What’s life like for residents in ever-changing wards?

Updated: Mar 23

By Loraine Lee Yen and Christalle Tay

ILLUSTRATION: LORAINE LEE YEN


For the first time in the 32 years he has lived in Faber Hills, retiree Lee Chan Hing won’t have to worry about which constituency he belongs to during the elections. After the report on the electoral boundaries review was made public on Friday (Feb 13), he found out he was staying put in Jurong GRC.


This is the first time in almost 20 years his ward was not changed prior to a general election. In 2001, he was moved from Jurong GRC to Bukit Timah SMC, which was later merged into Holland-Bukit Timah GRC in 2006. He was again moved in the 2011 general election to West Coast GRC and back to Jurong GRC in 2015.


Mr Lee thinks these changes complicate the election process. “If our government is steady, let it be. If you are good, people will sure vote for you. So why change?” said the 72-year-old.


Besides Faber Hills where Mr Lee lives, another area along Dunearn Road encompassing mostly private estates, Hillcrest and Swiss Club, has also been redrawn four times into different constituencies.


RELATED STORY: Boundaries report: What’s changed and why it matters


But these changes are not just in name, nor just a minor inconvenience to voters — it involves adjustments to municipal bodies like the town councils, community clubs and grassroots organisations involved in running and maintaining a ward.


Most times, the changes are cosmetic, such as amendments to signages and the facades of buildings, but would still require some spending to implement. The changes also mean a different distribution of service to different groups of residents, like which town council to pay conservancy fees to and where to get your free mask.


It’s something these organisations have got used to — every ward but Potong Pasir SMC in the last five general elections has undergone changes to its boundaries, checks of previous Electoral Boundary Review Committee (EBRC) reports showed.

SOURCE: EBRC reports (1996-2020)/ ILLUSTRATION: CHRISTALLE TAY


For a closer look at changes made by EBRCs in the past two decades, click here.


The biggest change in the latest EBRC report is the creation of Sengkang GRC, which now includes a big chunk of 54,833 voters in Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC, 35,477 voters from Punggol East SMC and 27,236 voters from Sengkang West SMC.


SOURCE: EBRC reports (2020)/ ILLUSTRATION: CHRISTALLE TAY


Two areas were redrawn for the fourth time in the latest report. The first is a small area with 22,856 voters around parts of Yishun East, along Yishun Avenue 1 and Avenue 6, comprising mainly HDB housing and private condominiums. It was originally under MP Ong Ye Kung in Sembawang GRC but has been moved to Nee Soon GRC. The second includes largely private residences in Novena, near the intersection of Thomson Road and the Pan Island Expressway (PIE), where the hospital cluster is. It moved 6,673 voters from Bishan Toa-Payoh to Jalan Besar GRC.


Areas with 4 changes in constituency boundaries between 2001 and 2020. SOURCE: EBRC REPORTS (1996 - 2020)


The reason for the boundary changes, given by the EBRC: “population shifts and housing developments since the last boundary delineation exercise”. It sets an acceptable range — usually 20,000 to 38,000 voters per MP — so that each MP serves roughly the same number of residents. Wards falling outside that range will usually have its boundaries redrawn.


The committee also receives specific instruction from the Prime Minister, which for the latest report was to “create smaller Group Representation Constituencies” and “to have more than the current 13 Single Member Constituencies”.


RELATED STORY: Boundaries committee report: Why so secret?


But because the committee does not explain its reasoning behind each boundary change, it is hard to know why the committee makes changes to boundaries still within the acceptable range, or why it keeps boundaries of wards outside the range untouched.


The range seems to serve more as a guideline than a hard and fast rule — the EBRC has tended not to redraw the boundaries of opposition wards. The boundaries of Potong Pasir SMC, the stronghold of veteran opposition politician Chiam See Tong for 27 years, were untouched even though the voter count in the ward has been below the lower limit since 2001.


This time round, however, Potong Pasir SMC did not escape the EBRC’s attention. Some parts previously from Marine Parade GRC were added to the SMC while the area around Lorong 8 Toa Payoh was redrawn into the neighbouring Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC. These changes resulted in an increase in voter count from 16,739 in GE2015 to 18,551, which is still below the 20,000 lower limit.


RELATED STORY: Will Potong Pasir stay or go?


In the case of Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC, something clearly had to be done given that its 242,225 voter count went well above the upper limit for six-member GRCs set at 228,000.


When the EBRC trimmed the number of seats in the constituency from six to five members, the ceiling for electors in Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC was also lowered to 190,000, making a cut in voter numbers necessary. The more recently populated Sengkang housing estate, especially Anchorvale, was the focus of the carve-out. These areas that have been merged to form Sengkang GRC are under the charge of MPs Lam Pin Min, Teo Ser Luck and Charles Chong.


Notably, three SMCs  — Sengkang West, Punggol East and Fengshan —  were absorbed into neighbouring GRCs in the latest boundary change. The three wards were hotly contested by the opposition Workers’ Party in recent elections and have been their stomping grounds for years — a fact the party did not fail to point out in its statement responding to the latest boundary change.


The Electoral Department (ELD) does not give additional notice to residents whose constituencies have changed, aside from reflecting the change in polling cards sent to eligible voters before an election and notifying the public with a press statement when the EBRC report is out. Residents can, however, check if their constituency has been changed here.


Frequent boundary changes may disrupt campaigning plans for political parties, but interviews with 17 residents in areas that have undergone at least three constituency changes since 2001 showed that most were blasé.


“The whole gang of us are so apathetic. We are pretty much isolated from each other,” said 73-year-old retiree Madam Leow, who has lived in Dunearn since 1980.


Ms Teo, a 66-year-old retiree who has lived in Faber Hill Estates for 28 years said: “The changes can’t be helped, but maybe it's so we can meet new people and know what's happening in other places.”

Dunearn Estate, with 3 changes in constituency between 2001 and 2020. SOURCE: EBRC REPORTS (1996-2020)


For private estate residents like 25-year-old Ms Ellissa Sayampanathan who are more involved in grassroots activities, constant name changes make a community lose “a whole aspect of its identity”.


Residents in her area used to do community work for the nearby St. Theresa’s nursing home. “Now, because we are part of Holland-Bukit Timah, we’ve been asked to form different relations,” said Ms Sayampanathan, who has lived in Dunearn her whole life. “What happens if in an election or two, the boundaries are redrawn again and those ties are now cut?”


The Dunearn Neighbourhood Committee (NC) that had organised the visits with the nursing home "continues to support St Theresa's Home despite it not being in (the same) GRC", said the NC Chairman Jason Lee in an email to Class Notes. He did not elaborate on how.


Ms Sayampanathan's community centre was also changed in 2015 from the Tanglin CC that was within walking distance to Bukit Timah CC, a 10-minute drive away, when Tanglin CC was drawn into the neighbouring Tanjong Pagar GRC. Meant to be gathering spaces for up to 50,000 nearby residents, these 108 centres in Singapore serve as the venue for grassroots activities like the giving out Edusave awards and most recently, distributing masks.


“Why is it that something that was created to be that magnet or that gravitating point has now no longer been allowed to perform its cause?’’ asked Ms Sayampanathan.


Residents have to collect application forms and cheques from the farther Bukit Timah CC, said Mr Jason Lee. "We are looking into ways where application forms and payments could be done electronically to provide more convenience to our residents."


Neighbourhood cohesion events organised by the NC, which are held in the neighbourhood and not in the community centre, go on unaffected. The committee itself, however, must technically move its monthly meetings to Bukit Timah CC — but has been allowed by Tanglin CC to stay.


RELATED STORY: Bye-bye jumbo GRC?


NCs in private estates and Resident Committees (RCs) in HDB estates are grassroots organisations manned by volunteers under the People’s Association. That distinction between NCs and RCs will be dismantled, said PM Lee during his announcement of Residents Networks (RNs) in 2018, a new type of committee that serves residents in both private and public estates.


There is another network, the town councils (TC), which takes care of HDB housing estates, run by elected MPs. There are 16 TCs, each with at least one GRC. Other than Tampines TC, Marsiling-Yew Tee TC, Sembawang TC and East-Coast TC, they also cover at least one SMC.


Changes are more pronounced when wards are chopped and changed and residents suddenly find themselves served by a different town council, even if run by members of the same political party. After the EBRC report in 2015, two TCs were renamed because of boundary changes:



Clementi was originally part of West Coast GRC but was shifted in 2015 as part of Jurong GRC. The redrawn boundaries meant that Clementi moved from West Coast TC to Jurong TC. Jurong TC renamed itself as Jurong-Clementi TC, and updated their logo as a result.



Jurong Town Council logo in 2001. SOURCE: SINGAPORE GRAPHIC ARCHIVES.

Jurong-Clementi TC logo as of 2015. SOURCE: JURONG-CLEMENTI TC


Similarly, East Coast TC had to be renamed when Fengshan SMC was carved out of East Coast GRC in 2015.


East Coast Town Council in 2010. PHOTO: STREETDIRECTORY.

East Coast-Fengshan Town Council in 2020. PHOTO: LORAINE LEE YEN


The new Sengkang GRC would make an interesting case study of how boundary changes affect residents. It is a hotchpotch of polling districts from Pasir Ris-Punggol and the now-defunct Sengkang West and Punggol East SMCs. Because Sengkang West SMC was under Ang Mo Kio TC and the others under Pasir Ris-Punggol TC, either town council could take the new Sengkang GRC under its wing — or it could venture out on its own, as a new town council.


Wards are subsumed under town councils based on their suitability in terms of proximity and residential profile, like its demographic and dominant flat type. They also charge different rates.


Service & conservancy charges in Ang Mo Kio TC & Pasir Ris-Punggol TC (as of 14 March 2020). SOURCE: ANG MO KIO TOWN COUNCIL & PASIR RIS-PUNGGOL TC


For residents of Sengkang GRC, this spells a possible change in service and conservancy charges (S&CC), which vary by town council. But for the town councils themselves, gaining or losing districts in an EBRC change means the start of a tedious handover — in residents’ finances (S&CC) and town maintenance operations. Things look tidier on the CC front. The redrawn Sengkang GRC has three community centres named Anchorvale, Rivervale, and Sengkang CC — with a new Buangkok CC poised to join the squad in 2022.


Reactions to the new Sengkang GRC, it seems, largely depend on the wards residents were in before the change. Formerly in Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC, Mr Desmond Sim, 52, said the new boundaries made more sense, geographically. He found it odd that his area at Compassvale in Sengkang was tied to Pasir Ris, which was “too far away”.


Mr Jethro Ooi, 40, also felt that it was “not appropriate” to be part of Pasir Ris-Punggol. When he moved from Fernvale to Anchorvale in 2017, despite being just across the Sengkang Floating Wetland, he found himself moving from Sengkang West SMC to Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC as well. He felt being part of Sengkang GRC made “more sense in its name”.


But Mr Jeffrey Soh, 54, a 15 year resident of what once was Punggol East SMC, was not happy that his single-seat ward got subsumed into a larger GRC. “SMC is better to gauge how and who you want to vote for.”


While every boundary change is bound to create problems for incumbent MPs and opposition politicians who have marked their territory, life for residents still goes on smoothly. It is testimony to the efficient transition at the community and municipal level. It is an inconvenience, but nowhere near as complicated as when a PAP ward falls to an opposition party.


But that’s a feature for another day.


Cheng Yui Seeng contributed reporting.


This article was updated on March 23 to include email replies from Mr Jason Lee, the chairman of Dunearn NC.

By NUS Communications and New Media

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