Tuesday, 14 July 2015

Electoral boundaries panel formed in May 2015: PM Lee Hsien Loong

Election on the cards; boundaries panel formed
Committee to review boundaries was formed two months ago; GRCs may be made smaller
By Charissa Yong and Rachel Au-Yong, The Straits Times, 14 Jul 2015

Expect a general election in the coming months.

The first step in the lead-up to an election - the formation of a committee to review constituency boundaries - took place two months ago, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong told Parliament yesterday. Mr Lee said he had asked the Electoral Boundaries Review Committee to consider population shifts and housing developments since the last exercise in 2011.

He has also asked the committee to reduce the average size of a Group Representation Constituency (GRC) to below five members, and to have at least 12 Single Member Constituencies (SMCs).There are currently 15 GRCs, with an average size of five MPs, and 12 SMCs.

Analysts told The Straits Times that they expect the redrawn electoral boundaries to be released in the weeks ahead, paving the way for an election to be called as early as September.

They cite the feel-good factor of Singapore's Golden Jubilee celebrations next month and the surge in goodwill towards the Government following founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew's passing in March.

"The lines seem to converge on a September general election," Dr Tan Ern Ser of the National University of Singapore (NUS) said.

PM Lee's announcement yesterday was in reply to Mr Arthur Fong (West Coast GRC) and Non-Constituency MP Yee Jenn Jong.

After the committee's report is published, the next stage in the lead-up to Polling Day is for Parliament to be dissolved and the writ of election issued.

The next step is Nomination Day, which must take place no earlier than five days and no later than one month after the writ is issued. Nomination Day is the start of the campaign period, which is required by law to be a minimum of nine days.

There is then a Cooling-Off Day, which falls on the eve of Polling Day when voters cast their ballots. In past elections, the duration between the formation of the committee and Polling Day lasted between two and seven months.

In the last two elections held in 2006 and 2011, however, the committee took four months to do its work before the report was published. The elections were then called within two months.

A total of 2.46 million eligible voters are currently on the rolls, a rise from 2.35 million in 2011.

The change in size of a GRC was signalled by Mr Lee as early as 2009 when he pledged to reduce the average number of MPs in a GRC from 5.4 to five, and to increase the number of SMCs.

These changes were introduced in the 2011 General Election, when the number of SMCs was raised from nine to 12.

There are now two six-member GRCs, 11 five-member GRCs and two four-member GRCs.

Singapore Management University law professor Eugene Tan did not rule out the continuation of six-member GRCs, but said they would be harder to justify.

Analysts like Dr Lam Peng Er predict that there will be more four- member GRCs and more seats in Parliament, which currently has 87 elected seats.

Said the political scientist from NUS' East Asian Institute: "There are only so many ways you can slice the pie. Logically speaking, we should expect to see six-man GRCs becoming five-man ones, five-man GRCs becoming four."

Meanwhile, People's Action Party (PAP) and opposition activists alike saw Mr Lee's announcement as a signal to step up preparations for the general election.

Said PAP Ulu Pandan branch secretary Angie Ng: "If the election is not in September, then it might be in October or November."

But, she added: "The preparation for it started long ago."

Time enough for all to digest report: PM Lee
By Charissa Yong and Chong Zi Liang, The Straits Times, 14 Jul 2015

Shortly after announcing that the Electoral Boundaries Review Committee had been formed two months ago, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong assured the House there would be time for everyone to digest the committee's report once it was published.

"To the maximum extent possible, we will make sure that there is enough time elapsed so that everybody can read the report, understand it and know where they stand before elections are called.

"But I don't think it is possible to say that we promise a certain minimum period, such as six months, because it depends very much on the exigencies of the situation and on when elections become necessary," Mr Lee said.

He was responding to Non- Constituency MP Yee Jenn Jong, who had asked Mr Lee whether he was prepared to commit to a minimum time period - say, at least six months - from the publishing of the report to the calling of elections.

Mr Yee had noted that this process had taken as little as one day in the past.

Currently, there is no fixed date for the election to be called after the report is released to the public.

"A longer period will allow residents who have moved out of their constituencies to be able to adjust to the changes," Mr Yee said .

He also noted that prior to Singapore's independence, the committee - now made up of civil servants - had representatives from political parties, and asked if it could in future involve non- government representatives.

The Workers' Party member also asked whether the committee could better justify changes that it made to boundaries, including by publishing minutes of its meetings.

Mr Lee replied that the committee had for many years comprised civil servants who have "domain knowledge" which enabled them to make considered decisions on how to divide up the constituencies, taking into account population shifts and housing developments.

As for including political parties, Mr Lee did not think it was an entirely good idea, noting that in the United States, members usually "carve it up among themselves" in a political deal.

The PM also did not think it was helpful "to have every twist and turn in the minutes reported and published".

"The committee's report is the final word," he said.

Smaller GRCs, more seats could see more contests
Opposition hits out at lack of notice on timing and lack of transparency
By Rachel Au-Yong and Chong Zi Liang, The Straits Times, 14 Jul 2015

Yesterday's announcement that the Electoral Boundaries Review Committee (EBRC) had been formed two months ago may have created a ripple of excitement among voters.

But among politicians, analysts and activists for whom an imminent general election (GE) was long suspected, it was Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's promise of smaller GRCs that was notable.

He has tasked the EBRC to reduce the average size of Group Representation Constituencies (GRCs) to below five.

The current average is five.

Yesterday, Democratic Progressive Party secretary-general Benjamin Pwee praised the smaller sizes, saying that "smaller GRCs mean fewer MPs who get into Parliament on the coat-tails of others".

"It should also translate to more realistic boundaries and population sizes that can be looked after by each MP," he added.

PM Lee also said yesterday in Parliament that at least 12 Single Member Constituencies (SMCs) - the current number - would be on the electoral map.

This was welcomed by People's Action Party (PAP) MP Lim Biow Chuan (Mountbatten), who said he hoped to see more than 12 SMCs for the coming general election: "In a single-seat ward, an MP is closer to residents because he knows he's wholly responsible for them. In a GRC, people pick and choose. Some of them naturally gravitate towards a minister."

GRCs were introduced in 1988 to ensure a minimum number of representatives from the minority races in Parliament.

The Parliamentary Elections Act was changed in 1991 and again in 1996 to increase the maximum number of members per GRC from three to four, and then to six.

Both times, the Government cited economies of scale in combining estates, rather than multiracialism, as a reason.

Political analyst Derek da Cunha believes that the PAP has "done its own internal modelling" and concluded that a return to smaller- sized GRCs would be to its advantage.

More electoral divisions "would not be an issue for the PAP, which can field a veritable army of thousands of campaign staff who can go canvassing for votes door to door... But it would be challenging for the minor opposition parties that are relatively resource-poor," he told The Straits Times.

He added that whatever the committee decides on should not come as too great a surprise to the Workers' Party (WP), as its chief, Mr Low Thia Khiang, tends to "plan on the basis of the worst-case scenario".

But Mr Low's approach, he said, is very different from that of other "minor parties, which tend to be perennially optimistic but are often caught surprised, unprepared and under-resourced".

PM Lee's delay of two months before announcing the EBRC's formation was criticised by opposition parties yesterday. In 2011, he had announced the committee's formation on the day he convened it.(*see correction note below)

The Singapore Democratic Party said in a statement that "such a non-transparent approach to elections continues to make the playing field heavily tilted in the PAP's favour".

It called for the campaign period to be a minimum of three weeks. The Prime Minister has traditionally allowed for a campaign period of nine days.

WP's Non-Constituency MP Yee Jenn Jong said that "different political parties should be given time to adjust as that's the hallmark of a democratic country. It cannot be that only one side knows the timing regarding the election".

He urged a longer gestation period before the polls, telling The Straits Times that a period of six months to a year between the release of the boundaries report and the election would be a reasonable amount of time to allow voters and parties to process the report.

The committee's formation two months ago makes a 2015 GE very likely, said analysts - a departure from the five-year cycle PM Lee followed in 2006 and 2011.

Institute of Policy Studies senior fellow Gillian Koh said this means that the "regularity" of the last two GEs could be an exception, which might not be welcomed by some voters.

"A party like the PAP that has ruled Singapore since 1959 cannot avoid the heavy responsibility of ensuring that the system continues to be deemed to be legitimate in the eyes of those who matter - whether it is the opinion makers or broad swathes of voters on the ground," she said.

But East Asian Institute political scientist Lam Peng Er said it was the PAP's prerogative to call the election whenever it wanted, and that Singaporeans are savvy enough to see past any electioneering. "All's fair in love and war and politics," he said.

*Correction note: The report said that in 2011, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced the formation of the Electoral Boundaries Review Committee on the day that he convened it. This is inaccurate.

Mr Lee’s disclosure of its formation was made in October 2010 and only when the media asked him about it. There is no formal requirement for an announcement to be made when the committee is formed. We are sorry for the error.

'Fair timeframe' no longer a factor?
By Rachel Chang, Assistant Political Editor, The Straits Times, 14 Jul 2015

Parliamentary sessions here start with a bell ringing shrilly throughout the building, summoning MPs to the wood-panelled Chamber.

Not all MPs respond immediately to its call at 1.30pm. The House is rarely full at the start of each session, as MPs trail in after lunch or time their appearances ahead of when they need to pose their questions to the frontbench .

But when Speaker of Parliament Halimah Yacob entered the Chamber yesterday, 61 MPs - out of a total of 98 elected and appointed to the House - were present. It was the kind of turnout usually reserved for major debates.

But yesterday was no ordinary sitting. For the answers to Questions 1 and 2 would bring confirmation of what many had been suspecting for some time - that a general election (GE) is imminent.

People's Action Party (PAP) MP Arthur Fong (West Coast GRC) and Non-Constituency MP Yee Jenn Jong of the Workers' Party each filed a question for the Prime Minister, asking him if the Electoral Boundaries Review Committee had been formed.

Yes, was PM Lee Hsien Loong's answer. Two months ago. Just like that, the starting gun went off. The committee usually releases its report on new electoral boundaries after a few months of work and the hustings follow soon after.

Through the lens of an impending GE, much that then followed at yesterday's parliamentary session felt like electioneering was well and truly under way.

Take the long exchange that Minister of State (National Development) Desmond Lee had with several MPs over the issue of defects found in new flats.

Some owners of Build-to-Order flats in Punggol and Bukit Panjang, and of Design, Build and Sell Scheme (DBSS) flats from projects such as Centrale 8 in Tampines, have complained of defects or design flaws - narrow corridors, wall cracks, uneven floor tiles and choked toilets. Affected residents are incensed.

But in the grand scheme of public housing, these affect but a minority of DBSS owners. The number of those affected does not justify the time the House spent on the issue.

No fewer than six MPs from the ruling party and the opposition championed their woes. Although Mr Desmond Lee said the defect rates of new flats have remained in an average range, the MPs presented the view that their residents' experience was atypically bad.

This sort of political jockeying on issues of varying significance can be expected to dominate national discourse from now until Polling Day. It's an enjoyable season for political watchers, but the Government has made no secret of the fact that it does not see this as the best use of parliamentary time.

Last year, for example, Senior Minister of State (Law and Education) Indranee Rajah urged MPs to "act responsibly, by admitting the 'trade-offs' of policies, instead of pandering to public opinion and saying what is popular".

This is key to understanding why PM Lee has not given as much notice as he did in the past.

This is a departure from the pattern he established in 2006 and 2011. Then, as calls mounted for a greater measure of electoral fairness, he established a set five-year timeline for elections, with Polling Day on the first Saturday of May. In 2011, the Government announced the formation of the Electoral Boundaries Review Committee the day it was convened. (*see correction note below)

Yesterday, PM Lee revealed that it had already been at work for two months. Opposition parties immediately decried the move as not transparent and unfair. Mr Yee asked PM Lee for a guarantee of at least six months between the release of the electoral report and Polling Day.

PM Lee declined.

In conversations with party insiders and activists, the view I have gathered is that the PAP largely feels that a set electoral timeline - as played out in the bruising 2011 GE - has been both harmful to the country and to the party's political fortunes.

(It largely views the two things to be one and the same.)

In countries like the United States, where elections follow a four-year cycle like clockwork, a huge amount of time leading up to the actual vote is effectively a political sideshow, where any new policy is evaluated for its ballot-winning capability, every issue parsed for its impact on swing voters, and every gaffe magnified and replayed.

In the build-up to the 2011 GE here, issues like the influx of foreigners, high housing prices and strained infrastructure simmered for over a year among the population, coming to a boil just in time for Polling Day, delivering the PAP its worst-ever electoral showing.

With an election this year looking very likely, PM Lee and his team have made clear that they no longer consider the "fair timeframe" a factor in when to call the polls - a move that also reveals an unspoken confidence that the ground is sweet enough not to sour over this issue.

Are they right? We'll all find out soon - very soon.

*Correction note: The report said that in 2011, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced the formation of the Electoral Boundaries Review Committee on the day that he convened it. This is inaccurate. Mr Lee’s disclosure of its formation was made in October 2010 and only when the media asked him about it. There is no formal requirement for an announcement to be made when the committee is formed.

We are sorry for the error.

Will six-member GRCs be a thing of the past?
By Tham Yuen-C. The Sunday Times, 19 Jul 2015

With electoral boundaries being revised ahead of going to the polls, what could some of the changes be? Insight homes in on zones of interest.

With Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s directive to consider smaller GRCs, voters will wonder if this is the end of “jumbo” six-member GRCs.

Announcing the formation of the Electoral Boundaries Review Committee (EBRC) last Monday, Mr Lee said: “I have asked the committee in its review... to have smaller Group Representation Constituencies, so as to reduce the average size of GRCs below five.”

Currently, there are two six-member, 11 five-member and two four-member GRCs. This brings the average size of a GRC to five exactly. Before the 2011 elections, the average size of GRCs was 5.4.

Six-member GRCs first appeared in 1997, when four were formed.

It was to pave the way for the creation of community development councils which would oversee grassroots organisations and help manage public assistance schemes.

In the two elections that followed – in 2001 and 2006 – there were five such constituencies. But in the boundary redrawing exercise before the 2011 elections, only two such GRCs – Pasir Ris-Punggol and Ang Mo Kio – were retained.

This time, the former may need to have its boundaries redrawn as its voter population-to-MP ratio has almost reached the upper limit set for such constituencies. The ratio is now 34,486 voters per MP.

But will Ang Mo Kio GRC, which is helmed by PM Lee, be downsized, to accommodate a maximum of five MPs too? Going by its voter numbers, it does not have to be.

The GRC has 181,327 voters as of last count in April. This works out to 30,221 voters for each of the six members, well within the variation limit. Activists say they expect this GRC to stay the same, and have had no notice indicating otherwise.

Ang Mo Kio GRC MP Inderjit Singh tells Insight: “I don’t think six-member GRCs will be gone. If we want GRCs to have an average size of less than five, you can have many three- and four-member GRCs, and you can still afford to have a few six-member ones.”

In fact, several four- and five-member GRCs, such as Tanjong Pagar, Moulmein-Kallang and Marine Parade, are expected to be rejigged.

Tanjong Pagar GRC, which will head into the next election without founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew at the helm following his death in March this year, is likely to see some parts carved out.

The word on the ground among activists and others is that Kreta Ayer-Kim Seng will be carved out and combined with parts of Moulmein-Kallang GRC to form a new Kallang GRC.

The resulting constituencies from this change are likely to be a mix of four-member GRCs and even some Single-Member Constituencies.

Elsewhere, activists at Marine Parade GRC also expect some “tweaking” to the constituency’s boundaries, but not major changes. This could mean that parts of the oddly shaped constituency, that might fit better elsewhere, might be cut.

Part of the constituency, for instance, extends all the way to Braddell Heights, 8km inland from the East Coast. It appears more appropriate to make this area part of Potong Pasir or even Aljunied GRC.

With smaller GRCs expected, some also wonder if three-member GRCs will make a comeback. These small GRCs were on the electoral map only during the 1988 polls, when GRCs were first introduced. A likely place for them could be in the West – long considered a stronghold of the PAP.

Chua Chu Kang GRC has experienced population growth, with 2,500 new BTO units added in its Yew Tee and Keat Hong wards.

This has sparked speculation that a new GRC may emerge there, with some parts of Chua Chu Kang GRC joining up with the single-seat constituency of Hong Kah North, now under Senior Minister of State for Health and Manpower Amy Khor.

Chua Chu Kang MP Alex Yam says his Yew Tee division, with a population of some 87,000, “has been quite large for many, many elections”. He reckons it is possible that some parts could be carved out, but hopes it will not happen.

“My own preference is to keep it as it is... But ultimately, it is a decision for the Electoral Boundaries Review Committee to make, whether they find it still efficient for us to manage such a big population at Yew Tee,” he says.

Says National University of Singapore political scientist Bilveer Singh: “We will probably have about 95 or even more electoral divisions, to cater for smaller GRCs and a growing population.”

Currently, there are 87 divisions.

Political scientist Derek da Cunha reckons it would strike “a fair and equitable balance” if all electoral divisions could be four-member or Single-Member Constituencies, as was the case in 1991.

“If the EBRC report carves up the island electorally in a similar fashion now, then I do not think there will be many complaints from aspiring opposition candidates – as there will be ample electoral divisions to go around,” he says.

Let's just have SMCs and three-member GRCs
By Han Fook Kwang, Editor-at-large, The Sunday Times, 19 Jul 2015

Question: How many ways are there to configure the Group Representation Constituency (GRC) system?

Answer: Several hundred permutations, at least.

You could have most of the 87 seats as Single-Member Constituencies (SMCs) or go the whole hog with 14 six-member GRCs. Between these two extremes there are any number of combinations of SMCs and three-, four-, five- or six-member GRCs.

In the real world, though, the possibilities are more limited, but still Singapore has seen several combinations being tried since the scheme was introduced in 1988.

That year, it started with 42 SMCs and 13 three-member GRCs.

In 1991, the SMC numbers were halved to 21 and the size of GRCs increased to include four-member wards. Further changes took place in 1997, when six-member GRCs were created, with more tweaks made subsequently to reduce the average size of GRCs.

Now, with last Monday's announcement by the Prime Minister, more tinkering will take place before the impending general election.

Is there an ideal solution that will stop the experimenting?

An electoral system shouldn't be changed so frequently, and its underlying rationale should stand the test of both time and scrutiny.

It certainly shouldn't change at every election.

Looking back at the scheme's controversial past, there seems to be as many arguments put up to back the case for smaller or bigger GRCs, depending on what was being proposed.

The one argument which remains unchanged and has stayed true to the original purpose of the scheme: to allow minority candidates to stand a better chance of being elected as members of a GRC. This is a worthwhile aim and is the only one worth preserving.

What of the other considerations? Take your pick of any number of arguments for bigger or smaller GRCs.

You prefer bigger ones? When five- and six-member GRCs were proposed, the argument was that they would lead to more efficient town councils which could benefit from having economies of scale.

You could extend this logic if you wanted to make the case for ever larger GRCs.

What about this other argument: Bigger GRCs would make it easier for the ruling party to recruit candidates.

In today's less forgiving political environment, you will not hear it being repeated. But it was made as recently as 2006, when then Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong 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."

On the opposing side, critics had long complained that big GRCs make it even harder for the Opposition without the resources to put together sizeable teams.

Their opponents were fond of saying they complained too much.

And so the debate raged.

What about the case for smaller GRCs? Here's a fairly recent one: to help the voter identify better with the ward's MP.

Indeed, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong put it this way in 2009: "But, at the same time, there are some downsides to having too big a GRC because it becomes harder for voters to identify with the whole GRC or with the whole GRC team. The members split up, so the voter knows who is looking after his area, but for the other MPs, he may not have quite as close a relationship. 

"Each MP has to look after his own ward in the GRC and, therefore, it is not easy for him or her to get to know the voters in all of the other wards."

Perhaps you are one of those who believe that bigger or smaller really does not depend on any of these arguments but on how the People's Action Party (PAP) feels about whether it improved its chances of winning.

In the old days, it was clearly the case that the big GRCs were seen as natural stomping grounds of the ruling party. When helmed by heavyweight ministers, they offered almost certain victory to fresh recruits headed for bigger things in government.

In many cases, victory was secured without a single ballot being cast as the opposition failed to show up.

And when they did, the polling results reinforced the belief that bigger was better for the PAP.

In the 2006 GE, the PAP's share of the votes in contested GRCs was 67 per cent compared to 61 per cent in SMCs.

But the 2011 GE turned this on its head with the PAP's vote share in GRCs (60.3 per cent) only very marginally higher than in SMCs (59.3 per cent).

More painful was its loss of two ministers and a minister of state when it was defeated by the Workers' Party (WP) in Aljunied, a big GRC.

Did this signal the end of its invincibility in these large wards?

It's a possibility that cannot be ruled out, given the desire for a stronger opposition presence, especially among younger voters.

In fact, as in 2011, one can expect the WP to concentrate its firepower on one or even two or three GRCs.

It can do this either by moving its brand name leaders to these wards, as Mr Low Thia Khiang did in 2011, or introducing strong candidates that impress voters, such as the likes of Mr Chen Show Mao.

Because it is the underdog, these moves will create a bigger impact than if the same type of candidates were to appear for the ruling party.

The WP does not need too many of these, just enough to contest in a few GRCs. By thus focusing its star candidates on a few big GRCs, the WP might gain more than if the fight was dispersed among smaller GRCs or SMCs.

Whether this will indeed happen in the coming GE, no one knows until the contest gets under way.

The point is that bigger GRCs no longer confer the same certain advantage of before on the ruling party.

So, however you analyse this issue, whether from the perspective of which configuration makes better sense, or in realpolitik terms, on what size best suits which party, the answers are not clear-cut.

The truth of the matter is that tinkering with different GRC sizes isn't a productive exercise for any party any more.

The only consideration worth retaining is that of ensuring adequate minority representation, and the best way to do this is to revert to how it was first conceived in 1988, with a combination of SMCs and three-member GRCs.

Making all GRCs one size is good for limiting the number of changes that can be made and ensuring that every voter in a GRC faces the same choice of choosing a three-member team. Adjacent GRCs can be combined to form town councils, thus retaining the advantage of size present in existing large GRCs.

With three MPs in every GRC, and with at least one of them from a minority race, the number of GRCs will be determined, not arbitrarily, but by deciding the required minimum number of minority MPs in Parliament.

Hence, if it is thought Singapore should have at least a quarter of them, or 22 in a House of 87 elected representatives, that would mean 22 three-member GRCs and 21 SMCs. This way, the number of GRCs is precisely determined, and not subject to extraneous considerations.

Such a transparent system has a better chance of enduring.

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