Yawning Bread. June 2006

Goh Chok Tong admits that GRCs are meant to skew




As if Lee Hsien Loong's remarks denigrating Australia were not enough to convince people how anti-democratic the Singapore government is, Senior Minister (and former PM) Goh Chok Tong has now provided more evidence.

In his latest speech, Goh said that one of the purposes of Group Representation Constituencies [1] was to help People's Action Party (PAP) candidates win election easily. 

There! He has admitted it. The State and its electoral system have been corrupted to serve partisan ends.

Goh was quite brazen about it. He said that the role of GRCs was not just to ensure minorities are adequately represented - a nearly 2-decades-old justification for GRCs. By doing so, he has conceded that for the last 2 decades, the PAP been less than truthful about their motives.

His logic was that the ends justify the means. The PAP wanted to put "younger and capable candidates" into Parliament, but they might not want to risk their careers to join politics. Solution? Remove risk. Change the electoral system.

Not only do we have a winner-takes-all effect in GRCs, in practice, every GRC team is led by a minister or political heavyweight and new candidates get into office by riding their coattails.

The arrogance displayed by such distortions to a democratic system that we inherited from the British may be bad enough, but now, there is the added arrogance of Goh saying to the effect that: Yes we distorted the system at the price of fairness, so what?

They are not even ashamed of themselves.

But why now? Why has Goh now admitted it?

I think this change in tack has to do with the realisation that pretending that the system has not been distorted no longer washes. That battle has been lost. Singaporeans, by a large majority, in my opinion, agree that GRCs are electorally unfair.

This explains Goh's new line of defence. So it's unfair, he says, but it's for Singapore's good, because it's the only way to get top talent into government. Singapore benefits, is his message.

* * * * *

The terrible danger lies in who gets to define talent, and how. Why is talent-spotting a closed-door affair conducted by the PAP, with the "stars" fast-tracked into ministerial office?

An equally acute question raised by Goh's statement is this: What constitutes talent? There is the suspicion, once we talk about "talent" in the singular, that it is measured on a kind of linear scale. Once it is seen as linear, there follows the tendency to determine "talent" by very selective measures.

A good example is the experience of IQ measurement. We now know that in fact it is a very narrow measure, and that it can't even measure things like kinetic intelligence, animal empathy or aesthetic sense, let alone other essential life skills such as the ability to get along with others and a sense of ethics.

Using IQ measures alone to choose the "best" would give one a very skewed sample. Some critical skills would likely be under-represented among the select.

Yet we also know from ecology that it is diversity that gives a community resilience. Unexpected changes can happen to the external environment and it can be the individual with previously under-rated skills who may hold the key to survival. Selection using a narrow set of determinants tend to result in great similarity among the selected, but ecology tells us, a colony of clones is the worst possible situation to find yourself in.

Is that what we're getting?

Consider this: if candidates win election because the playing field is tilted in their favour, how capable are they of convincing and moving people? And when adverse conditions hit Singapore and tough decisions or sacrifices need to be made, who is there with the skills to persuade and lead? Isn't that a "talent" that needs to be identified and tested?

How many Singaporeans identify with any of the PAP ministers and new MPs? What is the ratio of trust to cynicism?

If they have to be invited to serve, with green lights assured to be flashing all the way into Parliament House, with material perks to match, how much passion will these people have to stay and soldier on when things turn rough?

So what do we mean by "capable"?

* * * * *

The Straits Times interviewed 2 new MPs. Both added to justifications (rationalizations) for the GRC system. Teo Ser Luck said that a rookie politician would face a "steep learning curve and may not have enough time" if he had to stand for election on his own rather than be part of a team.

Interestingly, he didn't seem to question why a steep learning curve was so bad that it should be avoided by rigging the system.

Lee Yi Shyan said "If the system can remove as many impediments as possible, then the political system will be able to get more people to join."

If this is the quality of "talent", heaven help us! Lee does not seem to realize that he has just confused the "system" with the PAP. Get more people to join? Join who?

One can equally argue that the political system has made it more difficult for people to join, and that far from "removing impediments", it has thrown up barriers of entry to others who do not wish to be co-opted into the PAP.

Do we see groupthink here? And what is the difference between groupthink and being a colony of clones?

Please, someone prove me wrong. Dare I hope for even one PAP guy to stand up and say Goh was wrong and that his comments further damaged Singapore? Adding to political cynicism can't be good for our republic. If any PAP man or woman has any integrity left, he should come out of the closet and say it is wrong to distort the system thus, and that the wrong must be rectified. At once.

Yawning Bread 


27 June 2006
Straits Times

GRCs make it easier to find top talent: SM

Without good chance of winning at polls, they might not be willing to risk careers for politics 
By Li Xueying

Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong yesterday gave a new take on the role of Group Representation Constituencies (GRCs) in Singapore politics. Their role is not just to ensure minorities are adequately represented in Parliament, he said. They also contribute to Singapore's political stability, by 'helping us to recruit younger and capable candidates with the potential to become ministers'.

'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,' Mr Goh said at an event marking the appointment of members to the South East Community Development Council (CDC).

'Why should they when they are on the way up in the civil service, the SAF, and in the professions or the corporate world?'

But he was quick to add that GRCs themselves do not guarantee victory.

'A minister wins only because he has won the people's trust and the Government has delivered good results for the people. If a minister performed poorly, it could result in his losing the GRC to an opposing team with a strong leader,' he said, in what appears to be an oblique reference to comments made against GRCs in the general election held this May.

Since GRCs were introduced in 1988, critics and the opposition have attacked them, saying they allow rookie People's Action Party (PAP) candidates to get into Parliament on the coat tails of heavyweight candidates in their team.

Also, they do not lend themselves to a level playing field, they add, as the opposition struggles to find the specified minority-race candidates.

Mr Goh carried four new faces into Parliament in the six-man Marine Parade GRC team, which was unchallenged at the 2006 polls.

Altogether, the PAP had 24 new faces. One was Mr Teo Ser Luck, former general manager of courier company DHL and now Parliamentary Secretary (Community Development, Youth and Sports).

He acknowledges that for a rookie politician, being part of a team ensures that 'you have a bigger chance of winning'.

'If you're fighting individually, you go through a steep learning curve and you may not have enough time,' he added.

East Coast GRC MP Lee Yi Shyan, who left his job as chief executive officer of IE Singapore and is today Minister of State (Trade and Industry), concurred 'If the system can remove as many impediments as possible, then the political system will be able to get more people to join.'

But both told The Straits Times they would have entered politics even if they had been fielded in a single-seat ward. Said Mr Lee with a laugh 'You could say that I'm more confident of myself!'

In his speech, Mr Goh also stressed that the PAP's ability to attract capable individuals and its practice of political self-renewal were key to Singapore's success.




  1. In Singapore, a Group Representation Constituency is a super-sized constituency where 5 or 6 candidates from the same party have to stand for election as a team. Voters vote for the party, not for individuals, thus weak candidates can still win a seat in Parliament by riding the coattails of stronger candidates.
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