Are Singapore’s electoral practices legal?

Min Cheong

Madasamy Ravi, Human Rights Lawyer

Madasamy Ravi, Human Rights Lawyer

Political rhetoric surrounding the General Elections (GE) has intensified since the Electoral Boundary Review Committee submitted its recommendation to the Singapore government last month. With the conclusion of recent Budget 2011 Parliamentary Debate, interest in GE-related matters has been mounting.

As the GE approaches, two areas of popular concern have emerged. They are the seemingly self-serving redrawing of the boundaries which define constituencies across the Republic and the framework within which voting occurs, with emphasis on the Group Representation Constituency (GRC) system.

To help shed some light on the issues surrounding the contentious practice and policy from a constitutional perspective, Min Cheong (MC) speaks to prominent human rights lawyer Madasamy Ravi (MR). New Asia Republic thanks Mr Madasamy for sharing his insight.

MC: The government-initiated redrawing of boundaries around electoral districts has often been criticised and characterised as gerrymandering. What is the definition of gerrymandering and can the redrawing of boundaries surrounding constituencies in Singapore be considered as such?

MR: Basically, gerrymandering can be said to be attempts to manipulate geographic limits so as to create districts within which voters behave more partially towards a certain party, and yes, what is happening in Singapore is gerrymandering.

MC: When was gerrymandering first used in Singapore – was there any particular momentous event or political environment which created the impetus for the powers-that-be to turn to gerrymandering?

MR: There is an interesting link not many people are aware of between the Group Representation Constituency (GRC) system which came about in 1988 after a 1987 select committee hearing to ensure minority representation in parliament and the policy of regulating ethnic quotas which was entered into force in 1989 in the form of the Ethnic Integration Policy (EIP), both of which are related to the issue of gerrymandering.

The reason as to why minority representation in parliament was an issue which was examined stemmed from the concern that Malays, in particular, would not be elected by the populace in constituencies that had a Chinese majority. They highlighted the Malays as an ethnic group because Joshua Benjamin Jeyaratnam, an Indian, won in a majority Chinese constituency against the PAP, so it was assumed that the Indians did not have a problem garnering votes from people of races other than that of their own.

In 1988, former Solicitor-General Francis Seow contested Eunos GRC with two other members under the Workers’ Party and won 49.11% of the votes cast. It was known that the Bedok and Eunos constituencies had a high concentration of Malays residents, who were consistently voting against the PAP, as observed by Goh Chok Tong. Hence, the government decided to redraw the boundaries surrounding Eunos. Also, to ensure that the political sentiments of the Malays would not disadvantage the PAP’s hold on power, the racial quota scheme was activated in the name of multi-racialism when in fact it was implemented to dilute the Malay vote in lieu of elections.

As a result of the ethnic quota, in any one constituency, there would be a a cap placed on the percentage of ethnic groups permitted to live in the HDB flats within those areas – a maximum of 25% for Malays, between 12-15% for Indians, with the Chinese obviously ending up as the largest ethnic group almost anywhere. So. that’s the connection between diluting minority ethnic group votes and gerrymandering, and it’s a very serious issue.

In other countries, there have been legal suits filed against surreptitious discrimination, but here, it’s done blatantly and it is openly institutionalised. Also, we don’t have any law similar to the Voting Rights Act, which protects against minority group discrimination where voting is concerned and upholds the right of minority communities to achieve majority status within any given electoral district.

MC: Given that explicit legislation pertaining to voting rights does not exist in Singapore, can a constitutional challenge against gerrymandering and associated infractions be issued here?

MR: It can be done basing the challenge on the principle of inequality of representation. In Singapore, there is definitely inequality of representation in the voting system – an SMC shouldn’t have a smaller voice than a GRC, for example. That can be constitutionally challenged. If Radin Mas, an SMC, elections return one MP while in Sembawang GRC, elections return five or six MPs, it is unconstitutional and the case against the system can be argued under Article 12 of the Singapore Constitution, which has to do with equality and equality of treatment.

The ethnic quota system can also be challenged under Article 12, because it is violates the right to movement and association of ethnic groups. It’s healthy for minorities to come together because they need to feel secure in a group in a place where they are outnumbered by other communities, and this idea is celebrated in many parts of the world.

MC: If there are such clear legal metrics  which can prove that the GRC system and the application of the racial quota scheme is unconstitutional, why hasn’t a challenge been issued?

MR: The only person who challenged the results of the elections was Chee Sook Chin in 2006, whom I represented.  It was after the General Elections in 2006 and we wanted to declare the results of the General Elections null and void because the government used the threat of not upgrading HDB estates in constituencies won by opposition parties to intimidate the electorate. Really, opposition parties should take up this challenge. It’s a grave issue. Basically, what the government is doing is similar to what happened during the Apartheid – to tell the minority that their members have to remain a minority group in every constituency. This is an infringement of their freedom of choice and restricts their right to movement in terms of being able to choose where they want to live.

MC: One of the reasons proffered by the authorities is that the racial quota scheme creates microcosms that display representative population statistics and has been put in place also to prevent ghettoisation. Is this a valid defence?

MR: There are ghettos everywhere and the world has accepted that. Even if ghettos are not ideal, it is not right to use a tool such as the racial quota system to deal with ghettoisation. Nowhere in the world is this the case, save for in Singapore.

MC: In your opinion, why haven’t opposition parties placed the notion of a constitutional challenge on their agendas?

MR: Opposition parties are probably not paying enough attention to such important constitutional issues. They should be consulting constitutional lawyers to examine matters like this as well as documents such as the Election Petition; the only time this was done was in 2006 when I represented Chee Sook Chin in court.

However, I don’t blame them and the fact that they haven’t done so. There are no constitutional lawyers in Singapore doing this kind of work. The Law Society is equipped to assist challenges as such, but the public law section of the Law Society is not looking into the issue at all. Most lawyers are not interested and even if they are, they are fearful of rocking the boat, but I am here to assist, and I can help if any of the opposition parties want to get the ball rolling. In addition, the opposition parties do not have the resources to embark on such projects and therefore focus on other issues.

Still, the opposition has to take discussions on social and political issues to a higher level. JBJ was able to fire up the man on the street. He gave us all constitutional education. He carried out all sorts of constitutional challenges on his own and when he talked about civil rights, he explained basic concepts of civil liberties to the layman, so the population then was more educated in this aspect. The internet population, however, despite all the information they are getting, do not seem to be grasping these concepts as adequately.

MC: How should a constitutional challenge be promulgated and are there specific arguments that can be made in the case of gerrymandering and related injustices?

MR: Firstly, you can take out what is known as an Originating Summons or a Declaration stating that the drawing of boundaries violates Article 12 of the Constitution and how so, also that the GRC  system dilutes minority representation in respective constituencies and infringes upon their right to choose their own leaders.

It can also be said that the redrawing of the boundaries gives the PAP undue advantage over the opposition during elections, and this can be challenged under the Parliamentary Elections Act. Of course details have to be provided. – Furthermore, this causes constituents duress when their boundaries change without notice – there might a loss of a sense of identity which can be protected using the principle of natural justice. Then there is the issue of inequality, where representation in parliament is not proportionate. Lastly, it can be argued that race-based politics is unfair and unconstitutional.

MC: In what manner/ways can members of society, including opposition parties, collaborate with the legal community to work on restoring and protecting the rights of the citizenry?

MR: Allow lawyers who are keen on pursuing cases like these to take the lead where manoeuvring legislation is concerned and support us however possible. Also, the opposition parties should cooperate more and be more united. That is the best way to tackle this problem.

New Asia Republic thanks Mr Madasamy for sharing his insight with our readers.