Boundaries report: What’s changed and why it matters

By Daryl Choo and Christalle Tay

ILLUSTRATION: LORAINE LEE


So the surprise yesterday was the release of the much-awaited Election Boundaries Review Committee (EBRC) report. And the fact that it happened in the midst of the Covid-19 outbreak. Opposition parties cried foul while the People’s Action Party (PAP) leaders went into a huddle at its Bedok South headquarters.


Why now? There’s still a year to go before the deadline for a general election expires.


UK-based political analyst Loke Hoe Yeong, who has written two books about opposition politicians, thinks that the timing puts the opposition in a Catch-22 situation.


“If the Opposition praises the PAP government for its handling of the Covid-19, as has the World Health Organization, it would have the effect of negating any rationale for voting for the Opposition,’’ he told Class Notes. “If the Opposition criticises the PAP’s handling, it is unlikely to go down well with the bulk of voters who would look around them and see how dire the Covid-19 situation is in some other countries.”


For author and former journalist Peh Shing Huei, the timing of the report’s release was no surprise. "After the Budget and PM's address to the nation earlier this week, it was clear that election was coming,” he said.


“The government has been loud and clear that it is looking out for the people, through concrete measures in the Budget and recurring rhetoric that it will always look out for Singaporeans. That means the boundaries report had to be released soon so that political parties have time to digest the changes. I believe the GE will be held in Q2 this year, although my guess is that it will avoid the Ramadan fasting month."


We now know that there will be 17 GRCs (up from 16) and 14 SMCs (up from 13).


But, so what?


The number of parliamentary seats will be 93


Why it matters: It’s been increasing every election because the electorate is growing.

SOURCE: EBRC REPORTS (2001-2020)


This also means that if no opposition candidate wins, the number of parliamentarians will go up to 105, as opposition candidates with the largest share of votes can enter the Parliament under the Non-Constituency MP (NCMP) scheme. The NCMP numbers used to be nine, until the Constitution was changed in 2016 to raise it to 12.


And we’re not even including Nominated MPs (NMPs), which is capped at nine.


Just 14 SMCs


Why it matters: The EBRC has always been stingy about increasing SMCs. When the maximum size of GRCs was bumped up to six members in 1996, the number of SMCs almost scratched the legal minimum of eight: it hovered at nine SMCs for three elections between 1996 and 2006. After Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong promised in 2009 and in 2016 to increase the number of SMCs, the EBRC has introduced more SMCs, albeit at an excruciatingly slow pace.

The number of SMCs grew from nine to 12 in 2011, but was increased by one in the three EBRC reports that followed, including the one released yesterday.


SOURCE: EBRC reports (1988 - 2020)


No more jumbo GRCs


Why it matters: Four six-member GRCs were introduced in 1996. It went up to five for the 2001 and 2006 elections. Then it came down to two in 2011 and in 2015, in line with PM Lee’s promise to shrink GRC sizes. The two were Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC, anchored by then Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean, and Ang Mo Kio GRC, helmed by the PM himself.


The issue was whether the Opposition could muster the manpower needed to contest jumbo GRCs and whether such a big group could really be said to represent voters’ choice. In GE2015, the six-member Ang Mo Kio GRC with 187,771 electors had almost 11 times that of the smallest single-seat ward Potong Pasir, which had 17,407 electors.


The new boundary report showed Pasir Ris-Punggol and Ang Mo Kio GRCs will return five instead of six MPs.


Pasir Ris-Punggol will offload some areas into Tampines GRC and Sengkang GRC and is large enough for a whole new SMC, Punggol West, to appear on the map. Ang Mo Kio had one part carved out to form Yio Chu Kang SMC.


Yio Chu Kang SMC (above) was carved out from Ang Mo Kio GRC. Punggol West SMC was similarly carved out of Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC. SOURCE: ELECTIONS DEPARTMENT SINGAPORE/ ILLUSTRATION: CHRISTALLE TAY


RELATED STORY: Bye-bye jumbo GRC?


Potong Pasir stays, but is expanded


Why it matters: Potong Pasir SMC remains the smallest ward in Singapore, despite having its borders redrawn for the first time in three decades. But it has more voters than in the past, from 17,407 in GE2015 to 18,551 now. It isn’t quite an addition, but more of a chop and change. Some of the ward got drawn into neighbouring Bishan-Toa Payoh but the loss in voters was made up for by some 5,400 voters previously from Marine Parade GRC.


After the ward fell from opposition stalwart Chiam See Tong in 2011 into the PAP fold, there was some speculation that it would be wiped off the electoral map. Since 2001, its size has been below the lower limit set by the elections department. It had 17,400 voters in the 2015 General Election, below the minimum of 20,000 voters per MP guideline set by the EBRC that still applies for the coming election. Yup, it's still below.


The number of voters in Potong Pasir SMC has been below the lower limit set by the EBRC since 2001. SOURCE: ELECTIONS DEPARTMENT SINGAPORE

Some polling districts from Marine Parade GRC was subsumed into Potong Pasir SMC, which also lost a polling district. SOURCE: ELECTION DEPARTMENT SINGAPORE/ ILLUSTRATION: CHRISTALLE TAY


RELATED STORY: Will Potong Pasir stay or go?


Three SMCs —Sengkang West, Punggol East and Fengshan — disappeared


Why it matters: These happen to be wards the Workers’ Party were active in — they have fielded candidates to contest the wards for as long as they existed, with the exception of Fengshan SMC back in 1984.


Sengkang West SMC was carved out from Ang Mo Kio GRC in 2011. It is held by PAP MP Lam Pin Min, who is the Senior Minister of State for Health and Transport. He beat his Workers’ Party opponent Koh Choong Yong comfortably with 62.1 per cent of the votes in GE2015. More recently, he earned the ignominy of PMD riders who swarmed his Meet-the-People session after the PMD ban was announced on Nov 4.


Punggol East SMC has a more interesting history. PAP’s Michael Palmer won it in GE2011 but he had to quit after his extra-marital affair came to light two years later. In the by-election that followed, WP’s Lee Li Lian, with 54.5 per cent of the votes, edged out PAP candidate Dr Koh Poh Koon. But when GE2015 rolled around, PAP veteran MP Charles Chong wrested it back, with just 51.76 per cent of the vote - the narrowest shave in the election. Ms Lee was offered the NCMP seat but she declined to take it up.


But WP’s Dennis Tan wasn’t so coy. He stood in Fengshan and lost to PAP candidate Cheryl Chan. He got 42.5 per cent of the votes, enough for him to become an NCMP.


The erasure of Fengshan and Punggol East brought back echoes from GE2015, when Joo Chiat SMC was merged with Marine Parade GRC after WP lost the ward by just 388 votes in 2011.


It clearly hit a nerve with the Workers’ Party which said in a statement: “As is its custom, the EBRC has not disclosed how it came to its decisions. For instance, while the number of Single Member Constituencies (SMCs) has increased from 13 to 14, the EBRC has not explained why it chose to carve out some new SMCs while dissolving Sengkang West, Fengshan and Punggol East SMCs, areas where WP has been active for many years."


Workers' Party stomping grounds Sengkang West and Punggol East single-seat wards have been dissolved to form the new Sengkang GRC, which also includes some parts of the Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC. SOURCE: ELECTIONS DEPARTMENT/ ILLUSTRATION: CHRISTALLE TAY

Fengshan SMC has returned to East Coast GRC, where it was carved out of for GE2015 following a fierce fight in the prior general election. SOURCE: ELECTIONS DEPARTMENT/ ILLUSTRATION: CHRISTALLE TAY



RELATED STORY: Boundaries committee report: Why so secret?


Four new SMCs appeared


Why it matters: What’s more interesting about the four SMCs is who is at the helm of each: Marymount is under the charge of Manpower Minister Josephine Teo; Punggol West’s MP is Ms Sun Xueling, senior parliamentary secretary for home affairs and national development while Yio Chu Kang’s custodian Dr Koh Poh Koon, senior minister of state for trade and industry. Only Kebun Baru is held by a backbencher, Mr Henry Kwek.


Office-holders very seldom helm SMCs, much less ministers. Plus the surprise is that Dr Koh seems to be out again for a straight fight. You might recall that he stood and lost against WP in the 2013 Punggol East by-election and was brought into GE2015 as part of PM Lee’s six-man GRC team.


Then again, it’s up to the PAP to decide who to field where and there’s no way of knowing if the incumbents would stay put.


The four new SMCs: Marymount, Punggol West, Yio Chu Kang and Kebun Baru. SOURCE: ELECTIONS DEPARTMENT/ ILLUSTRATION: CHRISTALLE TAY


Opposition wards Hougang and Aljunied remained intact


Why it matters: The EBRC seldom touches boundaries of wards that have already fallen into opposition hands. Dr Chiam’s stronghold in Potong Pasir had unbudging borders when he held the seat between 1984 and 2011. Ever since Hougang SMC fell to the Workers’ Party in 1991, it has remained largely intact — save in 2011, when a polling district was brought into Aljunied GRC.


The same year saw a landmark election where Workers’ Party wrestled Aljunied GRC from the PAP. Aljunied GRC escaped revisions by the EBRC in 2015 and 2020.


Wards choped by the Singapore Democratic Party remained largely unchanged


Why it matters: The SDP was the first (and only) political party to announce the wards it will compete for in the upcoming general election. In August last year, it named Holland-Bukit Timah GRC and Marsiling-Yew Tee GRC, as well as the Bukit Batok, Bukit Panjang and Yuhua single seats.


These were the same constituencies they had failed to win in GE2015.


All were kept intact except for the transfer of some 4,800 voters from Sembawang GRC to Marsiling-Yew Tee GRC. The SDP can breathe easy.


Still no 3-member GRCs


Why it matters: The birth of GRCs began in teams of threes in 1988. Legislation governing the GRC size was amended in 1991 to raise the maximum size to four MPs, and this simultaneously saw the extinction of three-member GRCs. Even four-member GRCs took a dive after the Constitution was changed in 1996 to have up to six-member GRCs. While four-member GRCs increased after PM’s resolution to shrink the average size of GRCs, the new report did not see the return of three-member GRCs.


Larger GRC sizes at the two hotly-contested coasts


Why it matters: The East Coast and West Coast GRCs, expected to be hot seats in the coming General Election, were the only constituencies that increased in MP sizes. Both increased from four- to five-member GRCs.


The WP has put up fierce fights for East Coast GRC in the past elections. The party’s five-man team lost with 45.2 per cent of the vote in GE2011. At the next general election in 2015, Fengshan SMC was carved out of the GRC. WP contested both the GRC and SMC but failed to take them. But it did well enough to earn them three NCMP seats.


This time round, Fengshan SMC is returning to East Coast GRC, which will now have 120,239 voters. Perhaps, the old WP crew will be back as a five-member team? But who will anchor the PAP side since it is likely that former minister Lim Swee Say will retire from politics?


As for West Coast GRC, it has been a regular stomping ground of the newly-formed Progress Singapore Party in the past months. That is where its founder, Dr Tan Cheng Bock, had sunk his roots in for 26 years as MP for Ayer Rajah. After boundary changes, some polling districts previously under Chua Chu Kang GRC and Hong Kah North SMC will be drawn into West Coast GRC, with 144,516 voters.


The EBRC took a really really long time


Why it matters: This EBRC kept everyone guessing because it went beyond the two to four months it usually took to do its work. Because the report has prefaced Parliament's dissolution in the past five elections by a day (GE2001) to almost two months (GE2011), it is seen as a harbinger of general elections. But, there is now something that lies in-between the release and dissolution of Parliament.


A check of records over the past two decades showed past EBRC reports were always released after the Registers of Electors were revised. This time will see a reversed order as the ELD announced yesterday that another cycle of revision will take place. The current Registers only included Singaporeans who were 21-year-old and older as of 1 Feb 2019 — the revised Registers will include newly eligible voters up to 1 March 2020.


RELATED STORY: Turning 21 years old might not mean you can vote just yet


Since a revision of the Registers would include a whole year of electors, it’s unlikely for elections to be called before the new electoral roll is finalised or certified.


The Registers will be open for public inspection from today till 27 March, followed by six days for the ELD to process claims or objections to the Registers, and then for them to be certified. So we probably have a good three weeks before the PM is able to dissolve Parliament and call an election.


Liang Lei and Wong Shiying contributed to the reporting.

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