COMMENT: Boundaries review committee formed...so now what?

Prime Minister and Secretary-General of the People's Action Party Lee Hsien Loong (centre) celebrates with supporters after the general election results at a stadium in Singapore on 12 September, 2015. (Reuters file photo)

It is kind of odd that the first formal move preceding a General Election comes in the midst of bad news. You have private sector economists revising economic growth projections for the year downwards to 0.6 per cent. Then you have the Public Transport Council talking about the possibility of a transport fare rise of up to 7 per cent. We will know the final figures by the last quarter of the year.

After asking at least twice in Parliament, most recently in July, about whether the Electoral Boundaries Review Committee has been formed, the Workers' Party - and the rest of Singapore - now knows that it was formed last month. This is one tea leaf added to the cup now brimming over on when the 14th General Election will be held.

The WP should be commended for pressing for an answer, although it might wish the news of the formation could have come immediately, rather than told it was formed "last month''. Still, it's better than what happened before the 2015 GE, when the EBRC formation was announced two months after it was set up. Or even earlier, when nobody had a clue about its formation until its final report appeared.

In fact, the last time the formation of the committee was immediately announced was for the 1963 election, before Singapore became independent. Back then, all registered political parties had a say on the electoral boundaries.

While the formation of EBRC marks the first move, it's not really a good guide to when the election will be held. That's up to the Prime Minister.

According to the Constitution, the maximum term of the Parliament is five years from the date of its first sitting. But the Prime Minister doesn’t have to wait five years to ask the President to dissolve the Parliament. He can do it whenever he sees fit. One sticking point, however: He has to hold the election within three months once he does so.

Source: Parliament of Singapore

Basic math tells us the next election for the 14th Parliament die die has to be held by 15 April 2021.

That is, if you add the five years of a full parliament term and the three-month deadline. Note the word “by’’ because, again, it’s really for the Prime Minister to decide when.

But with the formation of the EBRC, the date can be narrowed down right? Not really, when you consider that over the past three elections, it has taken between two and four months to complete its report.

A more important and obvious signal would be when it actually releases its report detailing the new electoral divisions. That's because when boundaries are made public, elections can be called anytime.

Here’s the record of the timings for the past five elections.

Source: EBRC Reports (1997 – 2015), Parliament of Singapore

Putting aside the question of when the PM will call an election, the other pertinent question is how boundaries will be changed and whether the EBRC will add to the current total of 89 seats.

Having a committee to review boundaries is a common feature in democratic countries. Given demographic changes and population shifts, states need a way to even out anomalies, whether by an independent body or even by the legislature itself. Because it is also a common political tool used by dominant political parties to cement their advantages by carving out areas which favour them in voting precincts, charges of gerrymandering abound.

In Britain, review commissions are headed by a senior judge, supported by a mix of lawyers and civil servants, who have lengthy public consultations. In the US, however, the redrawing of electoral divisions is often controlled by state legislators and governors, leading to arrangements that favour the locally dominant party.

In Singapore, the EBRC comprises five to six civil servants and is convened prior to an election to review and give recommendations on electoral boundaries. Since 1980, the committee has been headed by the Cabinet Secretary with the head of the Elections Department as the secretary.

The committee is given terms of references set by the Prime Minister on GRC and SMC numbers based on the estimated number of electors and population shifts. There is a guideline set on the number of voters per MP, within a certain limit.

Following a practice in place since 1968, the committee first takes the average number of electors per MP and applies a deviation of 30 per cent to the average, thus arriving at a range of the number of electors per MP.

The average number in 2015 was 28,300 electors to an MP, which worked out to the range: 20,000 to 37,000 per MP. This range is multiplied by the corresponding number of MPs in GRCs:

Source: EBRC report (2015)

This time, the committee's extra parameters reflect the promise made by PM Lee Hsien Loong to reduce the size of GRCs and increase the number of SMCs in 2016. For the record, from 2011 to 2015, four-MP GRCs were increased from two to six, whereas the larger five-MP GRCs were decreased from 11 to eight. The number of jumbo six-MP GRCs remained at two. It remains to be seen whether the EBRC will resurrect the three-member GRC, which is the minimum number allowed under the law, and how many SMCs it will carve out - or phase out the six-member GRC.

The work of the EBRC, headed as usual by the Cabinet Secretary, who is now Mr Tan Kee Yong, has always been shrouded in mystery.

Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office Chan Chun Sing said in February this year that the committee should be allowed to work away from media attention. While guided by the terms of references made by the Prime Minister, the committee, he said, “independently considers and determines how the constituencies are delineated, the size and configuration of the constituencies, as well as the total number of Members of Parliament to be returned”.

“As with past elections, there will be sufficient time from when the committee’s review report is made public to the time of the election, for candidates and political parties to make their preparations.”

Checks, however, showed that this has not always been the case. In 2001, Parliament was dissolved and the Election Writ issued, just one day after the committee released their report.

Source: EBRC Reports (1997 – 2015), Parliament of Singapore

This explains why the Opposition parties are always so curious to know about the formation of the EBRC. They don't want to find out too late that the ground they have been cultivating has literally been pulled from under their feet.

Tea-leaf reading activities have now intensified with political watchers putting forth a slew of dates depending on whether they think the Government prefers a "flight-to-safety'' election given the economic outlook in which voters opt for the status quo, or whether the Government will announce measures to help the economy first.

Despite the uncertainty of electoral boundaries, it hasn't stopped some parties from chope-ing areas. The Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) has said it would contest in the same five constituencies it had contested in the previous election: Holland-Bukit Timah GRC and Marsiling-Yew Tee GRC, and single-seat wards Bukit Batok, Bukit Panjang and Yuhua.

Just because it has given a signal, it doesn't mean the EBRC will acknowledge it.
Another new wrinkle: we're supposed to have e-registration of voters on Polling Day and the workings of the machines should be demonstrated to political parties about now (the third quarter). We've heard nothing about it yet.

Bertha Henson is a lecturer at the National University of Singapore.

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