Political changes ahead: Don't be bochap

The Government may have powers to make Constitutional revisions but Singaporeans must discuss their merits

There is something remarkable about Parliament discussing and devising rules on how its own members are chosen.

At once, it shows how extraordinary its powers are to make legislation that affects its own make-up and the way it operates.

This power to change the rules of the game is especially stark in Singapore which has only one House and no other institutional check apart from an Elected President with limited powers.

But that's how parliamentary democracy works, and the proposals by the Prime Minister on Wednesday to make changes to the political system, including the Elected Presidency (EP), are good examples of how wide those powers are.

It is, of course, a double-edged sword. A government with an overwhelming majority can change the laws, but it also has to subject itself to the people in a general election every five years. Abuse that power and there is no telling how voters might react in the polling booth.

That is why fundamental changes to the political system are not made frequently or lightly, and, when they are, the ruling party has to go out of its way to justify them and not be seen to be doing so for its own partisan purposes.

To its credit, the Government understands this, which is why Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong spoke for more than an hour and a half on Wednesday to make his case.

He announced the setting up of a Constitutional Commission, headed by Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon, to look into the proposed changes to the EP, but set a tight deadline to effect the changes by the end of the year, in time for the next presidential election due next year.

As for changes to the Non-Constituency MP (NCMP) scheme - expanding their voting rights and increasing their numbers - he was even more forthright, proposing that the changes be made in the current term of Parliament.

He appeared to have made up his mind and that was that.

What to make of these moves?

Firstly, they clearly show a confident PM buoyed by the impressive electoral victory of the 2015 General Election.

Without such a strong mandate, it is likely he would have proceeded more cautiously.

On the EP, for example, a less-than-assured PM might have hesitated to make the changes so quickly ahead of the next election, for fear of an electoral backlash from voters upset that he was trying to influence the outcome.

As for increasing the number of opposition seats, including NCMP seats, to 12, it seemed almost like he was daring the opposition to take up the offer.

During last year's elections, he had argued that, despite having six MPs, the Workers' Party (WP) had not made much of an impact in the House and had refused to engage the Government on many issues.

"You voted for a tiger in the Chamber, and you got a mouse in the House," he had declared.

It is possible the point registered with enough voters to the detriment of the WP.

It is also possible the People's Action Party (PAP) believes it can play the same card and even up the ante by allowing more opposition MPs into the House in the hope of exposing their weaknesses.

If it succeeds, look out for it replaying the line to even greater effect: Even with 12 MPs, the mouse did not roar!

But it is a high stakes game because the WP might rise to the challenge, make the extra numbers count, and reap the benefits at subsequent general elections. So, why is the Government confident it can ride this tiger?

One possible reason: GE2015 showed that the opposition tide many had thought irresistible, wasn't.

The Singapore electorate is much more discerning and expects higher standards from both the ruling party and the opposition. It will not give its vote lightly.

So, barring a dramatic loss of confidence in the PAP or a sudden rise in quality of the opposition, the political balance is likely to change in a gradual way and not precipitously. This allows the PAP more room to experiment and take calculated risks.

And so it is too with the moves to make changes to the EP.

The two proposals put forth, to limit further the number of people who can qualify to be candidates and to allow for the election of minority candidates, are far-reaching.

It isn't clear now what the actual amendments will be; that will be up to the Commission. But however it is done, they will significantly affect the type of candidates and the conduct of future elections.

You can understand why the Government wants to make these changes now while it has such a commanding position in the House.

Wait too long, and the public mood or its own dominance might change.

But it also has to be careful it does not tighten the rules so much as to unduly limit the choices available to voters.

If it does and the election is not seen as truly free because the choices are too limiting, it will taint the office of the presidency and undermine its credibility.

How to strike the balance between ensuring quality candidates and giving voters real choices will be a delicate task for the Government and the proposed Commission.

These are important issues that will need to be thoroughly discussed not just within the House or among members of the Commission, but by Singaporeans at large.

From the looks of it though, there hasn't been a great deal of interest in the issues so far. The day after the PM's speech, the story wasn't among the top 10 most read in this newspaper's website. Nor were the keywords associated with it trending on Google, which is an indication of the level of interest online. This newspaper has received some letters from readers but not a large number.

These may be early days and interest might pick up when the Commission starts work or the Constitutional changes are debated in the House.

I hope it will be the case because the matter is too important to be discussed only by a few men and women, no matter how well-qualified.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on January 31, 2016, with the headline 'Political changes ahead: Don't be bochap'. Print Edition | Subscribe