GE2015: Minority Representation in the GRC System

Obsolete or still relevant?

By Zul Othman


Should racial lines be blurred when it comes to the polls? Image: Shutterstock

Parliament was dissolved on Tuesday (25 August) and polling day is set for September 11.

With over 2 million Singaporeans set to go to the polls, one controversial electoral rule introduced in 1988 could come under the spotlight yet again: Minority representation in Parliament under the Group Representation Constituency system.

After all, being of a certain race for an MP doesn’t mean it gives him or her the ability to speak on behalf of that race, detractors say.

So it is a question worth asking: Has the rule lost its currency or is it still relevant?

Singapore Management University’s Associate Professor of Law Eugene Tan told Yahoo Singapore: “The People’s Action Party (PAP) sees the rule as a way of ensuring adequate representation and the scheme is designed for that purpose.”

The PAP has been Singapore’s ruling party since 1959.

In 1988, there was a total of 81 elected seats in Parliament with 39 single member constituencies (SMCs) grouped into 13 three-member GRCs.

According to the rules, each GRC team must include one member of the minority race (a person belonging to the Malay, Indian or some other minority community).

This was to ensure that minorities would always be represented in Parliament.

“If minority candidates (fielded on their own) cannot pull their own weight that would count against the party,” explained Assoc Prof Tan, who was also a former Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP).

“It is also something the Government does not want to risk, this perception that the Government does not care about the minority races,” he added.

Criticism

Over the years, the GRC system continues to be a lightning rod for criticism.

The law was amended in the lead up to the 1997 General Election, to allow for GRCs to be massively enlarged, making possible five and six Members of Parliament (MP) in GRCs.

Not surprisingly, critics accused the ruling party of devising a system where unknown candidates can tag onto a team led by a heavyweight Minister who typically anchors a PAP slate to get into Parliament.

Others were unhappy that minority candidates needed their Chinese teammates to be elected into power.

GRC detractors also argued that the system was undemocratic because it did not adhere to the “one man one vote” principle.

Still, the government has made efforts to calibrate the electoral system by refining the size and number of GRCs.

In the 2011 general election, a total of 87 MPs in 12 SMCs and 15 GRCs entered Parliament. The number of MPs in each GRC did not exceed five members.

The government maintains the GRC system works and is a good way to have minorities represented.

Of the MPs elected in 2011, 12 were Malay, 10 were Indian and one was Eurasian.

These minority MPs formed 26.3 per cent of all elected MPs.

This was higher than the national demographic for minorities, which stood at 25.7 per cent, local newspaper The Straits Times reported.

In an interview with the same newspaper published on 9 August, Law and Foreign Minister K. Shanmugam was quoted as saying: “There’s always a risk that race can be exploited or become relevant during a campaign, and minority candidates getting squeezed out or finding that their representation is substantially reduced. And if that happens, is that good for Singapore?”

However, political observer and veteran Singaporean journalist P.N. Balji told Yahoo Singapore: “Ideally, we should be looking beyond race when choosing MPs.”

He added: “I feel Singapore is becoming colour blind, people may have at one time voted along racial lines, but I think is becoming less so.

But Dr Gillian Koh, senior research fellow at the Institute of Policy Studies, said the minority clause is important to ensure ethnic minorities are represented and their views considered in public policy-making.

The GRC provides a “minimum guarantee” of this, said Dr Koh.

She added: “It will then be down to the political parties and politicians to talk about how well they understand the ground, and certainly that ethnic minority candidates know their ground and can speak about its concerns when the time comes".