A toast to an improbable nation: The first general election with GRCs

GRCs 'blunt effect of race on poll results'

Mr Shanmugam was fielded, at age 29, in the Chong Pang ward – a very Chinese, lower- middle-class ward, then a part of Sembawang GRC – where he has served since.
Mr Shanmugam was fielded, at age 29, in the Chong Pang ward – a very Chinese, lower- middle-class ward, then a part of Sembawang GRC – where he has served since.PHOTO: NEE SOON GRASSROOTS ORGANISATION
Humanity’s tendency to fall back on the familiar, and identify with common factors like race and language, is one reason GRCs must stay, says Mr Shanmugam.
Humanity’s tendency to fall back on the familiar, and identify with common factors like race and language, is one reason GRCs must stay, says Mr Shanmugam. PHOTO: LIANHE ZAOBAO
GRCs, where one MP must be of a minority race, ensure that minorities will always be represented in Parliament. This year, the average size of GRCs falls to 4.75 MPs.
GRCs, where one MP must be of a minority race, ensure that minorities will always be represented in Parliament. This year, the average size of GRCs falls to 4.75 MPs.BT FILE PHOTO

Scheme ensures minorities represented in House: Minister

As a young candidate - the youngest, in fact - in the 1988 General Election, Law and Foreign Minister K. Shanmugam witnessed how race could affect the electoral process.

At a previous election, he had seen an opposition party candidate openly telling Chinese residents not to vote for an Indian candidate from the People's Action Party (PAP), whom he did not name. And when Mr Shanmugam campaigned in 1988, Indian residents would rush up to him, clasp his hands, and say in Tamil: "Our man, our man."

Mr Shanmugam was fielded, at age 29, in the Chong Pang ward - a very Chinese, lower-middle-class ward, then a part of Sembawang GRC - where he has served since.

Humanity's tendency to fall back on the familiar, and identify with common factors like race and language, is why the group representation constituency (GRC) system, which has been in place since the 1988 polls, must stay, he says.

The system means election candidates contest in teams rather than individually. And each GRC team must include at least one member of a minority race.

  • MILESTONES IN THE FORMATION OF GRCs

  • 1987: Two Bills - one to amend the Constitution and the other, to amend the Parliamentary Elections Act - are introduced in Parliament.

    They are to allow for group representation constituencies, where candidates contest in teams in which one member must be of a minority race. This is to ensure that minorities will always be represented in Parliament.

    1988: The Bills are scrutinised by a 13-man select committee, which holds public hearings and considers submissions on controversial Bills.

    They recommend three main changes: on the definition of Malay; that Indians be given specific mention in the Bills; and that a minimum number of GRCs be set. At least a quarter of all Members of Parliament will come from GRCs.

    In the September 1988 General Election, there are 13 three-member GRCs - meaning that 39 out of a total of 81 elected seats in Parliament come from the new system.

    1991: The Parliamentary Elections Act is changed to increase the maximum number of MPs per GRC from three to four. The Government says the change is to minimise boundary changes for GRCs which have grown too big for the number of MPs serving them.

    1996: The Act is changed again, this time to allow up to six MPs per GRC. The Government says the new Community Development Councils need a critical mass of residents to be effective.

    2009: Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong pledges to make the electoral system more "balanced" and to reduce the average size of GRCs from 5.4 to five MPs.

    2011: The Workers' Party is the first opposition party to win a GRC.

    2015: The average size of GRCs falls further to 4.75 MPs.

When first mooted by PAP leaders, the idea stirred fierce debate as some Singaporeans were appalled by the idea that minority candidates needed Chinese teammates to lean on, lest they lose the vote based on the colour of their skin. A parliamentary select committee was held to hear views from both sides but the Constitution was eventually amended to pave the way for GRCs.

Another criticism was that such a system was not truly democratic, as it accorded a citizen living in a GRC more voting power compared with someone living in a single-seat ward. A voter in a GRC could elect up to three, and later, with further revisions of the Parliamentary Elections Act, six MPs in a single vote.

But Mr Shanmugam, who is 56 this year, says of the almost three-decades-old system: "If you compare our system with the rest of the world, we have a good system of minority representation in government." Of the 87 elected MPs in Parliament, 12 are Malay, 10 are Indian and one is Eurasian. They form 26.3 per cent of all elected MPs - higher than the national demographic for minorities, which stands at 25.7 per cent. This sort of proportionate representation is unparalleled elsewhere, he adds. Just look at the United States, which considers itself the bastion of democracy, he says. While acknowledging that the US has elected its first black president, he asks: "How many senators have there been who are African-American in origin? Nine, in its entire history. You tell me race doesn't play a part?"

As for complaints that GRC sizes may have become too unwieldy, Mr Shanmugam points to the electoral boundaries report released last month - the average number of MPs in each GRC now drops to 4.75, from five in the last election.

All in all, the GRC system has ensured a healthy level of minority representation, and Singaporeans inherently understand this, he says.

"Even in 1988, criticisms about the GRC barely came up. It wasn't a ground issue. If anything, people were wondering whether my youth made me qualified to run a town council," he says.

Mr Shanmugam, along with then Education Minister Tony Tan Keng Yam and fellow newcomer Charles Chong, beat the now-defunct United People's Front team and garnered 70.1 per cent of the votes in Sembawang GRC - higher than the PAP's national average of 63.2 per cent. Since then, Mr Shanmugam believes he has transcended race in his work as an MP. "People value loyalty, integrity, hard work and that you are helping them," he says.

But GRCs are here to stay, he adds. "There's always a risk that race can be exploited or become relevant during a campaign, and minority candidates getting squeezed out or finding that their representation is substantially reduced. And if that happens, is that good for Singapore?"

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 09, 2015, with the headline 'GRCs 'blunt effect of race on poll results''. Print Edition | Subscribe