Singapore elections, GRCs and walkovers

The elections are coming in Singapore. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said on Saturday that he had asked for a review of the electoral districts. The constituencies are redrawn before every  general election. The 23 existing constituencies electing 84 members of parliament bear no resemblance to the 51 single-member wards that went to the polls when Singapore became a self-governing British colony in 1959. The only thing that hasn’t changed is the ruling party.

The People’s Action Party (PAP) has won every election since 1959, making it the longest-ruling party after the Chinese Communist Party, which swept to power in 1949. The PAP should win the coming elections, too. The Singapore economy, expected to grow 15 per cent this year, is the fastest growing in the world. The unemployment rate, at 2.1 per cent, is one of the world’s lowest.

On top of its economic achievements, the government enjoys another advantage. The changes it has made in the electoral system have, in effect, reduced the number of election contests. The opposition has only two elected MPs while the PAP has 82 – of whom 37 were elected unopposed in the last general election, in 2006. That was not a freak incident. Several ministers and other ruling party politicians have not had to face the electorate for years.

Voting is compulsory in Singapore. Yet half the electorate has been unable to vote in the five general elections held since 1988. In fact, two of the constituencies have had no elections at all in all those years.

Not that they are unrepresented in parliament. Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew – Singapore’s first prime minister and father of current PM Lee Hsien Loong – represents one of those two constituencies: Tanjong Pagar. The other, Bishan-Toa Payoh, is represented by Deputy Prime Minister Wong Kan Seng and Education Minister Ng Eng Hen.

Both are Group Representation Constituencies (GRCs), which elect five to six members of parliament, one of whom must be an Indian, a Malay or from some other ethnic minority.

The GRCs were created in 1988 to ensure the minorities were represented in parliament. But, as a result, half the voters have been unable to vote in every election since then because many of the GRCs are not contested by the opposition.

Almost a million of the 2.1 million voters could not cast their ballots in 2006, when the PAP  won seven of the 14 GRCs by a walkover. The opposition did not contest those seats. The contest was even more lopsided in 2001 when more than 1.3 million voters could not vote for the same reason. The PAP won 10 of the GRCs by a walkover in 2001, nine in 1997 and 10 again in 1991.

This has led to overwhelming parliamentary majorities for the PAP since the bulk of the MPs are elected from the GRCs. Only nine of the 84 elected MPs represent single-member constituencies. The rest are all  from the GRCs. The seven uncontested GRCs in 2006 elected a total of 37 PAP MPs, unopposed by the opposition parties.

Singapore has only two opposition MPs, both elected from single-member constituencies. Chiam See Tong has represented Potong Pasir, site of a popular Hindu temple, since 1984 and Low Thia Khiang has been MP for Hougang since 1991. Low represents the Workers’ Party and Chiam, the Singapore Democratic Alliance. The opposition is not only weak but divided in Singapore.

The opposition is expected to field more candidates and contest more GRCs this time, but the PAP has never won less than 60 per cent of the vote since the GRCs were created in 1988. It has won popular support thanks to good government and economic progress – Singapore has become one of the richest countries in Asia.

But Singapore’s spectacular growth is coming to an end, according to the International Monetary Fund and the Asian Development Bank: they expect the economy to grow 4.5 to 5 per cent next year. That’s slow compared with India and China, which are expected to grow more than 8 and 9 per cent respectively.

Will slower growth erode popular support for the PAP? Not probably in the coming election, especially if it’s held early next year, when this year’s spectacular growth will still be fresh in public memory.

However, there is unhappiness over other issues. Only 3.2 million (about 64 per cent) of Singapore’s 5 million population are Singaporeans, according to official statistics. The huge influx of foreigners – many of whom have become Singapore citizens and permanent residents in recent years – has angered local inhabitants. The government has curtailed immigration to appease local resentment, but there are other problems as well.

Singapore has a bigger income gap than India, China, Japan, America, Britain or any other European or English-speaking country. Singaporeans are the fourth richest people in the world in terms of personal wealth and the second richest in Asia-Pacific with an average wealth of US$336,000 per adult, reported the Straits Times recently, quoting the Global Wealth Report 2010 by Credit Suisse.  But a look at the  report by the Swiss bank showed less than 20 per cent of the adult population in Singapore is worth over US$100,000. The median wealth – owned by half the adult population – is just over US$30,000 (more than Rs 133,000) per adult. That means most Singaporeans are not only poorer than the Americans, Canadians, Australians, New Zealanders and most Europeans but also worse-off than the Japanese, South Koreans, Kuwaitis and the Emiratis.

Some of the dissidents and opposition sympathizers have been calling  for the abolition of the GRCs, seeing them as a tool to strengthen the ruling party. But the GRCs have also ensured that the Indians, Malays and other minorities are represented in the parliament. All the nine single-member constituencies have elected Chinese MPs.

Not that the GRCs are permanently etched in stone. Twelve GRCs have been formed and dissolved in the past 22 years as the electoral map is redrawn before every election. Three of the GRCs – Bedok, Cheng San and Eunos – were broken up after they held two or more elections in a row while six others – Thomson, Toa Payoh, Kampong Glam, Bukit Timah, Kreta Ayer-Tanglin and Holland-Bukit Panjang – were dissolved without a single election contest.

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