COMMENT: Ivan Lim is not the issue, the outdated GRC system is

People's Action Party's former GE2020 candidate Ivan Lim. (PHOTO: PAP)
People's Action Party's former GE2020 candidate Ivan Lim. (PHOTO: PAP)

SINGAPORE — He came, he saw, he didn’t stay the course.

It was a spectacular flameout reminiscent of that old Neil Young song: It’s better to burn out than to fade away. A week after would-be People’s Action Party (PAP) candidate Ivan Lim bowed out of the electoral race, he has already become a footnote in Singapore’s 2020 general election.

Unproven allegations and a trial by Internet notwithstanding – not to mention a muddled communications strategy that raises serious questions about how the ruling party prepares its new candidates for an election – Lim’s quick political demise has highlighted a far more important issue: The flaws of the antiquated Group Representation Constituency (GRC) system, which may breed resentment from many voters against the PAP.

It is an age-old criticism: The GRC system allows untested candidates to coast into Parliament on the backs of experienced office holders, without a proper appraisal of their respective merits and flaws. Pundits have said that Lim was set to be fielded in Jurong GRC, and this was especially galling to many as it meant that he would be riding on the coattails of someone as beloved as Senior Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam.

It’s worth noting that among Singapore’s fourth-generation leaders who hold key ministerial positions, all of them first entered Parliament by contesting in GRCs. This is not to say that the 4G leaders have been underperforming. For instance, National Development Minister Lawrence Wong has been earning plaudits for leading the multi-ministry taskforce to combat COVID-19.

But in the new normal that is 2020, freshly minted PAP candidates must face an emboldened electorate with heightened expectations, who are ready and willing to take to social media to voice their complaints like never before.

Where and when were the core 4G leaders first elected?
Where and when were the core 4G leaders first elected?

If there are any skeletons in the closet, real or imagined, they had better be prepared to face their accusers convincingly.

Political context

First promulgated in 1988 as a means of ensuring minority representation in Parliament, GRCs started out as three-member teams, before morphing into six-member teams at their peak.

In its current shape, Singapore’s electoral map consists of 14 Single-Member Constituencies (SMC) and 17 GRCs with four to five members each. Six-member GRCs have been scrapped.

Singaporean voters living in GRCs are more than familiar with the eternal dilemma: ‘I like Minister X, but I don’t really like or know the rest of his team’. With opposition parties often not quite up to the mark, there is little choice but to cast their vote for the PAP team. After all, there is a good reason that it took 23 years for a GRC to fall to the opposition. Even then, it took two attempts, a decade of walking the ground by the Worker’s Party, and a stellar slate of candidates.

There has been a weary resignation on the part of voters that untested PAP candidates will have an easy ride into the House to become Members of Parliament in GRCs. At the official introductions of GE2020 candidates that I have attended, there has even been a tendency for the media to direct questions at veteran office-holders rather than the new faces.

What’s more, some PAP MPs get a second bite of the cherry – after losing the 2013 Punggol East by-election, Koh Poh Koon subsequently entered Parliament in 2015 as part PM Lee’s Ang Mo Kio GRC team.

But times are changing, and the unprecedented case of Ivan Lim proves it.

If you can’t take the heat...

In the wake of Lim’s departure, other PAP candidates like Shawn Huang, Ng Ling Ling and Dr Tan See Leng have also had to respond to a variety of online accusations. To paraphrase Game of Thrones, the Net is dark and full of terrors. Anything one encounters online, credible sources aside, should always be regarded with a shovelful of salt, even if these particular claims came from individuals who claimed to know the candidates.

Nevertheless, even unsubstantiated allegations serve a useful purpose: How does a candidate choose to respond to them? Does he or she refute them convincingly, and is it done with grace and dignity? After all, politics is an unforgiving game. If you voluntarily put yourself out there as a candidate, you should be prepared for a very public examination, warts and all.

In Lim’s case, he waited three days to issue a statement that failed to convince the skeptics. Just hours later, he wrote to PAP Secretary-General Lee Hsien Loong to inform him that he was withdrawing as a candidate, while denying the “baseless allegations”. Lee responded by saying that it was “unfortunate” that the nature of the campaign did not allow time for a “thorough investigation”.

Notwithstanding the fact that it was the Prime Minister himself who called for an election on short notice, with nine more months before the current government’s term expires, one cannot help but ask: How thoroughly are PAP candidates vetted and prepped? Is the party doing them any favours by tightly restricting media access to them, hence avoiding potentially awkward questions? And what does it say about the overall calibre of its candidates that one man’s political career can implode in just three days from his public introduction?

Imagine for a moment too, that all the accusations of elitism and arrogance were true, and Lim had actually been elected. What kind of Member of Parliament would he have been?

‘We are our own men’

In response to my question about the flaws of the GRC system, new PAP faces and Tanjong Pagar GRC candidates Eric Chua and Alvin Tan politely disagreed that they were “hiding” behind ministers. “But now, at this juncture...(Tan and I) are now our own men, we are running our own show,” said Chua.

For all of Chua and Tan’s assertions of independence, former air force general Gan Siow Huang is the one truly walking the talk. Arguably the most high profile of the new faces, she is contesting Marymount SMC. If she does get elected, she will have earned her seat in Parliament purely on her own merit, which can only engender respect and goodwill.

Gan and former civil servant Yip Hon Weng are the only two out of 27 new PAP candidates who are contesting SMCs. Is the PAP that uncertain about the electability of its new slate?

Ultimately, Singaporean voters have consistently shown that while they want the PAP in power, they also want to be given a choice at the ballot box. And they have a strong sense of fairness: They want candidates to prove themselves and earn their vote.

The PAP would do well to listen to the electorate and re-examine the GRC system. Otherwise, there will be more Ivan Lims to come.

Nicholas Yong is a veteran journalist and an assistant news editor at Yahoo News Singapore. The views expressed are his own.

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