February 2016

Express your views on the recent plans to evolve Singapore's political system through changes to the GRC, NCMP and Elected Presidency schemes.

1st Place - Calvin Lee

On 27 Jan 2016, PM Lee Hsien Loong surprisingly announced a slew of proposed changes to Singapore’s political system. This included reducing the size of Group Representation Constituencies (“GRCs”), increasing the number of Single Member Constituencies, increasing the number of opposition Members of Parliament (“MPs”) by increasing the number of Non-Constituency MPs (“NCMPs”), giving NCMPs voting rights equivalent to elected MPs, and introducing a mechanism to ensure that minorities may be ‘periodically’ elected to the office of the Elected Presidency (“EP”). These changes were surprising not only because of their breadth and scale, but also because they largely acted against the PAP’s interests by strengthening opposition power in Parliament. Do these changes thus reflect an altruistic motive on the ruling party’s part?

 

A pragmatist would argue that this is hardly the case, as the PAP has not relinquished its parliamentary dominance that allows it to retain autonomous legislative power. Even with the increased opposition voting power in Parliament, the PAP has not lost the simple majority required to pass any law (Article 57(1) of the Singapore Constitution), or even the two-third supermajority required to pass any Supply Bill despite the EP’s withholding of assent (Article 148D of the Singapore Constitution). What this effectively means is that, notwithstanding any prior political promises made, there is no legal impediment preventing the PAP from re-amending Articles 39(1)(b) and 39(2) to strip the NCMPs of their power, albeit at the cost of substantial political goodwill.

 

Hence, given that the substantive content of such changes makes no effective change to the Singapore political system, these changes are significant more for their collective effect in encouraging political involvement. From ensuring that minorities are elected as EP to increasing opposition voting power in Parliament or even the more long-term change of encouraging greater political competition by increasing the number of political wards in Singapore, the common goal of such changes is to encourage greater plurality in the Singapore Government through greater political involvement from all corners of society. This essay will explore the nature, significance and effect of this goal.

 

The nature of plurality

 

Concerns about the lack of plurality in the Singapore political system are well-founded, as the PAP has dominated every Singapore election since 1965. It has never lost majoritarian power since 1959, with the PAP achieving unbroken hegemony from 1968 to 1981, and recording its poorest performance of a still-remarkable 60.1% in 2011. Since then, it has strengthened its position considerably in the latest 2015 elections, with a much improved performance of 69.86% of total votes. It is not hyperbole to say that such numbers are downright astounding by international standards. For instance, the US President Barack Obama won his 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns with only 52.9% and 51.1% of the popular vote. Closer to home, the largest Malaysian political party, UMNO, won only 29.45% of the popular vote in the 2013 election, with the governing coalition, Barisan Nasional, winning only 47.38% of the popular vote.

 

Such attempts to encourage political involvement are not new. The government has shifted from dismissing political debate as ‘boh tua boh suay’ (then-Minister for Foreign Affairs George Yeo, 1995) to encouraging citizens to ‘debate issues with reason, passion and conviction, and not be passive bystanders in their own fate’ with the assurance that the government is ‘increasingly guided by the consensus of views in the community’ (then-DPM Lee Hsien Loong, 2004, Harvard Club Speech). Such overt state involvement to provoke political involvement are peculiar to local conditions; one does not, for example, observe the US government having to actively encourage political disputes.

 

In modern times, however, the rise of social media and blogs has diminished the need for such political involvement. For example, it was observed that the political social commentary through social media and online blogs played a crucial role in affecting the results of the 2015 elections. Such increase in political involvement did not, however, reflect an increase in political plurality in Parliament, as opposition parties saw a decrease in their voting shares in all constituencies contested.

 

The significance of plurality

 

The virtue of political plurality is not self-evident, as compared to other fundamental liberties such as equality and free speech, or other key indicators of good governance such as efficiency and corruption-free. It can perhaps even be argued that such imposed plurality is undemocratic, as the democratic vote clearly demonstrated Singapore’s preference for the PAP to remain clearly in power, instead of other political parties; this is a common criticism of the NCMP scheme. Why then does the government continue to promote political plurality?

 

First, the pragmatist would note that the significance of generating political goodwill through such initiatives should not be understated. Such measures would portray the PAP in a gracious light as it encourages political competition and ostensibly ensures a ‘check-and-balance’ on the PAP’s power through such opposition presence in Parliament, although a deeper analysis would reveal that there has been no effective undermining of the PAP’s unilateral dominance. Having achieved a landslide victory over the past election, the PAP can afford to allow the support for the opposition to develop healthily instead of adopting a more high-handed approach to demean and criticize the opposition, although incidents such as the hijacking of the WP motion to fill the vacant NCMP seat demonstrates that the PAP is not above using its majoritarian voting might if needed. Such political goodwill also has international impact, as Singapore has often been labeled an authoritarian single-party state by foreign media; sharing such a label with dictatorial political systems such as North Korea or Cuba cannot be healthy for Singapore’s international political standing. Arguably, there is a need for Singapore to dispel this image, or at least erect certain mechanisms to allow it to claim a legitimate defence to such allegations.

 

Second, the idealist would note that allowing NCMPs would raise the quality of Parliament by raising the quality of debate; this was then-PM Lee Kuan Yew’s first justification for the NCMP scheme when it was introduced in 1984. Ensuring a minimum number of opposition MPs in Parliament would also prevent a situation such as from 1981-1984, where the sole opposition MP, Mr JB Jeyaretnam, was unable to initiate any debate in Parliament, simply because he was unable to find another MP to second his motions. Ostensibly, if it is accepted that Parliamentary debates have a direct impact on the content of laws, improving the quality of debate would improve the quality of laws.

 

Third, the cynic would note that such plurality benefits the PAP, as the layman might be placated if there is this minimal degree of political opposition. It has been a common complaint by opposition political parties that the NCMP scheme delegitimizes the need for a substantial opposition presence in Parliament; the WP’s Ms Sylvia Lim recently emphasized the dangers of thinking that having NCMP opposition voices in Parliament is enough, when the ‘most effective check and balance on the Government is the prospect and in fact, actual loss of constituency seats’. It has been noted that the fervent anti-PAP sentiment on social media during the 2015 elections paradoxically contributed to the electoral support for PAP as the average Singaporean feared that the governing party would lose their Parliamentary foothold, thus plunging Singapore into unknown waters; this not only demonstrates the average Singaporean’s desire for opposition political voices as a ‘check-and-balance’ on majority rule, but not to the extent that the majority rule is disrupted. There is, perhaps, some weight to the argument that if the NCMP scheme were removed, more Singaporeans might be compelled to vote for the opposition instead of the PAP, as the alternative result of a unanimous PAP Parliament would be undesirable.

 

Fourth, the layman might feel more attached to Singapore if he considers that his views are represented in government. Democracy’s unique appeal as a political system has always been its claim that any decision made is made through the consideration of the views of all the people, albeit indirectly through elected representatives, and it is this characteristic of the Legislature that preserves its moral authority to proclaim on controversial social issues, as distinguished from the non-elected Judiciary or Executive. This is reflected not only in the plethora of opposition voices in Parliament guaranteed through the NCMP scheme, but also through the proposed goal of ensuring minority representation in the office of the EP. This reassurance that every citizen’s views are taken into consideration in the forming of Singaporean society aids the integration of all social groups into a common Singaporean identity, to the extent that the minority’s voices are also taken into account in the majority’s decision-making.

 

The extent of plurality

 

However, we should not be carried away with the significance of the proposed changes, as much more could be done to achieve political plurality in Singapore. For example, the avoidance of Gerry-mandering, the removal of political censorship, or a judicial caveat against political defamation, instead of the current judicial stance awarding greater damages for defamation suits against public servants (Lim Eng Hock Peter v Lin Jian Wei [2010] 4 SLR 357). These changes come with their individual pros and cons that will require further debate about the feasibility or desirability of implementing such changes in Singapore society, but the observation remains that more can be done.

This begs the question: if plurality is desirable, then why not implement more changes? The answer that first comes to mind is that the PAP will not implement any mechanism that prejudices its self-preservation. Arguably, this is not a criticism of the PAP, as any political party which believes in the worth of its own policies and seeks the well-being of the country it serves will necessarily believe in the worth of its continued dominance. However, I suggest two further reasons in the Singapore context. 

 

First, there is a need to balance political plurality with efficiency. Singapore’s development from a third-world village to a first-world power has always been founded on efficient economic and social policies which have been the subject of international admiration. While such rapid progress has come with its own costs, such as growing social inequality, it is undeniable that the opposite extreme of political plurality leading to parliament being crippled by indecision is undesirable, such as the 2013 US Federal Government shutdown that led to profound socio-economic costs both on its domestic and foreign affairs. It would thus be illogical for political plurality to be pursued at all costs. This is consonant with Singapore’s ‘green-light’ political system, which focuses more on enabling good governance through communication between governmental bodies, instead of a ‘red-light’ adversarial system which acts as a check on administrative power.

 

Second, there is a need to recognize meritocracy, which is another value that Singapore’s founders have always emphasized in all walks of Singapore society, be it politics, education or social policies. While the effectiveness of this measure is limited by the specter of poor socio-economic mobility, it remains clear that this value is key to preventing governmental corruption. This has been one of the main criticisms of any mechanism to ensure minority representation in the EP or GRC systems, as such affirmative action might tilt the scales away from more meritorious candidates. Similarly, plurality, taken to its extremes, mandates a multitude of political voices in Parliament. This requirement may be decidedly undemocratic if it is implemented despite the democratic vote, and results in the discarding of the ‘losers’ of this reallocation of parliamentary seats, who may have been more deserving of this responsibility.

 

Conclusion

 

The recent changes reflect a well-founded desire for political plurality, and in Singapore’s unique political context containing a super-dominant political party, this objective is crucial to the development and preservation of Singaporean society. However, this objective cannot be taken to its extremes, as the purpose of government is, ultimately, not to please, but to govern. What we have, therefore, is a scenario of limited plurality: political plurality on a single party’s terms.

 

2nd Place - Joshua Goh

The cynical might say that where history was once written by the victors, now they instead write the future. It certainly would seem that way since Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced to Parliament in January 2016 that he intended to change certain aspects of Singapore’s political system; changes that will alter the powers and scopes of duties for a few key players in the system. This is building more innovations upon innovations given that the GRCs, NCMPs and Elected Presidency schemes are themselves uniquely Singaporean, created to suit the needs of Singapore’s political climate.

 

Changing a political system is something that often has negative connotations, we would be familiar of stories of Presidents or Prime Ministers attempting to amend constitutions to allow themselves an additional term in office. Admittedly this is to promote stability in the country, after all what was a few more years in power for the likes of Hugo Chavez or Robert Mugabe. It is easy for the cynic to view any change in the political system as one to entrench the ruling party’s power. However in Singapore such change is neither as ostentatious nor as arrogant as those overseas. We have seen innovations such as the NCMP and the GRC scheme, they are well-founded and with positive effects, though it cannot be denied it some aspects of it do favour the ruling party. The proposed 2016 changes appear to follow in this vein, it is clear that the ruling party with its large mandate in the last election, is prepared to undertake a slight reform of our political innovations and it is too simple to label them either bad or good as the true impact of these policies are not so quickly felt nor so easily anticipated.

 

The famous political institutions of the world are usually timeless and unchanging. The British Parliamentary system goes back more than 3 centuries while the American embodiment of the separation of powers has endured since their independence. However Singapore, in a reflection of its delicate position in global affairs, has not allowed endurance and traditionalism to dictate its political system. On the 27th of January, Prime Minister Lee addressed Parliament:

 

“But our responsibility is not only to make our political system working today, but to make sure it works for the longer term. Nobody can predict the future, or tell how our needs will change. If the system is to serve future generations well, then it is our responsibility to keep it up to date – regularly recalibrated, adjusted, improved, while preserving the principles that it was built upon.”

 

Much like a child’s Lego creation, Singapore is constantly being rebuilt and tweaked to suit our political needs. I would stop short of saying that our political needs are unique from other countries, many other states are just as multi-racial as Singapore. However a key difference is that Singapore's economic successful is often attributed to its political stability thus a key concern of these institutional reforms would be to create more space for constructive debate in the roles of the NCMPs, to provide better governance though shrinking of the GRCs and improve checks and balances in the form of the Elected Presidency while at the same time ensuring that the system is grounded in creating a stable political environment. While there is no doubt that a stable political environment would tend to favour the ruling party, such a system ultimately benefits Singapore by attracting and retaining foreign investments as such investors often favour stable governments

 

Elected Presidency

 

The Elected Presidency is primarily meant to be a safeguard for the reserves, a function that was included in what was normally a largely ceremonial role of the Head of State. Furthermore the selection of the President is now by election as opposed to appointment was the case from President Yusof Ishak to President Wee Kim Wee. Thus the potential for the Elected President to become a divisive figure rather than an impartial Head of State is much higher.

 

This was noted by Prime Minister Lee in January:

 

“The Elected Presidency as an institution was a major innovation, again with no precedent anywhere else... By design, the President has no executive, policy-making role. This remains the prerogative of the elected Government commanding the majority in Parliament. But in the last Presidential Election, many people did not understand this. I suspect even now, quite a number of people still do not understand this. Regrettably, during the last Presidential Election, those who did not understand it, included some candidates. They campaigned for President as if they were going to form an alternate Government.”

 

The primary purpose for the Elected Presidency is to guard against a freak election where the ruling government is thrown out of power and its successor is an irresponsible party free to use Singapore's large reserves to fund its presumably costly policies. This was the fear that led to the implementation of the Elected Presidency. This purpose has not been so readily articulated to Singaporeans, presumably because it might also appear that the ruling party is simply creating another position to entrench its powers. However if viewed from the perspective of ensuring political stability, such a custodial position is desirable. However the relationship has at times been less than smooth. President Ong Teng Cheong found that his ability to exercise his Presidential powers was constrained by a lack of information and a lack of manpower in his office. His Presidency fought with the Government Singapore's first and only Constitutional Reference over the issue of the application of Article 22H(1) of the Constitution in relation to Article 5(2A); pertaining the President's ability to withhold assent to certain bills with the Government's view being endorsed by the tribunal. Therefore the Elected Presidency is very much a work in progress with its powers and interactions with the other branches of government being worked out.

 

However the main focus of reform is the eligibility of potential Presidential candidates. Article 19 of the Constitution of the Republic of Singapore states that among other requirements, candidates for the Presidency should have been either a high ranking civil servant or a major player in a company of with a paid-up capital of at least $100 million or a comparable position. These requirements go beyond that which is required of the Prime Minister. This illustrates the high expectations of the Elected President and his task as custodian of the reserves making his financial knowledge and abilities a large part of his eligibility.

 

However the importance of the Elected Presidency in Singapore’s landscape cannot be understated, thus even its reform is no longer in via a White Paper but instead by a Constitutional Commission, only the second in Singapore’s history with the first Commission under then Chief Justice Wee Chong Jin tasked with reviewing Singapore’s constitutional elements. The current Constitutional Commission under Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon has already been announced, comprising;

 

  • Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon

  • Justice Tay Yong Kwang, Judge, Supreme Court

  • Mr Eddie Teo, Chairman, Public Service Commission

  • Mr Abdullah Tarmugi, Member, Presidential Council for Minority Rights

  • Professor Chan Heng Chee, Chairman, Lee Kuan Yew Centre for Innovative Cities, Singapore University of Technology and Design

  • Mr Chua Thian Poh, Chairman and CEO, Ho Bee Land

  • Mr Philip Ng, CEO, Far East Organization

  • Mr Peter Seah, Chairman, DBS Bank

  • Mr Wong Ngit Liong, Chairman and CEO, Venture Corporation 

 

It is to be noted that nearly half of the Commission are corporate leaders, not jurists or civil servants, therefore even though Prime Minister Lee laid out 3 objectives of the Commission, (1) to bring the eligibility criteria up to date, (2) to strengthen the CPA, and (3) to ensure minority Presidents periodically, the first objective seems to be most pressing. This is true, though the Elected President has a role to safeguard the interest of the minority, his main purpose has always been to hold the second key of the reserves. It is interesting that the Government has noted that it is no longer sufficient for such reforms to be done via White Paper and has instead elevated that job to the Commission, it is probably for the best that such an august body be tasked with what is truly a unique Singaporean constitutional creation.

 

GRC

 

Much has been said about the GRC system, it was set up ostensibly to ensure a minimum degree of racial representation in Parliament but having the benefit of avoiding racial politics unlike a proportional representation system. By requiring MPs to set up a GRC team comprising of at least one candidate from a minority race, it discourages campaigning on policies that simply pander to one race. Furthermore by linking the GRC to the Town Councils, it provides economies of scale in managing the Town Councils by combining what were once several Single-Member Constituencies into a larger GRC providing more MPs to manage a single Town-Council.

 

However the GRCs have their drawbacks, it has been alleged by some that the use of an anchor Minister in a GRC especially a popular one, allows first-time MPs to be elected into Parliament on the Minister's coattails without having been proving themselves in an election. There were also cries that opposition parties would have a hard time forming GRC teams given that they did not possess the comprehensive party machinery the PAP has, however the victory of the Workers' Party GRC team in Aljunied GRC in 2011 and 2015 has proven that this is not an inherent structural flaw.

 

A controversial issue on GRCs is their use of the MPs are the management of the Town Council. Prime Minister Lee summarised the intention of this feature in Parliament in 2016:

 

"This makes sure that any party which aspires to form the Govern-ment of Singapore, first has a chance to demonstrate in a town council what it can or cannot do. And if it can do, that is a base from which it can build and persuade Singaporeans. If it cannot do, it is as well that Singaporeans know this early and everybody is under no illusions."

 

No doubt his point was made in 2015 where the Workers' Party-run Aljunied-Hougang-Punggol East Town Council ran into trouble with the Ministry of National Development over the accounting of various funds. However another angle to approach the issue is whether equating Parliamentarians; who engage in legislative functions by making laws, should also be expected to govern and manage town councils; a job that is rather different from law-making. During the days of the General Assembly, there used to be elections for municipal officials that would manage the issues of city-living. Given Singapore's small size and limited resources, combining Town Council management with Parliamentary duties does seem like a good use of resources, however it unnecessarily conflates the two and in the case of the Aljunied-Hougang-Punggol East Town Council, might seem to indicate that Town Council management is a proving ground for aspiring politicians however such municipal issues are real and we cannot trivialize the management of the Town Councils.

 

Furthermore this ultimately begs the question, in the small state of Singapore, do MPs campaign on the basis of local government or national policies? Town Council issues were rarely in the spotlight until the last election and it could be said that MPs are selected more for their ability to debate and analyze potential legislation rather than just be Town Council managers. Perhaps a separation of the 2 roles would be a welcome reform, with Singaporeans then able to elect both bodies with the full knowledge of the plans and policies for their own Town Councils and for their country.

 

In his speech to Parliament, Prime Minister Lee emphasised that future reform for the GRC system would be in its reduction:

 

"We have to strike the right balance between GRCs big and small, and between GRCs and SMCs. In the last two elections, we have created smaller GRCs and more SMCs. I think the results have been good. The next General Election is a long way off. I do not want to raise excitement prematurely but I will say now, in due course when I appoint the Electoral Boundaries Review Committee, I will instruct it to reduce the average size of GRCs further, and to create more SMCs."

 

The shrinking of the GRCs is welcome as it creates a more intimate relationship between voters and their MPs and ultimately gets to the heart of the purpose of a MP; to represent their constituents views in Parliament over various matters.

 

NCMP

 

The purpose of the NCMP is to encourage greater diversity of views in Parliament, specifically the views of the opposition. The NCMP scheme was partially the result of J.B. Jeyeratnam's victory in the 1984 Anson by-election, the ruling party decided that it would be a compromise scheme to allow more opposition members into Parliament without conceding constituency seats. The NCMPs were previously given limited powers. Nonetheless the proposal to extend the power of NCMPs to vote on all bills does not seem to change the role or even power of the NCMPs as their numbers are limited in Parliament. Therefore if the PAP continues to hold a majority in Parliament, the NCMPs would still be the minority and their numbers may even be reduced depending on the opposition's performance. Thus voting powers on all bills would be at best symbolic and would not build upon their current powers. Though NCMPs currently cannot vote on certain bills, they can still rise to comment on them, making their views heard. The NCMP scheme is already at the edge of its utility and future reform would not substantially change it.

 

Conclusion

 

The reforms announced are welcome and they are well timed, using the strong mandate of the PAP in the last election to push forward reforms that will undoubtedly strengthen Singapore’s political system. However we must consider whether or not such reforms serve to strengthen the rule of law in Singapore and even though a system should always be tweaked to keep in touch with political realities, the best sort of reforms are often those that remain untouched and whether the political storms. The Elected Presidency especially has proven difficult to nail down and it is hoped that by elevating its reform to that of the Constitutional Commission, there can be a greater understanding and delineation of the President’s role in Singapore’s governance.