I beg to move, “That this House calls for the abolition of Group Representation Constituencies.”
The GRC system was introduced in 1988 when the Parliamentary Elections Act and the Constitution were amended to provide for the creation of three-member GRCs. The justification for this change was to safeguard minority representation in Parliament. The number of MPs from GRCs were limited to a range of 25% to 50%.
Over the years, the GRC system has evolved for varying reasons.
In 1991, the maximum size of GRCs was increased from 3 to 4 candidates and the number of MPs in GRCs was raised to a range of 25% to 75%.
In 1996, the size of a GRC was raised again, this time to a maximum of 6 candidates. The upper limit of 75% on MPs from GRCs was removed and replaced by a minimum of 8 MPs from SMCs. This meant that the upper limit on MPs from GRCs was effectively increased to about 90%.
My colleague Mr Leong Mun Wai will elaborate further on the changes to the GRC system over the years. I will now talk about the weaknesses of the GRC system.
While the objective of ensuring minority representation in Parliament is laudable, the GRC system brings along other consequences that are undesirable.
Weaknesses of the GRC System
A common complaint about the GRC system is that MPs are not necessarily elected on their own merits. The team approach allows some members to ride on the coattails of other more established or popular team members. It is also conversely true.
Consider a GRC with two teams of 4 candidates. If all the candidates were to contest in 4 separate SMCs, voters could have elected 2 candidates from team A and 2 candidates from team B as the ones they feel most suitable to represent them in Parliament. However, as they can only vote for either one team or the other, the result is the loss of 2 stronger candidates and the election of 2 weaker candidates. This illustration shows how the GRC system can lead to a sub-optimal outcome for voters.
Hampering the development of a more balanced political landscape
Former PM Goh Chok Tong said in 2006 that the GRC system helped PAP recruitment efforts by giving potential candidates the assurance of a good chance of winning. I interpret this as open acknowledgment that the coattail effect was intentional and the GRC was intended to enhance the chances of PAP winning, at the expense of the opposition. And indeed, it took more than 20 years before the strongest opposition party was able to win a GRC.
Such an approach, however, encourages the kiasu or fear-to-lose syndrome, breeds a generation of politicians sheltered from tough electoral battles and sets unsustainable expectations. All it took was one electoral loss for Singapore politics to lose some ministers permanently. PAP has said that if voters do not vote for the PAP’s team, key ministers will disappear from the Cabinet. Such a portrayal attempts to hold voters to ransom. This is unfair on Singaporean voters.
It also hampered the political development of Singapore by setting higher and higher hurdles for the opposition parties which are much weaker compared to the ruling Party. The legislative changes on GRC done in 3 stages – in the years 1988, 1991 and 1996 – saw the percentage of GRC seats rise from 48% in GE1988, to 74% in GE1991, to 89% in 1997. In GE2020, this eased to 85%.
Reduced voters’ influence on outcome
In an SMC, candidates need the support of their constituents to win elections. Their election outcome is more directly controlled by voters. In a GRC, however, the election outcome is also dependent on which team a candidate is placed in, which is a decision made by Party leaders. It becomes unclear whether voters’ decision or party leaders’ decision play a bigger part. Voters’ influence on election outcome is thus reduced under a GRC system.
Unfilled vacancies in GRC
Over the years, many MPs in GRCs have vacated their seats for various reasons. Some passed away, some resigned over conduct that compromised their ability to serve as MPs and others resigned to stand in presidential elections.
In each of these cases, no by-election was held to fill these vacancies. This is because by-elections are expressly not required to be called when a vacancy arises in a GRC, unless the entire slate of MPs representing a GRC vacate their seats. The government explained that this is to prevent any individual MP in a GRC from holding the other MPs in the same GRC to ransom.
However, this also has the effect of depriving residents in these GRCs of an elected representative in Parliament, which is highly undesirable given our system of representative democracy.
This issue has been debated several times before in this House.
In 1999, following the resignation of Mr Choo Wee Khiang as an MP of Jalan Besar GRC, Mr J.B. Jeyaretnam moved a motion for this House to resolve that a Writ of Election should be issued to fill the vacancy. During his speech, Mr Jeyaretnam noted that “Jalan Besar GRC voters are entitled to four MPs in Parliament” and “that is their constitutional right”.
The Government’s response to Mr Jeyaretnam’s point at that time was most unsatisfactory. Then-Leader of the House Wong Kan Seng claimed that there was no diminution of voters’ constitutional rights because “they voted for the four MPs and the MPs carry on”, and “the voters, in fact, voted with the knowledge that should a vacancy arise, such a vacancy need not be filled, as provided for in our law”.
Mr Wong’s response does not address the underlying issue, which is that the voters of Jalan Besar GRC voted for a team of four MPs, with four votes, to represent them in this House. When a vacancy arises in a GRC, the voters of that GRC have lost a vote in Parliament to represent their interests. The other MPs in the GRC cannot take over the voting rights or the Parliamentary Question quota or the right to raise an Adjournment Motion of the MP that has resigned. At the Parliamentary level, the rights of the GRC voters are unquestionably diminished when an unfilled vacancy arises in a GRC.
This is particularly pertinent when the MP that has resigned is the minority representative for that GRC. The vacancy undermines the primary objective of the GRC system which is to ensure minority representation in Parliament.
At the constituency level, while the remaining MPs in the team can help to cover for their former teammate in house visits and Meet-the-People sessions, something somewhere has to give. As former NMP Prof Thio Li-ann pointed out in her motion in 2008, “MPs have punishing schedules”. MPs have to juggle their responsibilities in their full-time jobs, their parliamentary duties, their constituency duties, their party duties and their personal and family lives. If their constituency duties increased due to covering for a vacancy, there must be a corresponding cut somewhere else. The cut could be in the area of parliamentary duties, or quality in carrying out constituency duties, or sacrificing their personal or family lives, none of which is fair nor desirable.
With the GRC seats comprising 85% of all elected seats in Parliament, the departure of any MP has an 85% chance of the seat remaining vacant.
The latest vacancy will be arising in Jurong GRC due to SM Tharman’s decision to contest in the Presidential Election. This is not the first such occurrence. The current President also resigned in 2017 as a PAP MP, leaving a vacant seat in Marsiling-Yew Tee GRC.
Does the PAP intend to regularly repeat this?
Running in a General Election is an inherent promise to serve the residents for a term of 5 years. Breaking that promise is not something that should be taken lightly. It is therefore troubling if such broken promises were to occur at regular intervals. As the vacancy would not be filled via a by-election, residents are underserved and underrepresented for the sake of the Party’s other motivations. Did the Party not plan for this expected vacancy when it went into GE2020? Could it not have informed voters of this possibility or selected its candidate from an SMC so that residents are not underserved?
It can also be argued that the team without SM Tharman is not what the voters in Jurong GRC voted for. SM Tharman has served many terms as an MP and in various senior positions in public service whilst the other team members are relatively new. The case that a team without SM Tharman makes for a material difference is overwhelming. This is analogous to having the terms of a contract changed materially and unilaterally mid-way through by one party, but the other party remained bound to the contract until expiry. In any other context, this would not have been accepted.
If we do not have GRCs, only SMCs, then these problems would not exist.
Alternative ways to ensure Minority Representation in Parliament
Ensuring minority representation is the justification for GRC. While GRC is purportedly to protect minority interests, it paradoxically entrenches racial lines and promote the belief that minority candidates are unable to win elections on their own merits.
PSP is confident that Singaporeans do not vote along racial lines, and minority candidates are well able to win elections on their own merits. Even though the majority of voters are Chinese, many non-Chinese candidates have won elections.
Before the introduction of GRCs, in GE1984, minority candidates have won in SMCs against majority candidates, for example, JB Jeyaretnam, Zulkifli Mohammed, Abbas Abu Amin etc. More recently, we also have Michael Palmer and Murali Pillai. In GRCs, we have the Aljunied team where 3 out of 5 MPs are non-Chinese. SM Tharman is one of the most popular politicians and his decision to contest in the PE showed his confidence that Singaporeans do not vote along racial lines.
However, if PAP is not convinced, there are other ways to ensure adequate minority representation in Parliament without the problems that come with the GRC system.
We would like to offer 2 alternatives here for consideration and debate.
NCMP for minorities
The first alternative is an NCMP scheme for minorities, similar to the current NCMP scheme for opposition candidates.
With this scheme, minority candidates contest in SMCs just like other candidates. If enough minority candidates are elected, this scheme does not kick in. However, should there be under-representation of minorities, minority candidates who did not win the election but had the highest percentage of votes can be appointed NCMPs to ensure adequate minority representation in Parliament. Residents from all constituencies can approach these NCMPs for assistance.
As we are all familiar with the NCMP scheme for opposition candidates, this scheme requires little explanation, and minimal disruption to our current model.
Another way of ensuring minority representation in Parliament is to adopt some form of proportional representation. Under this system, a party that obtained 10% of the national votes will be allocated about 10% of the seats.
When responding to a motion brought forward by Prof. Thio Li-ann in 2008, the Prime Minister said that our electoral system is designed to encourage voters to think very carefully not only about the individual that they want to represent them in Parliament, but also the party that they want to form the Government.
If we want voters to vote for a political party instead of a candidate, the logical step is to move towards a system of party-list proportional representation, where parties put forth a list of candidates for election. Voters vote for their desired political party. Seats are then allocated to each political party based on their national vote share. Based on the seats allocated, each party then selects the candidates on its party list to take up the seats.
Currently, PAP has close to 90% of the elected seats in Parliament even though its national vote share is about 60%. Proportional representation seeks to move the representation in Parliament closer to the national vote share to better reflect the wishes of the voters.
Let’s first look at how this is done in other countries.
While there are countries fully on the Proportional Representation system, like Israel and Sweden, there are also a number of countries with a hybrid system containing both First-Past-the-Post and Proportional Representation elements. The election in our constituencies is an example of the First-Past-the-Post system, where the candidates with the highest votes get the seats.
In Germany, approximately 50% of the seats are based on the First-Past-the-Post system and the other half on Proportional Representation. In New Zealand, approximately 60% of the seats are on First-Past-the-Post system and 40% on Proportional Representation. In Thailand, the split is 80:20.
We can adapt this system to ensure minority representation by stipulating a multi-racial slate for SMC contests and a multi-racial party list. Each party must select from the list to meet minimum racial representation requirements.
Mr Speaker Sir,/ Dy Speaker / Mdm
The GRC system has generated several sub-optimal outcomes, such as voters being held to ransom to vote for ministers, weaker candidates riding on stronger candidates’ coattails into Parliament, and unfilled vacancies leading to residents being underserved and underrepresented.
I have presented these shortcomings and offered two alternatives to ensure minority representation in Parliament for consideration and debate. The intention here is not to call for immediate action, but for thought and discussion. We are still 2 years away from the next GE and have time to mull over this matter. In particular, the mixed Proportional Representation alternative is a major departure from our current system and requires more time and a fuller discussion.
We call on the House, and all Singaporeans, to consider the alternatives that we have proposed to guarantee minority representation. We believe that unlike the GRC system, these alternatives will strengthen our system of representative democracy and maximize democratic choice for voters.
It is time for the GRC system to go. I urge all members to support the motion. Thank you.