Changes to NCMP scheme 'meet desire for more diverse voices'

(Back row, from left) Then NCMPs Yee Jenn Jong, Lina Chiam and Gerald Giam at the opening of the 12th Parliament on Oct 10, 2011. PM Lee said on Wednesday that he intended to raise the minimum number of opposition MPs in Parliament.
(Back row, from left) Then NCMPs Yee Jenn Jong, Lina Chiam and Gerald Giam at the opening of the 12th Parliament on Oct 10, 2011. PM Lee said on Wednesday that he intended to raise the minimum number of opposition MPs in Parliament.ST FILE PHOTO

But some observers warn more voting rights for NCMPs may erode legitimacy of elected MPs

Singapore's plan to raise the minimum number of opposition members in Parliament will strengthen the two-party system and satisfy the electorate's desire for more alternative voices, said observers.

But some felt that giving Non-Constituency MPs more voting rights could undermine the legitimacy of elected representatives.

The academics and former politicians interviewed by The Straits Times were commenting on proposed changes to the NCMP scheme announced by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in Parliament on Wednesday.

Mr Lee said that he intended to raise the minimum number of opposition MPs in Parliament, including NCMPs, from nine to 12, and give NCMPs the same voting rights as elected MPs.

 

The scheme was first introduced in 1984 to allow the best-performing opposition party losers at a general election to still make it to Parliament.

ELECTED PRESIDENT MUST REPRESENT ALL S'POREANS

It is important for minority communities to feel they have a chance, they have the opportunity to play various roles in politics, be it in Parliament, or as Elected President. It is important to reassure the minority communities that they are equal to any other community in Singapore. Having said that, the issue of merit is also very important - that whoever gets the job of Elected President is able to do the job.

We want someone who can do the job, to feel the needs of not only the minority community, but all communities in Singapore, because he or she must be a president for all Singaporeans, not just for the Malay or Indian communities.

That role is very important, because he has to safeguard the reserves, be the gatekeeper, to make sure that we can continue to grow Singapore, protect the reserves, use them wisely.

For the community to feel good, we must feel that the person is good not just for us, but for all Singaporeans.

DR YAACOB IBRAHIM, Minister for Communications and Information and Minister-in-charge of Muslim Affairs, in response to questions from reporters about plans to review the Elected Presidency and feedback on this from the Malay/Muslim community. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced in Parliament on Wednesday that he would appoint a Constitutional Commission to study, among other matters, how to ensure that minorities have a chance to be the Elected President periodically, especially if there has not been a president from that community for some time.


UNEXPECTEDLY GENEROUS

I never expected the PAP to be so generous and give NCMPs so much more power.

The Workers' Party wasn't so keen on the scheme when it first started, but accepted it over time. I think both sides realise that articulate Singaporeans want an alternative voice.

The opposition will still go for the jugular: they'll criticise the incumbent and aim to win elections. But it's consoling to know that even if they don't, the best of them will get a seat in the House.

FORMER NOMINATED MP SHRINIWAS RAI, who said the proposed changes to the NCMP scheme are "bold and good".


FEWER VOTES FOR OPPOSITION?

A guaranteed 12-member opposition presence in Parliament might deter voters from casting their votes for the opposition. Some voters, accustomed to the minuscule presence of opposition in the legislature for many decades, would feel more than contented now that the number seems sufficiently visible enough for those yearning to see alternative voices in parliamentary debates.

NUS POLITICAL SCIENTIST HUSSIN MUTALIB, who disagrees with the NCMP scheme and the proposed increase in numbers and parliamentary powers.

Institute of Policy Studies deputy director for research Gillian Koh said the changes "ensure a two-party, if not 1.5-party, system in Singapore".

With at least 12 seats, opposition parties will have a sizeable presence in the House, she said. There are currently 89 elected MPs in this Parliament, plus two NCMPS.

  • The NCMP scheme

  • The Non-Constituency MP (NCMP) scheme was introduced in 1984 to ensure a minimum number of opposition MPs.

    Opposition candidates who are not elected but won the highest percentage of votes at a general election are offered an NCMP seat - if the number of elected opposition MPs is fewer than required.

    The scheme was proposed by then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, three years after Mr J.B. Jeyaretnam of the Workers' Party was elected, making him the first opposition MP since 1966.

    In 2010, the maximum number of NCMPs was raised from six to nine.

    On Wednesday, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said the number will be raised further, to 12, to foster even more robust debate.

    NCMPs will also be given equal voting power in Parliament as elected MPs.

    While NCMPs do not represent any constituency, they can speak at parliamentary debates or file motions for debate, like an elected MP.

    Currently, they are not allowed to vote on five matters: constitutional changes, supply Bills on government spending, money Bills that deal with issues like taxation, motions of no confidence in the Government, and motions to remove the president from office.

    Rachel Au-Yong

Former Nominated MP Shriniwas Rai, meanwhile, said the proposed changes would make Singapore's system more representative, and combines the best of the first-past-the-post electoral system with the proportional system.

In a first-past-the-post system, the candidate with the most votes in any given constituency wins a seat in Parliament. In proportional systems, parties are allocated seats according to their vote share.

By expanding the NCMP scheme, more of the candidates who did well, but did not win seats, will make it to Parliament, he said.

"In some constituencies, the opposition has close to 40 per cent of the vote," he noted.

National University of Singapore political scientist Hussin Mutalib, who is against the NCMP scheme in general, felt that having 12 guaranteed opposition seats may deter people from voting for the opposition come election time.

Other observers, including Dr Koh, disagreed. She said that Singaporeans would still cast their votes based on how capable a candidate is and how credible his party is.

But Dr Hussin said voters had to learn "the harsh lesson" if they did not "vote wisely".

If voters did not vote for opposition candidates at the polls, then they have to "be prepared to accept an outcome where the august Parliament is deprived of" robust debates on policies and laws, he said.

Former MPs interviewed were generally supportive of raising the minimum number of opposition MPs in Parliament.

But they also cautioned that giving NCMPs the same voting powers as elected MPs could undermine the legitimacy of the latter group.

Previously, NCMPs could not vote on matters such as constitutional changes, votes of no confidence and removing a president from office. But with the change, they will be allowed to vote on these matters.

Mr S. Chandra Das said giving both types of MPs equal voting powers would not be fair to the elected MPs who would have worked hard to win their seats in the elections.

Mr Inderjit Singh agreed, saying that NCMPs do not have the same responsibilities as elected MPs.

Constituency work and municipal issues form the bulk of the work MPs do, he said, adding that "NCMPs don't formally represent any constituency and thus don't have the same responsibilities as their elected peers".

PM Lee had said on Wednesday when proposing the changes that with NCMPs having the same voting rights as elected MPs, "there will be no reason at all to perceive NCMPs as being second-class".

Referring to this, Mr Alvin Yeo wondered if the public opinion on NCMPs would change.

"I'm not sure the public would necessarily see it that way," he said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 29, 2016, with the headline 'Changes to NCMP scheme 'meet desire for more diverse voices''. Print Edition | Subscribe