What is the GRC System and is it Unfair to Opposition Parties?

The Group Representation Constituency (GRC) system allows politicians to run and be elected in teams, rather than on an individual basis.

The system divides Singapore into Single Member Constituencies (SMCs) and Group Representation Constituencies (GRCs). Whilst in SMCs, a single candidate represents each party standing, in GRCs, a slate of between four and six candidates does the same. Citizens vote for the slate as a whole instead of individuals in these GRCs. In the 2020 GE, there were 11 five-member GRCs, 6 four-member GRCs and 14 SMCs.

It was enshrined in law under the Parliamentary Elections Act in 1988 when then-PM Lee Kuan Yew and DPM Goh Chok Tong observed a worrying trend whereby “young voters preferr[ed] candidates who were best suited to their own needs without being sufficiently aware of the need to return a racially balanced party slate of candidates”.

In other words, they thought that voters were voting based on racial and cultural preferences, amongst other things – which for majority-Chinese Singapore, meant a preference for Chinese candidates. Indeed, from the first election in 1955 to the last election before the GRC took effect in 1984, minority representation in Parliament had been halved from 40% to just over 20% .

The GRC was thus introduced as a way to “ensure that Parliament will always be multi-racial”. In its initial iteration, there were 13 three-member GRCs, with at least one member coming from a minority community. This guaranteed a minimum representation of 16% in the 1988 GE.

Should minority representation be an important end goal?

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In political science, there are two types of important types of representation.

Descriptive representation is the extent to which a representative resembles those being represented. Are the boardrooms of a country gender representative? Are Members of Parliament representative of the racial balance of a country? These are the questions that descriptive representation looks at.

Substantive representation, on the other hand, focuses on the activities of representatives. It means that these representatives take actions on behalf of, in the interest of those represented.

In the Singaporean parliament, there is some evidence to prove that descriptive representation and substantive representation are linked. Tam (2019) analysed the content of 6,678 parliament questions raised between 2002 and 2015 and found that racial minority MPs were 21.79 times more likely to ask questions related to racial minorities in parliament.

Thus, minority representation in parliament is important as the issues that these groups face are discussed on a national stage and are taken into account in the policy making process.

Has the GRC System Worked?

Since implementation, minority representation has steadily risen from 20% to 29%. It appears then that the GRC reversed the trend of declining representation.

An important point to note is that the PAP has held an average of 94.4% of seats in Parliament since 1959. Both the rise and fall of minority representation occurred over a period where the PAP commanded an overwhelming majority. Hence, some argue that the GRC was not necessary and that all the PAP needed to do was to field more minority candidates. However, as the PAP’s monopoly on the electorate continues to decrease, it might be unfair to expect racial representation just as a function of the PAP’s selection process.

There is also some evidence that potentially disproves the PAP’s central claim that racial preferences play a substantial role in voting behaviour. Jurong GRC, helmed by the highly popular DPM Tharman Shanmugaratnam, has garnered the highest vote share in two consecutive elections – 79% in 2015 and 75% in 2020. And three out of five members of WP’s winning team in Aljunied GRC are minority candidates, with Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh himself a minority. These instances show that, in some circumstances, Singaporeans will strongly support minority candidates.

The government would argue that even with these examples Singaporeans are not immune to racial politics, and that the recent spate of racist and xenophobic incidents prove this.

How could this be unfair to the opposition?

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Another effect of the GRC system that is widely discussed is its unfair impact on opposition parties. This effect plays out in two broad ways.

Firstly, GRCs raise barriers to entry for opposition parties. An opposition candidate can contest a Single Member Constituency (SMC) on his own. However, with GRCs, he has the added challenge of finding several other quality candidates to contest with him. When GRCs were first debated in Parliament, then-DPM Goh Chok Tong acknowledged that there would be opposition parties unable to field multi-candidate teams for elections. That was why the number of GRCs was initially capped at 13.

GRCs are also riskier as opposition parties have to concentrate scarce candidates and resources into contesting one GRC instead of spreading their chances of success across several SMCs. This clearly deterred opposition parties from contesting GRCs, evident in the four elections from 1991 to 2006. Over those elections, a total of 58 GRCs were up for election – of which 36 were walkovers.

Even if opposition parties mustered the resources to contest, GRCs can be harder to win. In 1996, Low Thia Khiang pointed out that the PAP could theoretically fold SMCs with high opposition support into larger GRCs with less opposition support to dilute the opposition votes.

There might be some precedent for this. In the 1991 GE, the opposition wrested control of a then-record high of four seats. Of the SMCs that PAP won, six had opposition vote shares exceeding 40% – Braddell Heights, Bukit Batok, Changi, Nee Soon South, Ulu Pandan and Yuhua. In the next election, all had been folded into GRCs, which the PAP subsequently won. More recently, in 2011, WP’s Yee Jenn Jong lost Joo Chiat SMC by 1%. It was folded into Marine Parade GRC the next election, which the PAP subsequently won.

Secondly, GRCs reduce barriers to entry for the incumbent party. The PAP deploys more senior and popular party members across different GRCs in Singapore and often fields them alongside new candidates. When Singaporeans vote for their beloved minister, new candidates in the same GRC also get those votes.

The system thus enables rookie PAP candidates to get elected riding on the coattails of heavyweight politicians, which works for the PAP and against the opposition. Since the inception of GRCs in 1988, the PAP has won 18% of their seats through SMCs, but only fielded 7% of their first-time candidates in them. In other words, a disproportionate number of first-time candidates are fielded in GRCs instead of SMCs where they, aided by the coattail effect, get elected.

The GRC has also evolved over time. When it was first passed in 1988, the maximum number of MPs per GRC was three, and the maximum number of MPs who could be elected through GRCs was half of all MPs. However, these caps were raised in 1991, to a maximum of four MPs and three quarters respectively.

They were raised yet again in 1996, to a maximum of six MPs per GRC. Instead of a cap on the maximum number of MPs who could be elected through GRCs, a minimum quota of eight SMCs was set. Only nine of the 83 seats up for election in 1997 were SMCs – or 11% of the seats. In short, within eight years, the share of seats in Parliament winnable via SMCs fell from 50% to 11% while the maximum size of GRCs doubled from three to six MPs. These changes amplified the barriers that opposition parties already faced.

Can the GRC System be beneficial for the opposition?

This is not to say that the opposition have never benefited from the GRC system. In 1988, Chiam See Tong said that the GRC system “may even favour the Opposition”, as it would get more opposition MPs voted into Parliament at once. And indeed, over the last three elections, the WP have won four GRCs – Aljunied (2011, 2015, 2020) and Sengkang (2020).

The advantage that the GRC system accords incumbents also seems to apply to opposition parties. In Aljunied GRC, the Workers’ Party has won three successive times, even surviving a large nation-wide swing towards the PAP in 2015. That year, the government unexpectedly reclaimed the constituency of Punggol East after it was lost to WP in a 2013 by-election.

Part of this might be attributed to the strategic fielding of candidates that the GRC system allows. Parties can decide how to distribute their heavyweight candidates, thereby deciding who benefits from their coattails. Both the PAP and the WP have employed this to their advantage.

In 2011, Low Thia Khiang left Hougang SMC, which he had served for four terms, to contest Aljunied GRC. While he was not the sole reason for WP’s win, his presence certainly contributed to his team’s win. Incidentally, Ong Ye Kung lost his first election outing in that very GRC. In the next election, instead of fielding him in Aljunied again, where he would probably have lost, the PAP fielded him in Sembawang GRC, which he won.

Having said all this, the WP’s four GRC wins pale in comparison to the PAP’s 115. The PAP is still, overwhelmingly, the primary beneficiary of the GRC system.

So what?

The policy intent of the GRC system is noble – to maintain minority representation in Parliament. But, in exchange for this, it might have impeded the entry of opposition parties and sacrificed political diversity. Whether that trade-off is worth making depends on you.

In a world that is bubbling with clickbait, sensationalism and oversimplifications, Kopi aims to bring long-form journalism back to South-East Asia.

Through deeply analysed articles, we uncover and explain the complex and multifaceted issues facing our societies. Through engaging narratives, we tell stories that are bold and unique.

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