The Straits Times’ feature written by Li Xueying in its Insight section (18 September 2010) on electoral boundaries was a well-written one. Headlined “Making sense of electoral boundaries”, it demonstrated — obliquely, which is as far as a government-controlled newspaper is allowed to do — how little sense now guides electoral boundary decisions.
This is one more aspect of a long-term trend I have observed in Singapore: that of abandoning important principles in governance. More and more policy decisions are made on the basis of kowtowing to power rather than enshrining and defending foundational principles.
Without being clear-eyed about principles even as social and economic changes buffet us, the ship of state is rudderless in a choppy sea. This poses a danger; sooner or later, the passengers on the ship lose faith in the ship altogether. They can’t steer it and nobody really knows where it is headed.
The Insight article recalled that fairness, inclusive decision-making and transparency were key elements in working out electoral boundaries in the 1950s.
The 1958 committee, for example, comprised representatives from four political parties, and published a lengthy report detailing how it made its decisions.
With 42 pages densely covered with population numbers, maps and boundary options, it was a tome by today’s standards.
It went into detail on the composition of the committee – representatives of the four political parties, its principles, down to its deliberations – and disagreements. This included a page-long dissenting opinion by then People’s Action Party (PAP) chairman Toh Chin Chye on how the rural parts were partitioned.
By contrast, the most recent report released ahead of the 2006 General Election was a slim, seven-page study in minimalism.
Of 23 constituencies, about half – 11 – had their boundaries changed.
The committee offered a one-paragraph explanation: It had taken into account ‘population shifts and housing developments and balancing against other factors including the requirement to maintain a minimum of eight single-member constituencies (SMCs) and keeping, as much as feasible, the number of electors in each constituency within the respective ranges’.
— Straits Times, 18 September 2010, Making sense of electoral boundaries
Nowadays, the committee is comprised of civil servants appointed by the Prime Minister.
The maps provided by the newspaper of the constituencies in 1954 and 2006 were instructive. The older one shows compact, contiguous electoral divisions; the latter has all sorts of strange shapes. Aljunied and Holland-Bukit-Timah Group Representation Constituencies (GRCs) are shot through with Single-member constituencies (SMCs), namely Hougang and Bukit Panjang. Residents of Sentosa Cove are in the same constituency as those in Clementi and in Jurong West Extension.
Even more devastating is the feature article’s examination of the question of variation in voter numbers. An important principle of fairness is that constituencies should be very similar in population; this is to ensure that each citizen’s vote carries equal weight.
As it is, this principle is already sunk by having some people in SMCs and others in GRCs where their vote is homogenised out through being swamped by much larger numbers. It is worse when we see how variable the populations of GRCs are.
. . . the generous deviation rule might be seen to contravene the principle of mathematical equality, as it offers enormous flexibility, especially in group representation constituencies (GRCs).
For instance, a six-MP GRC in 2006 could range from having 108,000 to 204,000 electors.
Says Assistant Professor Eugene Tan, a constitutional law specialist: ‘This has implications for fair and balanced representation.’
Noting that the deviation rules for New Zealand and Australia are 5 per cent and 10 per cent respectively, he argues: ‘If much larger countries with more uneven spreads of population throughout the country can do with 5 to 10 per cent deviation, our 30 per cent deviation is overly generous and may allow for large variations in the electoral rolls for the various GRCs and SMCs.’
The results speak for themselves. Something as critical as fair elections no longer seem to be guided by dispassionate principles, but regularly genuflects to the interests of the powerful. This kind of debasement feeds cynicism that eats into a healthy democracy.
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On a separate note, as elections draw near, I notice a complete silence on the subject of overseas voting.
In 2006, a pilot scheme was implemented. It was so restrictive, only a few hundred actually managed to vote.
There doesn’t seem to be any plan to expand the scheme to include more Singaporeans, of which perhaps 100,000 are now residing abroad. A July 2010 update on the Elections Department website still says that one has to physically show up at only nine possible places to cast one’s vote: “The overseas polling stations are located within 9 designated Singapore’s High Commissions, Embassies or Consulates in countries/cities where there is a significant overseas Singaporeans [sic] population.”
In the 2006 general election, 1,017 Singaporeans registered to vote overseas, but because many were allocated to constituencies with walkovers, only 558 actually voted (source: Wikipedia, accessed 19 September 2010).
If we had the principle of universal suffrage in clearer view, we would be doing more. Even less-developed countries manage better than us. Our half-heartedness suggests that arrangements for overseas voting has nothing to do with principle . . . once again.