SINGAPORE: A speech Non-Constituency Member of Parliament Hazel Poa made just last month has garnered renewed support from Singaporeans, as the number of vacant seats in Parliament doubled this week after two scandals broke on the same day involving affairs of the heart.
Speaker of Parliament and Marine Parade GRC MP Tan Chuan-Jin and Tampines GRC MP Cheng Li Hui resigned over an affair while Workers’ Party heavyweight and Aljunied GRC MP Leon Perera also stepped down from Parliament after his own extramarital relationship with senior WP member Nicole Seah came to light.
With these resignations, Parliament is now short of six MPs.
Just weeks prior, Jurong GRC MP and former Senior Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam retired from politics to contest the presidential election while Transport Minister and West Coast GRC MP S Iswaran has been suspended during an ongoing corruption probe.
Earlier, in 2021, Sengkang GRC MP Raeesah Khan resigned from the WP after she admitted to lying in Parliament. Mr Tharman, Mr Iswaran and Ms Khan were elected as the designated minority candidates for Jurong, West Coast and Sengkang respectively.
Neither the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) nor the WP, the only opposition party currently elected to Parliament, have called for by-elections to fill the vacancies. Both parties have instead pushed the workload to the remaining MPs in the six wards.
Singaporeans have decried this approach and have expressed concern about equitable representation and fair governance, as the level of support that can be extended to each constituent is potentially limited with MPs being stretched thinner to take on more than one division.
Some Singaporeans are now calling for a review of the GRC system, arguing that the six vacancies prove that the group ward approach no longer works. In the midst of these calls, Singaporeans are pointing to Ms Poa’s recent call for the GRC system to go once and for all.
Earlier this month, Ms Poa had raised a motion in Parliament calling for the GRC system to be abolished. The Progress Singapore Party (PSP) vice-chair pointed out that while the GRC system was originally introduced to protect minority representation, it has resulted in sub-optimal outcomes, over time, as weaker candidates can get elected due to the “coat-tail effect” of being fielded with powerful names.
Arguing that the GRC system hampers the development of a more balanced political landscape, Ms Poa highlighted that the system has also led to unfilled vacancies in GRCs, depriving residents of elected representation and undermining the primary objective of minority representation.
Ms Poa proposed two alternative methods to ensure minority representation in Parliament. The first involves an NCMP (Non-Constituency Member of Parliament) scheme for minorities, similar to the existing NCMP scheme for opposition candidates.
Under this scheme, if there is under-representation of minorities in Parliament, minority candidates with the highest percentage of votes could be appointed as NCMPs.
The second alternative suggested was a form of proportional representation, wherein parties would put forth a list of candidates for election, and voters would vote for their preferred political party. Seats would then be allocated to each political party based on their national vote share, better reflecting the wishes of the voters.
Ms Poa emphasised that the intent of presenting these alternatives was not to call for immediate action, but rather to stimulate thought and discussion among the members of the House and the public. The proposed alternatives would require a more extensive and in-depth discussion before implementation.
The ruling party declined her suggestions and said that the alternatives would not protect minority representation. The party also indicated that residents in MP-less divisions are apparently happy with the arrangements of other MPs covering for the MP who has left.
“But in fact, residents have never been directly asked if they preferred a GRC or SMC system,” said Ms Poa. “If PAP is certain of this, would it be willing to ask this question of voters, using the Presidential election as the means to conduct a referendum?” she asked.
“I am sure this is a question many Singaporeans would want a say in. Who better to decide how voters should be represented, than the voters themselves?”
The opposition politician argued, “Singapore has entered a different stage of development and with each GE, the growing desire of the voters for greater checks and balances and political diversity becomes more apparent. As we move towards a more balanced political landscape, many changes will be needed. One of these is to abolish the GRC.
“I urge all members and Singaporeans to support the call to abolish GRC and consider alternative ways of ensuring minority representation.”
The ruling party, unsurprisingly, rejected Ms Poa’s call and voted against her motion.
Although the WP voted to support the motion, its failure to call for by-elections in the two GRCs it holds has cast doubts on whether the party is truly committed to democratic principles, equitable representation and its self-professed role as a check to the PAP Government.