Commentary: So what if the Electoral Boundaries Review Committee’s report is out?
It's a mixed report card for the announced boundary changes with respect to contestability, but it may be COVID-19 that is the game-changer for the upcoming General Elections, say Terence Lee.
SINGAPORE: One can’t fault the Electoral Boundaries Review Committee (EBRC), which released its report on Friday (Mar 13) and fulfilled its mission to the letter - to further reduce the average size of the Group Representation Constituencies (GRCs) and to have more than the 13 Single Member Constituencies (SMCs).
Some observers consider the changes, which include one more SMC and the removal of six-member GRCs, a positive step for democracy, with increased contestability and a sense of fairness, if it encourages more parties to compete in the race.
Another positive outcome is the increase in the number of Members of Parliament (MPs) from 89 to 93, which roughly maintains the representation ratio for each MP at just slightly below 28,000 electors, instead of 29,200, if the number of MPs had stayed the same.
This is in line with the EBRC’s primary tasks to review the boundaries of the electoral divisions based on current demographical distribution and recommend the number and mapping of boundaries of GRCs and SMCs, taking into account the number of voters in each electoral division.
It has also largely achieved its other objective of an estimated 20,000 to 38,000 voters per MP, although an exception is Potong Pasir SMC, longstanding stronghold of opposition veteran Chiam See Tong up until 2011, which remains below this minimum threshold but has been topped up with more voters from 16,739 to 18,551 voters.
On balance, the EBRC, comprising senior civil servants, has completed its due diligence and achieved its stated objectives. The Government has accepted the recommendations.
Still, changes in the boundaries will continue to come under scrutiny as parties begin to make sense of what these mean for their preparations for the political battle ahead and as commentators read the tea leaves to derive implications for the General Elections (GE).
MIXED SENTIMENTS OVER CHANGES IN GRCS
Huge GRCs have been a lightning rod for decades. While introduced as a three-member system in 1988 to bring in minority candidates, the consequent effect of the GRC system in reducing electoral contest appeared evident in 1991, when 10 out of the 15 GRCs were walkovers for the People's Action Party (PAP).
Part of the reason of this result was a deliberate by-election strategy of the opposition to concede sufficient seats so the PAP could form the government of the day, while the opposition campaigned on the message of a check-and-balance to the ruling party.
But this approach also belied the difficulty opposition parties faced in attracting high-calibre candidates, what more forming a strong team of four or five to challenge established PAP candidates.
Additionally, the more members there are in a GRC, the riskier it is for the opposition to concentrate already scarce resources there, instead of spreading these over more chances to win in various SMCs.
Six-member GRCs first became a feature at the 1997 GE. In 2001, four-member GRCs disappeared completely, with all 14 GRCs either five- or six-member constituencies.
The number of six-member GRCs were reduced from five to two in 2011. Despite expectations they would go completely in 2015, after PM Lee indicated he had asked for the average GRC size to be reduced then, the last two, Pasir Ris-Punggol and Ang Mo Kio remained six-member GRCs.
Hence, the doing away of six-member GRCs in this EBRC’s report has been met with broad approval, potentially going some way to address sentiments that bigger GRCs allow new MPs to ride on the coat-tails of established veterans into Parliament.
Yet, overall, while the directive given to reduce the average size of GRCs has now been achieved, the irony is that net effect has been a slight increase in the number of GRCs overall from 16 to 17.
Meanwhile, two four-member GRCs, West Coast and East Coast, widely identified to be key battlegrounds in the next GE by experts, have been enlarged to become five-member GRCs.
It also remains to be seen if the reduction in size in in the six-member GRCs anchored by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Senior Minister Teo Chee Hean respectively will move the needle for opposition parties contesting there, some of whom were dubbed “suicide squads” in past polls.
MIXED SENTIMENTS OVER CHANGES IN SMCS
Since the introduction of GRCs in 1988, SMCs – up until Aljunied GRC was first contested and won by the Workers’ Party at the watershed 2011 election – were the few sites of electoral excitement in Singapore. GEs in Singapore were otherwise deemed uneventful, even boring.
This year’s increase in SMCs from 13 in 2015 to 14 is less significant when one considers we had 42 SMCs in 1988 and 21 SMCs in 1991. The contraction started in 1997 when SMC numbers dropped to 9 and stayed unchanged up to 2006.
Over the years, electoral battles fought over SMCs like Potong Pasir, MacPherson and, most recently, Joo Chiat entered Singapore’s political folklore.
The controversy surrounding Joo Chiat SMC’s elimination in 2015 is particularly instructive in making sense of the changes with Sengkang West, Punggol East and Fengshan SMCs dissolved for the forthcoming GE.
In 2011, Joo Chiat SMC was hotly contested by the opposition Workers’ Party (WP) candidate Yee Jenn Jong. Yee lost by 388 votes or 1 per cent, the narrowest of margins, to PAP old hand MP Charles Chong.
Yee continued to work the ground after Joo Chiat was absorbed into Marine Parade GRC in 2015, but lost. That episode remained a source of frustration for him and the WP.
This is also where the silence over specific changes surrounding which SMCs are dissolved and which remain were arrived at in the EBRC report sheds little light.
Indeed, since Sengkang West, Punggol East and Fengshan SMCs have been reasonably strong stomping ground for WP candidates since 2011, experts have concluded these changes favour the PAP.
Meanwhile, the creation of the four new SMCs – namely, Marymount, Yio Chu Kang, Punggol West and Kebun Baru – served currently by members of Cabinet Josephine Teo, Koh Poh Koon and Sun Xueling, and 2015 entrant Henry Kwek, are worth watching to see if the incumbents will stand in those wards.
Facing such a challenge would allow these Singapore national leaders to earn their electoral spurs, with victory bolstering the winning MPs’ positions.
A COVID-19 GENERAL ELECTION?
While observers have focused on how the boundaries could shape electoral strategies and individual parties’ chances of winning specific seats, the global pandemic that is COVID-19 is undoubtedly the elephant in the room that may be the ultimate game-changer.
COVID-19 has become a perfect, albeit unforeseen, backdrop for the PAP that will allow it to command the narrative, while the disease engulfs many other countries around the world.
Many major media outlets across the globe have reported on Singapore’s management of the coronavirus outbreak with aplomb, through a combination of quick detection and diagnosis, strict quarantine measures and open communication, with PM Lee’s two addresses receiving the thumbs-up for its honesty and effectiveness in tackling concerns.
During a period of uncertainty, voters may give more weightage to the PAP’s track record, including its stewardship of the country during the SARS episode and the global financial crisis, and technocratic credentials.
If a GE is called amid the pandemic, Singaporeans could also see the advent of e-rallies and other electoral innovations.
This would be ironic given how Singapore has been wary about electronic campaigning, going as far as to ban podcasts and vodcasts back in 2006.
An e-election is also not beyond the realm of possibility as Singapore is one of the most digitally networked societies in the world and the Government has a much stronger online machinery today than in the past.
While speculation that Singapore could go to the polls as early as May is rife, it is not a foregone conclusion, where doing so could backfire if voters see this to be an opportunistic act that risks public health and safety.
READ: PSP 'strongly' urges Government not to hold General Election amid COVID-19 crisis: Tan Cheng Bock
PM Lee laid out the options in a Facebook post on Saturday. “We have two choices. Either hope and pray that things will stabilise … Or else call elections early, knowing that we are going into a hurricane, to elect a new government with a fresh mandate and a full term ahead of it, which can work with Singaporeans on the critical tasks at hand,” PM Lee said.
And so I leave you with one final thought: The possibility that the release of the EBRC report does not herald an imminent GE in the first half of this year.
If there is significant pushback, the PAP could hold off calling an election until COVID-19 dissipates somewhat. If the situation continues to deteriorate, this could also bolster an eventual argument a fresh mandate to combat the outbreak should be sought.
Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing’s comments that the EBRC report is “not correlated” to when the GE will be held suggests this should not be ruled out.
Terence Lee is Associate Professor of Communication and Media at Murdoch University, Australia. He is co-editor with Professor Kevin Y L Tan of Voting in Change: Politics of Singapore's 2011 General Election and Change in Voting: Singapore's 2015 General Election, both published by Ethos Books.