Hri Kumar on GRCs: Race still matters

PAP and WP supporters cheering their candidates at Dunman Secondary School in Tampines, which was a Nomination Centre for candidates contesting Tampines GRC and Hougang SMC, on April 27, 2011. The GRC system must stay as it ensures minority voices in Parliament, says Mr Nair.

Race still matters to some Singaporeans, said Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC MP Hri Kumar Nair.

This is why Singapore's group representation constituency (GRC) system must stay, as it ensures ethnic minority voices in Parliament.

Sharing his personal experience, Mr Nair said one of his Chinese residents confessed to him last month to having felt unsettled that she was being represented in Parliament by an Indian.

"She said, 'I've known you for six years, but I have the courage to tell you only now. You came in replacing a Chinese MP," recounted Mr Nair on Wednesday during a Straits Times (ST) forum.

He was one of five panellists discussing recent survey findings on the progress made on key election issues since 2011.

Mr Nair had replaced Mr Leong Horn Kee as the People's Action Party (PAP) candidate in Thomson-Toa Payoh, a ward in the Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC, when Mr Leong retired from politics in 2006.

"When she and her group of friends found out that an Indian was coming, they all felt, 'Oh dear, what's going to happen? Are our issues going to be dealt with in the same way?'" said Mr Nair.

"She accepts now that there was no rational basis for that, but that was a gut instinct."

Mr Nair was responding to a question from audience member Dr Yeoh Teng Kwong, who was invited as a Straits Times reader.

Dr Yeoh asked whether it was time to return to a single-seat system, so candidates could fight on their own merits and voters could choose the most capable MP.

He cited Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam as someone whom many "think very highly of".

He said: "Nobody thinks what race he is. We just admire him for his own attributes. Please don't underestimate us."

Singapore's electoral map was made up entirely of single seats until the GRC system was introduced in 1988 to ensure minority representation in Parliament.

In a GRC, at least one MP must be from a minority community.

Mr Nair said that while race does not matter for many, it still matters for some, as "there is a certain comfort in dealing with someone who speaks the same language, who looks like you".

"I'm from a minority race, so I can tell you first-hand. When I go door-to-door... when residents can't converse with me, they naturally turn to someone else because I can't understand them. So these things do matter. And we cannot just brush them aside."

He added that if race matters to even 10 per cent of voters now, this would be even more critical "especially in the coming years when 10 per cent represents a real swing... that 10 per cent may well determine an election".

In the 2011 General Election, the PAP won 60.1 per cent of the popular vote, its lowest since independence, and Mr Nair predicts the margin will narrow further.

"You can run an election and everyone can field minority candidates and majority candidates and just hope that it won't matter to the electorate.

"But I can tell you from a minority perspective that if it turns out that no minorities get in, it will be a disaster," he said.

Fellow panellist and Workers' Party (WP) chairman Sylvia Lim also said voters in GRCs are more likely to vote based on the candidates' party than their individual attributes.

In an ST survey of more than 500 Singaporeans last month, respondents gave a candidate's attributes an average score of 4.11 out of five, one being not important and five very important, in their choice of MP. The candidate's party's score was 4.09.

But choosing between party and individual was "more of a real question" in single-seat wards, said Ms Lim, who noted that 86 per cent of voters are in GRCs.

"If you're faced with the choice of, say, (two) teams of five people... if you like two on one side and three on the other, what do you do? It's very hard and that's why I think voters are put in a spot when it comes to this sort of thing," she said.

This article was published on April 26 in The Straits Times.Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to for more stories.