We should stop obsessing about racial representation in electoral politics. Trying too hard to ensure “balance” in outcomes carries a very heavy price: tampering with the democratic process until it loses its democratic-ness.
It’s like wanting market competition but demanding that all sellers stick to predefined market shares. The two objectives are contradictory and mutually exclusive.
In arguing for the abolition of group representation constituencies (GRCs), human rights group Maruah expressed its belief that candidates from racial minorities will not be seriously disadvantaged at the polls. “Maruah has faith in the political maturity of Singaporeans in voting for candidates who can best represent them in Parliament rather than based on purely communal grounds,” it said in a recently-released paper, the second in its Electoral Reform Campaign series.
It found basis for this faith in the historical record: “There was [sic] also many ethnic minority MPs in Parliament prior to the introduction of the GRC system, and then won in SMCs [single-member constituencies].”
Likewise, the report recalled that “Mr Chiam See Tong argued during the 1988 Parliamentary debates that the PAP’s [People's Action Party's] rationale for introducing the GRC system did not match up with the empirical evidence, as ethnic minorities had not previously struggled to gain representation in the legislature.”
However, the main thrust of Maruah’s paper was not on the question of racial representation, but that GRCs have many inherent flaws, making the whole contraption worthy of the scrapheap.
- The law of large numbers operates in GRCs to favour disproportionately the most popular party — in our present context, the ruling PAP;
- GRCs provide an excuse to avoid by-elections;
- Permits ‘free riders’ — unattractive candidates who get into parliament on the coat-tails of better-regarded candidates;
- Risks reducing minority-race representation to tokenism.
All the above have been aired previously and I believe many Singaporeans share Maruah’s dim view of GRCs. My own negative view of GRCs has been expressed several times in previous articles; I would abolish them if I could. Here, I won’t go into what I’d like to replace them with — I don’t want to add length to this article — but I will do so at a future date.
On the question of GRCs reducing racial-minority candidates to tokenism, this stems from the requirement that at least one member of every party’s GRC slate of candidates must belong to a predefined minority group. This entrenches a race-based view of candidates. Maruah asked if it was creating the very problem it was intended to solve — a very good question indeed.
“At the end of the day, the GRC system is a quota system,” said Leon Perera, the lead author of the paper, at the press conference on 19 August 2013.
And so I was perplexed when Maruah, in an afterthought to arguing for scrapping the GRC system in favour of 100% SMCs, unveiled an even more rigid scheme to ensure minority-race representation. It came with a suggested two-percentage points variance from each minority’s share of the population — absurdly tight, in my opinion. Granted, Perera said that it was meant as a “fail-safe mechanism for redress should ethnic minorities be significantly under-represented” after an election. However, just having it in place will perpetuate a race-based view of political candidates. And it looks no less than a quota system too.
What they proposed was this:
In any electoral system that is uniformly composed of single-member constituencies (with a first-past-the-post voting system implied),
1. Every party contesting the elections would be required to achieve racial balance in its slate of candidates;
2. After the electoral results have been declared, the proportion of ethnic minority candidates would be calculated;
3. If a minority’s share of winning candidates is less than “fair” (meaning more than two percentage points below its share of the population), then one or more “best losers” (i.e. losing candidates with the highest number of votes) belonging to this racial group would be automatically co-opted into Parliament to make up to the needed proportion.
4. Maruah proposed that these co-opted MPs have full voting rights just like outright-winner MPs.
I am pretty close to being horrified at such a scheme. Crucially, the “fail-safe” plan has the same drawback as GRCs when it comes to minority race candidates. Accusations of tokenism will still be made, especially if losing minority-race candidates get into parliament through the back door — which is what compulsory co-opting will be seen as. Criticism of parliament being unrepresentative of the democratic will will still be valid.
No way to square the circle
There is no system that is going to guarantee racial or ethnic representation to a close approximation of the demographic profile of a country without intruding into democratic freedoms. The better, if counter-intuitive, route to take is an indirect one: to do everything possible to reduce race-consciousness in society. It is when voters pay little attention to a candidate’s race or ethnicity, that by statistical chance alone, you will get a facsimile of society’s rainbow in parliament.
In such an event, the resulting minority MPs are in parliament on the strengths of their own electoral appeal, not because they have had a lubricated passage. In turn, when they succeed as representatives of their constituents, their example will further erode race-consciousness. It produces a virtuous cycle.
By contrast, to keep designing ever more elaborate schemes to ensure racial representation with exactitude, is to perpetuate race-consciousness. It works against the real solution.
In any case, the rigidity of our categories is obsolescent. Our society is one that is seeing more and more inter-racial and inter-ethnic marriages with their resulting offspring. Our open-door policy on immigration is bringing in new citizens who don’t quite fit into our Chinese-Malay-Indian pigeonholes. As citizens, they are entitled to stand for election too. Are we going to add to the categories? Tinker with the rules? Write in more submodules to the existing certification programme?
I have always thought it quite offensive that people should submit themselves to have their race certified by some impersonal board. It’s nearly as bad as demanding that women should go for a gynaecological examination to prove that they are female before they can stand as election candidates in gender-quota’d elections. Would you implement the latter? If not, why implement the former?
Overall, my view on all this is a simple one. In dismantling GRCs, we should just forget about race requirements.
Like Maruah, I have quite a lot of confidence that Singaporeans do not give much weight to race in choosing their leaders. We only think the risk of people voting along race lines is high because the present government says so. But let’s not overlook the fact that they say so mostly because (a) it is in their interest to find reasons for keeping GRCs, and (b) Lee Kuan Yew has (through his own personal history of fighting Malaysia’s Malay-based UMNO party) a very race-coloured view of the world.
Let’s take a deep breath, have some faith in ourselves and scrap those straitjackets.