Friday’s edition of both the Straits Times and Today devoted page after page to news of electoral boundary changes: which ones have remained, which ones gone and where boundaries have been tweaked to move a few thousand voters this side or that.
It’s almost like a showy spectacle to divert attention from four unflattering truths:
1. There are still Group Representation Constituencies (GRCs)– monsters meant to reap advantages of homogenisation for the People’s Action Party in a first-past-the-post system;
2. The promised shrinking for GRCs was carried out to the absolute minimum;
3. Variances in voters per member of parliament are still unacceptably wide;
4. Rationale for boundary changes and creation of new SMCs are unexplained and appear to serve incumbents’ interests.
Readers will know that I am against GRCs in principle. This especially when we also operate a first-past-the-post (FPTP) system in a highly urbanised area. I have written previously about the strong homogenisation effect seen in Singapore so I won’t repeat myself here. It is precisely this homogenising effect that GRCs using FPTP accentuate to the advantage of the poll-leading party. Election outcomes are badly skewed as a result, depriving minority groups of fair representation. (Note: ‘minority’ here means minority political opinion).
Secondly, I was disappointed to see that two 6-member GRCs still exist, with a whopping eleven 5-member GRCs. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said last year that the average size of GRCs will shrink to no more than five. What do we have now? An average size of exactly five. Not 4.95, not 4.64, not 3.88, but exactly 5.00. As former Nominated Member of Parliament Siew Kum Hong said, “Frankly, the committee has done the bare minimum.”
Lee had also said last year that there would be at least twelve Single-Member Constitutencies (SMCs), up from nine previously. The new announcement listed exactly twelve SMCs. Not 13, not 15, not 22. The absolute minimum necessary. At this rate, it may be a century before we see a fair electoral system.
No explanation was given for maintaining the extremely wide variation allowed for voters-to-MP ratio among constituencies. Last year, the Straits Times ran a few feature articles pointing out that the present guideline — that voter population can vary plus/minus thirty percent from the mean — is not only much wider than in other democracies, it is much wider too than was the rule applied previously in Singapore. The Electoral Boundaries Review Committee evidently refused to reconsider this unacceptably lax rule. Speaking of the new electoral boundaries,
This works out to a ratio of one MP to about 28,000 voters. A deviation rule of 30 per cent introduced in 1980 allows a ward to have between 20,000 and 36,000 members.
The committee used these ranges as a “working guide”, and was “mindful that GRCs with fewer MPs should not have more electors than a GRC with more electors,” said the report.
— Straits Times, 25 February 2011, Major changes to electoral map
Wait a minute, you might say. Why did the above refer only to GRCs? There is no logical reason why the principle of fair and equitable representation shouldn’t apply nation-wide, so why were SMCs exempted from even this limp rule? And as you can see from the table below, the committee flouted its own guideline in the case of one SMC and the Straits Times didn’t even call it.
The SMC in question is Potong Pasir. It is too small, virtually half the size of SMC Bukit Panjang. But this brings us to the question of why SMCs disappear and new ones get created with no rationale whatsoever.
Of the nine SMCs existing from 2006 – 2011, five will disappear. Eight new ones are being created with this new scheme. From out of nothing, like virgin birth.
We can all speculate about the reasons, but good governance (which this government likes to boast about) requires that public servants be transparent and consistent in their decisions and actions. And this they have signally failed to do.
Sylvia Lim, chair of the Workers’ Party told the Straits Times: “Over all, we believe there is gerrymandering in the ruling party’s favour.” In the same vein, Gillian Koh of the Institute of Policy Studies noted that the eight new SMCs seemed to have been carved out of GRCs where the ruling party had done well previously, thus making them relatively safe seats.
I might also note that some of the vanished SMCs e.g. Nee Soon Central and Nee Soon East, are currently represented by older MPs from the People’s Action Party (PAP) who are possibly retiring. Putting in a new untested candidate would be risky for the ruling party. Much easier to subsume these SMCs into a new 5-member Nee Soon GRC so that rookies can float into parliament on the coat-tails of PAP bigwigs.
And yet, Potong Pasir and Hougang SMCs are retained with no boundary changes. These two constituencies are currently opposition-held. Potong Pasir should have been augmented; it is currently too small. So why were they kept exactly as they are? One possible reason is that the PAP would want an opportunity to prove its popularity by recapturing these seats exactly as they are. Eliminating or diluting these constituencies would make them look unreasonable and scared, and any victory thereafter might look hollow.
So there you go: even the PAP sees that there is honour in a fair fight.
Now, if that can apply for Potong Pasir and Hougang, why can’t that apply for the rest of Singapore?