Boundaries committee report: Why so secret?
Updated: Mar 14
By Christalle Tay
ILLUSTRATION: CHENG YUI SEENG
It’s already March, and the EBRC report is nowhere in sight.
The report that will map out the new battlegrounds for political parties to contest in the coming general election usually takes the Electoral Boundaries Review Committee (EBRC) two to four months to publish. It has been seven months since the committee was formed last August. The election is due by April 2021.
Surprisingly, no opposition MP asked for updates on this report during last week’s Budget debate. Perhaps, they anticipated getting an answer like “the EBRC has not completed its deliberations”, which was what Workers’ Party MP Pritam Singh was told in Parliament on Jan 6.
Traditionally, the Prime Minister waits for the EBRC report to be released before he dissolves Parliament and calls for an election. Across the last five elections, that has happened any time from the day after the report was out (GE2001) to two months later (GE2011). In that time frame, only the PM, also the leader of the incumbent People’s Action Party (PAP), knows for sure when the election will happen.
Critics and the Opposition see the narrow window as a political tactic to handicap opposition parties, by reducing the time they have to review battleplans and work the ground. The WP has repeatedly asked for a buffer of at least six months before an election is called, to look at the revised boundaries.
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has said that a minimum period is not possible because the elections are called when necessary and contingent on given circumstances. It also prevents speculation on the election date.
The secrecy that shrouds the EBRC’s formation only fuels the perception that its unpredictability is being used against the Opposition. Its formation in 2015 was only revealed two months later in a parliamentary response and last year’s committee was announced a month after it was formed.
The Government has said that the lack of a formal announcement was to allow the Committee “to focus on its work professionally, away from unnecessary media attention or public pressures”.
The EBRC’s independence from partisan politics has been a contentious topic, even though it is composed of civil servants and not politicians. Observers have pointed out that its five members are appointed by the PM and the EBRC comes under the purview of his office (PMO). It also receives its terms of reference from the PM to follow.
In an EBRC, the Cabinet secretary typically sits on the committee as its chairman, with the Elections Department (ELD) head as its secretary. Its other three members are the heads of the Department of Statistics, Housing Development Board (HDB), and Singapore Land Authority (SLA).
No one can doubt the committee members’ technical expertise, since their agencies hold the information necessary to make changes to electoral boundaries.
But the composition was different before Singapore’s independence in 1965 — when political parties were involved in the boundary redrawing process. WP non-constituency MP Yee Jenn Jong floated the idea of bringing back an EBRC that is not entirely made up of civil servants in Parliament in 2015. He suggested for it to involve “non-Government representatives”, such as representatives from political parties, or for it to be “chaired by a High Court judge like in the case of the United Kingdom (UK)”.
PM Lee shot down the idea of involving political parties, citing the American practice where most state legislatures redraw their own boundaries. “What happens is they carve it up among themselves… I think that is not a good arrangement.”
In the United States (US), partisan gerrymandering by the incumbent runs rampant and was effectively legalised in a landmark judgement by the Supreme Court last year, unless the boundaries were racially discriminatory.
PM Lee, however, left the door slightly ajar for non-Government representatives. He said that EBRC members, being experts in housing and population, should be left to decide if they needed to consult with experts outside the public sector.
Most countries, like Singapore, appoint non-partisan civil servants with the relevant expertise into electoral boundary committees. The committees’ final reports are binding in a few countries like Australia and Canada, but in others such as Malaysia and the UK, the legislature usually decides whether to adopt its recommendations.
The UK has an independent body of civil servants called the Boundary Commission (BCE) that reviews electoral boundaries. It is led by a High Court judge and is ceremonially chaired by the Speaker of the House of Commons. On its website, its members are named and their potential conflicts of interest declared.
After the BCE has drawn up its proposals, the public is invited to provide feedback. The last review in 2018 consulted the public thrice in the 30 months it took to generate its report. Public hearings were carried out in each region of England to collect oral feedback, while written representations were accepted online. The representations were published after each round of consultation. Only after all these steps will the BCE present the recommendation report to the legislature to be wholly accepted or rejected.
Australia also collects and publishes written objections from the public, which it considers for its final report.
In Singapore, the WP has also been asking for the EBRC to publish its minutes. But PM Lee said in 2015 that this was up to the committee. “I do not believe that it is helpful to have every twist and turn in the minutes reported and published. I think the Committee's report is the final word,” he said.
The BCE, in the UK, does not share PM Lee’s concern. Its meeting minutes are published online and its process is laid out in a 214-page recommendations report. It includes initial redelineation plans, feedback from the public and the subsequent revisions. These details are also prefaced by administrative considerations like its legal framework, data source and other non-legislative factors it considers.
What’s in a report
Beyond its composition and processes, the EBRC has been criticised for the brevity of its reports in justifying the removal and creation of constituencies. A review of reports dating back to 1976 showed the committee did not always favour brief reports.
The reports first establish the “range of electors” to estimate how many electors an MP should represent. It is calculated by dividing the number of electors by parliamentary seats, and applying a 30 per cent deviation. For GRCs, the range is multiplied by the number of MPs they have.
Earlier reports were more detailed and would single out constituencies that fell outside the range. Those before 1996 would explain why specific constituencies had to be removed or created. For example, the 1984 report said it had to create seven new wards because it had redrawn the boundaries of 31 constituencies which had fallen outside the elector range.
SOURCE: EBRC WHITE PAPER (1976-2015)
Most reports explain the 30 per cent deviation by pointing to “past practice”, although the 1988 report said it was because limiting the constituencies strictly to the average number would “not be practicable or desirable”. The deviation was 20 per cent before 1980.
The US has far stricter standards, requiring that its congressional districts must have equal population “as nearly as is practicable”. New Zealand and the UK have a 5 per cent deviation allowance. Canada has a 25 per cent limit that is lifted when “necessary for more effective representation” — leeway is given as the country is geographically diverse with urban and rural populations.
A 2008 survey of 60 countries showed that 75 per cent did not impose a deviation limit. Malaysia’s lack of a deviation limit has led to complaints of unfair redelineation practices. The latest report drawn up by Malaysia’s Elections Commission (EC) in 2018 faced public criticism for mapping widely disproportionate electoral divisions. In the state of Selangor, the biggest electoral division was the Damansara seat with 150,439 voters and the smallest was Sabak Bernam with 37,126 voters — a ratio of 4:1.
Keeping to the range is important in ensuring each voter has a fairly equal voting power.
Singapore’s EBRC probably has a more difficult time than its counterparts elsewhere because of the Group Representation Constituency (GRC) scheme introduced in 1988. Besides drawing up bigger wards, it also has to decide which ones deserve to be a single-member seat or be part of a three, four, five or six-member GRC. No explanation nor justification has ever been offered.
RELATED STORY: Bye-bye jumbo GRC?
In the 2011 boundary review, the number of SMCs was increased from nine to 12. Observers noted the curious dissolution of five existing SMCs only for eight new ones to be added.
Nominated MP Eugene Tan asked in a 2013 parliamentary motion: “Taking the EBRC report of February 2011, what are the reasons to retain the SMCs of Potong Pasir and Hougang, while abolishing five other SMCs? How did the EBRC decide which GRCs should become smaller? One could not discern the methodology of the EBRC.’’
Of the five — MacPherson, Nee Soon Central, Nee Soon East, Yio Chu Kang and Chua Chu Kang — only Nee Soon East was out of the range of electors. Potong Pasir was the only SMC that was not within the range but was retained. The ward has escaped many cycles of EBRCs unscathed despite having fallen below the range since 2001.
RELATED STORY: Will Potong Pasir stay or go?
The WP mentioned the disappearance of Cheng San and Eunos GRCs, where the PAP had won by small margins. The winning margin was 10 per cent in Cheng San GRC in GE1997 and 4 per cent in Eunos GRC in GE1991. Both GRCs were identified, in the EBRC report that followed, as having exceeded the allowed range of electors and were dissolved.
Most of Eunos GRC became the new Pasir Ris GRC whereas Cheng San was dismembered and added into neighbouring GRCs.
Besides specifying electorate size, the EBRC has to consider its terms of reference from the PM, which has largely followed this template:
“To review the boundaries of the present electoral divisions, and to recommend the number and boundaries of Group Representation Constituencies and Single Member Constituencies, based on the estimated number of electors as on (specified date).”
The terms in the seven reports that followed the 1988 rollout of the GRC scheme are slightly varied — to regulate the number of SMCs and size of GRCs. The 1988 EBRC was asked to increase the number of electors in each ward and max out the limitation of 13 GRCs. In 1991, the terms said to consider the new amendment that increased MPs in GRCs from three to four. This halved the number of SMCs left to 21.
The three EBRCs that followed were asked to adhere to the legal minimum of eight SMCs — a limit they came dangerously close to, at nine SMCs. The seemingly small variations in instructions worked out dramatic changes to the boundaries.
Look at the dip in SMCs from 42 in 1988 to nine in 1997 and the next two general elections:
SOURCE: EBRC WHITE PAPER (1988-2015)
The number of SMCs went up in 2011 and 2015, following PM Lee’s promise in 2009 to shrink GRCs and increase SMC to at least 12.
We will likely see similar terms in the coming report, after PM Lee said in 2016 that he will ask for more SMCs and smaller GRCs on average. Currently, we have 13 SMCs and an average GRC size of 4.75.
Aside from how Singapore will be cut up, another issue is whether the current Registers of Electors, which comprise citizens who are 21-year-old and above on 1 Feb 2019, will be revised again before the election that is due by April 2021. If left unrevised, it will exclude over a years’ worth of new citizens and adults. Those who moved out of their homes after 1 Feb 2019 will also have to vote according to their old addresses.
RELATED STORY: Turning 21 years old might not mean you can vote just yet
Perhaps, we should look at when the Registers are next updated as a better indication of when the general election will be held.