Strengthen, not alter, Parliament

A view of the Parliament House. PHOTO: ST FILE

The suggestion by Mr Inderjit Singh and Mr Charles Phua Chao Rong for a bicameral legislature in Singapore is puzzling ("Time for two Houses of Parliament?"; Tuesday).

Bicameral legislatures exist in other jurisdictions because they represent different types of institutional interests that have to negotiate with one another over policy and legislation.

These interests often separate along the lines of popular sovereignty and representation on the one hand, and state or provincial rights on the other.

This is the case with the United States, Germany, and even India, which the authors cite.

The British House of Lords is an anomaly, in being a legacy of the special rights and privileges afforded to the aristocracy.

Singapore has neither states' rights nor an archaic aristocracy.

The outcomes Mr Singh and Mr Phua desire are achievable by strengthening and clarifying the role of Parliament in its current form, without the drastic constitutional changes that should, at any rate, take place only with utmost care and deliberation.

Parliamentarians, regardless of party, should, first and foremost, be legislators whose primary concerns are lawmaking and exercising oversight over the executive branch of the national government.

Singapore blurs this focus by giving MPs municipal duties, which really should be the role of town councillors, whose purpose is to look after estate issues.

Singapore's Parliament already has cross-partisan committees responsible for procedural matters.

Establishing cross-partisan committees that hold regular public hearings and provide reports on matters of lawmaking and policy oversight, as is the norm in mature representative democracies, is a modest extra step. Hearings involve testimony from civil servants, independent experts and interested parties, whose views can inform lawmaking and policy oversight.

Opposition lawmakers serve on these committees to ensure consideration of minority concerns based on information gathered from hearings. Democracy is not just about majority will but also about sufficient protection for minorities.

An appointed Upper House works against the principle of representative democracy that forms the basis for an elected Parliament - and the aspiration Singaporeans espouse when reciting the National Pledge.

Even in India's Rajya Sabha, state legislatures - themselves elected - elect up to 238 members, with the president appointing just 12, providing a clear link to voters.

Moreover, our Constitution allows the appointment of Nominated and Non-Constituency MPs to the Cabinet, if the appointment of experts into the executive branch of government is a concern. Significantly revamping the current system is premature when prudent adjustments can achieve the same effects without the potentially destabilising impact of major constitutional change.

Chong Ja Ian (Dr)

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 03, 2015, with the headline Strengthen, not alter, Parliament. Subscribe