The electoral system will never be an election issue

kirsten han
Electoral boundaries updated in 2015 for the upcoming General Election. (From Electoral Boundaries Review Committee)

The Electoral Boundary Review Committee’s report dropped last Friday, followed swiftly by the tide of accusations of gerrymandering.

Without any explanation or justification from the committee – indeed, without any transparency in the process at all – the boundaries certainly look a little suspect. What, after all, was the justification for removing Joo Chiat SMC? Why does Holland-Bukit Timah GRC go all the way from Ghim Moh to Mandai Zoo? How is it that someone living by East Coast Park shares a constituency with someone by Lorong Chuan MRT?

This is not a geography that the average Singaporean can understand in his or her daily life travelling around the island.

There are many reasons why an average Singapore might come to the conclusion that the electoral system isn’t exactly a level playing field.

The Elections Department is under the purview of the Prime Minister’s Office. Although Parliament is dissolved by the President, the President does this on the advice of the Prime Minister, which means the leader of a particular political party – in this case, as it has always been since 1959, the People’s Action Party (PAP) – gets to decide when the elections should be while all other political parties are kept in the dark.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong himself has indicated that elections are called at an opportune time for the PAP. In an interview with the media in December 2014, Lee said that the PAP had been hard at work preparing for the polls, and that the elections would be called “as soon as we’re ready.”

All these issues affect, at the very least, the perceived integrity of the electoral system, and are therefore harmful to Singapore’s democratic process. Whether allegations of gerrymandering are true or not, public opinion has already been shaped. Elections should not only be fair, but also be seen to be fair.

The Elections Department should be independent of the Prime Minister’s Office, and of any political party. Changes in constituency boundaries should be subject to public scrutiny, with opportunities for voters to provide feedback. The timing of the elections should not be up to the leader of any political party.

All of these are things that concerned citizens – politically involved or otherwise – should push for. Unfortunately, we all suffer collectively from poor timing.

The only time people talk about these issues with any focus or earnestness is when the EBRC report is released and elections are looming. It’s when people start complaining of gerrymandering and unfair advantages on social media, and when alternative parties begin releasing statements condemning the lack of transparency in the EBRC and the electoral system at large.

Yet this is paradoxically perhaps the most futile time to be talking about these issues. No political party has the time to do anything about these problems, specifically because there’s an election on. It’s also too late for citizens to get the change they want: no amount of complaining, criticism or angry press releases will make the government roll back on the EBRC report, or give Singaporeans an independent election commission.

It’s great that we’re all talking about this now, and we should keep talking. But the only way to seek improvements in the electoral system would be for us to apply pressure on this issue, as is our right as citizens, even when there isn’t an election on. 

We should remind our MPs – from both PAP and alternative parties – that the issue of electoral reform needs to be brought up in Parliament. For the parties not in Parliament, there should be efforts to collaborate to look into the best practices around the world, and to work with interested citizens in campaigning for change even outside of the legislature. MARUAH has a position paper on boundary delineations; it should not be left to languish in an online archive, but brought up to be discussed and used to generate more awareness.

Political parties of all stripes – but particularly the one that holds the most power – should not be allowed to shelve the issue for another election cycle.