Thursday, May 5, 2011

S’pore GE 2011 – Is the GRC system fair?

As has been common in the last few general elections, the opposition is once again clamouring about how the Group Representation Constituencies (GRC) system of Singapore is flawed. GRC system is a unique system present in Singapore and has no direct counterpart in other Westminster style democracies like United Kingdom and India. Here is my critique of the GRC system -

Some Background Information
GRCs were first introduced in 1988 Singapore in elections. GRCs are super constituencies which are larger than Single Member Constituencies and send 3 or more representatives to the Singapore parliament. In a GRC, political parties must field a team of candidates and the voters only have a choice of choosing the party slate that they prefer and cannot vote for the individual(s) like in a normal constituency. At least one member of each team contesting a GRC must be from a minority community.

Are special provisions for minorities necessary?
GRCs were first introduced as 3 member constituencies to ensure minority representation in the Singapore Parliament. However, I am sceptical about the fundamental assumption that minorities need special provisions for representation. If one takes a good look at the electoral history of Singapore, it is evident that many politicians from the minority communities were elected to political office even in the pre-GRC days. Some prominent examples would be S. Rajaratnam of the People's Action Party (PAP) who was Singapore's first foreign minister and the then Workers' Party candidate Joshua Benjamin Jeyaratnam who won a by-election in 1988 in the chinese majority Anson constituency. If these politicians from the Indian community and Singapore's first Chief Minister David Marshall (who was Jewish) could get elected on their own merit without any special provisions, why are special provisions required now when infact there now exists better racial harmony today. After further amendments to the rules, GRCs can now be either 3, 4, 5 or 6 member constituencies but all require only one minority candidate. Hence, it can be said that the minority community members' representation has now been diluted due to increase in GRC sizes.

Hanging on to the coat tails of others
Here lies on of the greatest flaws of the GRCs. Voters must vote for a party team and cant choose between the individuals. Opposition has rightly pointed out that this makes it possible for PAP newcomers to get elected by riding on to the popularity of the more experienced leaders. If the two former prime ministers of Singapore who are still much respected leaders contest along with newcomers the voters do not have the choice of voting in the senior leaders but rejecting the other members of the team. Voters who like some but not all members of both (or more) teams contesting do not have the choice of voting for the exact individuals who they think can represent them the best. If a person is faced with a scenario where he likes one team member a lot but thinks that the others are no good will have to choose between not sending the person he likes the best to the Parliament or sending that person but also sending 3 or 4 other MPs along with him. One must remember that once they are in the parliament, each member has equal voting rights and the team leader is not more special. Single Member Constituencies which are the norm in most countries force no such dilemmas on the voters and present them with a clear choice.

Unequal vote power
Most countries try to adjust constituency population sizes in such a way that each vote has hypothetically the same 'power'. GRCs do not allow this principal to apply in Singapore. Hypothetically speaking each constituency be it a SMC or 3 member GRC or 6 member GRC could be decided one way or the other by a single vote. However, with the GRC system, a deciding vote cast in a GRC can send 3 members to the legislature while a SMC deciding vote can send only one. A 6 member GRC vote can be said to be six times as powerful as a SMC vote. This theoretically creates a perverse incentive for governments to focus development and other projects in GRCs because a swing of 1% there can be 3 or 6 times as damaging as a swing of 1% in a SMC.

The By-Election Question
During the term of the previous parliament, a member of parliament for Jurong GRC passed away. However, unlike in other countries, no by-election was held to fill his seat. It was claimed that the other GRC MPs could fill in for him. This invites the question "Was Jurong GRC overrepresented?". Why was it a X-member GRC when (X-1) members can infact represent it well enough? Holding by-elections for vacant seats is the norm in most legislatures. Large 5 and 6 member GRCs can make by-elections infeasible even though the residents of those GRCs have an equal right to equal representation. Absence of by-elections may drastically alter political equations if the government in future is holding only a razor thin majority in the parliament.

It would be wise for Singapore to scrap the GRC system. GRCs create unfair opportunities for some contestants to become MPs by riding on other teammates' popularity and achievements because many voters do not analyse the entire team but just focus on the achievements of the team leaders especially when the team leaders have held ministerial positions. An all SMC system like the olden days would help to ensure that each candidate is well analysed separately by the voters. I am sure that the Singapore society is mature enough to vote for candidates from minority communities even in SMCs.


This is a post about the GRC system and not about GE2011 as a whole. I am following political happenings with interest and will probably post about the interesting Marine Parade and Aljunied races after the election. But do comment and let me know what do you feel about the GRC system…


  1. Yes, I agree with the unfairness of such system. On the other hand, you should know that Singapore is a Nanny state where the government aids to choose what is best for the citizens. Thus,it means that changing GRC will as well change the whole governing system of Singapore, which is a "No No" solution for PAP.

    Moreover, many people are quite happy or at least neutral with the MPs selected by the Party; they are doing a good job and do not have much scandals (It's Negligible). You yourself can observe the rapid yet systematical development of Housing, Economy, and most importantly the Racial Harmony in Singapore. Most Singaporean are living in security, savings, and sanity. Hence, there is nothing wrong to let the Ruling Party to pick its own MP whom it thinks he is the best for the people.

    Furthermore, this system gives opportunity to new political figures to rise. It supplies them with experience and assists them in gaining popularity from the people, thus conserving the leadership capability of the Ruling Party in Singapore.

    To summarise, its inequality does have a point. However, It's a superficial factor when compared to the benefits and the Outcome of the system. While I recognise that the system is flawed, it in fact turns out to work out well and is acceptable in both PAP and the society. Therefore, there is no need to scrap off this beneficial system from Singapore. Thanks.

  2. Aren't you aspiring to be a future PM of India? Wow.

  3. I think this is a good post for any law schools to seriously consider rejecting your application. I've just forwarded this to NUS and SMU.

  4. I feel obliged to commend you for the effort you put into your blog posts and the interest you take in current affairs. Insightful and certainly noteworthy.

  5. @Anti Song-Chai :
    Firstly, why do you choose such a lame nickname when infact you are actually making a serious comment. Use real name lah...

    Firstly, your argument is that "Since PAP has governed well for the last 40 something years, it is ok to have a system that favours them" This is fundamentally flawed because if the PAP is genuinely doing good work why should they need a system that favours them? They will be elected anyway! I sincerely believe that this is the case. GRC system should be done away with and the PAP need not worry because I am sure that even in an all SMC system they will easily be able to win a majority of the seats.

    Secondly, the question that should be asked is
    "Is good, good enough?" Sure PAP did great in the past, but what is there to prove that if opposition parties form the government, they would not do equally well if not better? So all I am saying is that there should be a level electoral playing field. New PAP candidates should not have a better chance of getting elected by riding on their older leaders' popularity. New PAP leaders should contest in SMCs and win on their own strengths. If PAP seniors choose really good new talent they will get elected anyway but they must face the voters on their individual merit.

    Lastly, I must say that your claim that "changing GRC will as well change the whole governing system of Singapore" is absolutely ridiculous! If you read my post carefully you will realise that the GRC system was introduced only in 1988!! Before 1988 it was a normal all SMC system like India and UK and still the PAP was in power. You must also take note that all the great PAP 'founding fathers' were elected through SMCs system only. Hence reverting back to it wont mean the end of PAP or start of bad governance. It will just level the playing field again...

  6. @ Anonymous 1 : Yeah. I am!
    @ Anonymous 2 : Go do whatever you like... Firstly I dont think that they would give a damn and secondly, if they discriminate on basis of political ideologies I will consider myself lucky not to be going to such institutions.

    @ Dhwani :
    Hey!!! Thanks a ton dear! Feels wonderful to know that somebody reads and appreciates the effort I put in. I am very sure that only a handful of people bother to entirely read my blogposts which are far longer than average blogposts on other blogs. Anyway, I hope your Singapore trip was fun! Good Luck and have fun for the rest of your Beijing (vacation?)... hehe

  7. Hey I read your blog regularly too! :P
    PS. Think it will be difficult for new inexperienced MPs to contest on their own merit from SMCs. Unlike India where most new politicians are recognised because of their criminal record, I don't think that is a desirable situation for SG. It would be better if instead of scrapping GRC, the system should be changed where each senior MP is assigned a deputy MP or two. This would enable new leaders work up the system and earn their vote in the future elections. This new GRC would essentially be a SMC but with 1 main + additional deputies.

  8. Hi Firebolt !
    Not sure who exactly you are but thanks for regularly reading my blog!

    It might be 'difficult' as you claim, however it will be difficult for all candidates which is a more fair system than the current GRCs in which PAP candidates have it relatively easy compared to opposition candidates. Secondly, look at LKY, GCT and all the other elder PAP leaders. Did they not manage to get elected in Single Member Constituencies when they first contested? So even if newcomers face a more difficult task in an all SMC system they still have a fair chance of getting elected if they can prove their worth to the electorate. The system you propose will still be unfair because any 'deputy' contesting along with LKY wont be judged on his/her credentials but will be voted in based on LKY's previous record. It could be considered an 'ok' system only if such 'deputies' had no voting rights in the parliament. Is that what you were considering?

    I will be one of the first persons to acknowledge that the Indian political situation is far from ideal and that many of the MPs have criminal records. However, that is not very relevant to the issue at hand. In India the candidates, regardless of their credentials or party affiliations have no systemic advantage at the elections since they are all judged on their individual merit. If the candidates are bad (which is the case in India) it is unfortunate but I think that at least the system itself must be fair and unbiased if a country wants to call itself a democracy.

    Why do you focus on India? Look at the United Kingdom. The British managed to build an empire and win two world wars even though they always had an all SMC system as well as considerable opposition in the Parliament. So all SMCs does not mean that you will automatically get lousy leaders...

  9. @ anti Song-Chai - your ideologically warped notion of how a democracy functions serves to prove the PAP has been successful in its propaganda efforts.
    @ Sagar Godbole - Thanks for the great read! Gerrymandering electoral districts a common tactic for ruling parties.


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