I might be late to the party, but for those who might be as uninformed as I have been, watch this valuable footage of then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew and Deputy Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong explain the motivations behind the group representation constituencies (GRC). I am unsure of the context of this specific meeting, but the exchanges also feature Mr. Chiam See Tong, Mr. Ling How Doong and Mr. Jufrie Mahmood.
Based on the short fifteen minutes, I just wanted to pen down some of my personal observations and perspectives from the discussion between the representatives.
1. Mr. Lee and Mr. Goh constantly made the reference to “primeval forces or instincts”, and postulated that these inherent perceptions – of deep-seated differences, in particular – were pervasive in Singapore then. The People’s Action Party (PAP) was extremely prepared, using graphic representations and statistical data to support their assertions that group representation constituencies (GRC) were necessary to guarantee a minimum representation of minorities in the government. This assortment of information was complemented, spontaneously, by personal anecdotes furnished by Mr. Lee.
2. Mr. Ling was very careful not to be baited by Mr. Goh (around the halfway mark), when the latter – after going through the maps – posed the questions “what is your interpretation of the various maps … you have been looking at”, and “so how did [the Malay candidates] set out to maximise their chances of success”. Empirically, both Mr. Ling and Mr. Chiam had to concede that race did play a part, but whether the GRC is the best solution is uncertain.
However, the “evidence” provided by Mr. Goh and did not take into consideration – empirically – other factors embodied by the candidates, such as perceived competence and their political parties. Simply put, race could play a part (or could be a correlation), but it is difficult to quantify its exact influence, and is not the deciding factor per se. Mr. Goh himself acknowledged that the “weightage” is indeed contentious.
3. The trio of Mr. Chiam, Mr. Ling and Mr. Jufrie did appear a little out of their depth, unfortunately (though it might not be fair to conclude based on such a short presentation). Mr. Lee displayed his formidable political prowess when he responded to Mr. Jufrie’s oppositions, showing evidence of having contemplated different ideas and alternatives, and anticipating points raised by his opponents (who, when juxtaposed, seemed uncomfortably unsettled).
4. Fast-forward to the present day: if it is widely accepted that race still plays a part when the electorate goes to the polls, the question now is whether the GRC has been effective in terms of addressing the aforementioned “primeval forces or instincts”. The actual entrenchment of minority parliamentarians as a result of the GRC scheme has been contentious: the ruling administration will point to the aforementioned figures, while critics point to apparent under representation after implementation, and prominent politicians that have “bucked the trend”.
My greater gripe (here) is that the GRC system could have allowed weaker candidates (perceived to be competent by the ruling party, but may turn out otherwise) to take advantage of their more experienced counterparts, instead of campaigning on their own merits. The PAP has an extensive selection process for its to-be politicians, but who is to say that its purported complacency and adherence to stereotypes would not cloud the opinions of its administrators in the future?