a greater variety of choices for voters, it remains to be seen if it translates into quality. For example, the DPP contested in 1997 and 2001, and in each elections one of their candidates lost their electoral deposits i.e. vote share below 12.5 percent. Furthermore, the DPP is in reality a father-and-son team, and it is EXTREMELY surprising that according to news reports, they will be contesting Marine Parade and Tanjong Pagar GRCs. Where are they going to get 10 candidates in the first place?

At least they are lucky to be contesting against the PAP. In Moulmein-Kallang GRC, the WP and NSP might be contesting against the PAP. Most SMCs have not been settled, at least not publicly. In the next blog, I shall look at three-cornered fights in the past.

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What voters want?

It seems the NSP and WP are going into a three-cornered fight at Moulmein-Kallang GRC, and many people believe such a fight should be avoided. Their reason? Both opposition parties will split the ‘anti-PAP’ vote and result in a PAP victory. I think that’s a very simplistic view. It’s either for or against PAP, and granted that elections are for incumbents to lose, S’poreans are not dumb in choosing any Tom, Dick or Harry who declares himself as an ‘opposition’ politician. Look at the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and their sorry defeats in 1997 and 2001, where father and son lost their electoral deposits respectively. Or the fact that independent candidates have consistently done poorly.

But commentators still speak of ‘Opposition’ unity, as if capitalizing the word can magically bound the parties together like a Body-Binding curse. They reckon that if every party meets the PAP straight-on in all wards, they stand the best chance of decreasing the PAP vote share, or even the number of seats which the PAP currently holds. That is, of course, ideal for the opposition parties. But is it ideal for VOTERS?

Goh Meng Seng, the secretary-general of NSP, asserted that:

1) Singaporeans want to have credible opposition MPs in parliament
2) Singaporeans want opposition to win at least 1 GRC so to put pressures on PAP
3) Singaporeans do not wish to see 3 corner fights especially for GRCs.
4) Singaporeans want to vote, wish to see as many seats contested as possible.

For point 1, that S’poreans want ‘credible opposition MPs’, it is not wrong. But it’s not right either. S’poreans want credible MPs from ALL parties. The rational voter takes it as a granted, that candidates who come out to contest have already been filtered by their parties as ‘credible’ i.e. capable, smart, no hanky-panky. Some people say the PAP has an unfair advantage because they can draw their candidates from the admin service, military or stat boards, who would seem to be more capable than the candidates which opposition parties field. But at the same time, the ‘rational’ voter might not be rational after all. Look at Chiam See Tong and Low Thia Kiang, who have beaten PAP candidates who are now ministers (Mah Bow Tan, Heng Chee How).

Secondly, that S’poreans want the opposition to win as many seats as possible to check the PAP, this point is not what some voters might be looking out. Voters and their votes are notoriously hard to predict, unless there is a huge mood swing in the country. Who would expect Aljunied GRC to turn into a battleground GRC in the last elections? Anyway, only the opposition parties want more seats – not S’poreans. S’poreans might desire for more checks on the PAP, but this desire does not automatically translate into voting for the opposition. If a PAP candidate were to promise he would check ministers, what’s there to stop voters from electing him? And in Parliament, some PAP MPs have sounded as if they were from the opposition (Halimah Yacob, Lily Neo, Josephine Teo etc). Hence it’s too easy to assume S’poreans want more seats for the opposition.

Thirdly, who is to say S’poreans do not want 3-cornered fights? Only a few people are saying this: opposition parties, their supporters, and some smart-alec commentators. On the contrary, S’poreans in general are suffering from a ‘voting deficit’. Some GRCs have not voted for decades, and when they finally have the chance, they find out the party which has come has been inactive for as long as they have not voted (Tanjong Pajar and Marine Parade lol). They might just welcome a more established opposition party, but unfortunately no party is willing to step forward. In Moulmein-Kallang, where two established opposition parties are fighting the PAP, this might be a golden opportunity for voters there to exercise their choices diligently. NSP is different from WP, and both NSP and WP are different from the PAP. More choices = better for voters, because they can better pick the party which best represents them, in terms of ideology or personalities of the candidates.

Perhaps why opposition parties are afraid of three-cornered fights is that they fear their ideas or candidates might be drowned out. Well, that means they ain’t good enough! Greater competition can ultimately force them to differentiate themselves more, be it in their policies, plans, visions etc. This will benefit the voter MORE, rather than taking part in a straight fight against the PAP, where they force voters to choose ‘either’ and ‘or’.

In the last point, the secretary-general was correct. Most S’poreans would like to vote (even if they vote for the PAP). Voting is not just a fundamental right; it enhances the sense of belonging to S’pore and plays a part in forging national identity as well. That the opposition parties want to contest all wards so as to allow all S’poreans to vote, it is great.

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