SINGAPORE - Civil society organisation Maruah last week proposed a reform of a central part of Singapore's electoral system - the Group Representation Constituency introduced in 1988. Under the GRC system, candidates contest an election in a team of between three and six members, with at least one from a minority community.
The primary virtues of the system bear repeating: the multiracial slate for GRCs guarantees a minimum number of seats for minority MPs, while the need to get political support from all races imposes discipline on political parties to pursue a multiracial brand of politics.
The problems as cited by Maruah: it creates a barrier to entry for smaller political parties to contest in the general elections as they may be hard-pressed to field a quality team; it allows for the "free-riding of untested candidates" who get in on the back of stronger team members; and it "entrenches the expectation of ethnic voting".
In fact, some of these shortcomings were acknowledged by the Government. In May 2009, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong pledged to make the electoral system more "balanced". He pledged to reduce the average size of GRCs from 5.4 to five MPs, a small step in making GRCs more accurately reflect the demographics. The minimum number of Single Member Constituencies (SMCs) was also raised from nine to 12.
Four years after that balancing, it is only to be expected that concerned Singaporeans ask if a major overhaul of the GRC system is due. Maruah's raising of this issue is thus welcome.
However, its proposal appears to be rooted in the belief that most citizens do and will look beyond ethnicity in choosing their political representatives - which in my view is a questionable one. It proposes that the electoral system revert to one comprising only SMCs, and that political parties be regulated to provide a percentage of minority candidates. If not enough multiracial candidates are voted in, a group of minority "best losers" can be invited to take seats in Parliament with the full powers of elected members.
It asks for in-depth studies of citizens' views on whether Singaporeans are "post-racial" in their electoral behaviour to properly assess the proposal.
It will be difficult to use attitudinal surveys to gauge whether Singaporeans vote for candidates on the basis of race. Too many different factors shape how people vote, especially in the heat of the hustings.