Singapore's political system: Tweak, tinker or overhaul?

Lee Kuan Yew on why a Constitution must suit the needs of its people

British Constitutional Law expert Sir Ivor Jennings meets the Merdeka Committee at the Assembly House.
British Constitutional Law expert Sir Ivor Jennings meets the Merdeka Committee at the Assembly House. PHOTO: ST FILE
Mr Lee, in his speech to Parliament, outlined how other countries' systems of government operated. Mr Lee noted that while Britain prides itself on being the earliest model of democracy and that Singapore had adopted the Westminster model, it is usef
Mr Lee, in his speech to Parliament, outlined how other countries' systems of government operated. PHOTO: REUTERS

In 1984, then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew proposed amendments to the Constitution and Parliamentary Elections Act to allow for non-constituency MPs. During the debate, he sketched out how different nations have different models of government, and argued that a country's Constitution must suit the needs of its people. Here are extracts of what he said.

Members who have participated in the Second Reading debate all assume that our system of one-man-one-vote will succeed, will thrive, will endure, and that perhaps tinkering with it may be a necessary evil but may be unwise. I think it is useful if we see this in perspective.

First, there is no guarantee that one-man-one-vote can continue to work in Singapore and improve beyond a PAP (People's Action Party) government, or perhaps beyond the tenure of office of those who are today in charge.

How long has the system lasted? Since 1955, partially representative government - 29 years. What was the premise based on? A British decision that decolonisation must take place in an orderly way and they must have an elected legislature to which they could hand over authority. What is their system based on? How long has it lasted?

Let me sketch out very briefly how recent and how frail the system of one-man-one-vote is.

Britain, as you know, prides itself as being the earliest model of democracy - Westminster, the mother of parliaments.

 

It is useful to remember that nobody had a vote without property qualifications up till 1918, and then only men over the age of 21 and women over the age of 30. Women over 21 got the vote only from 1928.

Mr Lee, in his speech to Parliament, outlined how other countries' systems of government operated. Mr Lee noted that while Britain prides itself on being the earliest model of democracy and that Singapore had adopted the Westminster model, it is usef
Mr Lee noted that while Britain prides itself on being the earliest model of democracy and that Singapore had adopted the Westminster model, it is useful to remember that nobody had a vote without property qualifications up till 1918. PHOTO: REUTERS

So if you take the Singapore system, which is all men and women above 21, it has worked in Britain for only 56 years.

What worked before that? The landed gentry and property ownership.

In 1832, with the rise of the industrial revolution and the wealthy middle class connected with manufacturing, there was the First Reform Act, which redistributed some 143 seats from the worst of the rotten boroughs - they called it (it is a historical term) "rotten boroughs", you fix it, you buy your seat - to the larger manufacturing towns, including London and the counties.

In 1867, the Second Reform Act extended the vote to one million urban working men, one million for the first time, 1867. In 1872, there was a secret ballot for the first time, by the Ballot Act, just 112 years ago. In 1884, the Third Reform Act enfranchised agricultural labourers. They did not get the vote until 1884, the peasants, and the Act extended the electorate from three million to five million.

 

When I was a student of law in England in 1946-47, my lecturer in constitutional law was the leading expert of the time. He was the writer of the standard textbook called Constitutional Law by E.C.S. Wade.

He took great pride in the British constitutional system, for it was based on so much unwritten law, on convention, on custom, on the monarchy, which gave it flexibility.

He compared Britain's then political stability with the constant turmoil, tribulation, tumbling governments of France in the Fourth Republic, where coalitions of governments went through a revolving door every three, four, five months.

My fellow British students believed that it was Anglo-Saxon phlegm - the stoical, unexcitable nature and temperament of the British people that was the secret of success of the British democratic system.

It did not work in France. It did not work in Germany. It did not work in Italy. It worked only in Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand; America - less well.


RESHAPING FOR THE FUTURE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on January 24, 2016, with the headline 'Lee Kuan Yew on why a Constitution must suit the needs of its people'. Print Edition | Subscribe