GRC: Gender, Race, Change
This was a rare event on local screens, the sight of a senior government figure in conversation with young Singaporeans on political issues. As a young Singaporean who is about to vote for the first time, I felt both excited and skeptical about the Dialogue. I was excited because I saw this as an encouraging sign of the Media’s willingness to push OB markers in coverage of local politics; skeptical because of the popular perception that there is no fair and objective coverage of local politics in the Media. That's the problem with politics being practised in an openly unfair manner. Citizens become cynical of the government. I'll return to the unfairness point in future posts, since I feel very strongly about it. For now, I’ll like to focus on the topic of GRCs and MM Lee’s justifications for the GRC system.
The participants asked whether GRCs are necessary for Singapore, especially in view of the (unintended?) consequence of discouraging political contest during general elections.
MM Lee replied that GRCs were introduced in 1988 because women and racial minorities could not get elected into parliament. Voters wanted MPs who could speak their native languages of Hokkien & Teochew whom they could better relate to. MM Lee did not elaborate on why women could not get elected.
I’m not sure PAP even attempted to field female candidates in the general elections before 1988. Did MM Lee test his theory of voters’ gender bias by fielding a strong PAP female candidate pre-1988? If MM Lee did not even try fielding a single female candidate pre-1988, little wonder he had difficulty getting any woman elected into parliament!
Regarding the supposed voters’ bias towards Chinese MPs, one of the participants, Mr Ken Kwok, pointed out that this was not an absolute barrier to strong racial minority candidates getting elected. Ken cited the examples of 2 Malay PAP MPs, Abbas Abu Amin in 1984 and Abdullah bin Tarmugi in 1988 who could get elected. Presumably, both Malay MPs single handedly faced Chinese opposition candidates and won. (CORRECTION: Abbas Abu Amin was part of a victorious 3 man PAP team which was contested in Tanjong Pagar GRC. However, Addullah bin Tarmugi did win his contest single-handedly in 1988 in the Siglap SMC) MM Lee declared that these 2 MPs won because of overwhelming PAP support which compensated for their racial handicap. According to MM Lee, the 80’s generation voted for the PAP and the PAP was in “complete control”. Again, MM Lee’s penchant for absolutism is apparent: in 1981, PAP lost its complete control in Parliament when Mr JBJ won the Anson by-election and in 1984 Mr JBJ was re-elected together with Mr Chiam See Tong who remains the MP for Potong Pasir constituency after 22 years. One could argue that the voters’ desire for Opposition MPs began in the 1980s and that the 2 Malay PAP MPs won because voters were matured enough to recognise good candidates, regardless of their race or religion.
One female participant legitimately asked: is the PAP’s lack of confidence in voters a self-fulfilling prophecy that perpetuates a vicious cycle of gender and racial differences highlighted in the form of positive discrimination in the GRC system?
Not according to MM Lee. He declared that humans have “basic, visceral, emotional bias’ in favour of MPs belonging to the same race (and same gender?). MM Lee states that this is the ‘reality’ in Singapore and even in the year 2006, PAP will continue with the practice of not fielding any racial minorities or women in single member constituencies because PAP believes that they will be rejected by the biased voters.
I do not share MM Lee’s belief that voters’ racial and gender bias is frozen in time and that the public cannot vote responsibly. A responsible voting public understands that what should matter is the personality of the candidate and their track record, not their race or gender. With an increasingly educated and worldly populace, the differences among us, especially the language barrier, is not as pronounced today as it was in the 60s-80s when English was not yet a first language and people did not travel widely. Today, there are more inter-racial marriages and racial lines are blurring. Today, women are highly regarded in the workplace and society. Indeed, PAP recognises the important role of women and will field more female candidates for the coming elections, a proposition unthinkable to the PAP in the 60s-80s. Of course, there will forever be differences between man and woman, Chinese and non-Chinese. But surely through the passage of time and lessons from history, it is not unrealistic to expect that we are capable of reducing this degree of bias through common understanding? Have we not matured and progressed at all in nation building since 1965?
As for the maximum number of MPs in a GRC being increased from 3 to 6, MM Lee stated that this was because PAP thinks that a bigger GRC is a good way to 'test' the Opposition's ability to run the government. This is an interesting point brought up by MM Lee. In the context of MM Lee's admission that local politics is unfair, one wonders what is the motivation behind PAP's self-appointed responsiblity to 'test' the Opposition. Shouldn't the voters be the best judge and set the 'test' standards for both PAP and the Opposition? Does the PAP 'test' include the unreasonably long wait for allocation of government funding to Opposition wards which limits the capability of Opposition MPs to implement estate improvements?
Disclaimer: I do not make representations that my statements are 100% accurate. I do represent that my opinions are honestly held. I do not have names or evidence that will satisfy a court of law. Any misrepresentation of opinion or fact is unintentional, innocent and will be corrected if brought to my attention.