The broad values underpinning Singapore's political system ought to be the touchstone of deliberations on the electoral changes proposed in Parliament last week. The reform aims to raise the minimum number of opposition MPs from nine to 12, further reduce the average size of Group Representation Constituencies, review the eligibility criteria for the Elected Presidency, strengthen the Council of Presidential Advisers, and give minorities a chance to be elected as president.
The values embodied by a political system are as important as its functional details. The latter are malleable in the sense that these might be finetuned or overhauled by legislators from time to time to take account of evolving needs. However, political values that are sound and widely embraced can stand the test of time, even though these are not formally inscribed, as is the case with unwritten conventions (political customs) associated with the widely adopted Westminster model of government that evolved from the British Parliament.
The ethos of the political system is defined by key values like the people's inalienable right to change the government, the one-man-one-vote principle, the fairness of election processes, open and contestable politics, multiracialism, government accountability, checks and balances within the system, zero tolerance for corruption and high-quality government. Some of these were cited as "core principles" by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong when he tabled the reform proposals.
These political values should serve as reference points for the debate on the merits of the changes. Essentially, the question right-thinking voters would ask is whether the political reforms are good for Singapore over the long term.
By stating that it will be seeking public views on proposals relating to the Elected Presidency, the Government has signalled the importance of gauging just what forms of change Singaporeans feel are necessary going forward. Public engagement offers the opportunity of helping people understand what it takes for the system to work and what could make it dysfunctional. For example, having two competing centres of power or an overly elaborate checking mechanism might lead to legislative-executive gridlock. Indeed, the extent of popular misconceptions about the role of the President, revealed by an Institute of Policy Studies 2011 survey, points to the need for greater public clarity.
Pragmatic Singaporeans would want a political system that can ensure stability, especially during critical moments. Certainly, all rules must be updated to meet the needs of a changing electorate. But amid change, it is Singapore's broad political values that can help hold the system together, whatever the constitutional refinements.