From the Gallery

Political changes: Surprising PAP does it again

Supporters from the People's Action Party (PAP) (in white) and the Workers Party (WP) (in blue) during Nomination Day at Bendemeer Prmary School on Sept 1, 2015.
Supporters from the People's Action Party (PAP) (in white) and the Workers Party (WP) (in blue) during Nomination Day at Bendemeer Prmary School on Sept 1, 2015.PHOTO: BERITA HARIAN

The People's Action Party (PAP) has always been a party that can surprise the electorate, and it did so again yesterday.

Just four months after a landslide win in the general election, and on Day 2 of the debate on the President's Address to open the new Parliament, the Prime Minister served notice of the Government's intention to make a few significant political changes.

The first set of changes was not unexpected: To reduce the average size of Group Representation Constituencies (GRC), and have more single-member constituencies. This will be done by the next general election.

The second set of proposed changes to the Elected Presidency had been hinted at, and again, was not so surprising. The changes will cover: Updating the eligibility criteria; the weight given to the voice of the Council of Presidential Advisers; and how to ensure someone from the minority community can be elected periodically.

A Constitutional Commission headed by the Chief Justice will study the issues, get views from the public and make recommendations, slated by the third quarter of the year.

The tightening of criteria was expected, following the 2011 Presidential Election when four candidates contested, including some who campaigned as though they would form an alternate government, disingenuously ignoring the fact that the Constitution gives the President only limited custodial powers - the power to say "no" to spending on reserves and key public appointments.

Although PM Lee Hsien Loong said several times in his 90-minute speech that there was no urgency as the changes were for the long term, he appeared to be a man in a hurry to institute political reform. This would be understandable, as the six-year term presidency is due for another election by August next year.

But it was the changes to the Non-Constituency MP (NCMP) scheme that were a surprise. On this, there was no need for a committee or public feedback. Instead, Mr Lee said categorically: "I intend to amend the Constitution during this term to give NCMPs the same voting rights as constituency MPs."

NCMPs are top losers among opposition candidates invited to take up seats in Parliament.

Mr Lee said their number could go up, from nine now, to 12.

With the change, NCMPs will be able to vote on all Bills, including on the Constitution and the Budget, and on motions of confidence.

Said Mr Lee: "They will be equal in powers, although not in responsibility and scope, to constituency MPs because they do not have specific voters to look after. But there will be no reason at all to perceive NCMPs as being second class."

Mr Lee argued that NCMPs have more of a mandate to enter Parliament than an MP elected under proportional representation, a system some countries have, in which the party decides which of its MPs should enter the Chamber.

Here, by contrast, the NCMP would have won many votes directly.

An NCMP may also have a bigger mandate than some constituency MPs in a GRC, Mr Lee pointed out.

This is entirely possible: Consider an MP in a GRC who won just 48 per cent of the vote in his division, but enters Parliament because his colleagues in other wards in the GRC helped lift the total vote there to 51 per cent. In comparison, a top-losing NCMP may have received 49 per cent of the vote in his single seat. The latter may thus be said to have a stronger mandate to be in Parliament than the former.

By making this argument, Mr Lee appears to be lending weight to the views of opponents of the GRC system, who say weaker candidates enter Parliament on the "coat-tails" of stronger ones, and don't really have a mandate of their own.

What is one to make of the changes to the NCMP scheme?

Overall, as Mr Lee himself acknowledged, upgrading NCMPs to give them full voting rights with elected MPs will be good for the opposition - "giving their best losers more exposure, very possibly building them up for the next general election".

Democratic Progressive Party chief Benjamin Pwee hailed the bold changes. But Singapore Democratic Party secretary-general Chee Soon Juan considered them a distraction.

Workers' Party leader Low Thia Khiang said NCMPs were like "a vase" - for show - unlike elected constituency MPs.

The political sceptic in me jumped ahead to a possible scenario where the PAP is in opposition and in a position to take part in a no-confidence vote against the governing party.

But what works for the PAP might also work against it.

There is a more benign explanation for the change, and it is consistent with the PAP's longstanding position, which is to change the political system before it is forced to, or as the late founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew used to say, citing British political theorist Harold Laski: "If you don't have a system that allows fundamental change by consent, you will have a revolution by violence."

This is a party that believes in revolution by consent. It has tried to entrench opposition and alternative voices in Parliament since the 1980s, with the NCMP and the Nominated MP schemes.

The NCMP scheme has come a long way since two top losers turned down the seat in succession after the 1984 General Election.

These days, parties are keen to have their most outstanding candidates take up the post.

One can object to the NCMP scheme in principle for keeping Singapore voters and opposition candidates content on a baby diet of gruel, never graduating to solids.

Giving full voting rights without the requisite constituency responsibilities might prove seductive and over time cause the opposition to "become just satisfied with competing for NCMP instead of trying to get elected", Mr Low warned.

Or one can adopt a pragmatic position, take up an NCMP post, learn from it and come charging full tilt at the PAP at the next election.

Indeed, odd as it may seem, egging the opposition on to contest the PAP was one objective of the scheme. Mr Lee Kuan Yew, moving the Bills to introduce the scheme in 1984, said one of its aims was to embolden political contenders.

"I am saying to them, 'Come out. Take advantage of the next four to five years of exposure. Build up'.

"And if we find that they accept our parameters, we may well develop a two-party system."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 28, 2016, with the headline 'Surprising PAP does it again'. Print Edition | Subscribe