By Mano Sabnani
THE outcome of the recent general election provides a strong case that Group Representation Constituencies (GRCs), where voters choose a team of candidates rather than a single candidate, are no longer relevant or needed, even by the ruling People's Action Party (PAP).
A minority PAP candidate, Mr Michael Palmer, scored a relatively good 54.5 per cent of the valid votes in Punggol East, a Single Member Constituency (SMC), where he was in a three-cornered fight with candidates from the Workers' Party (WP) and Singapore Democratic Alliance (SDA). WP's Ms Lee Li Lian managed 41 per cent while Mr Desmond Lim of the SDA lost his election deposit with only 4.5 per cent. The electorate chose the best person and his or her racial origin was not an issue.
In the 14 GRCs that were contested, the PAP scored on average 60.3 per cent of the votes cast. It achieved a slightly lower percentage (59.3 per cent) in the 12 SMCs contested.
Interestingly, the opposition parties also scored the same percentages generally for both SMCs and GRCs, with the WP scoring the highest average of 46.6 per cent in all its contests.
This shows that notwithstanding the GRCs being each helmed by ministers, the PAP did not do better in winning over voters or stemming the opposition in GRCs than they did in SMCs. That being the case, PAP's known strategy of using heavyweights to defend GRCs, each with four to six candidates, is no longer effective.
On the contrary, this election has shown that GRCs can be the fastest way for the ruling party to lose important candidates such as ministers and promising new candidates. The loss of the five-seater Aljunied GRC to WP has taken with it an able foreign minister in Mr George Yeo, one other minister, a potential Speaker of Parliament, an able community leader, and a very promising newcomer, Mr Ong Ye Kung.
It should be clear that if Mr Yeo had been fielded in an SMC, he would have won, and handsomely too. The other four PAP Aljunied candidates also stood a good chance to win in SMCs. In fact, the PAP won contests in 11 out of 12 SMCs, losing only in Hougang and actually winning back Potong Pasir. Yet, it can't be said that any of the PAP candidates in the 12 SMCs are of the stature of Mr Yeo.
The GRC system has another negative. It allows relatively weak candidates to enter or remain in Parliament on the coat-tails of the ministers leading each GRC. Some, as in the case of a few in the five-seat Tanjong Pagar GRC, have yet to experience electoral battle.
If the GRC system were to be abandoned, chances are there will be fewer walkovers and most MPs would have been battle-hardened through victories in SMCs, as is the case with the 12 MPs selected this time by voters through the SMC system.
Currently, the GRC system is an odd one, with hard-to-understand electoral boundaries. For example, Tanjong Pagar GRC extends right up to Holland Village, so Holland Village is not in Holland-Bukit Timah GRC. And Marine Parade GRC extends right up to Serangoon Central, with signs welcoming people to Marine Parade GRC outside the Serangoon MRT station.
Our political constituencies should be drawn up in such a way that Singaporeans can identify with constituencies more clearly. This will also facilitate the provision of services to residents and a sense of belonging among them.
In the next general election which will be held by 2016, we could have, say, 90 seats in Parliament, all SMCs. Minority candidates with good credentials, and the backing of their respective parties, should be able to do well and ensure minority representation in Parliament.
After all, Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam led his team in Jurong GRC to an above average 67 per cent tally. Three other minority race ministers - Dr Vivian Balakrishnan (Holland-Bukit Timah), Mr K. Shanmugam (Nee Soon) and Dr Yaacob Ibrahim (Moulmein-Kallang) - also led their teams to victory in GRCs, with performances more or less in line with the PAP's national average of 60 per cent, despite tough contests. They would have done equally well, if not better, in SMCs.
The writer, a former chief editor of Business Times and the Today newspaper, is now adjunct professor at SIM University's business school. He is also chief executive of Rafflesia Holdings, an advisory firm for media and SMEs.
[A lot of speculation with no facts and poor analysis to back it up.
First, Michael Palmer is not a fresh face, but a proven MP with a track record. Even so, his 54.5% vote share is not "relatively good". It's the third lowest of the winning PAP SMCs. If you discount Hougang and Potong Pasir which were opposition-held SMCs, it is the second lowest vote share. Hardly "good". One swallow does not a summer make. Even if a new minority candidate stood in an SMC and won against a Chinese candidate, it is too soon to jump to the conclusion that the GRC is not relevant. History runs longer than just one election.
JBJ was a minority, but he broke the PAP's clean sweep, although in a by-election in 1981. However, after that all the opposition wins were by Chinese heartlander-type MPs. Low Thia Khiang made it a point to speak Teochew to his Hougang constituents. Yaw Shin Leong also avowed his Teochew heritage in this election. And got an even bigger vote share than Low. So it's not even, "I'm Chinese", but "I'm Teochew" so vote for me. And we can be sure that race no longer matters?
Second, the PAP says the GRCs are defended by heavy-weight Ministers, but only after they have proven their mettle, only after they have been packaged in via the GRC system. The truth of the matter is that GRCs are won not by the Ministers, but the heartlander MPs. The GRC is for the PAP to bring in the ministers which would otherwise be unable to win an election by themselves. The GRC system is to allow the PAP to have a parliament that represents the people, and a parliament to govern. Without the GRC, all you will have are silver-tongued demagogues.
Third, the idea that George Yeo would have won handsomely in an SMC is again speculation. The analysis of the Aljunied results showed that all the polling districts in Aljunied flipped to WP. George Yeo did not do better in his ward because of his personal attention. The fact is Aljunied was not lost by PAP, it was won by WP. WP targeted the area because they had worked to gain support there. The only way GY could have won was to move him out of the targeted wards.
Fourth, except for an accident in timing, all the seats would have been contested and there would have been no walkovers. How much fewer walkovers do you want? The 12 SMC, 9 NCMP, smaller GRCs, and stronger opposition parties have meant that opposition have to horse trade to prevent 3-corner fights. I think walkovers will be rare in future, unless the opposition self-destruct.
Finally, if you get conned into believing the PAP party line, you would surmise that Tharman's and Vivian's GRCs doing well meant that they could do well on their own without a GRC.
This is a rather shallow article with secondary school level analysis at best.]