By Michael Y.P. Ang
Singaporeans cannot seem to avoid being divided according to race. Our NRIC cards indicate which ethnic group we belong to; job applicants are asked to declare their ethnicity; there are even four racially-based community self-help groups.
One could argue that the realities of 1960s Singapore made it necessary for the government to classify Singaporeans according to ethnicity. But as we move on with nation-building in the 21st century, perhaps it is time for us to start focusing on our common national identity instead.
The key numbers
There is substantial evidence indicating that Singaporeans do not vote along racial lines. Nevertheless, the government has conjured up an ethnicity-based electoral system.
The Group Representation Constituency (GRC) Scheme is meant to ensure minority representation in Parliament. But why a deliberate scheme to ensure the adequacy of something that has always been adequate?
In post-independence Singapore, there were five General Elections before the GRC system began in 1988. Each of those five elections produced at least 16 ethnic minority MPs.
If 16 were deemed insufficient when we had a smaller parliament, why did the 2011 General Election guarantee only 15 ethnic minorities for the current parliament, which leads to a smaller proportion of minority representation? 15 out of the current total of 87 elected MPs equates to a minority representation of under 17.3 percent.
Those five elections before 1988 produced an average of 24.5 percent minority representation in Parliament. Given that Singapore’s ethnic majority has always been slightly over three-quarters of the total citizen population, is 24.5 percent unreasonably low?
Furthermore, the 1984 General Election (the last one without GRCs) saw the highest percentage of victories for ethnic minority candidates in inter-racial electoral contests, compared to the previous four elections. Minorities won six of 19 such contests (31.6%).
The five pre-1988 elections saw a total of 78 inter-racial electoral contests. Minorities won 20 of them (25.6%). The remaining 58 were won by PAP candidates. If one is to accept the government’s claim that Singaporeans vote along ethnic lines, doesn’t this mean that the 58 PAP winners could be inferior candidates who did not win on merit?
Inferior election candidates sneaking into Parliament?
The GRC system holds Singapore back from moving forward more strongly as a nation because it increases the possibility of inferior candidates sneaking into Parliament.
I cannot help but wonder, if the GRC system did not exist, whether former Minister for National Development Mah Bow Tan and former Speaker of Parliament Michael Palmer would have been elected.
Mah tried but failed to get elected in 1984, losing to Chiam See Tong in Potong Pasir (39.72% vs 60.28% of votes). But in 1988, Mah entered Parliament through the GRC system. Eventually, he oversaw the development of Singapore’s public housing but failed to manage numerous problems, stepping down from the Cabinet after the 2011 General Election.
Like Mah, Palmer entered Parliament courtesy of the GRC system, in 2006. But he turned out to be an extremely poor candidate for public service, resigning in disgrace due to a sex scandal in 2012.
Meritocracy and GRCs
If we assume that Singaporeans do vote along racial lines, can the government be certain that meritocracy exists in the workplace and schools?
Does it make sense that Singaporeans are influenced by skin colour only when choosing their representative in government? If the average Singaporean is racially motivated, wouldn’t he be similarly influenced when hiring employees or grading students of other ethnicities?
It is mind-boggling for the government to continue claiming that Singaporeans vote along ethnic lines and, at the same time, claim that meritocracy is a way of Singaporean life.
If the government believes in its own claim about meritocracy, whereby the average Singaporean thinks logically and is not racially motivated in his decision-making in all aspects of his life, then how can the government itself (or anyone) believe that the basis for the GRC system is rational?