Written by Ng E-Jay
28 May 2009
Changes to the Parliamentary system were announced by PM Lee Hsien Loong on Wednesday. They include:
- Amending the Constitution to allow for up to nine Non-Constituency Members of Parliament (NCMPs);
- Amending the Parliamentary Elections Act to increase the stipulated minimum number of opposition MPs, including NCMPs, to nine;
- Amending the Parliamentary Elections Act to set a cap of 2 NCMPs to come from any one GRC, so as to spread out the NCMPs more evenly;
- Fine-tuning the NMP scheme to broaden representation of various interest groups;
- Fine-tuning the implementation of the GRC and SMC scheme to allow for fewer 6-member GRCs, and at least 12 SMCs up from the current 9.
According to PM Lee, the reason for the changes to the Parliamentary system was to “encourage a wider range of views in Parliament, including opposition and non-Government views“, because Singapore faces more complex policy choices and Singaporeans want national issues to be more fully debated.
On the surface, it would seem that these changes would allow more non-PAP voices to be heard and increase the diversity of views in Parliament. In reality, these changes are merely cosmetic and do not level the playing field for the opposition by giving them a fair chance of entering Parliament as a full-fledged MP via an electoral victory. They would increase the number of alternative voices heard in Parliament, to be sure, but they will not give more power to the opposition if the people do not take the initiative to vote them into office with an electoral majority.
Repressive laws remain in place to curtail free speech, restrict freedom of assembly, ensure that vociferous parties do not get a fair hearing in the mainstream, and ensure that only an “approved” chorus of voices gain publicity and legitimacy. To me this is hardly liberalization, but selective repression under the guise of liberalization.
My take is that this latest move is an adaptation by the ruling party to accommodate the inevitable desire of the electorate for greater parliamentary representation by alternative parties, as well as the semblance of checks and balances. However, true power is not given as the NCMPs have not as much voting rights as full MPs. Also, with the electoral system still flawed and manipulated, the playing field is still drastically uneven for the opposition.
All these token changes announced in Parliament do little to alter the status quo. They merely provide a safe outlet for the opposition to air their views without disrupting the PAP’s power base.
PM Lee said that the parliamentary changes were framed so as to expose PAP MPs to the cut and thrust of the debate, improve policy formulation, and demonstrate what the opposition can and cannot do. I find this last phrase (in bold) most revealing as to what PM Lee’s true intentions are in tabling these political changes.
In his Parliamentary speech, PM Lee said: “Opposition MPs and NCMPs will surely want to score points too, but must understand that while they may be in the opposition, they must uphold the political system and our institutions and their loyalty must be to Singapore.”
In other words, PM Lee expects the opposition to continue to operate within the boundaries set by the PAP and avoid challenging the system even if they think the system could be wrong. PM Lee does not want the opposition to be effective. He only wants the opposition to speak up on issues that do not threaten the PAP’s grip on power.
Aspiring opposition candidates should not be lulled into complacency
My greatest fear now is that aspiring opposition candidates might be tempted into complacency, thinking that the PAP has given them an easy route into Parliament. Perhaps the PAP wants the opposition to start taking short cuts and miss out on the larger picture. If the opposition gets fooled into doing so, they would be playing straight into the PAP’s hands.
It would be sad if opposition candidates missed the forest for the trees. I urge all aspiring candidates not to lose sight of the large issues facing our nation and recognize the fact that true democracy has not been restored to Singapore.
Voters too should recognize that the PAP has set a political mind trap for them. From now on, expect the PAP to play up the propaganda that there is no great necessity to vote opposition into office because there will always be nine NCMP positions reserved for them in Parliament. I urge voters to recognize this diversion created by the PAP and remember that only when the opposition has full voting rights in Parliament and actually represent a physical constituency can they be most effective in campaigning for change.
First Past the Post good, Proportionate Representation bad
PM Lee asserted that despite all these refinements, the First Past the Post political system will be retained, as he thinks that this produces decisive majorities. In contrast, PM Lee lamented that the principle of Proportionate Representation (PR) implemented in other countries like Israel tends to produce weak coalition governments that are unduly controlled by small extremist parties wielding a disproportionate influence.
I find PM Lee’s dismissal of a coalition government to be disingenuous, as it is a perfectly legitimate outcome of democracy. His insistence that a decisive majority should always be obtained by one party is equally disingenuous and indicative of his lack of regard for democratic principles.
In any political system, whether one based on Proportionate Representation or one based on a First Past the Post principle, the necessary ingredients are always adequate checks and balances and effective separation of powers between the judiciary, legislature and Executive. In his speech, PM Lee paid no consideration at all to these fundamental tenets of a true functioning democracy.
Despite the promise of more political space and more representation of alternative views in Parliament, the key obstacles preventing Singapore from becoming a full-fledged democracy remain unaddressed by the ruling party, whose only interest seems to be maintain its grip on power by undemocratic means if need be.
The drawbacks of the GRC system have been repeatedly highlighted by all opposition parties, perhaps most vociferously by the SDP. Other than a token promise to reduce the average size of GRCs, there is no indicate the PAP will budge on the GRC issue anytime in the future.
The GRC system is not just a flawed system that makes the barriers to entry unreasonably high for aspiring opposition candidates. It is in fact an unlevel playing field designed to deny the opposition a fair fight during the hustings.
The Elections Department is still under the purview of the Prime Minister’s Office and conducts its business largely away from public scrutiny. The Electoral Boundaries Review Committee also redraws boundaries and submits its report to the cabinet for approval without any public or parliamentary consultation. Clearly, there is a distinct lack of transparency and accountability in the whole electoral process.
As long as elections in Singapore are neither free nor fair, all this talk about liberalizing our political space and changing the political system to allow for more diverse views to be heard in Parliament is just a great show and pretense that would eventually amount to nothing more than further entrenching PAP’s dominance and political hegemony.
I urge everyone, especially aspiring opposition candidates, not to be fooled by this chicanery.