Monday, September 26, 2005

A rare piece of article from ST columnist.

This is one of the few rare times that I agree with a ST columist. I especially loved the part whereby Cherian George is quoted saying wryly in Singapore: The Air-Conditioned Nation: 'Serangoon Gardens residents can now advertise their homes as "being near the sea".' So here is the article for all who is interested:

Sept 23, 2005


Don't let electoral boundaries breed cynicism, apathy
By Peh Shing Huei

PENG, a truck driver from Woodlands, went to see his MP to get help to woo the girl of his dreams.

He went down with his friend, Bin.

The MP agreed to help - until he realised the girl involved lived in the opposition-held Potong Pasir ward.

'During the last elections, you guys should have drawn the boundaries so that Potong Pasir is part of your constituency,' Bin lamented.

'Excuse me, but we are in Woodlands,' interjected a perplexed Peng.

'No problem,' added the animated Bin. 'All you need to do is link, link, link, link, link and then you call the whole thing a GRC.'

The above snatch of dialogue is fictitious. It's from Jack Neo's romantic comedy, I Do, I Do, which I saw on DVD recently.

But what is real is the picture painted of Singapore's electoral map.

Changes to electoral boundaries have become so frequent here that some would probably not be entirely surprised if some day, Woodlands were to be linked up with Potong Pasir to be one big GRC.

As opposition MP Low Thia Khiang once said in Parliament: 'Maybe, one day, there will be only five GRCs - north, south, east, west and central.'

We laugh at the joke in the movie because we can identify with it.

In fact, the question has to be asked: Have Singapore's electoral boundaries become a laughing stock and fodder for satire in some quarters?

Recall the 1996 boundary changes, when Serangoon Gardens was made a part of Marine Parade GRC.

As author Cherian George noted wryly in Singapore: The Air-Conditioned Nation: 'Serangoon Gardens residents can now advertise their homes as 'being near the sea'.'

The People's Action Party has often said that the Electoral Boundaries Review Committee, which is part of the Prime Minister's Office, makes its changes to electoral boundaries based on population shifts.

But the perception among others is that politics does play a part. Why else, say voters, would changes take place to areas where the opposition had done well in previous polls, giving advantage to the ruling party?

For example, Cheng San GRC, where the Workers' Party narrowly lost in the 1997 polls, was broken up in 2001, and the same happened to Eunos GRC earlier.

Does this constitute gerrymandering, which is to divide an area into voting districts so as to give unfair advantage to one party in elections?

The PAP has always maintained that the committee set up to review boundaries is independent and favours no political party.

But even the Feedback Unit's Political Matters and Media Group noted in 2002 that the boundary changes were 'less than fair', highlighting the extensive redrawings of boundaries for the past five general elections which were announced close to Nomination Day.

It also highlighted the perception that the panel is seen to be not independent.

To be fair, Singapore is not the only country where the perception of gerrymandering is an issue.

In fact, the term 'gerrymander' originated from the United States, where Massachusetts governor Elbridge Gerry's party drew an odd-shaped election district that looked like a salamander in 1812.

'Gerrymander' is a combination of his name and the lizard-like amphibian.

More recently, The New York Times had editorialised that because of gerrymandering, New Yorkers had 'no more voting options than North Koreans have'.

In Singapore, the tendency to redraw electoral boundaries, without population shifts as the key reason, can create problems.

For one, it can breed complacency in MPs from the governing party, who think that - if their wards prove to be tetchy ground - redrawing would be one safe option they can hope for.

But what bothers me most is that boundaries have become fodder for jokes among Singaporeans and have proved to be such good material that they have crept into our popular culture.

Many Singaporeans in my age group don't treat the boundaries seriously.

Older adults remember the early days - before the mid-1980s - when boundaries did not change so quixotically. They recall the days when Marine Parade represented just Marine Parade residents, and know that inland Serangoon Gardens voters wouldn't really care two hoots about the issues faced by those living by the sea.

But what about young Singaporeans like myself?

We don't have the benefit of history. We have been brought up in an era when frequent boundary changes have become a laughing stock.

Would a child brought up on a diet of electoral-boundary jokes take an election seriously?

And, by extension, would he or she take elected politicians seriously?

I have my doubts.

Unless addressed, the perception of gerrymandering would tend to reinforce political apathy among younger Singaporeans.

Can Singaporeans trust the electoral process, if the outcome of electoral-boundary changes is often to remove wards that the PAP nearly lost?

And if young Singaporeans become cynical about electoral boundaries, won't that cynicism extend to elections, and the vote?

It's a sad day when issues surrounding the citizen's hallowed right to vote become less and less like the serious matter they should be.


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