Rudderless in a choppy sea, part 1

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.’

— ibid.

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.

* * * * *

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.

18 Responses to “Rudderless in a choppy sea, part 1”

  1. 1 Robox 21 September 2010 at 22:59

    Speaking of the re-drawing of boundaries, I am smelling a rat.

    Lee Hsien Loong, MP of AMK GRC has now set up a facebook account as a pre-election campaign gimmick for himself and his GRC team under the pretext of devoting the page to discussions of events and activity in his GRC. (I won’t even go into why he then would call on ALL Singaporeans to use this page and not restrict its use to residents of his GRC.)

    The fishy part of all this is that it is not purely an AMK GRC FB page, but also includes YCK which is an SMC.

    Here’s my suspicion, and borne entirely of my healthy distrust of the PAP: AMK GRC will be split up and the wards adjacent to YCK SMC will absorb the latter as part of a new GRC.

    But haven’t the PAP always piously protested that they only know of any boundary changes at the same time as all Singaporeans, and especially the opposition parties, do?

    Okay, I may be jumping the gun here, but I will be keeping an eye out for this eventuality.

    If it doesn’t happen, then perhaps I would have managed to derail this corrupt practise.

    BTW, they deleted my comment on this on their FB.

  2. 2 yuen 21 September 2010 at 23:29

    I dont see redrawing boundaries as “abandoning important principles in governance” (which important principles exactly?); it is a gimmick that is used for convenience, so it is neither based on any important principles, nor going against any in particular

    However, I do feel over the last 20 years they became too good at inventing gimmicks to generate good news and to keep in check potential sources of criticism, e.g., foreign press is now very cautious about saying anything about singapore, and nus academics no longer write the kind of articles Chris Lingle wrote – and no NUS academic has stood as opposition candidate after Chee, (though a polytechnic lecturer did).

    I feel the success has generated some overconfidence in their methods and their ability to command events; the recent series of incidents, from Mas Selamat’s escape onward, ought to have reminded them that we are all liable to “dropping the ball”, especially if you have too many balls up in the air

  3. 3 Hong 22 September 2010 at 00:26


    i’m glad that you’ve highlighted this article which is well-researched but unfortunately has not received much attention on the local blogosphere. i hope more people will be aware of the unfairness in the election process in Singapore.

    and as usual, you’ve insightfully placed the issue in a larger context. i look forward to 2nd part of the article.

  4. 4 jem 22 September 2010 at 00:48

    well written post. thanks for taking the effort to dig into the details.

    i stepped on something that smelled like fecal material
    it looked like fecal material
    grinding my shoe, it felt like fecal material
    and now yawningbread came out with the chemical deconstruction that proves it is shit!

  5. 5 Jackson Tan 22 September 2010 at 10:41

    Good point regarding the overseas vote. In principle, the best form of overseas voting would be through the post. To turn up physically at the embassy or high commission is way too tedious, especially if it is not in the same city as the place of residence.

    I did think about this issue a few months back. The conclusion I came to was that it is not difficult to link an overseas vote to the voter. Thus it may influence people to vote for the PAP just like the voting ballot serial number did. In fact, I have anecdotal evidence of such an occurrence.

    I suppose overseas voting was implemented to make Singaporeans feel more inclusive and involved with happenings back at home, but it appears to have the effect of favouring PAP. In a sense, this parallels the GRC concept: grounded on the basis of helping minority candidates but has the “side effects” of favouring PAP.

  6. 6 Wang 22 September 2010 at 11:01


    Point of clarification for the variances.
    Is this variance the same for population size for the different GRCs which varies from 3 to 6MPs.


  7. 7 yawningbread 22 September 2010 at 11:30

    Wang – the answer to your question is right there in the article: The Straits Times itself reported that a 6-man GRC can have as few as 108,000 to as many as 204,000 electors.

    A few quick pokes at a calculater will show that the average of the two is 156,000. 104,000 is 30.8 percent below that and 204,000 is 30.8 percent above that.

    So generally, yes, the principle is applied to GRCs. And more specifically, the elections department violated their own over-generous “principle” by 0.8 percent!

  8. 8 Roy 22 September 2010 at 13:50

    My take is this…they track every single voter’s vote, and then they plug in everyone’s address, computers simulate the geographical boundaries required for the PAP to pull in the majority, of course with some buffer for swing voters, and then the lines are drawn in as much as possible to approximate the suburbs they represent. All the dubious explanations for boundary shifts you hear and postulate over are fabricated thereafter. Simples.

    • 9 yawningbread 22 September 2010 at 16:05

      Roy, if you’re saying that the vote is not secret, I will disagree with you. It is secret. Political parties, including opposition parties, however, have access to data by precinct, each involving a few thousand voters, and they can thereby estimate how their messaging has impacted each precinct, depending on whether that precinct is an HDB, exec condo or private housing area. Even opposition parties have done their analysis with the same data.

      Precinct-level data is normal in democratic processes. But your vote is secret.

      • 10 yuen 22 September 2010 at 16:51

        the view “not secret” is quite widely held, even among PAP voters, because when a ballot is given to a voter, the serial no. is recorded (for quite innocuous reasons); so in theory, it is possible to go through every ballot cast at a polling station and match the no. on the ballots against names; but there is really no reason why anyone, however well funded with lots of manpower, would want to go through such labour to identify how you voted – you are just one out of x% of the population

        further, since most seats these days have walkovers, only a minority actually vote, and a minority of these vote opposition, so most people dont really have much of a voting record, and all the work done to track down your voting record could only find that you ever voted…

      • 11 Anders 28 September 2010 at 10:35

        Whether or not the vote is actually secret probably matters less than the public’s trust in it. The serial numbers fuel the suspicion that it’s not, and the intimidation works anyhow. I’ve heard of people voting PAP for exactly this reason.

  9. 12 Curious 22 September 2010 at 15:21

    Many have had so much respect for the old man and have believed that he has maintained such a strong hold on power purely on the people’s mandate. People could even accept what was done (the ISA arrest) in the early years of independence as neccessary, however what was done in 1984, the systematic destruction of any opposition candicate with potentail, the GRC system and the huge election deposit did not so down well with many. The gerrymandering, especially the redrawing of the election boundry is seen by many as pure right cheating. In sports such people are put to shame, in gambling and business, cheats go to prison but here they brand themselves the elites and pay themselves millions and all the people do is whimper like puppies

  10. 13 hahaha 22 September 2010 at 17:23

    There seems to be so many things we common people do not know about when it comes to politics in Singapore. This terrible state of mind cannot continue. Opaqueness is the start to apathy, and also the beginning of the end of a democratic society.

  11. 14 Tanky 22 September 2010 at 18:33

    Ask yourself these two questions:
    1. Who has the most to lose should it be discovered that our votes are not secret?
    2. Who has much to gain should we all think that our votes are not secret and can be traced?

    My conclusion is this —
    If I happen to be the WHO in both questions, I will like you to think that I can trace you but I will not do it. I definitely will not try very hard to convince you that your vote is secret.

  12. 15 ILMA 23 September 2010 at 09:41

    The beauty of it all, is that the government has placed this fear in the citizens that the vote may not be secret. That’s all it needed to do. It is probably secret, in fact, I dare say that it is definitely secret. However, by putting things such as serial numbers on the ballot, fear arises in our hearts, which is all they needed.

  13. 16 KT 23 September 2010 at 09:54

    So what if my vote is not secret, if I’m not a civil servant or in anyway related to the PAP? Is some secret police gonna dump my body in the sea? Comb through my taxes? Deny me subsidized healthcare? No HDB flat? What are people afraid of?

  14. 17 yuen 23 September 2010 at 10:35

    just as the “not secret” idea is based on something concrete – the way ballots are handed out – the “fear” is based on something concrete – the wide span of economic control of the government and the movement of the same trusted individuals among ministries, boards, corporations, educational/research organizations, etc; that all the good rice bowls come from the same source; whether the fear is rational is irrelevant; it exists

    in fact, on the few occasions when this issue was publicly discussed, the speaker, when challenged to explain “fear of what?,” he/she usually could not articulate it

    • 18 T 23 September 2010 at 11:57

      It is secret. However, in recent elections, the counting has been decentralized into many centres. So, it is possible to track which precincts are won by the opposition and which precincts have strong PAP support. And the rest is easier – just mix and match and you have Gerry and his salamander. Any time you see an electoral boundary that looks like a salamander you can be assured that Elbridge Gerry is at work.

      Mind you, most democracies take their lessons from Gerry.

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