Saturday, September 12, 2015

The GRC system has outlived its usefulness, even for the PAP

By Mano Sabnani, The Online Citizen

I have a serious question. Is the GRC electoral system a good one for Singapore’s political development? If it is, why is it we have nurtured very few leaders who can stand on their own in the last 25 years?
Lee Kuan Yew, Goh Chok Tong, Lee Hsien Loong and Chiam See Tong: all these household names started with spectacular victories in their own single wards before the GRC system was introduced.
The original purpose of the GRC or Group Representation Constituency idea was to ensure representation for the minority races in Singapore’s Parliament. That meant about 25 per cent of total Parliament seats for non -Chinese Singaporeans.
But today, the GRC system forms the major part of our electoral system with only 13 single wards or SMCs left. Some 76 wards come under 16 GRCs, some of which have as many as six seats!
The GRC system served the dominant party well until the 2011 GE. Then, for the first time, one GRC fell to the opposition. Was it an aberration, a one-off event? Or has the GRC defence moat been over-run?
The defence strategy of the Peoples’ Action Party has been to make a full minister lead the charge in each GRC. The electorate would hesitate to vote against a minister and so the whole GRC team would emerge victorious.
Each GRC fortress was defended by a moat in the form of a full minister who had fought his way through several SMC battles. This strategy enabled the PAP to romp home to victories in all GRCs until 2011 and, in the process, pull into Parliament all sorts of other untested new candidates.
Well and good till then. But the GRC system has outlived its strategic purpose even for the PAP. As stalwarts like Lee Kuan Yew and Goh Chok Tong move off centre stage, the younger ministers who originally came into Parliament via the GRC umbrella are not always able to hold their own.
The opposition is now mounting challenges in old fortress GRCs like Marine Parade and Tanjong Pagar. ESM Goh has had to stay back and fight another round in Marine Parade even though his younger colleague Tan Chuan Jin has been there for some years. Ask yourself why.
Given the relative weakness of several moats around GRCs, the PAP should really examine their relevance and usefulness.
By all means retain 10 three-or-four member GRCs, each with two minority candidates. That will facilitate the entry of up to 20 non-Chinese MPs into Parliament. This would represent over 25 per cent of the new Parliament with 89 seats (for instance). The majority of wards (or at least 49 wards) would then revert to SMCs which could see one-on-one battles.
There would be two benefits of such a system:
  1.  It will allow new political champions to emerge in their own right rather than through the protective umbrella of GRCs. It will be good for the political development of Singapore.
  2. It will stem the emergence of the GRC system as the Achilles Heel of the PAP. GRCs led by 3rd generation or 4th generation leaders, who have never stood for election in an SMC, are not the fortresses they are perceived to be.
The other parties have equalled to the game. One heavyweight candidate, or two, in a GRC can swing the whole GRC away from the incumbents. When the moat is over-run, the GRC will fall. And with it, not one but four or five Parliamentary seats.
The GRC system raises the stakes. Good people get washed out (or swept in) with the weak and average. It is not equitable to the candidates. All are put in the same boat. One leak, and everyone is in the water. A lot is left to chance.
It is also not fair to the voters. I’m forced to vote for four or five people, out of which only one will represent me.
The core rationale behind the GRC system may also not apply that much in today’s Singapore. Who is to say that a minority candidate will not be elected in a straight contest against a Chinese Singaporean? I have greater faith in the judgement of Chinese Singaporeans!
This commentary first appeared on the writer’s Facebook page.  He also posts on his Manologue FB page.