On January 27, Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced a series of changes during a parliamentary debate aimed at making the political system in the city-state more open and accountable.
In what was dubbed the most significant change to Singapore’s parliamentary system since the introduction of the non-constituency members of parliament (NCMPs) in 1984, opposition candidates who lost will get the same voting rights as elected MPs. Such NCMPs are currently barred from voting on constitutional changes or on votes of no confidence in the government. From the next general election onward, the minimum number of opposition MPs will be raised from nine to 12, bringing the total number of non-ruling party MPs in the house of 100 parliamentarians to 21.
Other significant changes include further reducing the size of Group Representation Constituencies, creating more single member constituencies, and a review of the criteria for the elected presidency by a Constitutional Commission.
With these changes, Lee remarked that “the opposition will never be shut out and the government will be held to account.” Even if the government “wins overwhelming, nationwide support, it will still have to argue for and defend policies robustly” and would always be “kept on its toes,” Lee explained.
The announced changes come months after Lee’s People’s Action Party (PAP), which has ruled Singapore continuously since the nation-state’s independence in 1965, won a strong mandate at the September 2015 polls – 83 out of the 89 elected seats and 70 percent of the popular vote. The proposed constitutional changes need to be voted on in parliament after Lee files an official request, which he has promised to do during this term – any time within the next five years. Approval is expected because of the ruling party’s dominance.
Expanding on the theme of long-sightedness, Lee said that it was his generation’s responsibility to put in place institutions and a system that will work well even under a new prime minister and different electorate. The move comes as a surprise, signaling a marked shift away the hallmark system put in place by Singapore’s founding father Lee Kuan Yew who had a low tolerance for opposition voices.
Not all are upbeat about the changes. Workers’ Party Secretary General and veteran opposition MP Low Thia Khiang compared non-constituency MPs to “duckweed” in a pond, without the roots that elected MPs have in their constituencies.
Others like Reuben Wong, a political science professor at the National University of Singapore, speculated that the PAP was responding to public expectations of broader voices in policy-making and hence “changing its tune.”