This week, in an address to Parliament, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong identified key reforms in the electoral system which he believes would lead to greater political stability.
In summary, he proposed to raise the minimum number of opposition members of parliament (MPs), grant voting power to non-constituency MPs, reduce or merge group representation constituencies while creating more single member constituencies, review the qualifying criteria for the elected president, and strengthen the role of the Council of Presidential Advisors.
Lee, who is head of the ruling People’s Action Party which has been in power since 1959 and clinched a landslide election victory last year, said the proposed reforms “aim to strengthen the (political) system to make it more open and contestable, to keep it accountable to the people, to go into the next 50 years with the best chance of making a success of Singapore.”
If Lee Hsien Loong’s proposed constitutional amendments are passed, Singapore will have at least 21 non-ruling MPs in the next government. Furthermore, the non-constituency MPs will finally have full voting powers on key matters of governance such as constitutional changes, supply bills, money bills, votes of no confidence, and also removing a president from office.
Because of their restricted power in the current system, non-constituency MPs are viewed by many as second class legislators. Lee said he was seeking to change this perception by allowing more opposition voices in parliament.
“We will be aiding the opposition, giving their best losers more exposure and very possibly building them up for the next General Election. But I believe that in this phase of our political development this is good for the government and good for Singapore,” he said.
Lee also discussed the role of the elected president. He reminded the public that “the President is neither the Government nor is he the Opposition. He is a custodian, he is a goalkeeper.” As stabilizer of the political system, the president not only has ceremonial duties but has other powers including the ability to authorize the use of the country’s reserves.
Lee said he believed it is time to review the criteria for choosing the country’s president. Since the president has important decisions to make regarding the financial situation of the entire nation and the next generation, it would make sense for the person holding this position to have senior management competence and experience, preferably someone who led a big company or assumed key positions in the government or the private sector. The prime minister also hopes to devise a mechanism where those from minority groups can be elected as president.
But the prime minister rejected the view of some scholars that it is better for the parliament to appoint the president. He insisted that the president should have the people’s mandate to effectively exercise his or her custodial powers.
Reacting to the prime minister’s speech, the Singapore Democratic Party demanded an overhaul of the country’s political system.
“The electoral system is not for the PAP to tweak and adjust. A democratic election system requires a free media, freedom of speech and assembly, and a transparent electoral process.”
One of the group’s recommendations is to abolish the group representation constituencies which they said has enabled the ruling party to draw constituency boundaries to its advantage and to disproportionately dominate Parliament in number.
Kishore Mahbubani, Dean of the School of Public Policy of the National University of Singapore has earlier written about the need to elect a president from minority groups.
“In a multiracial society such as ours, there is also merit in rotating the president among the different ethnic groups,” Mahbubani said.
Since Lee has initiated the discussion about the reforms needed to keep the political system relevant, this should be an opportunity for political parties, especially the opposition, to articulate their ideas on how to improve Singapore’s democracy. It should also encourage citizen groups to gather counterproposals from the grassroots on how to rethink Singapore’s political institutions.