The motion filed by 2 Nominated Members calls for the electoral system to be “fine-tuned”.
We in the Workers’ Party are unable to support the motion for the simple reason that we have never accepted the Group Representation Constituency system, and the motion attempts to entrench it.
The motion is also flawed in some respects.
First, it attempts to refine the GRC system by providing that the moment the Minority member has left GRC, a by-election for the GRC will be called.
We do not see the justification for the departure of any single Member, including the Minority member, to trigger a by-election in the whole GRC. In our view, this is a disproportionate outcome. Elections are won or lost by GRC teams not on the merits of the minority Member alone. Each voter votes for the GRC team for different reasons – some may well vote because of the Minority member, but others may do so because of the team leader or Anchor Minister, or because of some other MP.
In 1999, one of the MPs in Jalan Besar GRC, Mr Choo Wee Khiang, resigned his seat due to a criminal conviction. The House then debated the issue of whether to call a by-election in Jalan Besar GRC. Then Leader of the House Mr Wong Kan Seng spoke generally about why one Member’s departure should not trigger a by-election in a GRC. He said:
“the legislative intent… was not to allow any particular MP so elected as part of a group of MPs for the GRC to hold the rest to ransom through resignation or otherwise. The thinking then was that all the other MPs should not be forced to vacate their seats on account of one MP vacating his seat for whatever reason – death, resignation or whatever.”
This highlights one of the main weaknesses of the GRCs – that a team member’s non-co-operation could sound the political death knell for the rest. This is unjustifiable.
Next, the motion goes on to propose that once half or more of the members of a GRC team have departed, a by-election in the GRC should be called as well. To propose this means that we are prepared to accept the situation where one or even 2 members in a GRC team have left, no by-election need be called.
The reality is that the moment even 1 member of the team leaves, the issue of the constituents being under-represented immediately arises. To say that constituency work can be covered by non-MPs is a dubious assertion as the residents will feel short-changed. What about the Parliamentary work – can this be covered? Each MP is restricted to 5 Parliamentary questions per sitting and can only make one speech in each debate. Just doing simple mathematics, the number of Parliamentary questions and speeches that can be made by the GRC team will be diminished the moment any MP vacates his seat. If GRC sizes are increased in the future, this motion will envisage 3, 4 or even more vacancies before a by-election is called. The under-representation of the constituents will become even more indefensible.
Third, the motion asks the House to introduce amendments to the Parliamentary Elections Act such that a writ of by-election shall be called in the event that a Member of a single member constituency vacates his or her seat for any reason.
There is actually NO need for this House to do this. This is already provided for under the Constitution and the Parliamentary Elections Act. Article 49 of the Constitution already states that whenever the seat of an elected Member has become vacant for any reason, the vacancy shall be filled by election in the manner provided by law, meaning that it should be done. The Parliamentary Elections Act, S 24, further provides that the President shall issue a writ of election “to supply vacancies caused by death, resignation or otherwise”. There can be no argument that when an MP in an SMC vacates his seat, there is no vacancy. The issue is really with the timing of the by-election, which I shall return to later.
Sir, indeed the motion shows that the GRC system is a system which does not promote representative democracy. The attempts in the motion to cure the problems with GRCs do not address the fundamental problem of the GRC: that it dilutes the voter’s voice. Instead of making a clear choice of which person they want to represent them, they are asked to pick a team of people, and the outcome of their vote will depend on the aggregate outcome of voting in other constituencies. At the practical level, it also increases the bar for those who intend to contest, increasing the likelihood of walkovers.
What Mr Wong Kan Seng had said in 1999 about one member holding the rest to ransom also applies at the nomination stage when the candidates are putting themselves up for election. GRC team members can hold the others to ransom as the whole team must stand to qualify as candidates, in the correct racial mix.
In view of all these objections to the original motion, I would like to propose that the motion be amended such as to call on the Government to introduce amendments to the Constitution to abolish GRCs and to revert to a system of Single Member Seats, and to set a 3 month time limit for all by-elections to be called.
I beg to move…
Proposed Amended Motion:
PARLIAMENTARY ELECTIONS: That this House affirms the importance of representative democracy and calls on the Government to:
a) introduce amendments to the Constitution to abolish Group Representation Constituencies and revert to a system of Single Member Constituencies, and;
(b) introduce amendments to the Parliamentary Elections Act such that a writ for by-election shall be issued in the event a Member vacates his or her seat for any reason within 3 months from the date of vacancy unless the parliamentary term is due to expire within 6 months from the date of vacancy.
Speech On Amended Motion
Why abolish GRCs after 20 years? To answer this, we should trace history and how we have evolved. We should then ask: Are GRCs good for the people, or good for PAP?
In 1988, GRCs were introduced as 3 member teams. Then Deputy Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong told Parliament that the GRCs would ensure minority representation. Just 2 years later, in 1990, GRC size was increased from 3 members to 4, the reason given being “population growth” within 3-member GRCs. In 1996, GRCs were increased from 4 members to 5 – 6 members; we were told this was to provide the critical masses of residents needed for CDCs (Community Development Councils) to work. But these arguments are clearly red herrings. As then DPM Goh had already said in 1988, even if all seats were ran as single seats, MPs could still group together AFTER the election for economies of scale. The reasons given by the PAP also do not also explain why, coincidentally, GRCs which were nearly won by the Workers’ Party such as Eunos GRC and Cheng San GRC disappeared in the following Elections.
In 2006, some light was shed as to how the PAP benefitted from GRCs. Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong spoke of the PAP’s recruitment challenge and said:
‘’Without some assurance of a good chance of winning at least their first election, many able and successful young Singaporeans may not risk their careers to join politics “.
Interesting. Are we to infer that the PAP candidates these days are not what they used to be? On a separate note, Minister Mentor also made comments that the Health Minister should be ready to lead his own GRC team after being under his wing in Tanjong Pagar GRC for 4 years. It seems that the GRC is a recruitment and training tool for the ruling party!
Has the GRC strengthened or weakened politicians’ mandates? Back in 1988, Dr Ahmad Mattar already hit the nail on the head. His views were quoted in Parliament, as follows:
“As a Malay, I don’t think I would like to contest in any Elections where my victory is guaranteed – not because I am a ’strong’ candidate but because I have a so-called ’strong’ twin brother to lean on.”
How do voters feel about GRCs? The government might want to do a big national survey to find out. It is not uncommon for Singaporeans to become residents of different GRCs in successive elections without moving house at all. The jokes about boundaries are endless, with residents of Serangoon asking for their Marine Parade seaview and Tanjong Pagar GRC now fronting MacRitchie Reservoir.
In my view, there has clearly been political degeneration as a result of the GRCs. To arrest this, the amended motion calls for the government to amend the Constitution to abolish GRCs and revert to a system of single seats where each candidate is judged on his or her own merits. Can this be done? Of course. The Electoral Boundaries Committee will give effect to any changes to the system that are made.
How do we ensure minority representation? Singapore’s history has shown that, in the past, minority candidates stood and won single seats. PAP MPs such as Mr Dhanabalan, Mr Rajaratnam, Mr Sidek Saniff and Mr Zulkifli Mohd have done so; so have opposition leaders like Mr Jeyaretnam in Anson, a predominantly Chinese constituency. This was so even in the 1984 GE. Are we saying that Singapore has regressed as a society? Or is the PAP now saying that they have less confidence in their current minority Ministers, MPs or new candidates winning on their own?
Finally, Sir, I move to the issue of a time limit for by-elections under a system of single seats.
Even though the obligation is already there as I said earlier, the issue lies in the lack of a definite deadline by which a by-election must be called after a vacancy arises. This had led to long and unjustified delays in holding by-elections. For instance, in 1986, when MP for Anson, Mr JB Jeyaretnam, was disqualified from office, no by-election was held in Anson for 2 years until the 1988 General Election. This loophole should be plugged.
This is not a new issue for this House. It came up 9 years ago when WP filed a motion to debate whether a by-election should be held in Jalan Besar GRC. The ruling party was not willing to write in a time limit. Even if a law sets no time limit for something to be done, the usual interpretation is that it must be done within a reasonable time: in this case, a few months and not years. In the circumstances, we support explicitly providing a 3 month deadline which is the same period as in earlier Malaysian legislation. The amended motion reflects this.