Keep faith with voters, keep electoral boundaries intact

People’s Action Party (right) and Workers’ Party supporters at Fengshan Nomination Centre on Sept 1,2015. Fengshan is among three SMCs that have been created under new electoral boundaries announced in July.

A foreign journalist covering Singapore's General Election last week asked me: "Which constituency is Chai Chee part of?"

I was stumped. I wondered if it was in East Coast Group Representation Constituency. But given how frequently electoral boundaries change in this country, I could not hazard even a calculated guess.

"I'm sorry, I don't know," I said in the end, deciding it was better to appear unhelpful than unwittingly cause an error in a news report.

As a correspondent based outside Singapore, I often get questions as well as unsolicited comments about the Republic's political and socio-economic system. Many of the latter are flattering, especially earlier this year, when international attention on the death of former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew prompted no less than Thai premier Prayut Chan-o-cha to offer me his condolences and proceed to praise his accomplishments in our small city-state.

But several questions from foreign acquaintances over the past week have given me pause. The question on electoral boundaries is most prominent. It represents, to citizens, a longstanding political black hole from which questions yield few meaningful answers.

Five senior civil servants handpicked by the government - which is run by the People's Action Party - draw up these boundaries just before every General Election. On paper, their objective is to "review the boundaries of the present electoral divisions, and to recommend the number and boundaries of Group Representation Constituencies and Single Member Constituencies, based on the estimated number of electors".

They have to "take into consideration significant increases or decreases in the number of electors in the current electoral divisions as a result of population shifts and housing developments since the last boundary delineation exercise".

Yet this supposedly methodical exercise yields results that confound the common man. In the electoral map of the poll just past, Bukit Panjang SMC appears as an island completely surrounded by the districts of Holland-Bukit Timah GRC.

Holland-Bukit Timah GRC's boundary extends all the way to Clementi, while Holland Road is part of Tanjong Pagar GRC. Jalan Besar GRC, which disappeared in the 2011 election, was resurrected for this year's poll. Meanwhile, Yuhua SMC has come full circle, being contested as a single seat ward some two decades after it was subsumed within Jurong GRC as well as Bukit Timah GRC.

The term for this phenomenon is gerrymandering. It refers to the practice of carving up electoral boundaries to maximise political advantage of one party. In Singapore, the committee overseeing electoral boundaries reports to the Prime Minister, who is also the secretary-general of the People's Action Party.

To be fair to the PAP, Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean said in July that the boundary changes cause more disruption for incumbent PAP legislators compared to incumbent opposition MPs, whose electoral districts were left untouched.

"If you want to talk about fairness and all these kinds of things, I think the playing field is level, if you do your work on the ground consistently."

But the sheer fact that this civil service body is part of the PAP-run government machinery adds to perceptions of bias in the way electoral boundaries are drawn. And closely-fought wards have tended to disappear in the next election, like Eunos GRC, which the PAP won just 52.4 per cent of the votes in 1991, and Joo Chiat SMC, which it won narrowly with a 388-vote advantage in 2011.

Gerrymandering is by no means unique to Singapore. In the United States, the Republicans' major wins of governorships and state legislative seats in 2010 is seen by analysts to have strengthened their hand at the federal Lower House, by allowing them to dominate the amendment of electoral boundaries.

Yet other countries try to curb this practice by relying on independent commissions to draw up electoral districts. Australia and Britain fall into this category.

The PAP - having run Singapore since Independence, and with its long reach woven into many arms of the state - has never been coy about refusing to cede any political ground to its opponents, even if this practice raises questions about the authenticity of elections.

Opposition parties sound like broken records crying foul each time the boundaries are redrawn within weeks of polls being called. Yet they throw their hat into the ring anyway.

The average Singaporean, already discomfited by the rapid pace of urban renewal and unsettled by the influx of foreigners, is further displaced from his surroundings by the amorphous nature of political districts. It is hard to hang on to local identity.

The fact is, electoral boundaries have little to do with how well a politician manages his municipality, how diligently he works in parliament, or how much effort he makes into developing talent within his political party.

And, given the nationwide swing in votes towards the PAP in last week's election - which allowed it to win a handsome 69.9 per cent share of the votes - one could even argue that it would have made little difference to results anyway had the electoral map stayed untouched.

What this constant remapping does, however, is cast doubts over the extent of voters' support for the PAP. It does a disservice to its activists on the ground, whose dedication is often underrated amid the constant allegations of partisanship.

The PAP's leaders have been quick to compliment the electorate for being astute and level-headed at the ballot box last Friday.

In the wee hours of Saturday, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said: "It shows that the young people understand what is at stake, support what we are doing to secure a bright future for Singapore, and, in due time, will be able to take up this responsibility and take the country further forward."

A few hours later, Foreign Minister K. Shanmugam chimed in: "The Singapore public, they are very discerning. You can't hoodwink them."

Perhaps it is time the PAP government leaders demonstrate their faith in these voters, by leaving electoral boundaries intact for the next polls. And in the longer term, consider setting up an independent elections commission to undertake the task.

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