Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Cynicism will hurt GRC system

Apr 6, 2011
GRCs work for S'pore, but furore over PAP new face is worrying
By Alan John

WHEN Mr Chiam See Tong, at age 75, says he is ready to leave his Potong Pasir seat to contest a group representation constituency (GRC), it is one more sign of how much things have changed in just over two decades.

Back in 1988, he was against the idea of GRCs when the concept of 'team MPs' was put before Parliament.

The idea of having large constituencies where candidates would compete as a team - with each team having at least one minority-race member - was described at the time as a first in the world.

It received quite an airing, discussed thoroughly not only by MPs but also numerous individuals and groups who sent in a record 99 submissions to a parliamentary select committee.

The Government presented the 'team MPs' idea with one main goal: to ensure that Singapore's Parliament would always have minority-race representatives.

Before that, Malay, Indian and Eurasian MPs had been elected in single-seat constituencies that made up the entire Singapore electoral map.

But the question before Parliament in 1988 was: Could anyone be sure that this would always be the case and that new generations of voters would resist voting along racial lines? What if Singapore woke up one day to an all-Chinese Parliament?

The argument proved compelling for the majority of MPs - especially the non-Chinese - who backed the change. Most of those who went to the select committee also saw the wisdom of ensuring minority representation in Parliament.

Some wanted a referendum before such a major electoral overhaul. The Government saw no need because the purpose was to ensure minority representation, and the 'team MPs' system allowed multiracial voters to choose between multiracial teams of candidates.

It was superior to other ideas tossed up at the time, like giving Malay voters two votes each or declaring some areas 'minority constituencies' where only non-Chinese candidates could contest. Both presented the prospect of introducing and entrenching race-based politics.

The GRC system is now over 20 years old. The number of GRCs has grown, and the number of MPs in each team has swelled from three initially to as many as six.

On the plus side, the scheme has met the stated aim of ensuring that Malays, Indians and Eurasians get into Parliament. This has come to be accepted as a given, and is hardly remarked upon these days.

Instead, the GRC scheme has become linked increasingly to town council management, with voters being asked: Are you sure you have the best team running your estate, making sure the lifts run, the blocks are clean, the walkways covered?

Opposition parties have never stopped complaining that GRCs made it a lot harder for them to unseat People's Action Party (PAP) candidates. It had been difficult enough when the contest was fought one-to-one in single-member constituencies of 25,000 voters; in a five- versus-five or six-versus-six contest for 125,000 votes, it became far tougher.

Though the opposition came close three times - in Eunos, Cheng San and Aljunied - victory in a GRC stayed beyond reach.

But recent signs suggest that opposition parties are determined to achieve a GRC breakthrough at the coming General Election.

So there's Mr Chiam, MP of Potong Pasir since 1984, saying he will contest a GRC this time. And there's the Workers' Party sounding like it's ready to name a dream team to match the PAP's candidates in qualifications and voter appeal.

If even one opposition party has been pushed to attract and build a stable of better-quality candidates to field as a team, that surely ought to count as another plus of the GRC system.

Over the years, the PAP has also used GRCs to bring into Parliament politically untested senior people from the civil service, military and private sector with potential to be ministers and office holders.

That is a plus for Singapore too, and Singaporeans have generally come to see how this has ensured a steady stream of high-calibre MPs able to hold office.

For all the complaints from the opposition, the system has proven strengths.

This year, however, attention is being focused on a perceived drawback of the GRC system - that it sends weaker candidates into Parliament too easily because they run in teams led by strong ministers.

The target for some exceptionally sharp, even cruel, attacks has been the PAP's youngest new face, Ms Tin Pei Ling, 27.

Some question her suitability to become an MP at such a young age. They mind that she seems assured of a seat in Parliament because she is likely to be fielded in a GRC team led by a minister.

This might not have been the reaction if she were a minority-race candidate, because that was what GRCs were set up for, or if she were so eminently qualified that everyone would see immediately why she was needed in Parliament right away.

So why the haste to get her into Parliament?

The PAP is not always in such a rush.

Mr Sitoh Yih Pin contested on the PAP ticket and lost twice in Potong Pasir. Having worked the ground there for a good 10 years, he is ready to stand for election there again and is likely to face Mrs Lina Chiam, who hopes to succeed her GRC-bound husband.

If he wins on his third try, it will be a hard-won and sweet victory, and he will be a better MP for it.

The storm over Ms Tin's candidacy threatens to eclipse the strengths of the GRC system, bringing to the fore the discomfort that this system gives young unknowns an easy ride into Parliament.

In fielding Ms Tin, the PAP may have wanted the voice of a 20-something to represent younger voters. But many of those very voters appear to be the ones criticising her candidacy, especially online.

Would there have been less of a negative reaction if Ms Tin were fielded in a single-seat constituency to prove her mettle, instead of contesting in a GRC team? After all, time is very much on her side.

The PAP needs to weigh the benefits of having a sure-to-win young voice in Parliament against the harm to the GRC system should voters become cynical about how it works.

[Good sneaky argument against getting TPL into parliament on a GRC ticket.]

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