Electoral map virgin births

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.

The thumbnail at right is the info-map provided by the Straits Times.

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?

12 Responses to “Electoral map virgin births”

  1. 1 hahaha 25 February 2011 at 18:58

    If the law of synergy applies, Voters per MP in GRC should always be more than SMC. The Electoral Boundaries Committee are basically lap dogs, try to put a spin on the obvious.
    How is it logical that they can change these boundaries without mandate of the very citizens who voted them in? If I am in Aljunied GRC the last election, how is it that I have to vote for an MP in Marine Parade GRC in this election? Total rubbish and unenforceable!!!

  2. 2 Tessa Wong 25 February 2011 at 23:14

    Hi Alex, good analysis! Just to point out that actually we did call out the anomaly of Potong Pasir, I included it in the story on opposition strongholds. I think Xueying also pointed it out in the feature on electoral boundaries which you’ve referenced.

  3. 3 lollerpops 26 February 2011 at 02:36

    You think the PAP is keeping Potong Pasir as it is because they want to have a “fair fight”? Ha! More likely that the PAP knows that any changes to Potong Pasir will trigger a lot of backlash against them. Plus, Chiam is such a meek and uncontroversial presence is Parliament, so why touch his SMC?

  4. 4 Netina 26 February 2011 at 04:13

    Great analysis Alex! Should summarize and send it to ST Forum. We need this to be made more public.

  5. 5 Robox 26 February 2011 at 05:09

    I will be writing this in three parts with reference to this statement from your article:

    “…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.”

    Khoo would have studied the results of the last elections to have concluded thus. Therefore I will be treating her statement as based on empirical evidence.

    The converse of her conclusion that the 8 new SMCs are ‘relatively safe seats’ for the PAP is, obviously that they are just as relatively, difficult wards for the oppsotion parties to contest.

    This begs the question: Should opposition parties bother contesting in SMCs at all? I think that this question is worth pondering, especially in the event that there are insufficient numbers in the opposition parties to contest all 87 wards.

    Additionally, I have always had the gut feeling that when opposition parties eye the SMCs as if they were the proverbial God’s gift to the opposition falling from heaven, they also fall for what the PAP intends for them: a dimunitive role in the House, and a dimunitive stature nationally in the eyes of the people. A vicious cycle is then set up: the dimunitive role/stature later becomes THE REASON that there are less people who take the opposition parties and their elected-but-dimunitive members more seriously as compared to their PAP counterparts.

    That translates to a loss of votes.

    I now substantiate my poser with other reasons that I see that it may not be a good idea for opposition parties to contest these eight SMCs in particular, and preferably ALL SMCs.

    1. Singaporeans are really in the mood for more opposition representation in Parliament; if there are no opposition parties contesting in ALL the 12 SMCs, the mood they are in might ensure that they rally behind those opposition parties/members contesting in the GRCs in a bigger way instead to ensure that there will be opposition parties and their members in the next Parliament.

    2. Following from #1 above, if even one GRC is won by an opposition team, a [by now former] cabinet minister will have lost his seat and place in the next cabinet. (Also, the loss of even one GRC willl be a huge psychological blow to the PAP.) The more GRCs that are won by the opposition parties, the more chances there are that PAP cabinet ministers will lose their seats.

    3. At the same time, judging by past trends, the PAP has only fielded non-ministers, and non-minister material candidates in SMCs. If opposition parties boycott the contests in the SMCs in the spirit of “let them win there”, then in combination with the point I made in #2, the quality of PAP candidates left standing after the elections – without a few ministers – would diminish even further the already poor quality that exists now. (But they can have the consolation that their non-minister material candidates in the SMCs all won their seats, thanks to the opposition boycott.)

    4. This will have a huge effect on the PAP’s actual performance (assuming they still win the next elections overall) and how that poor performance will further affect voter perception of the PAP in preparation for another massacre at the elections after the next.

    Note: Boycotting the contests in the SMC as a strategy can work best only if ALL opposition adopt this strategy.

    • 6 Another 26 February 2011 at 16:00

      Hi Robox

      Your first point reminds me of the by-election strategy that was featured in ST Review recently. This strategy involved the opposition intentionally challenging less than half of the (Parliament) seats available, ensuring that the PAP would be returned to power on Nomination Day by at least a simple majority. The by-election strategy was done in the 1991 General Elections, where access to information was comparatively low compared to today and citizens were fearful of a hasty opposition takeover of the Government. In this context, the opposition wanted to gain the best of both worlds, ensuring the public that they could have both the PAP and an opposition presence.

      Coming back to your point of the opposition boycotting all SMCs, it goes along a similar assumption in the above strategy. And that is the people’s sentiments in the respective constituents have not changed since the previous General Election. Although such an assumption is perfectly reasonable, there are other issues to consider.

      1) For the opposition to boycott all SMCs, it would have to consider contesting 4, 5 and 6-member GRCs.(There are no 2 and 3-member GRCs) This has a financial impact on opposition parties. The election deposit per candidate(as of the last GE) is $13,500. To forgo an SMC and challenge a GRC, an opposition has to spend at least $52,000 for the next smallest GRC comprising of 4 candidates.


      And as can be seen in this link, there are only two 4-member GRCs. Hence after that has been considered, there are only 5 and 6-member GRCs left, further exacerbating the financial strain for the opposition.

      2) Boycotting all the SMCs means that there is an increased likelihood of 3-cornered-fights where opposition parties compete over the available GRCs. In this regard, even if your explicit assumption of the opposition not having enough candidates to contest all 87 wards is true, this does not mean that the opposition parties will only challenge GRCs where there is no other opposition presence. We do not know for sure the politics and the preparation between the opposition parties that might lead to some parties preferring to challenge in certain GRCs (or SMCs for that matter) over others.

      3) This point is related to Dr Gillian Koh’s opinion that all new 8 SMCs are carved out of PAP stronghold territories. She is right to a large extent.

      The 8 new SMCs are as follows*.

      1) Hong Kah North
      (From Hong Kah GRC which has been renamed as Choa Chu Kang GRC)
      GE 2006 results for GRC: Walkover

      2) Mountbatten (From Marine Parade GRC – walkover)
      3) Pioneer (From West Coast GRC – walkover)
      4) Punggol East
      (From Pasir Ris Punggol GRC – PAP won with 68.7% of votes)

      5) Radin Mas (From Tanjong Pagar GRC – walkover)
      6) Seng Kang West
      (From Ang Mo Kio GRC – PAP won with 66.14% of votes)

      7) Whampoa (From Tanjong Pagar GRC – walkover)
      8) Yu Hua (From Jurong GRC – walkover)

      *The above is based on observation. I stand open to correction.

      Among the new SMCs carved out for this GE, the ones that were not from uncontested GRCs (namely Punggol East SMC and Seng Kang West SMC) had the notable presence of LRT systems. This implies that these areas might not have direct access to the MRT, suggesting additional travel times and expenses related with the LRT. Populations living in such areas might face an exacerbated version of living woes from other ordinary citizens, with the potential to consider alternative political options.

      The overall point is that it may be too hasty to brand all new SMCs as “relatively safe seats” for the PAP. The art of gerrymandering may not only involve diluting the impact of “negative voters”, it may also involve (counter-intuitively) isolating them along with additional contingencies.

  6. 7 Robox 26 February 2011 at 05:09

    My post above was writtem on the assumption that the opposition parties combined don’t have enough candidates to contest all 87 wards.

    This post assumes that they do.

    As an extension of the strategy I have proposed above, should all 87 wards be contested, I feel that the opposition parties would be doing this strategy a favour by only fielding those of their candidates who, for some reason or other such as youth, have a lower chance of winning the seat.

    However, I hope that these opposition candidates are not disheartened by what I am writing because hopefully those candidates would be selected on the basis that they are promising ones. The objecive here is to expose them to an elections contest so that they can gain the valuable experience necessary to be fielded in a GRC in future elections.

    My personal preference though is that all the opposition parties boycott the SMC contests so that attention (and publicity) is taken away from those contests and more greatly focussed on the GRCs.

  7. 8 Why opposition here like that? 26 February 2011 at 06:08

    Although we are uniquely Singapore, actually what Singapore did in the above was not something unique, in this instance.

    Because this also happens in other countries. For instance in Malaysia, the rural and semi rural constituencies are also much smaller too but more in terms of numbers as compared to urban ones. Why? Due to different but obvious reasons but with the same objective. That is, so that the incumbent has the edge of winning and forming the government, preferably with a 2/3 majority in Parliament.

    But despite this and unlike in SIngapore, there is no such thing as 50% walkovers in elections in Malaysia?

    So why is this the case with Singapore? Maybe this is the root of the problem why the opposition cannot make any headway for the past 45 years.

    And seems this problem not only cannot be solved soon, it has actually even become much worse recently, and coming just before the impending poll.

    So what’s our hope of a credible alternative?

  8. 9 Hoefang 26 February 2011 at 09:41

    Alex – excellent overview.

  9. 10 ANON 26 February 2011 at 15:53


    By George, I think you have something there!
    I hope the opposition would seriously consider
    what you are suggesting!

  10. 11 Hahaha 27 February 2011 at 13:36

    Robox, your suggestion is great too provided that the opposition has enough financial strength to fight for the GRCs and they co-operate to ensure no 3-way fight. If so, the SMCs can be left to the independent opposition candidates to fight against the PAP non-minister material candidates.

  11. 12 harishpillay 28 February 2011 at 00:46

    Alex –

    Good stuff and thanks for the post.

    I’d appreciate if you could comments on a brief analysis I did about the 2001 and 2006 elections. Please visit: http://harishpillay.wordpress.com/2011/02/27/quick-analysis-of-2006-and-2001-parliamentary-elections-results/

    My pet peeve is the notion of walkovers. It is fundamentally wrong to deny any citizen of his right to vote because of an admin rule. Just look at how the 2001 and 2006 elections were able to bring 97.6% of seats to the PAP even though they only received 50% and 66% of Singapore DID NOT get to vote.


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