Yawning Bread. March 2006

Electoral boundary changes: as opaque as ever


    

 

 

As in other countries, changes to electoral boundaries are keenly watched in Singapore. This is particularly as previous changes have been quite closely associated with snuffing out potential victories by opposition parties.

For example, in the 1997 general election, the People's Action Party (PAP) found itself with a tough fight in the Group Representation Constituency (GRC) of Cheng San, holding on to it with 54.82% of the votes against the Workers' Party's 45.18%. By Singapore's standards, that's a close margin of victory, as the PAP is used to getting over 65%. In 2001, just before the next general election, the entire constituency of Cheng San was abolished and absorbed into its neighbours. The widespread cynicism about the perceived manipulation of electoral boundaries to suit the incumbent PAP reached new heights.

Cheng San was just one of many wholesale changes made in 2001. In that year, "only four divisions were left intact and four-member GRCs were wiped off the electoral map altogether." (Straits Times, 4 March 2006, 'Confident' PAP needs no major boundary changes)

So when the latest electoral boundary changes were announced last week, the media tended to applaud the relatively fewer changes this time around. 12 of the existing 23 electoral divisions were left untouched, the Straits Times told its readers.

Tampines GRC MP Ong Kian Min said the absence of major changes to the electoral map will reduce accusations of gerrymandering and "increase the sense of fair play".

"In the past, people complained that radical changes were made to suit the ruling party, but those allegations cannot be made now," Mr Ong noted.

-- Straits Times, 4 March 2006, 'Confident' PAP
needs no major boundary changes

Really? Yawning Bread looks squinty-eyed at the whole show.

* * * * *

The latest changes still leave me convinced that our political system, in this case, the way we manage our elections, is most unsatisfactory. It does not even meet a minimum standard of fairness and transparency that can reasonably be expected.

Although fewer than before, nearly every one of the changes made this round points to a weakness of the system and possible abuse. How can we be happy that things are improving?

Below is a map of the constituencies for the 2001 election. The big, pale coloured ones are GRCs, which get to send 5 or 6 MPs to Parliament. The party that wins the GRC wins all the 5 or 6 seats, thus shutting out opposition parties completely, even if they win 49% of the vote in the GRC. The dark coloured ones are Single Member Constituencies (SMC). There is no rhyme or reason why certain areas become SMCs and other areas become GRCs.

 

Electoral Boundary Review Committee

The process, as set out by law, is for the government to appoint an Electoral Boundary Review Committee, which then recommends changes to the Prime Minister, who then decides whether to accept these recommendations or not. No one can recall an instance when he did not.

This Committee is comprised of civil servants. How can they be independent of their political masters' wishes, you might ask?

This time around they were:

  • Lau Wah Ming, Secretary to the Prime Minister (Chairman of the Committee);
  • Lam Joon Khoi, CEO of the Singapore Land Authority;
  • John Keung Man Yin, Deputy CEO of the Housing and Development Board;
  • Leow Bee Geok (Mrs), Acting Chief Statistician;
  • Lee Seng Lup, Head of the Elections Department (Secretary of the Committee).

The names were published in the Sunday Times, 45 March 2006, and their designations found from the government's web directory in a websearch of March 2006.

 

 

The changes recently announced were:
  1. Abolition of Ayer Rajah SMC (#9A in map above), absorbed into West Coast GRC.
     
  2. Abolition of Bukit Timah SMC (#8A), absorbed into Holland-Bukit Timah GRC.
     
  3. Creation of Bukit Panjang SMC, carved out of Holland-Bukit Timah GRC.
     
  4. Creation of Yio Chu Kang SMC, carved out of Ang Mo Kio GRC.
     
  5. Boundary between Nee Soon East and Sembawang tweaked, moving about 4,000 voters into Nee Soon East.
     
  6. Boundary between Marine Parade GRC and Aljunied GRC changed significantly in 2 places. The Serangoon area goes to Aljunied and Kembangan goes to Marine Parade. Aljunied has a net increase of about 20,000 voters from these two changes.
     
  7. Boundary between Marine Parade GRC and East Coast GRC changed, moving about 32,000 voters to Marine Parade.

 
Abolition and creation of Single-member constituencies (SMCs)

Not only is it irrational that some parts of Singapore are GRCs and other parts SMCs, there has never been any attempt to explain the governing principles why SMCs are where they are. It seems completely arbitrary; at best there is a gentleman's understanding that if an SMC is currently held by an opposition party, it will not be abolished, depriving him of a seat in Parliament.

This time around, 2 SMCs are wiped off the map, and no reason is given. 2 new SMCs pop out from nowhere, and no reason given either. Why these 2 and not any other district?

It is all the more absurd when you look at the second map (below) and realise that both the new SMCs Bukit Panjang (#8B in map below) and Yio Chu Kang (#9B) - are surrounded by a GRC. They don't strike anyone as more deserving of an independent existence than many other areas.

 

SMCs before 2006 revision:
1 Joo Chiat
2 Macpherson
3 Potong Pasir
4 Hougang
5 Nee Soon Central
6 Nee Soon East
7 Choa Chu Kang
8A Bukit Timah (now abolished)
9A Ayer Rajah (now abolished)

 

 

In the absence of official explanation why Ayer Rajah and Bukit Timah SMCs were abolished, the press speculated that these 2 constituencies' MPs were about to retire. Yet, if that is indeed the motivating factor for abolishing these 2 SMCs, it speaks very poorly of us. Electoral boundary decisions should be impartial, and not predicated on any party's personnel movements. No doubt, the government will protest that they are impartial, but if so, it would be quite a coincidence that the two SMCs abolished are the ones with the long-standing MPs due for retirement, and where new faces without the same name-recognition or rapport with voters may have to face the voters. Wouldn't it be less risky to tuck the new faces into a GRC team than to let them swim or sink on their own?

Hence, far from giving me confidence about the better institutionalisation of an independent electoral process, this is yet another worrying question-mark.

 
Nee Soon East SMC

The tweaking of the boundary between the Nee Soon East SMC (#6 on the maps) and Sembawang GRC, at first sight, looks routine. Due to population shifts, boundaries have to be tweaked from time to time to maintain a consistent ratio of voters to MPs. Yet, the details of this particular case look suspicious again.

Nee Soon East is represented by Ho Peng Kee of the PAP. In the 2001 election, the grapevine buzzed that community and religious leaders in the district were urging voters not to vote for him. This was because they felt that Ho and his management committee had been discriminating against Taoist festival organisers. Ho is a staunch Christian. The electoral prognosis got so poor, Lee Kuan Yew had to intervene to soothe ruffled feathers and save Ho's skin.

Is the recent tweaking, adding 4,000 more voters to Nee Soon East, meant to give him a more comfortable buffer against disgruntled voters this time around? Or is this reading too much into a routine boundary adjustment?

Needless to say, the government has not offered any public explanation for this boundary change.

Well, consider this: Out of the 9 SMCs, Nee Soon East already had the largest population. It didn't have any need to have its population boosted to achieve parity with other SMCs. Yet, it still got 4,000 more voters.

It is worth noting too that the guideline for SMCs says that they should have a voter population of 18,000 to 34,000. With the change, Nee Soon East has 32,600 voters. Why was it necessary to boost its already above-average voter numbers so close to the upper limit?

 

SMCs after 2006 revision:
1 Joo Chiat
2 Macpherson
3 Potong Pasir
4 Hougang
5 Nee Soon Central
6 Nee Soon East
7 Choa Chu Kang
8B Bukit Panjang (new)
9B Yio Chu Kang (new)

 

Potong Pasir SMC

Talking about SMC guidelines, Potong Pasir SMC has only 15,000 voters, below the minimum of 18,000. Yet nothing was done to adjust its voter numbers.

No doubt, some will argue that if the government did that, then people would say it was done to make it hard for opposition MP Chaim See Tong to retain the Potong Pasir seat. The PAP would rather fight to take the seat back without such talk undercutting the legitimacy of its hoped-for victory.

But this too shows how manipulated the process of boundary adjustments is. If Potong Pasir, per the guidelines, needs to have its boundary adjusted to boost is numbers, then it should be done. The process must remain independent. Without fear or favour. There is no demographic reason to make the exception. There is only a politically partisan reason.

 
East Coast, Aljunied and Marine Parade GRCs

As mentioned above, the recent changes shift 32,000 voters from East Coast to Marine Parade. Then Aljunied and Marine Parade swopped districts, giving Aljunied a net gain of 20,000 voters.

These are substantial changes, yet the Electoral Boundary Review Commission hasn't said much by way of explanation. What the numbers do show is that the original voter numbers weren't obviously unfair. All of them fell comfortably within the range that was allowable for their previous number of MPs (5 for Aljunied and 6 MPs each for Marine Parade and East Coast GRC).

However, since Punggol Potong Pasir GRC had exceeded its maximum limit for 5 MPs, it was to be increased to 6. Thus, some other GRC had to lose one MP in order to keep the total number of MPs at 84 -- the brief given to the Committee.

Logically, the GRC that should lose an MP should be either a 5-MP GRC with the fewest voters, or a 6-MP GRC with the fewest for its range. This would mean that it should be either Jalan Besar GRC (93,003 voters for 5 MPs) or East Coast GRC (148,435 voters for 6 MPs). Frankly, it should be obvious that Jalan Besar should lose an MP, since it averaged 18,601 voters per MP while East Coast averaged 24,740 voters per MP.

If Jalan Besar were taken down to 4 MPs (thus averaging 23,251 voters per MP) it would have been the neatest solution especially since it wouldn't involve changing boundaries.

Yet, Jalan Besar was untouched by the revision. Instead a complicated reshuffle was carried out involving East Coast, Marine Parade and Aljunied. It really begs the question, why?

Of course, officially, it is only for impartial demographic reasons. But as I have shown above, if we really went by strict demographic reasons, they should have just shrunk the number of MPs from Jalan Besar.

The Serangoon district was taken out of Marine Parade and given to Aljunied. The Kembangan district taken out of Aljunied and given to Marine Parade. Then the Chai Chee area was taken out of East Coast and given to Marine Parade as well.

    Before boundary revision After boundary revision
Group Representation Constituency No. of MPs No. of electors Electors per MP No. of electors Electors per MP
Aljunied 5 125,515 25,103 145,099 29,020
Marine Parade 6 142,866 23,811 155,106 25,851
East Coast 6/5* 148,435 24,740 116,611 23,322

*to be reduced from 6 to 5 MPs for 2006 election

-- Source: the Elections Department website
and 'Today' newspaper, 4 March 2006,
which said its source was the Electoral
Boundaries Review Committee 2006

So what's the point of the swop and musical chairs? 

Anyone who's been reading the papers would know that the Workers' Party have been working very hard in the Aljunied area. Was the PAP trying to foil their plans by making the boundary changes? No one can say for sure, and the Electoral Boundaries Review Committee isn't saying at all, but it's a widespread impression.

My personal observation is that Kembangan is probably more Malay than most areas. I used to have a shop in the district and I remember that getting lunch during the fasting month was a big problem. Many food outlets were run by Malay Muslims and did not open till the evening.

Serangoon on the other hand may be disproportionately Chinese, comprising as it does the middle-class Serangoon Gardens estate and the Serangoon New Town. (Do not confuse Serangoon with Little India, although Serangoon Road also runs through the latter.)

One can't help but suspect that the more Malay Kembangan area could be seen as unusually sympathetic to the opposition. Minorities tend to have more grievances, especially when they also tend to be lower-income and harder hit by Singapore's economic restructuring. Many middle-aged Malays have lost their jobs and are having a difficult time finding work.

Then again, we may be reading too much into the district swops. Perhaps the changes were completely innocent. Perhaps the PAP government has realised that in the long run such manipulation breeds cynicism which runs counter to the desire to see citizens more engaged with Singapore and our future, and this time wants to begin setting a better example. 

If so, why not tweak Jalan Besar GRC -- the simplest and most obvious solution? My guess is that the PM's brief to the Committee was to have only 5- and 6-members GRCs, so a 4-man Jalan Besar would have been out of the question. But then we find ourselves asking, why insist on only 5- and 6-member GRCs, when the constitution allows 3 to 6 MPs per GRC?

* * * * *

In all the above cases, we can only speculate. The opacity of the process provides no clear answers to why these seemingly arbitrary changes were made. It is particularly unsatisfactory that prima facie, nearly all these changes can be attributed in speculation to either the PAP's likely personnel movements or to beat off challenges from the opposition. None of them are convincing for demographic reasons alone. It can't be good for the future of democracy to carry on like this.

Yawning Bread 


 

Minimum & maximum sizes of constituencies

Dividing the estimated total number of voters (2.158 million) by the number of MPs Parliament should have, the average ratio of 26,000 voters per MP was established as the guideline.

A leeway of 30% is allowed either way. Thus the minimum and maximum sizes of SMCs and GRCs are as follows:

Type of constituency Minimum voters Maximum voters
1-MP SMC 18,000 34,000
5-MP GRC 90,000 170,000
6-MP GRC 108,000 204,000

 

Footnotes

  1. For a critical look at the way constituency boundaries are drawn - and mostly left unchanged this time - read Sg Election 06. The bit about the new single-member constituencies is particularly sharp.

 

Addenda

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