Changes to political system to prepare Singapore for long term: PM Lee Hsien Loong

President Tony Tan Keng Yam (centre) and Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong (second from right) taking a group photo with Cabinet ministers after the presidential swearing-in ceremony at the Istana on Sept 1, 2011.
President Tony Tan Keng Yam (centre) and Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong (second from right) taking a group photo with Cabinet ministers after the presidential swearing-in ceremony at the Istana on Sept 1, 2011.PHOTO: ST FILE

NCMPs to get full voting rights; commission will be set up to review Elected Presidency

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong yesterday announced changes to the political system aimed at making it more open and accountable, and one the Government believes will help Singapore continue to succeed in the long term.

In the most significant change to the system since Non-Constituency MPs (NCMPs) were introduced in 1984, these best-performing opposition candidates who lost will get the same voting rights as elected MPs. The minimum number of opposition MPs in Parliament will also go up from nine to 12 after the next general election.

Together with nine Nominated MPs, the change ensures at least 21 MPs are not from the ruling party.

The Nominated MP and GRC schemes will remain to ensure civil society and ethnic minority voices in Parliament. But the average size of GRCs will be reduced further, with more single seats, when boundaries are next reviewed.

The President will also remain elected, but a Constitutional Commission will be appointed with Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon as chair, to review three broad areas.

These are: Keeping the eligibility criteria up to date, strengthening the Council of Presidential Advisers and ensuring that minorities have a chance to be elected.

 
 
 
 
 
 

The commission will include distinguished jurists, academics and corporate executives. They will consult the public and make recommendations on improving the system by the third quarter of this year.

PM Lee was speaking in Parliament on the third day of the debate on the President's Address.

Over 90 minutes, he drew on some of the problems other governments face today as well as Singapore's experience to make the case that while the current system is working well, it has to be updated to work well into the future.

CORE PRINCIPLES

It is not possible for any political system to guarantee a country political stability and prosperity forever. But we can make such a happy outcome more likely if we design our system carefully and correctly around the core principles: Ensure high-quality government, keep our politics open and contestable, maintain accountability for the Government, uphold a multiracial society, and institute suitable stabilisers and checks and balances in the system.

PM LEE

SERVING FUTURE GENERATIONS

Nobody can predict the future or tell how our needs will change. If the system is to serve future generations well, then it is our responsibility to keep it uptodate - regularly recalibrated, adjusted and improved, while preserving the principles that it was built upon.''

PM LEE

"We have to have a system where all the political parties, and especially the PAP, have to fight hard, stay lean and responsive to the people, and win the right to govern afresh in each election," he said.

"Parliament will always be the place to debate and to decide important policies, where alternate views will always have a place. The opposition will never be shut out and the Government will be held to account, so that the government of the day - whoever that may be - is always kept on its toes," he added.

Mr Lee's speech comes months after the People's Action Party won a strong mandate - 83 out of 89 seats and 70 per cent of the popular vote at the Sept 11 General Election.

President Tony Tan Keng Yam had, in opening the 13th Parliament, said that for Singapore to have good policies, it also needs "good politics".

Expanding on the theme yesterday, Mr Lee said there was no need to change the system if his Government was concerned with just its current term or the next. But it was his generation's responsibility to have institutions and a system that will work well under a new prime minister and a different electorate.

The system, he said, had to be designed around five core principles: Ensure high-quality government; keep politics open and contestable; maintain accountability for the Government; uphold a multiracial society; and have suitable stabilisers and checks and balances in the system.

Singapore had kept these principles in mind as it introduced innovations to its parliamentary system over time - the NCMP scheme in 1984 to guarantee opposition voices, GRCs to ensure minority MPs in 1988, and the Elected President in 1991 as a stabiliser and second key to protect the reserves and the integrity of the public service.

Mr Lee told the House that improvements to these schemes will be good for Singapore and the Government at the current phase of Singapore's political evolution.

A stronger opposition presence means that even if the Government "wins overwhelming, nationwide support, it will still have to argue for and defend its policies robustly".

"In effect, we will be aiding the opposition, giving their best losers more exposure, very possibly building them up for the next GE. No ruling party or government must ever be afraid of open argument. The PAP never has been and, ultimately, Singapore will benefit from a contest of ideas in the House," he said.

As for GRCs, Mr Lee said they have kept politics multiracial and would remain, but there was "the question of balance" over their size.

Similarly, the Elected President as an institution remained relevant.

"The President must remain an elected office. If the President is not elected, he will lack the mandate to wield his custodial powers," he said. But adjustments that may be needed should be made in good time, "to keep the Presidency a robust and effective institution".

Mr Lee said changes to the economy and the complexity of key organisations subject to the second key meant that the qualifying criteria for candidates should be reviewed.

Singapore has also not had a Malay President elected, and a mechanism should be considered so "minorities can be periodically elected if we have not had a particular minority as President for some time".

President Tan told reporters yesterday that the Elected Presidency has worked well but it was timely to see "if there is any need to refresh it so that it can better serve Singapore's needs in the longer term."

Workers' Party secretary-general Low Thia Khiang said his party was still assessing the impact of the changes, but likened NCMPs to "duckweed" in a pond, without the roots elected MPs have in their constituencies. He is expected to speak when the debate resumes today.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 28, 2016, with the headline 'Changes to political system to prepare S'pore for long term'. Print Edition | Subscribe