Singapore General Election 2016: The Group Representation Constituency (Article first published on Singapore2B).
The Group Representation Constituency
Singapore switched to a mix of Group Representation Constituency (GRC) and Single Member Constituency (SMC) in the 1988 elections after the PAP-dominant Parliament amended the relevant acts to allow for such electoral grouping. Originally, GRCs were 3-member constituencies of which at least one member had to be a minority to ensure that the minorities were represented in Parliament. This meant that political parties had to field teams of candidates in the GRC, and with weak opposition parties who could barely win single seats, finding a credible team of opposition candidates was highly unlikely.
In the 1988 elections, there were 13 GRCs, and 42 SMCs for a total of 81 seats. Only two PAP minority candidates stood in SMC (Abdullah Tarmugi, and S. Dhanabalan) but they were established MPs (Dhanabalan was a Minister).
Ostensibly, the GRC system was to ensure minority representation in Parliament.
The Singapore government policies actively prevents the formation of ethnic enclaves with housing rules. Hence it would not be possible for a constituency to be predominantly or even significantly Malay or Indian and so guarantee or increase the chances of a minority candidate there.
While the PAP was the default choice (up to 1981), it ensured that its slate of MPs were representative of the ground, and included minority candidates. However, as the opposition started to break the complete deadlock of the PAP, their explicit concern was that PAP minority candidates could be disadvantaged at the polls, and vulnerable to chauvinistic attacks. Although to be fair, the first to break the PAP absolute dominance, was a minority.
In 1981 J.B.Jeyaretnam broke the PAP's hitherto clean sweep of Parliament. JBJ was a veteran campaigner, but until 1981 had been unsuccessful in trying to break into parliament. He was well-known and well-loved for connecting with the common man and championing their causes. At his wake there were many stories of his generosity and kindness to the common man. So although a member of a minority, he had invested years of campaigning and connecting with the people on the ground to win that by-election.
However, since his win, all opposition candidates who managed to be elected were uniformly Chinese, heartlander- and grassroot-type candidates.
MPs like Chiam See Tong, Low Thia Khiang, Ling How Doong, and Cheo Chai Chen were all Chinese MPs who appealed to the Chinese-majority heartlander and were identified with them.
Low Thia Kiang worked the ground to win Hougang, but his ace card was his ability to connect to the people with his fluency in Teochew. PAP subsequently fielded a candidate (Eric Low) in Hougang who is also fluent in Teochew!
Ling How Doong, a grassroot-type MP beat Seet Ai Mee, seen as an elite and upper-class. The story of her washing her hands after shaking hands with a fish-monger may have been debunked subsequently, but it was telling that many people (even SM Goh Chok Tong!) believed it. It speaks to her "atas" public image.
Cheo Chai Chen who won Nee Soon Central in 1991 was also a grassroot-type, non-elite, non-high-flyer MP (he was/is a businessman). He won by just 168 votes so maybe it was a bit of a fluke, but he match the general profile of opposition MPs.
However, the trigger for the GRC may have been the lost of Potong Pasir.
In 1984, Chiam See Tong defeated Mah Bow Tan in spite of, or perhaps even because of then-PM Lee Kuan Yew's campaigning for Mah. Lee had compared the sterling scholarship of Mah with the late bloomer achievement of Chiam (who got his law degree at 40). Mah lost that election to Chiam the hardworking, heartlander who had built up his base of supporters in Potong Pasir and with whom the voters identified with. After all, how many of us are scholars, and how many of us struggle in our studies and sometimes hope or plan to further our studies, acquire new credentials and get a second chance, a second career?
Singaporeans, and in particular, voters in Potong Pasir identified with Chiam. Few had sympathies or affinity for Mah.
However, Mah was earmarked for bigger things and his loss at the election delayed plans for leadership changes. Mah later benefited from the GRC scheme, contesting on the Tampines GRC slate.
PAP may also have realised that their technocrats, the leaders that they intend to bring into parliament and eventually take up ministerial posts, may be able men (they keep losing women ministers at elections), but are hopeless at elections. They speak facts and figures, but are unable to generate hope and aspirations. They can speak of plans and schemes, but fail to provide vision and dreams.
So while the GRC may have been explicitly presented as a means to ensure minority representation, it may also have served a purpose to bring in brilliant technocrats or policy wonks to take up ministerial posts. The problem was that brilliant policy wonks are not always passable, electable, political candidates. The GRC scheme solved that problem.
The PAP had always recognised the need to provide grassroot MPs. However in a one-on-one campaign, a Low Thia Kiang would always beat an Ng Eng Hen, a George Yeo or a Vivian Balakrishnan especially if he has prepared the ground well (and speaks Teochew?).
Few PAP minister are also personable types that can win elections. Why? Because the ability to win elections does not translate to the ability to run ministries well. Meritocracy fails when what is meritorious is not what gets one the job.
(This is a key difference why the Singapore government works, while other countries fail. Politicians in other countries are chosen based on political savvy. After that, their ability to govern is at best 50-50. PAP chooses potential ministers based on ability to develop and implement policy. Then they work the GRC system to try to get them into parliament.)
I believe it was Churchill who said that democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others that we have tried. Similarly, the GRC system is the worst way to try to ensure all segments of the population are represented, except for all the other methods that have been tried in various other places.
In a sense for Singapore, Democracy is secondary to Meritocracy. At times we have been called a technocracy - rule by technocrats or "experts". That's meritocracy in governance. But there have been humbling moments for the PAP - Chiam beating Mah, Ling defeating Seet, - which were also a check on meritocracy/technocracy. So I see the GRC as a compromise.
Instead of a parliament of average MPs (which would be QUITE bad) or a parliament of demagogues (which would be HORRIBLE), or a parliament of ELITES (which without the opposition, might be what the PAP would evolve into, and would also be TERRIBLE), the PAP had to come up with the GRC system to ensure that a) capable leaders (who may be seen as elite/elitist, aloof, arrogant, out of touch, and politically inept) would be elected in, b) grassroots-type MPs are amply seeded throughout to represent the average, middle-class, common man's concerns and c) minorities are adequately represented.
So we have a Parliament to Govern (Ministers) and a Parliament to Represent (grassroots-type and Minority MPs). Which may well be the best compromise conceivable at this point in time. And one of the role of the opposition, is to ensure that the Parliament to Represent does not dwindle over time. And in that sense, I think they have played their roles very well.
Without a more cerebral parliament to govern, it would be mob rule, and tyranny of the majority. More importantly, it encourages demagoguery, appealing to the emotions, polarisation of segments of population, politics of envy, pitting the haves vs the have-nots, and generally drawing out all the worst parts of democracy.
It's like a buffet. People always go for the seafood, and the meat, cos that's what they like and that's value for money. But this leads to an unbalanced diet. Similarly it will lead to an unbalanced Parliament, where the people who are represented are the majority, and the majority is average.
But isn't this disguised elitism?
By most reasonable definitions of of "elitism", no. In the GRC system, the Minister, the Grassroot MP, and the Minority MP must work together and they depend on each other to make the system work. In most cases, if an MP becomes a Minister, he will have to hold the post for 4 terms according to PM Lee. Most backbenchers stay for 3 terms (my estimate), so often we see grassroots leaders stepping down while the Ministers carry on.
Now if the Ministers are using/misusing/abusing the grassroot MPs, there would be some sign of the discontent. So far there has been no cases where a PAP MP having been let go, turns against the PAP, alleges discrimination or elitism, and challenges PAP as an independent or joins an opposition. Such a defection would be a huge PR coup for the opposition! And because these are experienced grassroot MPs, they would be able to whip up support for their candidacy.