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…