Roll back the GRC system

One has to admire the gumption of a small political party with no parliamentary presence that takes itself seriously enough to moot major national reforms.

And so it is with the National Solidarity Party (NSP), which has just issued a paper proposing a constitutional overhaul of Singapore's 26-year-old Group Representation Constituency (GRC) system.

NSP is tapping into public misgivings that have been around since the start of the GRC system. The unhappiness hinges on two perceived flaws.

First, there is the very premise of the scheme - that the electoral system needs a built-in guarantee that some racial minorities are elected. Critics have argued that there are other ways to ensure a multiracial House, including cultivating a colour-blind electorate that will not reject deserving minority candidates.

Second, even if one accepts that the problem demands a constitutional fix, the GRC system is the wrong solution, others have said. Although the last general election showed that GRCs can be won by the opposition, they tend to favour the dominant party. Indeed, most opposition supporters are convinced that this was the real purpose of GRCs all along. It is no coincidence that the system was born after the 1984 General Election, when the People's Action Party suffered its biggest-ever decline in its vote share.

Interestingly, the NSP is not adopting the first line of attack. It accepts that minority representation must be constitutionally guaranteed. This will disappoint Singaporeans passionate about the ideal of a "Singaporean Singapore", where race no longer appears as a category on citizens' identity cards.

However, that NSP assessment is probably in line with most Singaporeans' sentiments. They doubt that - even if they themselves are not racist - enough of their countrymen are able to transcend race when voting. Thus, worthy minority candidates might lose to less meritorious Chinese candidates, resulting in some communities feeling under-represented.

The NSP therefore focuses on the second set of criticisms of the GRC system. It has dusted off the 1988 Select Committee Report on the subject, highlighting one alternative to the GRC system that was considered at the time. This is the Constituency Reserved for Minorities (CRM) scheme, though it was not called that in the report.

Under such a system, which has equivalents in other democracies, all seats would be single-member seats. However, some would be earmarked as requiring a minority MP.

The CRM scheme would ensure multiracial representation in Parliament just as well as the GRC but minus its major flaws, the NSP believes.

These flaws include constraining voters' freedom of choice - citizens in a GRC have to elect a group of candidates rather than a single person. Voters cannot simply pick the better ones and leave the others on the shelf. They are forced to either accept or reject the whole team.

A second problem is that grouping MPs hinders electoral competition, working in favour of the ruling party. Serving ministers tend to enjoy an incumbency advantage, and the GRC system allows the ruling party to exploit this edge unfairly by grouping debutant and lesser-known candidates together with incumbents with strong name recognition. Inferior candidates "ride on the coat-tails of heavyweight candidates" to enter Parliament, the NSP says.

Furthermore, the size of GRCs gives smaller parties virtually no chance. Even if they have individuals who would make fine MPs, the resources required to reach out to 100,000 voters preclude them from contesting. It is no accident that the number of parties and independents contesting in general elections has shrunk since the advent of GRCs.

Such problems would be overcome with a CRM system, the NSP notes. On the Select Committee's point that voters in such a system would be forced to accept a minority candidate, perhaps against their will, NSP counters that the current GRC system is not much better - a minority candidate is assigned to a particular ward in the GRC, with residents having no say in the matter.

Still, I am not persuaded that the CRM proposal is a promising avenue for those who are rightly dissatisfied with the current GRC system.

One reason is that, if racialised voting is indeed a risk, a CRM system would not provide enough protection. Yes, it would guarantee that a certain proportion of backbenchers come from minority communities. But it would not stop an ethnic chauvinist party championing the majority community from seizing power.

One merit of the GRC system is that it forces any party that aims to govern Singapore to field a multiracial slate. A majoritarian party claiming to fight for Chinese rights is unlikely to attract enough minority candidates to contest several GRCs. Similarly, Singapore's Malay nationalist party PKMS has been forced into alliances with others since the GRC system was entrenched.

Under the NSP's proposed system, a Chinese chauvinist party could come to power by sidestepping all the CRMs - which would constitute only a minority of seats after all - and appealing to the majority in all the other seats.

This, incidentally, is how Mr Narendra Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party stormed into power in the recent Indian elections, giving up on courting minority votes and counting on galvanising the Hindu majority. For the first time in Indian history, a ruling party includes not a single Muslim MP, in a country with the world's third-largest Muslim population.

The other reason the NSP proposal is a non-starter is that it would require a constitutional amendment that is simply not on the cards in the short or medium term. Even the Workers' Party may not push strongly for it. It used to attack the GRC as a creature of the PAP's own "selfish aim of dominance". However, now that the WP knows it is possible to use the GRC system against the PAP - winning several seats with one blow in a high-profile contest - fighting for its repeal may be relegated to a lower rung on its agenda.

In fact, what happened in Aljunied GRC should signal to the PAP that it might be in its own self-interest to abandon the use of the GRC system to manage the risk of elections. It could lose more ministers who would have won in single seats.

However, the policy question should not be about what the ruling party stands to gain or lose from any chosen system. The real challenge is to find the right balance between two principles: first, maximising democratic choice for voters; and second, guaranteeing minority representation.

The present GRC system has tilted too far away from the former direction. It is also unnecessarily burdened by unrelated policy objectives. The PAP has argued that large GRCs allow economies of scale in local government.

Thus, in 1996, the Government increased the maximum size of GRCs from four members to six on the grounds that this would help the implementation of Community Development Councils.

The PAP has even tried to turn the "coat-tails" criticism on its head, arguing that it is good for Singapore if young and capable new candidates are given a smoother ride.

Before the last election, the Government recognised that the system had made the polls less contestable, threatening to undermine the legitimacy of the electoral system. In response, it shrank the size of GRCs and created more single- member seats.

This seems to be the most productive direction for further reform. The Government should return GRCs to their purest form, with no more than three members, as was the case back in 1988. Yes, it may be administratively convenient to have large GRCs coterminous with Community Development Councils but this benefit is overshadowed by the political cost - cynicism about the electoral system.

If they are needed at all, GRCs should be structured to guarantee government that is representative of our multiracial make-up - nothing more and nothing less.

This article was first published on July 06, 2014.
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