For a country dominated by a single political party, this is a historical moment. The Workers’ Party has secured its traditional bastion of Hougang, and won the 5-seat Aljunied Group Representative Constituency. This marks the first time the opposition has secured a GRC since the GRC scheme was implemented in 1988. On the other side of the equation, the People’s Action Party has made its single greatest loss since independence, losing 6 seats and 2 ministers, retaining 81 seats in Parliament.
But I’m not pleased. Not one bit.
At four in the morning, after confirming the election results, I typed the following update on my Facebook account:
PAP, 81. WP, 6. But I’m not celebrating. Singapore has chosen to retain the most criticised ministers, and kicked out the one good man in the Cabinet. I have seen at first hand a living legend fail to win his greatest gamble, and fail to secure his legacy. The most-loved opposition candidates have lost to reviled PAP candidates.
‘It’s a victory for Singapore. But hard-won, and at what price. At what price.
Singapore was founded on democracy. Rule of, for and by the people. Parliament should reflect the will and interests of the people. A member of Parliament is both leader and servant, serving as the conduit between the State and the people, his popularity a direct measure of how well he connects to and understands the people.
But what happened?
Wong Kan Seng, Mah Bow Tan, Teo Chee Hean, Vivian Balakrishnan, and Lee Hsien Loong, the most criticised members of the Cabinet, stayed in power. Chia Shi-Lu, the PAP’s last minute candidate for Tanjong Pagar on Nomination Day, walked into Parliament after Tanjong Pagar was left uncontested. Tin Pei Ling, widely perceived as a ditz and an airhead, is now a Member of Parliament.
This is not all. Chiam See Tong, the Singapore people’s politician, was defeated. George Yeo, seen by many as the one good man in the Cabinet, was ejected from Parliament. Nicole Seah, Vincent Wijeysingha, Benjamin Pwee and other well-loved candidates were defeated at the polls.
The most-loved candidates were denied office. The most-reviled are now in Parliament.
60.1% of the people voted for the PAP. They are represented by 81 PAP MPs.
39.9% of the people voted for various opposition parties. They are represented by 6 WP MPs.
I have never seen so perverse a mockery of democracy in a First World nation. For a country founded on the solemn promise to ‘build a democratic society, based on justice and equality’, this is the most naked yet subtle corruption of its principles.
This election will be seen as the systematic exposure of the failings of the GRC concept. An unknown, untested politician can enter Parliament by being inserted into an uncontested GRC. The people were forced, again and again, to choose between retaining a minister and electing a popular opposition candidate. In every GRC but one, the people chose the minister – and in the one case, the people chose the leader of the Workers’ Party and removed Singapore’s most beloved minister. By choosing the minister, the people allowed into Parliament a woman better known for stomping her feet and saying ‘I don’t know!’, her Kate Spade handbag and her one bad speech than anything else.
The official reason for implementing a GRC, that of increasing minority representation, is utter nonsense. It was implemented after a minority opposition candidate, Joshua Benjamin Jeyaratnam of the Workers’ Party, was elected in 1988. In 2011, the PAP’s Michael Palmer, another minority candidate, won the contest for Punggol East against two opposition candidates, one of whom was the Secretary-General of the Singapore Democratic Alliance. The Singapore Democratic Party’s most popular candidate, Vincent Wijeysingha, is also a minority candidate. The people of Singapore are not so prejudiced that the average Singaporean would favour someone of his own race – and even if that were true, affirmative action policies instead of the GRC system could be implemented.
The real reason behind the GRC system has been to perpetuate PAP dominance and allow new candidates easy access to Parliament. In 2006, in reference to GRCs, 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.” But risk-free politics is not politics.
The point of campaigning and elections is to prove to the people that a politician has what it takes for a successful career in politics. Political campaigning is the political system compressed and under pressure. By publicly stating and defending his policy position, and analysing that of his opponents, a candidate does once in the public eye what a parliamentarian routinely does behind the doors of Parliament. By reaching out to people, a candidate shows that he is able to reach out to people and listen to them on local and national issues should he enter Parliament. Public debates show a politician’s intellectual rigour and physical stamina. An election campaign is an examination, one that proves that a man has what it takes to serve the people.
GRCs have to go. They allow disproportionate representation in Parliament, elevate the most scorned politicians to office, remove the most loved statesmen from politics, and enable the majority to overrule the minority at will. They have done just that.
If this isn’t the ‘freak election result’ the PAP keeps warning Singapore against, I don’t know what is.
May 7 2011 is the day the flaws of the GRC system came to light. This is a wake-up call for Singapore. Singapore cannot wait another five years. It is time to put an end to this gross distortion of democracy. It is time to abolish GRCs, and build a democratic society, based on justice and equality.