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From NCMPs to Leader of the Opposition - how Parliament has evolved

From NCMPs to Leader of the Opposition - how Parliament has evolved

Source: Straits Times
Article Date: 30 Jul 2020
Author: Grace Ho

The move to give Workers' Party chief Pritam Singh more duties and privileges as the officially designated Leader of the Opposition is a significant step in recognising Singaporeans' desire for more political diversity.

As the anti-colonial independence movement gathered steam in the 1950s, the British set up a commission in 1953 to recommend changes to Singapore's constitutional system.

A key outcome of this was the formation of the Legislative Assembly - the predecessor to the Parliament of Singapore - in 1955.

Replacing the Legislative Council, the majority of seats in the assembly - 25 out of 32 - were allotted by election, rather than appointment by the colonial administration. But the administration still reserved control over key aspects of government, including administration, finance, internal security and law.

This became a source of friction after the general election held that year, when Mr David Marshall of the Labour Front took most of the seats in the assembly and became Singapore's first Chief Minister.

Seeking greater self-government, Mr Marshall and his successor, Mr Lim Yew Hock, held talks with the Colonial Office in London - which all parties took part in - culminating in the 1958 State of Singapore Constitution.

The new Constitution vested the Singapore Government with full internal governing powers.

All 51 seats in the Legislative Assembly would be elected, and the governor replaced by the Yang di-Pertuan Negara (head of state), who had powers to appoint the prime minister and other Cabinet ministers on the prime minister's advice.

In the 1959 General Election, the People's Action Party (PAP) won 43 out of the 51 seats in the assembly and Mr Lee Kuan Yew became the first prime minister of Singapore.

When Singapore merged with the Federation of Malaya, Sabah and Sarawak to form Malaysia in 1963, it was allocated 15 out of 127 seats in the Federal Parliament in Kuala Lumpur, but kept its own executive government and the Legislative Assembly.

On the Republic's independence in 1965, the assembly was renamed the Parliament of Singapore.

In December that year, MPs from the opposition Barisan Sosialis - comprising former members of the PAP who had fought against the PAP government's proposed terms for merger with the Federation of Malaya - staged a boycott of the first session of Parliament.

 

 

They went on to boycott the 1968 General Election, which saw only seven out of 58 seats contested. After returning to contest the next few elections without success, the party was dissolved in 1988 and merged with the Workers' Party (WP).

Singapore's Parliament would not see an opposition member until 1981.

PARLIAMENTARY SYSTEM

The Government in Singapore is modelled after the Westminster system, with three separate branches: the legislature (the President and Parliament), the executive (Cabinet ministers and office-holders led by the Prime Minister), and the judiciary. Being unicameral, Parliament has only one House.

Similar to most Commonwealth legislatures, a Speaker is elected by MPs at the start of each new Parliament. He or she presides over parliamentary sittings and enforces the rules of debate, as well as gives guidance on House procedures.

The Speaker may or may not be an MP, but must have the qualifications to stand for election.

While most Speakers in the 1960s, such as former judges Punch Coomaraswamy and A.P. Rajah, were not MPs, subsequent ones have all been PAP MPs.

To ensure that the mandate given by voters remains stable until the next general election - and to avoid MPs changing political parties within the same term of Parliament - the Constitution states that if an elected MP is no longer a member of, is expelled from, or resigns from the party for which he stood in the election, he will lose his seat in Parliament.

Singapore Management University law don Eugene Tan said that alongside the Westminster model of parliamentary democratic government, Singapore has also developed an autochthonous - or national and indigenous - political system to suit the needs, circumstances and aspirations of the country as well as its people.

"The quest is always to evolve and develop a system of parliamentary democracy that the PAP government deems best for Singapore," he says.

"All these changes seek to further the fundamental objective of managing the pace of political change, by keeping the one-party dominant system sufficiently relevant, robust and responsive.

"Institutional redesign is not merely about continued political control. It is also to ensure the institutions retain their legitimacy."

THE 1980s TO 2000s: MORE ALTERNATIVE VIEWS AND OPPOSITION NCMPs

In 1984, then Prime Minister Lee proposed amendments to the Constitution and the Parliamentary Elections Act to allow between a minimum of three and a maximum of six opposition MPs in Parliament.

Before this, there had been no opposition MPs elected into Parliament for nearly 20 years, until the WP's Mr J.B. Jeyaretnam won the 1981 Anson by-election.

In proposing the change, Mr Lee argued that having Non-Constituency MPs (NCMPs) - the best-performing losing opposition candidates in an election - would enable younger Singaporeans, who had not witnessed first-hand the divisive politics of the 1950s and 1960s, to learn about what an opposition in Parliament can do.

The scheme would also provide valuable training for the younger ministers and MPs, by honing their debating skills as they engaged with opposition MPs.

The number of, as well as rights accorded to, NCMPs have steadily increased over time.

In 2010, a constitutional amendment was passed to guarantee at least nine opposition MPs in Parliament after the polls. If the opposition were to win fewer than nine seats, NCMPs would be appointed to make up the shortfall.

In 2016, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced that the minimum number of opposition MPs, including NCMPs, would be raised from nine to 12, and they would have equal voting rights as elected MPs.

The scheme became a flashpoint in this year's general election, with opposition parties criticising it as a ploy to entice Singaporeans to vote for the PAP.

Aljunied GRC MP and former NCMP Gerald Giam spoke of the limitations of the position, noting that it is hard to establish a base without constituents to serve and a town to manage.

Assuring Singaporeans that Parliament will always have opposition members, PM Lee noted that NCMPs have full voting rights on Budgets, constitutional amendments and motions of confidence, just like elected MPs.

Former prime minister Goh Chok Tong said the scheme serves as a stabiliser for a "sampan-sized" Singapore against an unintended election outcome. Singapore adopts a first-past-the-post system, which means a candidate would be the winner even with a one-vote majority.

"You can put a sail on the sampan, catch the wind and go fast without fear of it capsizing. The NCMP scheme is an important outrigger for our political system," he added.

SMU's Associate Professor Tan said the scheme can be criticised as an attempt to persuade Singaporeans that they need not worry about a one-party dominant system, because there will be the mandated provision of opposition MPs.

But former Clerk of Parliament P.O. Ram - who worked under former Speakers Tan Soo Khoon and Abdullah Tarmugi in the 1990s and 2000s - thinks the scheme remains a good opportunity for the best losers in an election to have a presence in Parliament. He asked: "Does getting rid of it help the opposition? The Progress Singapore Party's (PSP) voice can now be heard through the two NCMPs with all the attendant privileges."

The PSP announced on July 14 that its members Hazel Poa and Leong Mun Wai - part of the team of "best losers" in West Coast GRC - will take up the balance of two NCMP seats offered to the party, after the WP won 10 seats at the polls.

Former PAP MP Inderjit Singh said that because NCMPs do not represent their residents in Parliament, they can never claim to have the same level of authority as an elected MP.

But the recent changes have given more powers to NCMPs, as collectively, 12 NCMPs can initiate a debate or motion and can vote against the PAP's motions, he said.

"Together with the NMP scheme, the new changes will no doubt raise the level of debate in Parliament, and will require the PAP MPs and ministers to work harder.

"But this will also lead the PAP to close ranks even more and the Party Whip to be more vigilant and control voting tightly."

GOVERNMENT PARLIAMENTARY COMMITTEES

Mooted by Mr Goh in 1987, government parliamentary committees (GPCs) - whose members are PAP backbenchers - scrutinise legislation and policy programmes. They also serve as an additional feedback channel on government policies.

As there was only one elected opposition member - Mr Chiam See Tong - in Parliament at the time, Mr Goh, then the Deputy Prime Minister, wanted GPCs to play the role of an "internal or proxy opposition", said Dr Aline Wong, who was among the first batch of GPC chairmen.

This was also a time when the second generation of PAP Cabinet ministers had emerged and begun to take charge of the affairs of government.

Mr Goh was inclined towards a more consultative and participative way of governing, and a number of institutions initiated by him after the 1984 General Election reflect this different style, including the Feedback Unit, Institute of Policy Studies and GPCs.

There are now 12 GPCs, each covering a policy domain that roughly mirrors the various ministries. Some have successfully pushed for policy changes - like MP Liang Eng Hwa who asked for the policy of not building new hawker centres to be reversed, shortly after he became a member of the GPC for the Environment and Water Resources in 2011.

He raised this to then Environment and Water Resources Minister Vivian Balakrishnan, who persuaded the Cabinet of its merits, and the ministry announced the building of 10 new hawker centres later that year.

Should GPCs eventually evolve to include not just MPs from the PAP, but also MPs from other parties and Nominated MPs (NMPs) as well?

Mr Goh himself raised it as a potential development for the future.

In a speech to civil servants in February 1987, just before GPCs formally began, he said: "GPCs are not similar to Select Committees, which include representation from all parties in Parliament. Whether they evolve into Select Committees will depend on our experience with them."

Nanyang Technological University professor Hong Hai, a PAP MP from 1988 to 1991, first suggested the idea of forming GPCs to Mr Goh before the 1988 General Election.

But he said the GPCs he had in mind were more similar to United States congressional committees, which are bipartisan in composition.

With only MPs of the ruling party, Prof Hong said, there may be a tendency for GPCs to merely be complementary to the ministries they fall under - and to be strongly supportive of any proposed policies.

There is a danger that they may not review critically, or even change the trajectory of, certain initiatives, he added. "Including NMPs and MPs from the WP and Progress Singapore Party in parliamentary committees may allow more robust debate to take place, resulting in better thought-out policies."

NOMINATED MPs

The Government introduced another constitutional innovation in 1990: the Nominated MP scheme.

Like NCMPs, NMPs are unelected representatives, chosen by a Select Committee of Parliament and recommended for appointment by the President.

They must have a record of distinguished public service, or have excelled in fields such as the arts, sciences, business, community service or the labour movement.

Each NMP serves a term of 21/2 years and may be reappointed after the term ends.

Setting out his reasons for the scheme, then DPM Goh said there will always be qualified Singaporeans who are unable or unwilling to take part in elections and look after a constituency, and the scheme allows them to contribute their expertise and insights.

They can also be relied on to be non-partisan, unlike opposition MPs, he said. "They do not have to play to the gallery. They can be constructive while dissenting, thus contributing to good government."

The Constitution initially provided for up to six NMPs, which was bumped up to nine in 1997 following a constitutional amendment. The original requirement - that Parliament must pass a resolution before NMPs can be appointed - was abolished in April 2010.

Former NMP Anthea Ong said NMPs represent sectors of society that may not otherwise be on the radar of elected MPs, like the arts; or those that are not necessarily supported by the majority, such as sex workers, migrant workers and LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer) individuals. "NMPs can bring these issues up without fear of losing votes."

SMU's Prof Tan said the issue is not who voices the alternative views - the PAP, the opposition or NMPs - but whether these views are considered on their own merits, or ignored and rebutted for political considerations.

On this count, he found NMPs' views on controversial matters - like the 2013 Population White Paper - to be "taken more seriously" by the front bench.

This may have to do with their non-partisan stance, especially in such a polarised debate, he said.

"Some ministers in the past tended to regard the opposition's pointed questions and speeches as scoring debating points and treated them accordingly, giving them the short shrift."

A major contribution from an NMP is the Maintenance of Parents Act, which was introduced as a private member's Bill by then NMP Walter Woon in 1994 and passed in Parliament in 1995.

Ms Kanwaljit Soin, the first woman NMP, also put up a Family Violence Bill in 1995. Although the Bill was not supported, her proposals were included in amendments to the Women's Charter.

LEADER OF THE OPPOSITION

In the latest move that designates WP chief Pritam Singh as Leader of the Opposition (LO), he will have the right of first response among MPs, have more time to speak in Parliament and get confidential briefings from the Government. He will also get allowances to hire more staff.

Along with these privileges come duties, such as leading and organising the scrutiny of the Government's positions and actions.

Mr Singh will also be consulted on the appointment of opposition members to parliamentary Select Committees, and may be called on to attend official state functions and take part in government visits and meetings.

The position is not provided for in the Constitution or the Standing Orders of Parliament.

Singapore has never had formal LOs even in the 1950s and early 1960s, when there were sizeable numbers of opposition legislative assemblymen.

Mr Lee Kuan Yew, who led the PAP as the largest opposition party between 1955 and 1959 - it held four out of 25 elected seats in the Legislative Assembly - and Dr Lee Siew Choh, who led Barisan Sosialis between 1961 and 1963, were never formally designated as LO.

In deciding on the specifics of the office, the Government had looked to other Westminster parliamentary systems such as Australia and Britain, which have formally designated opposition, and also considered Singapore's circumstances.

LO entitlements vary from country to country. Some, like Mr Keir Starmer of Britain's Labour Party, receive almost the same salary as a Cabinet minister, and more than half that of the British prime minister.

National University of Singapore Associate Professor Chong Ja Ian said the formalisation of the LO role recognises an increasingly mature Singapore polity, and people's desire for an opposition that can play not just an oversight role, but also represent perspectives held by a minority.

Former PAP MP Mr Singh said that despite the extra resources given to the LO, opposition MPs must still come up with quality ideas themselves, as the sum of money given will not be enough to "hire people who could help come up with ideas that can match that produced by the civil service that is well staffed and well resourced".

He said raised expectations could work against the opposition if it fails to deliver ideas and alternatives of the expected quality.

One thing is clear, said Mr Ram: The Singapore electorate is now more educated and opinionated, and politicians will have to adapt to the times.

He added that as young Singaporeans consume more of their information online, it may be time to reconsider broadcasting Parliament proceedings live.

The Government had said earlier this year that demand for such broadcasts is low, and they create a risk that Parliament is turned into a form of theatre instead of a forum for serious debate on national issues.

With the increase in the number of MPs - 93, up from 89 in 2015 - and the spike in opposition representation, he said Parliament may need to raise the number of days of sittings, and hire more staff to cope with the additional preparations.

SMU's Prof Tan said the various constitutional changes reflect an institutional design that allows the Government of the day to rule decisively in the long-term interests of Singapore.

At the same time, he added, the political leadership is acutely aware of the growing desire for a more competitive and vibrant political system, and has been making further changes to address this.

"There must be inclusiveness and representation in tandem with Singaporeans' growing democratic aspirations, increasing civic participation and democratic ownership of governmental processes," he said.


IMPORTANCE OF NCMPs

You can put a sail on the sampan, catch the wind and go fast without fear of it capsizing. The NCMP scheme is an important outrigger for our political system.

FORMER PRIME MINISTER GOH CHOK TONG

Source: Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. Permission required for reproduction.

 

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