War of words over altered wards

The battle lines have been redrawn to elect the world’s highest paid government and the opposition parties are crying foul. They are claiming Singapore’s political constituencies have been rejigged to help the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP). Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, who is paid five or six times as much as President Barack Obama, and his cabinet ministers, who earn more than a million dollars each, are stoutly denying the allegation.

PM Lee said the changes would make it easier for parties to contest the polls. He is widely expected to call the elections – his second as prime minister – in May, when all Singaporeans will get up to S$800 in cash from this year’s budget. The government gave the same amount to people before the last elections, in 2006.

The opposition will certainly be able to contest more single wards. The number of single-member constituencies has been raised from nine to 12. Only two of the 84 elected members of parliament currently belong to the opposition – and both represent single wards.

The Group Representation Constituencies (GRCs), each of which elects several MPs, have also been reduced in size following complaints from the opposition and the people. There will be only two six-member GRCs, including PM Lee’s own constituency, Ang Mo Kio. Three others will be reduced to five members each. There will be 11 five-member GRCs in all and two others will have four members each. So, there will be 15 GRCs electing 75 MPs while 12 will be elected by single-member constituencies.

Clearly, then, the outcome of the elections depends on the GRCs. And this is where the opposition is at a disadvantage. The GRCs were introduced in the 1988 elections to ensure the minorities were represented in parliament. Each GRP must have an Indian or a Malay or a Eurasian MP. However, the opposition has never had enough candidates or resources to contest all the GRCs. There were no contests in seven GRCs in 2006. So 37 of the 82 existing PAP MPs were elected unopposed. The PAP won even more GRCs without a fight in previous elections – 10 in 2001, nine in 1997 and 10 also in 1991. The PAP won those elections even before a single vote was cast because there were no contests in so many constituencies. In 2006, the battle did continue to polling day, when the majority of MPs were elected by the voters themselves.

Two of the GRCs remain uncontested to this day, including Tanjong Pagar, the constituency of PM Lee’s father, Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew. Now parts of it have been hived off to form two new single-member constituencies. So some of the residents will have a chance to vote for the first time, said Indranee Rajah, a PAP MP from Tanjong Pagar and president of the Singapore Indian Development Association.

The opposition, however, claims the boundary changes benefit the PAP. It decried the changes in foreign minister George Yeo’s constituency, Aljunied, which the PAP won by a smaller margin than all the other GRCs in 2006.

Old constituencies vanish, new ones come up, before every election in Singapore to reflect population shifts and housing developments. This time, however, there have been sweeping changes. Just one in five of the 2.35 million voters won’t see any changes in the shapes of their constituencies, reported Today. “We, as voters, should be told in detail why some GRCs have been shrunk or changed, and why some SMCs have been dropped or created,” commented an irate reader on The Straits Times website. “What Singapore needs is an independent electoral commission… and not an Elections Department under the Prime Minister’s Office,” claimed the Temasek Review website.

Former prime minister and now senior minister Goh Chok Tong shrugged off the criticism. Comparing politics to popular hawker food in his folksy style, he said: “If there is a stall that sells chilli crab, if it is well known, no matter where the chill crab stall is located, people will flock to the chilli crab stall to eat, right or wrong? So you got a good candidate, you got a good party, people will vote for that.”

The PAP, in power since 1959, can take credit for transforming Singapore into one of the richest countries in Asia. PM Lee won the last elections with more than of 66 per cent of the votes.

The opposition has its own problems. Several members have quit the Reform Party, including its chairman. This could do “maximum damage” to the party, said Kenneth Jeyaretnam, whose father, JB Jeyaretnam, was the first opposition candidate to be elected to parliament, in 1981. There have been only four other opposition MPs since then, including Chiam See Tong, who has represented Potong Pasir – home to a popular Indian temple – since 1984 and Low Thia Khiang, who has won every election in Hougang since 1991. .

PM Lee is already planning for the future. He will be presenting new faces in the elections from among whom, he said, will emerge the next generation of leaders. There are already signs of change. The government is trying to reduce dependence on foreign workers, build more public housing and tackle the growing income gap to placate the voters. The opposition parties have long been vocal on these issues. Win or lose, it looks like they also have a say on the future of Singapore.

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