Go with a smile!

Saturday, May 14, 2011

On the GRC

The group representation constituency was introduced in 1988. Its ostensible purpose is to make sure that we had enough minority representation in parliament. I still remember watching the 1988 elections, and it was exciting, I was only a kid at that point but it seemed like an exciting thing. But in the end I found it to be a tepid affair, since everybody knows that the PAP wins everything anyway.

One of the things I remembered most was a comic strip that was a supplement to the Sunday Times, and it came with a cartoon that warned that if we didn’t have the GRC, we would end up with racial politics and peace in Singapore would crumble. I remember a panel where Singapore was drawn as a time bomb, there were Chinese on one side, Malays on one side, Indians on a third side, and the fuse was lit.

Now the question of race in Singapore – it’s not a severe problem in Singapore. And people have criticised the fact that in HDB flats there are quotas for people of various races. I don’t think that’s a problem. One of the most important factors behind racial harmony in Singapore is that most people at some point or another have had neighbours of a different race. Certainly this is true for almost all Malay or Indian people. After a while you start to think of yourself as Singaporean, rather than, exclusively, Chinese, Malay or Indian.

I think that Singapore’s racial policies have been pretty OK. They are heavy handed, and they are not completely effective. Malays do feel a little disenfranchised, and the stigma that they are mostly security guards, librarians and dispatchers is hurting them. But there is no such thing as racial equality almost anywhere in the world.

The big problem with the GRC is that it is apparent that the GRC was not solely about race. In fact I think that there are more important issues than race in the GRC. It’s about disadvantaging the opposition, and it’s about being anti-democratic.

I’m not a believer in “this or that is good in principle”. I don’t believe you should judge anything on principles. You should look at the probable outcome of what you’re going to do, and then decide or not whether you like that outcome. Principles are only there to make outcomes easier to understand. Otherwise they shouldn’t supersede thinking about outcomes.

Similarly I will never criticise something on the basis of its being anti-democratic. After all, democracy is not always good. In fact I think that democracy’s only point is that it is a good check against tyranny and abuse of power. I have a lot of faith in the ability of democracy to fire a bad leader, but I have less faith in its ability to appoint a good one. That being said, I believe that the US presidential election, the toughest election in the world is rightly known as the toughest job interview in the world, and an effective way to appoint a good leader.

Now the other issues involved in GRCs are that they are first past the post on steroids. They give an advantage to the incumbent, which is almost certainly the PAP. And similarly they give a disadvantage to the opposition.

I think it was party to address the issue of leadership renewal that the PAP (more specifically LKY) came up with this great idea. Since it was the cabinet ministers who always got very good election results (LKY often scored more than 80%) you put one cabinet minister into each GRC, he would anchor that GRC and then it would be easier to win it. (When I talk about cabinet ministers, I always use “he” because our first and only woman cabinet minister just got voted out last week.) That way, you can sneak all your guys into Parliament via the GRC, and pretend that they were democratically elected.

I don’t think this is inherently evil. If a person is good and capable, but he’s a nerd, you don’t really expect him to do very well in elections. I don’t mind having people like that in parliament. If you trust the PAP machinery to bring out the best people then vote for them anyway. And if they’re lousy, you trust the PAP not to put them up in the next election.

But the people must also have some say in this. There is no problem with a 3 person GRC. But if you have 4, 5 or even 6 member GRCs then this is a gerrymandering process that has gone too far. Singapore is 75% to 80% Chinese. If you want parliament to reflect this composition, then you should have a larger than average representation for minorities in your GRC. Therefore GRCs should not be larger than 3.

The other irony about the GRCs is something that most Singaporeans, PAP or opposition, have complained about. Tin Peiling in, George Yeo out. Well that’s the problem when you bundle a cabinet minister together with 2 other guys. You are effectively bundling the 3 together, and the leader is a human shield. The PAP is effectively saying, “vote for me, otherwise I will throw you out of power.

Looking back at the elections results, in 1988, GRCs had 3 members. In 1991, they had 4. By 1997, they had up to 6. They were increasing the sizes of the GRCs the way heroin users increased their dosages. Clearly it’s not really about race anymore. And in the end they paid the price by losing 2 ministers, probably a speaker of parliament and a “potential office holder”.

The game on nomination day is like this: if the opposition party fields a very strong team, do you want to keep that team out? Do you play your best people in that GRC, or do you fold and give up and send a weak team to get whipped? PAP also sent out a moderately strong team, better than average GRC, and in the end, they lost.

That’s the problem with a really big GRC. You tie the fates of 5 candidates together. Everything comes in the same package. Whether the opposition has a larger representative voice in parliament, who gets to run the municipal council, who gets to run the foreign ministry, who gets to go back to China. And between Chiam See Tong and Low Thia Khiang, they probably agreed that we’re not going to let the Singaporeans have the luxury of returning PAP all the seats, except for 2 token opposition in parliament. I don’t know if it was deliberate strategy by the opposition, but all the strong candidates contested in GRCs and not SMCs. The voters weren’t allowed to be complacent and say, “Wijeysingha will get his seat”, or “Gerald Giam will get his seat”, or “Pritam Singh will get his seat” or “Nicole Seah will get her seat” or “Tan Jee Say will get his seat”. Probably only Yaw Shin Leong was a strong person and that was because WP needed to hold on to Hougang. I think this was deliberate strategy to smash the GRC system. If all the GRCs were to go, then I think the opposition would have won more than 10 seats.

But let's face some facts: in some way the GRCs also benefit the opposition. Because the outcome of the GRCs are more in the middle range, it would be hard to lose your deposit. In fact the only person who lost his seat did so in a 3 cornered fight. Possibly if the SDA managed to challenge LKY in Tanjong Pagar they would lose their deposits. I always believed that the election officer did them a favour by disqualifying them. In almost every GRC, the opposition team would poll 30%. (I've even heard people bitching: they get 30% all the time even though they did nothing. I've often thought that a lot of people vote opposition to compensate for the first past the post system. If we had proportional representation, and people knew that 40% of the vote mean 40% of the seats in parliament, people would vote very differently. )

The other thing is that the opposition GRC does allow for people to be passengers. You probably need most of your opposition members to be outstanding stars. But not all. It is possible to sneak in 1 or 2 less capable candidates. And more importantly, since the opposition has almost no fear of losing their deposits, it is a great opportunity for new blood to gain campaigning experience.

I don’t really think it has to go. Yes, it’s an election engineering system, but I think that elections shouldn’t be 100% democratic. I think the people should have a voice, have a say in affairs, but they should at the most give some, not all input. They should have to power to do something drastic and attention grabbing if things don’t work out, such as unseat an MP when things go wrong.

So for GRCs, keep them, they have a purpose after all. But no larger than 3, please.



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