A Singapore human rights organisation wants the GRC system scrapped without sacrificing minority representation in Parliament. The Independent talks to Braema Mathi, the president of the group, Maruah
The GRC system makes elections less democratic because of the law of large numbers – entry barriers are created for Opposition parties, who need to raise money for deposits and campaigning. These are resources that the ruling party can raise much easily.
It acts to prevent by-elections from being held – Maruah’s paper documents five cases where GRC seats were vacated and by elections were not held. Such contests are now common for single seats.
The free-rider effect – less electable candidates free-riding into Parliament on the back of more electable candidates – diminishes the representative character of Parliament.
GRCs are akin to a quota system. They can stigmatise ethnic minority MPs who get in through this electoral system. They also assume that Singaporeans might vote along ethnic lines and do not provide an opportunity for Singaporeans to prove otherwise. As such they may be harming ethnic relations and nation-building rather than the other way around.
Some of these points been brought into sharper focus after the last two by-elections in 2012 and 2013 and in the last general election.
2. What are the three key suggestions to fill the void?
One, revert to making all constituencies single seats. This provides the opportunity for ethnic minority candidates to compete on an equal footing. The paper documents many instances of ethnic minority candidates defeating ethnic majority candidates in straight SMC contests in 1980, 84 and 88.
Two, ensure that all contesting parties have to field a certain percentage of ethnic minority candidates in their national slate, tied to the population mix.
Three, if the electorate returns a Parliament that significantly under-represents ethnic minorities, then the best losing ethnic minority candidates would be made MPs without constituencies until the balance is put right.
Our belief is that this provision might not have to be triggered, as there is no clear cut quantitative evidence that Singaporeans vote along ethnic lines. Michael Palmer’s GE win in 2011 is one good example.
Maurah calls iits alternative approach the Ethnic Balancing Contingency System (EBCS).
3. In the GE of 2011, we have seen how the Workers’ Party has broken the invincibility of the GRC in Aljunied. Isn’t that a more liberating route to take? That is to beat the PAP at its own game?
It is a harder path to take and one that structurally benefits the incumbent party. This is not healthy for democracy and the representative character of Parliament.
4. Are you looking at other electoral/political reforms?
According to our research, 10 per cent of Singaporeans vote for the ruling party out of a misguided fear that their ballots can be traced and held against them.
In our first paper, we proposed measures to negate that fear so that every Singaporean can truly vote freely. They include removing serial numbers from ballot papers in favour of undifferentiated watermarks, etc.
We will look at other issues in future papers.
5. The way the system is here, what you think are the chances that your suggestions will be accepted?
We will not speculate on this, but it is Maruah’s mandate to try and push the boundaries on human rights issues.
6. Has Maruah achieved any breakthroughs when it comes to government policies?
It is not constructive for state or civil society organisations to claim credit for specific legal or regulatory changes. But we can say that, together with other civil society organisations, Maruah has contributed to Singapore adopting to the Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities (CRPD) and the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration. We also undertook constructive election monitoring in GE 2011.
7. Do you think the timing is right to push for such electoral reforms?
Yes. We are at the mid-term point, as it were.
8. What if the government ignores your report? What is your next step?
If and when that happens, we plan to take further actions to stimulate discussion and awareness of these issues.