Updating the political system

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong yesterday addressed Parliament during the debate on the President's Address. He announced changes to strengthen Singapore's political system by making it more open, contestable and accountable to the people. Here are extracts

The President and many Members of this House have spoken about the bracing challenges that we face in the future: terrorism, our economy, maintaining our social cohesion, among other things.

Indeed it's a daunting list. But as Members have emphasised, we have every reason to be confident that we can overcome them one by one together.

The question is: How do we do that? How can we build a stronger Singapore? How can we progress together? For Singapore to succeed, what must we do? And one fundamental requirement beyond individual policies was what the President said at the end of his speech, that we need good policies but we also need good politics...

Voters elect us to develop policies, to implement them, to make things happen. They want policies which respond to our people's needs...They want to see policies that will enable our people to achieve their aspirations for themselves and for their children, investing in education at all levels...

And that is what this Government has done for many years. And that is what my Government will do in this term. We will fulfil our promises. But in order to have these good policies, we also must have good politics because the two go hand in hand.

Good politics makes sure that we will elect governments who will develop good policies, who will expand our common space and strengthen our society for the future. And if we have good politics, then we have the best chance of having our system continuing to work for us instead of against us over the long haul.

If we are only concerned over the next five or 10 years, we don't have to make any changes in terms of politics because the system is working now, and will continue to do so for the next 10 years, maybe a bit longer...

In the 2008 financial crisis, the Government put to the test the President’s custodial power over reserves. It briefed President S R Nathan, he consulted the Council of Presidential Advisers, the CPA supported him, he gave approval. It was instrumental in enabling Singapore to bounce back. ST PHOTO: NG SOR LUAN

(From far left) Presidential hopefuls Tan Kin Lian, Tan Cheng Bock, Tony Tan Keng Yam and Tan Jee Say at The Straits Times roundtable discussion on Aug 16, 2011, in the run-up to the Presidential Election. PM Lee said it’s timely to review the system to keep the Presidency a robust and effective institution. ST PHOTO: MUGILAN RAJASEGERAN

Spectators at the SG50 National Day Parade at the Padang. “Voters elect us to develop policies, to implement them, to make things happen,” said PM Lee. “They want policies which respond to people’s needs... They want to see policies that will enable our people to achieve their aspirations for themselves and for their children, investing in education at all levels.”  ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

CWP and PAP supporters at Fengshan Nomination Centre on Sept 1 last year. “Whatever the shape of Singapore 50 years from now, today we can and must help Singapore build a political system that will give us the best shot at prosperity and progress over the next 50 years,” said PM Lee. “A system that’s not set in stone, a system that’s not fixed and unchangeable but one that future generations can continue to improve and adapt... to meet their future needs.”  ST PHOTO: STEPHANIE YEOW

But if we are thinking beyond this term and this team, about a new prime minister and a new Cabinet and a new population, a different electorate, then we will need to keep Singapore able to work well with them in charge and with them being the team that is Singapore, then it's prudent for us to consider what possible adjustments may become necessary now, in good time.

It is not an urgent task that you must do today instead of tomorrow, but it is this generation's responsibility to make sure that our political institutions and system continue to work well, well beyond the term of this team, and work well for future generations.


In theory, to get your politics right shouldn't be such a difficult problem for most countries because there's some sense of identity and unity. Leaders and followers of different political persuasions should be able to come together and work for the common good. It makes sense to work together. It's a lot of trouble if you are at odds with one another. But if you look around the world, in fact, it's not such a simple matter.

There are some countries which face division and gridlock and the government gets paralysed, like the United States. The executive and the legislative branches are controlled by different parties. The government is at a stalemate on issues ranging from gun control to trade policy. The Democrats run the administration, the President is Democrat, Congress is Republican, the two don't see eye to eye and are unable to compromise.

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.

Three years ago in 2013, the Federal government had to shut down for 16 days because Republicans and Democrats in Congress couldn't agree to pass the budget, and last year, they nearly had to shut down again.

In President (Barack) Obama's recent State of the Union address, this was the theme he took up right at the end of his speech - the most important thing which he felt he had not been able to achieve - to get American politics to work...That's the US, the most powerful country in the world.

But other countries too have seen their national consensus fray. Many European countries were governed by stable, centrist coalitions. Sometimes you have a centre-right coalition that will govern for a time, the mood changes, the country's priorities shift, a different balance emerges, you have a centre-left coalition. Perhaps even some of the same parties continue in a new coalition and you shift from one to the other within limits, never out of control. But now, the economy has broken, the immigration and refugee crisis is presenting them with an insoluble problem and deep disenchantment has set in.

Extreme left and right groups are gaining ground. In every country, the regular political parties are losing support; never mind whether you're left-wing or right-wing, it is the extreme parties, the ones who just say, "To hell with it, I'm unhappy with the world, vote for me and I will show two fingers to the world", they are the ones who are getting support.

In Greece, it's called Syriza and they are now in government and having to make decisions which their supporters don't like at all. In Spain, you have Podemos, and they've just had elections. Podemos won a significant number of seats, but now they are having a lot of difficulty forming a new government.

In Germany, AfD, Alliance for Deutscheland (anti-immigration party); in France, the National Front; in Britain, UKIP, pushing anti-immigrant, anti-European Union, anti-globalisation platforms, just expressing angst and anger, not propounding compromises and solutions. They are reflecting public happiness but they are also riling up the public, offering no coherent policies or viable alternatives.

In many Asian countries, who you vote for depends on your race, depends on your religion. In some countries, it depends on what caste you belong to... These are fundamental divides, divides which countries have tried to close but which remain deep and have sometimes even deepened decades after independence.

You may say, well, that's the problem of democracy, but even countries which don't have elections also have not such an easy time. You take China. It's a major challenge for the Chinese government, for President Xi Jinping to keep his system clean, to keep his officials accountable, to keep his government with authority and legitimacy...

In Singapore, MPs and ministers are taking cases for their voters. A person sitting in front of you votes for or against you come election time. In China, the officials may have a good heart and want to do good for their population, but they do not owe their position to the votes of the people they are in charge of.

So the moral of the story is, there's no perfect model anywhere in the world and much less one which we can import wholesale and apply in Singapore. If you look at other people's political problems, we don't feel any schadenfreude, any sense of superiority or rejoicing. In fact, we say, "There but for the grace of God, go I".

The political problems we see in other countries can occur here too, if we blindly copy their practices. We can end up in such a situation also. So it doesn't mean we do nothing, it doesn't mean we learn nothing, it means we have to keep evolving our system carefully, step by step, making sure that our government works and the politics in Singapore serves our people's interest. We have to find our own way forward.


What kind of political system do we want in Singapore?

First, it must enable us to have a high quality government - accountable, honest, competent, effective. You have to be responsive to the people, able to look beyond the short term and keep us safe and successful. Because as a small country with no luxury of resources, no domestic hinterland, excellence and integrity has been and always must be a crucial competitive advantage for Singapore. An excellent, honest government.

It's something which we have, which we can do, which others can see, not so easy for others to duplicate. And I put this quite bluntly. If we hadn't had a first-class government in Singapore, led by exceptional leaders who are able to foresee problems, head them off, seize opportunities, reap dividends for Singapore and mobilise the people to work with them and to support policies, sometimes tough ones, we would not have Singapore today. So we cannot afford to be paralysed, gridlocked, or become dysfunctional like other countries.

For America, you can live with it. You go down, you go up. It's an aircraft carrier. For Singapore, you go down, you're finished, you don't come back up again.

Secondly, the political system has to be open and contestable.

What do I mean? There have to be free and fair elections, and it must not be forbiddingly expensive for people to stand and contest elections. In fact, that is one of the greatest things we have done to keep our system open, to make sure that we keep money out of politics and it doesn't cost a lot of money to contest elections.

So I take last year's GE, all of the parties together added up, national general election, they spent all of S$7.1 million, less than S$3 per voter. The Straits Times calculated it at $2.89. You compare that with the US$7 billion cost of the 2012 US Presidential and Congressional elections. That's US$20 per American. That , you may say, is American class, one of its own.

But look at the money politics you see in many countries, including in our region. The sums which are spoken about, which are necessary for elections, openly. Not a secret, not even illegal or embarrassing. But it's a reality, it's an insoluble problem, and ours must never become like that.

Thirdly, a political system, our political system must foster accountability, so that the Government is always kept on its toes, and will always be motivated to look after the interests of Singaporeans.

Parliament here must be a serious forum where big issues are discussed and decided - defence, the economy, choices to tax and spend, plans for the future. Government's actions have to be scrutinised and debated in Parliament. And if an MP - whether it's an opposition MP or a government MP - makes a case, argues a case against the Government's proposal, then either the Government has to be able to rebut it and explain convincingly what it is doing and why or if the MP makes a good case, then you have to acknowledge that and policies have to be changed. And that's what MPs have seen happen in this House. Not just with opposition MPs but with Government MPs or NMPs as well.

On the other side, if MPs make a good proposal, and advocate convincingly for it, and persuade the Government, then I think the Government should support it, back it with resources and help to make it happen, as also has occurred with PAP MPs and NMPs who have, from time to time, moved private member Bills and other times, have persuaded the Government that the bee in the bonnet is a justified bee in the bonnet and we should do what they are buzzing us loudly to carry out.

Every government must take Parliament seriously and I think we take Parliament seriously on both sides of the House. It's a place where you have debates, where big issues have to come to be decided. You can agree or disagree vigorously, and you ought to if you disagree, if you have strong views. But you must take it seriously. It's not a place where you swing, where you throw chairs or swing handbags or pour water on one another. Or a place where you exchange clever put-downs but really avoid the serious issues concerning the government and the future of the country.

So our sitting, our Parliament, it may not be as entertaining on television as many other Parliaments which you watch on the news at night. But I think in terms of quality and seriousness of purposes, we have it and we should keep it.

Ultimately, of course, the Government is accountable not just to the Parliament but also to the electorate. If it performs well, then it gets the support of voters again, and it can continue in office. If it performs poorly, there is an electoral price to pay. Then either the Government mends its ways and regains its support or the electorate can vote it out and another party, another team will take its place and try to do better. So we must have a system where the Government does not over time become complacent, go soft, or even worse, become corrupt.

Fourthly, our political system must uphold a multi-racial society. Multi-racialism is fundamental to our identity as a nation because we have three major races in Singapore. We have all the world's major religions in Singapore, and race and religion will always be fundamental tectonic fault-lines for us. If we ever split along one of these faultlines, that's the end of us.

Therefore, our political system must include, must encourage multi-racial and secular politics, and not racial or religious politics. It's got to encourage political parties to seek broad-based, multi-racial consensus, and pursue moderate policies in the interests of all Singaporeans, regardless of race, language, or religion. It has to discourage parties from forming along racial or religious lines, or championing the interests of one race or religion over others, whether it be a majority or a minority group in our society. Minority Singaporeans must have the confidence that they will not ever be marginalised or shut out, or discriminated against. And every Singaporean must have the confidence that he has a place in Singapore.

Fifth, our system needs to incorporate stabilisers. The Government has to be responsive to the will of the people, but at the same time also has to have safeguards in case the country is swept off course by a transient public mood, or an erratic government - which can happen. And by the time you change your mind and you realise it is unwise, it's too late to come back. So you need stabilisers to make sure that you respond to the mood but you don't get carried too far and capsize the boat.

Most political systems have such stabilisers built in. They have an Upper House, like the Senate in the US, the House of Lords in UK. Or especially in big countries, you have a division of powers between city and regional governments and the National Federal Government on the other. So no single point can cause the whole system to fail....

We are too small to have either an Upper House or to have a regional set of governments. The most we can do are town councils. Useful but not really a regional government. And we overlay on top of them mayors, we call them mayors but actually, if you compare them with the Mayor of London or the Mayor of New York, it's what they call xiao wu jian da wu. We may be small, we still need stabilisers. And especially we need stabilisers in two areas, protecting our reserves and safeguarding the integrity of our public service.

Why do I say this? Because these are two critical elements that give us safety, security, assurance and resources for the future. It's taken us decades to build up our foreign reserves. They are our oil in the ground. If we don't have a second key and you happen to have a generous or profligate government, then one government can spend it all and bring you back to zero.

Elections will become auctions, where the parties compete to be more generous than the other, offering what it can do to voters by raiding the bank, as happens in countries much richer than us...

You look at Australia. Ten years ago under basically a Conservative government, they built up significant amount of reserves or surpluses. They set up a pension fund for the future and they said this is our sovereign wealth fund and this is to make sure that in future, you will be provided for, state pensions and so on.

But then came elections and both parties, whether in government or out of government, because of the dynamics of the situation, they have no choice. One side offers something, the other side offers more, and back and forth, there's an auction. Today, the funds for the future have disappeared.The country is in deficit, the commodities boom over, the budgets cannot be settled, they have to cut back spending, it's extremely contentious. They're back where they were all within 10 years. It can happen to Australia with all that wealth and resources.

Think what can happen if it's Singapore. That's money. What about people? The whole of our excellence in Government, competence, the performance of the country depends on the integrity and the ability of the individuals in the key posts in the public service - judges, central bankers, the Accountant General, the Commissioner of Police, the people who head our stat boards, who sit on our key stat boards, the people who manage our reserves.

Once corrupt persons get into key positions, that's the end. It's not only the end because they take money and help themselves, because you can stop that and put them in jail. It's the end because they subvert and corrupt the system and make it impossible to root out the cancer which then becomes entrenched throughout the system. The system is permanently broken...

As the Malay proverb goes, "Bagai pagar makan padi", you are the hedge but you are eating the rice that you are supposed to protect. To prevent this, or at least to make this harder, this system needs the second key. And the challenge is for us to ensure this second key strengthens and stabilises our system of government.


We have evolved our system of politics over the years and it has served us well. Our political and constitutional history is quite different from that of most other newly independent countries, countries which were colonies and became independent after the war in Asia and Africa and particularly in South-east Asia, because most newly independent countries start life anew with a brand new fresh minted constitution.

But when we became independent, we didn't do that. We decided to retain and to tweak our existing constitutional arrangements that had worked for Singapore when we were part of Malaysia, and that had been working... when we were a self-governing state before we joined Malaysia.

He (Mr Lee Kuan Yew) felt that it was better for us to evolve our model gradually, learning from experience, rather than to strive for some unworkable perfection. And Mr Lee said that his best teacher of the difference between political reality and constitutional theory was the Tunku.

Once he wrote, I think this is in his memoirs, he was in the Tunku's office and admiring a beautiful leather-bound green-covered volume. It was the Pakistani Constitution and presented to the Tunku by Ayub Khan, who was at one time president of Pakistan. So Mr Lee admired the book. The Tunku told Mr Lee: "You know, Kuan Yew, they make very good Constitutions. They have many brilliant lawyers. And with every leader, they have to make a new one."

So when we became independent, we cobbled together the Constitution of the Republic of Singapore, which is what we have today.Where did it come from? Part of the provisions from the state Constitution, part of the provisions from Malaysia's Federal Constitution, which we adopted and incorporated, plus amendments which we made after Separation.

For example, amendments to safeguard our sovereignty and to ensure that any decision to give up our sovereignty would have to be put to a referendum of all of the voters in Singapore, and not decided by the legislature. It's a rojak, it's a messy document. And such a messy document that in 1970, Mr Lee asked the British High Commissioner to get British Constitutional law experts to polish it up. And it came back polished and shiny. And Mr Lee thought the British experts had done a first-rate job.

The idea was, you look at the American Constitution. It's lasted 200 something years and over these 200 something years, it's only had 20-plus amendments. And so you worship it. You get it precisely right, beautiful form of words, every school child knows it and that's what is going to guide the country for the next several hundred years.

But in the end, Mr Lee decided not to take that approach. He did not take in the brand new versions drafted by the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office office experts in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, because he concluded that the experts had not understood the context, nor why we had made certain basic decisions. He explained this to the House in 1984, when he moved the Constitutional Amendments to create the NCMP scheme. And he used Thomas Jefferson's analogy of a suit. He said:

"From my experience, Constitutions have to be custom-made, tailored to suit the peculiarities of the person wearing the suit. Perhaps, and he changes his metaphor here, but I think you will forgive him this mixed metaphor, like shoes, the older they are, the better they fit. Stretch them, soften them, resole them, repair them. They are always better than a brand new pair of shoes.

"Our people have got used to, and understand the present system. It takes a long time… Any fundamental change takes a long time. But most important of all, the Constitution works. Many countries have tried and gone through several Constitutions since independence… They have not brought stability or legitimacy. I believe it is better to stretch and ease an old shoe when we know that the different shape and fit of a younger generation require a change."

Like many of Mr Lee's speeches, this speech made in 1984 ... is still well worth reading more than 30 years later. The Sunday Times published an excerpt. I encourage you to read it and I urge members to read the full version in the Hansard.

And apart from talking about Singapore politics, he gave a tour of the horizon of how historically, other countries - Britain, France, America - have each got their own histories and how the system evolved for them and how difficult it was. And he talked about France, and how as a young man in 1956, after attending a constitutional conference in London, he took a side trip to Paris on the way home and the taxi driver took him round, showed him the sights, brought him to the National Assembly - this was 1956 andit was a democracy and the politicians couldn't agree.

And the taxi driver pointed at the National Assembly and said to him, "Wala! Wala! Wala!" and he said, "that was an education for a young politician into the reality of politics".

Unfortunately, Hansard didn't quite catch the nuance of this expression and Hansard, I just recently noticed, transcribed it as "Voila!" three times, as a result of which it made no sense and you therefore won't find this in The Sunday Times, because Sunday Times couldn't make sense of it and edited it out.

But it's the most vivid example of how things can go wrong in politics. Highly civilised nation, system didn't work.

In the end, General Charles de Gaulle had to come back out of retirement and change the rules, took very stern measures, created the Fifth Republic. But even de Gaulle must die and till today, the French, they also, like other countries, have political problems.

Today in the newspapers, if you read The Straits Times, Paris is in upheaval because there are strikes. Who's on strike? Taxi drivers, air traffic controllers, and for good measure, civil servants are on strike.

So I think we have to understand the difference between the theory and the practice and what looks good on paper and what we need really truly in real life to do. This is not masak masak. The approach which we have taken has been to evolve our political system as we go along.

Mr Lee did this, we've continued to do this, learning from experience, stretching and easing the old shoe and then adapting it to our needs and dealing with problems as new problems emerge, as we understand the difficulties and the weaknesses.


We inherited the first-past-the-post parliamentary system modelled on the British House of Commons in Westminster. We've kept the first- past-the-post system. That's why here we sit opposite one another - the Government and, in principle, the Opposition on the other side. We don't sit in a semi-circle the way the Americans sit in a semi-circle or the European Legislative sit in a semi-circle. It's a parliamentary system, first past the post, you are in opposition to each other. We kept that system.

But subsequently we introduced new institutions - Non-Constituency MPs, Nominated MPs, Group Representation Constituencies and an institution of an Elected President - each institution with a purpose, each one in line with our principles. And let me say something about them.

The first-past-the-post parliamentary system tends to produce clear election outcomes. You either win decisively or you lose decisively, and especially in Singapore where every constituency is more or less the same composition and the same mood as every other constituency. All the more you'll tend to have a national swing and it goes across the board and so you end up with a clear majority in the House.

After independence, after Separation, the Barisan Sosialis opposition walked out of Parliament in 1965. From then, Parliament was composed entirely of PAP (People's Action Party) MPs. In the next four GEs, the PAP won all the seats and as well as all the by-elections in between. And this enabled the Government to govern decisively and effectively in the vital first years of nationhood. It lasted from 1965 until 1981 when the first opposition MP J. B. Jeyaretnam was elected to Parliament. It had been by then 16 years since Separation. A new generation of voters was coming of age, a new team of MPs and ministers was preparing to take over.

Mr Lee and his senior colleagues watched what happened in the House after Jeyaretnam came in and after some time, they concluded to their surprise that, despite all the toing and froing and unpleasantness, it was good for the Government, and it was good for the Singapore system that we have opposition voices in Parliament. Because the opposition could express opposing views, could question and criticise the Government, could make ministers justify their actions, and the opposition provided Mr Lee and his team the "foil" or a backdrop against which they could set out their ideas more clearly in contrast to what was being presented on the other side - right against wrong, good ideas against better ones - and through the debate in Parliament helped Mr Lee and his team get their message across and aid public understanding.

So Mr Lee proposed the NCMP scheme in 1984. The NCMP scheme made sure that whatever the election outcome, there would always be a certain minimum number at least of opposition MPs in Parliament. At first this minimum was three opposition MPs, either elected or not elected NCMPs or some combination, and over time, we've gradually increased it and we've brought it now to nine.

The design of the NCMP scheme is unique, I think, but the concept of a Parliament with members who have been elected in different ways is not at all unusual. Many countries do that. Look at New Zealand, look at Taiwan, they have mixed member proportional representation systems. Some MPs are elected from constituencies, others are chosen from party lists. In other words, it's a proportional representation system. How many you take off the party list depends on the proportion of the total vote that your party's got.

And one reason the New Zealanders do this is because they want to ensure that there's Maori representation in Parliament. Such a system where you top up beyond what the first-past-the-post system gives you will help to moderate the extreme outcomes of a first-past-the-post system, and that's why we did the NCMP system.

We didn't do the proportional representation way because we felt that would be bad for Singapore. It would result in political parties that are based on race or religion. It would encourage political leaders to champion the demands of their particular segment against the broader interests of Singapore. It would divide us rather than bringing us together, because to win in a proportional representation system ,you've got to have your base.

What is your base? It can be Christians, it can be Buddhists, it can be Muslims, it can be Indians. It can be a special interest group, maybe on gender issues. What is your interest? Your interest will consolidate that base, take a hard position, demand as much as you can for your group, then you increase your percentage. You don't have to win seats. You just get a higher percentage and you will get seats in Parliament. You don't have to win constituencies. And I think if we do that, you end up split. You end up polarised. You end up severely weakened.

Instead we created the NCMP scheme and NCMPs are opposition candidates who had the best results but didn't quite win the seats. The NCMP may have got more than the person from a GRC . But the point is, he did well. He is one of the best losers and they come in, ensuring that opposition voices are always represented in Parliament.

And they had at least as much right to be in Parliament as MPs who are elected by the party list under a proportional representation system. In fact, arguably more because on a party list, under a proportional representation, no voter specifically chose you. Your party boss put you on the list in position No. 2 or 3 or 20. And you happen to make the cut.

Here, to be an NCMP, the voters in the constituency which you contested have to have a sufficiently high regard of you to give you one of the highest amongst all losing candidates before you can come in. So you have got people who are really truly personally voting for you. And I think that gives legitimacy as well as objectivity to the system. It depends on electoral contest and not just on the say-so of the party they belong to, or the party bosses of the party they belong to. So we introduced the NCMP scheme in 1984.

In 1990, we introduced the Nominated MP scheme, to bring into Parliament diverse voices from civil society. So that now, if you take elected opposition MPs, NCMPs plus NMPs together, then altogether about 20 per cent of the MPs in the House will at all times be non-government MPs. So there's diversity, there's debate. I think there is value.

The NCMP scheme is a good one which has achieved its purpose. In the last 30 years, other than the very first time in 1984 when there were such special circumstances, opposition parties have always taken up the NCMP seats offered to them.

For example, Ms Sylvia Lim was first elected as an NCMP in 2006 and she acquitted herself in Parliament, impressed voters and became an MP elected in Aljunied GRC in 2011. And in the last term, we had three NCMPs: Ms Lina Chiam, Mr Yee Jenn Jong and Mr Gerald Giam. They all took up their seats. They participated actively in parliamentary debates. And this term, Workers' Party NCMPs have also taken up their seats. We have Mr Leon Perera, we have Mr Dennis Tan. They made their maiden speeches this week. Except Ms Lee Li Lian, who has said she will not take up her NCMP seat, but she is not taking it up not out of any objections of principle, but to give it to another Workers' Party candidate. Now whether that's in the spirit of the scheme, we can debate, but we will wait for the motion, which I believe Mr Low has moved, to discuss the matter further.

The opposition, of course, would like to have it both ways: take up NCMP seats when they win them, but also protest that an NCMP is a second-class MP, in order to persuade voters to cast their votes for them and make them constituency MPs.

In fact, in reality, NCMPs have exactly the same opportunities to question, to speak and to debate in Parliament that constituency MPs have. They can file parliamentary questions, they can move motions. They can speak in all debates, they can show voters, past and future, what they can do. There is just one distinction between an NCMP and a constituency MP today. And that is, unlike constituency MPs, NCMPs are restricted in what they can vote on in Parliament.

There are a few matters which they cannot vote on: constitutional changes, supply Bills, money Bills, votes of no confidence, and also removing a President from office. This was how the scheme was designed by Mr Lee Kuan Yew back in 1984- and he had his reasons which he explained in an exchange because Mr Jeyaretnam was in the Parliament and challenged him on this. I suppose this is an example of how Mr Jeyaretnam in the opposition played a constructive role. Mr Lee was particularly concerned with one scenario: A split in the ruling party leading to a motion of no confidence in the House. And he felt that in such a situation, NCMPs should not have a say in determining the Government.

I think there is a context to this. In 1984, Mr Lee would still have fresh in his mind the memory of what had happened in 1961, when the extreme left-wing split off from the PAP and formed the Barisan Sosialis. The PAP hung on in the Legislative Assembly with a one-vote majority, one-seat majority. And then one MP died and there was, there were no seat majority.

I think Mr Lee must have been conscious that even in 1984 within the PAP, there was opposition to the pace of leadership renewal, which could have led to a leadership challenge. The amendments were moved around in 1984, the GE was upcoming and took place in December 1984. It was a crucial general election because many of the third generation leaders entered politics in that election - Wong Kan Seng, Yeo Cheow Tong, Mah Bow Tan, Abdullah Tarmugi, myself. And there were very strong different views within the PAP on whether this was going too fast and it was not to be ruled out that there could have been a challenge. And Mr Lee felt in that situation NCMPs should not have a say.

But after 30 years in a different phase of our political development, we should re-examine this. I am not saying that we can now rule out the possibility of leadership change, challenge within the ruling party. We can never rule that out. I have a cohesive team, but as Mr Lee said: "It is a real distinct possibility because strong men have strong views, and they can collide."

And in other countries it happens regularly, in Australia or UK, it's marvellous theatre. Suddenly you hear news there's going to be a spill. The Australians call it a spill. A spill means somebody has mounted a challenge. The Leader then has to call these MPs together to vote. It happens within 24 hours. Ministers state positions, MPs state positions, furious to-ing and fro-ing, next thing you know, new PM, and I'm writing a new letter of congratulations. It's happened three, four times within the last five years in Australia.

And in Britain, leadership challenges are also dramatic events. Mrs Thatcher was challenged and deposed. Tony Blair left because he knew if he didn't leave, somebody would challenge him and he would be pushed out. So we cannot rule out it happening in Singapore.

But if we accept that NCMPs have as much of a mandate from voters to be in the House as constituency MPs, and more than mandate in the House than party list MPs would in a proportional representation system, then I think even in the case of the vote of no confidence and the other restricted matters which NCMPs presently are not allowed to vote on, I think we can make the case, and I will make the case that they should not only be allowed to speak, but to vote.

Therefore, I intend to amend the Constitution during this term to give NCMPs the same voting rights as constituency MPs. NCMPs should therefore be able to vote even in the case of confidence motions and all the other presently restricted matters. And 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.

I will also increase the minimum number of opposition MPs, including NCMPs, in the House from 9 to 12, from the next General Election. Given that in any election at least 30 per cent of voters will vote against the Government, ensuring a minimum of 12 opposition MPs in the House of about 100 members, I feel, is reasonable.

The opposition often claims that they are unable to put up a stronger showing in Parliament because they have too few MPs. I think this is an excuse because the opposition's impact depends on the quality of the opposition MPs and arguments, far more than on their number.

But having more NCMPs will give the opposition more opportunity to show what they can do and if in fact the NCMPs are capable and effective, the exposure will win them recognition and help them win a constituency the next time.

We will also continue with the NMP scheme. So together with the NCMPs, 12 plus nine, we will now have at least 21 non-ruling MPs in the House.

In making these changes, I am by no means presuming that the Government will always have a strong majority in the House, although this has been the case for the last 50 years. Nor do I assume that the PAP will always form the government. That will depend on the performance of the PAP, and the verdict of Singapore voters. But regardless of election outcomes, the NCMP scheme ensures a stronger opposition presence in Parliament, so that 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 General Election.

But I believe that in this phase of our political development, this is good for the government, good for Singapore. 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.


We introduced the Group Representation Constituency (GRC) scheme in 1988 to ensure that we will always have a minimum number of minority race MPs in Parliament. And this would encourage all political parties to pursue multi-racial politics rather than sectarian politics, unlike the proportional representation system, which would also have led to minority MPs in Parliament, but via racial political parties.

But with a GRC system, parties and MPs have to give weight to the interests of minorities. And the GRCs have pushed parties to become more multi-racial in their approach. Opposition parties know that they have to win support from the minorities and that they have to field credible Malay and Indian candidates in their teams. And they make quite a big effort to go and do that. It puts pressure on us in the PAP, but I think it's a right system that the opposition parties have to make that effort in order to put up a credible team.

And they also know that if they play racial politics during elections, then whatever votes they may win from one group will be at the expense of votes which they will lose from the other groups. Because in a multi-racial team with a multi-racial electorate, you have always to strike that balance and internalise that balance within your team and amongst your voters.

It is the same problem with parliamentary elections which led us to create GRCs, to ensure a minimum representation of minority race MPs in Parliament.We should consider a similar mechanism for presidential elections, to ensure that minorities can be periodically elected if we have not had a particular minority as President for sometime.

Of course, this hasn't stopped candidates from being naughty from time to time. In the 1997 General Election, you will remember Tang Liang Hong in Cheng San GRC. He made provocative, chauvinist speeches to appeal to the Chinese majority vote, outrageous statements, but powerful. The PAP exposed him. The minorities swung solidly against Tang Liang Hong and his Workers' Party team mates. They lost.

In the last elections, some opposition candidates tried the opposite, tried to exploit Islam to collect Malay votes. Some ostentatiously performed prayers in public before election rallies and posted photos of themselves doing so on the social media. But beyond a point, they would have hurt their non-Malay fellow candidates in the GRC teams, and it would have cost them non-Malay votes. And in the end, their tactic failed and their teams lost. So GRCs have kept our politics multi-racial.

The GRC scheme also has one bonus, which I think is important, and that is that it works together with our system of town councils. The constituency MPs have to run the town council. They have to manage the S&CC collections. They have to receive, spend and account for government subsidies. They have to receive the estates to a proper standard. They have to administer rules and fines and look after substantial sinking funds. And this makes sure that any party which aspires to form the Government of Singapore first has a chance to demonstrate in a town council what it can or cannot do. And if it can do, that's a base from which it can build and persuade Singaporeans. If it can't do, it's as well that Singaporeans know this early and everybody is under no illusions.

So the GRC system is a good one and I think we should keep it. But there is the question of balance. How many big ones should we have versus small ones? How many GRCs should we have versus Single Member Constituencies? There are pluses and minuses both ways.

A bigger GRC benefits from having an anchor Minister take care of their affairs and also benefits from having better economies of scale in running GRC-wide programmes and activities and in running the town council. But smaller GRCs create a closer connection between MPs and their residents.

On the other hand, SMCs have their place in our system too because they are not just easier to contest, but also give an MP direct responsibility for everything that happens in his constituency. So we have to strike the right balance between GRCs, big and small, and between GRCs and SMCs.

And in the last two elections, we have created smaller GRCs and more SMCs. And I think the results have been good. The next general election is a long way off. I don't want to raise excitement prematurely, but I will say now that in due course when I appoint the Electoral Boundaries Review Committee, I will instruct it to reduce the average size of GRCs further, and to create more SMCs.


In 1990, we passed legislation to make the President an elected office, so that he could act as a stabiliser in our political system. The President would exercise custodial powers over the spending of past reserves, and key appointments in the public service. These are the two vital areas which I talked about earlier. And he would be directly elected by the people in a national election, so as to have the mandate and moral authority to say no to the government should this become necessary.

We also created a Council of Presidential Advisors (CPA) to assist and advise the President in carrying out his duties and exercising his powers. The Elected Presidency as an institution was a major innovation, again with no precedent anywhere else. So we spent a long time designing it. We published one White Paper. We debated it. We published a second White Paper and after extensive debate, we legislated it, operated it and have amended it over the years. In addition to exercising custodial powers, the President would also continue to be the Head of State. He has to be above politics. He represents all Singaporeans, regardless of race, language or religion and he's a symbol of our sovereignty and of our nation.

By design, the President has no executive, policy-making role. And this remains the prerogative of the elected Government commanding a majority in Parliament. But in the last Presidential Election, many people didn't understand this. I suspect even now, quite a number of people still don't understand this. And regrettably, during the last presidential election, those who didn't understand it included some candidates. They campaigned for President as if they were going to form an alternative Government.

But the President is neither the Government nor is he the Opposition. He is a custodian, he's a goalkeeper. The Constitution gives him power to block certain actions of the government, in areas which are specifically carved out for him. But it does not give him the power to initiate policies or generally to champion policies.

So it's a very delicate balance, he's elected, he's elected for a specific purpose, the purpose is specified in the Constitution and we have to operate by the Constitution both to be complying with the law and to make sure the system works. And for the system to work, both candidates and voters have to understand this because otherwise if you have a President who thinks that he is the government, competing with the government, you have two power centres in the system, at the very least you have confusion, you could have an impasse between the two and the democratically elected government will be undermined....

In the last 25 years, we have accumulated experience operating the institution of an elected President.

We have improved and updated it over time, we've refined how the financial safeguards operate, the details are complex, and we could only get them more correct after operating them and getting experience operating them. We created a Constitutional tribunal to which the President can refer constitutional questions which arise for an opinion, especially if there's a disagreement between him and the Government. We introduced the Net Investment Returns framework, a new spending rule to enable the Government to tap a stable and sustainable income from our reserves.

In the global financial crisis in 2008, we exercised and put to the test the President's custodial power over reserves. It was a worldwide crisis. We ourselves watched the indicators with great alarm. We needed to act expeditiously. We needed to make sure we threw all that we had at the problem. The government therefore sought the President's permission to use past reserves to fund the Jobs Credit scheme and the Special Risk-Sharing Initiative (SRI). It cost $4.9billion.

We briefed President Nathan, he consulted the CPA, the CPA supported him, he gave approval. It was a critical decision instrumental in saving jobs and enabling us to bounce back quickly from a deep recession.

If we hadn't done that, if we didn't have the mechanism both to lock up the money for ordinary times and to unlock the money during extraordinary times, we could not have reacted. If we hadn't locked it up in ordinary times and we had just helped ourselves from time to time from it for some good purpose or other, come a crisis you would not have had the kitty. If we had not been able to unlock the kitty in a crisis and spend it when we needed it, we would not have come through the crisis the way we did so smoothly that many people didn't even realise that we had gone through a near death experience. But the system worked.

As Mr Lee Kuan Yew would have said, this is now a shoe that we have worn for 25 years.

I hesitate to call it an old shoe but it's 25 years and we have mended and adjusted it from time to time and generally it has fitted well and yet we need to continue to review and to adjust the scheme regularly to keep it functional and in good repair.

The President must remain an elected office. If the President is not elected, he will lack the mandate to wield his custodial powers.

I've read various opeds in the newspapers which say we can go back to the old system. Just do away with the elected President and have Parliament elect the President. Don't have a national election. I think WP has sometimes espoused this view too, I think it is most unwise, the President has a role, it's a difficult system to get right but we have to adjust it and try and get it more right than wrong over a period of time and not abandon the project altogether, and leave ourselves naked and defenceless against all the difficulties which the elected President enables us to avoid.

But I think it's timely for us to review specific aspects of the elected President system and I'll like to set out three areas which merit particular consideration.

Before I do that, I'd like to state upfront that the Government has a very good and constructive working relationship with this President, President Tony Tan. So we are not proposing this review because of any dissatisfaction with the present working arrangements, or any difference of views between the Government and the President but we are doing this because any adjustments that may be necessary for the future should be made in good time, in order to give us time to think it over in a thoughtful, mature, unpressured way and in order to keep the Presidency a robust and effective institution in our political system.

I have shared the Government's thinking with President Tan so he knows what I'm going to say today and he has noted it and in due course he will formally express his views when we have more definite proposals.

What are the three things which I think we should consider?

First, we should review the qualifying criteria for the EP. The EP is elected to fulfil specific constitutional duties and to be capable and qualified of carrying out those duties, he needs to have that experience to be able to judge and to make decisions. And so there are qualifying criteria spelt out in the Constitution. The concept was to peg it at people with senior management competence and experience because they have to assess and decide on financial proposals which will involve billions of dollars, and they must decide, judge and decide to approve or reject appointments of people into posts which will involve running big organisations, making decisions, investing, managing, spending billions of dollars.

And so the person who's making those decisions must understand what those decisions are, what is involved in that job before he can decide whether a person is fit to do that job or not and before he decides whether a spending proposal is right or wrong, justified or otherwise. Therefore, the candidates are required under the Constitution to have held key appointments themselves like Speaker, the Chief Justice, judges, ministers, Permanent Secretaries. That's in the public service. Or in the private sector to have held chairman or CEO posts running large and complex companies, companies like Singtel or at that time we said PUB because at that time PUB was one entity before we had broken it up.

The principle remains valid but I think the details may need to be brought up to date.

Just based on inflation alone, $100 million in 1990 would be equivalent to $158 million today. But it's much more than inflation which is at issue because over 25 years, our economy has grown, government spending has gone up, government reserves have accumulated, the size and the complexity of the organisations which are subject to the second key of the President have grown many fold. Apart from the key appointments in the government, the President also has a second key on organisations like MAS, Temasek, GIC, HDB, JTC.

These are big organisations and they have grown much bigger over the last 25 years. I have prepared a table which shows this.

The table shows you a list of items, the values in 1990 and the values today. The first row shows the Consumer Price Index. If you take 1990 as 100, today it's 158, which is what I told you. If you look at our nominal GDP, 1990 was S$72 billion; today it's nearly S$400 billion. Our Government spending, the Goverment Budget has gone up from S$11 billion to S$68 billion - six times. CPF balances, members' money: $41 billion to $275 billion. MAS Official Foreign Reserves. This is in US dollars because these are foreign reserves and we are holding them overseas, US$28 billion increased to US$248 billion. Temasek, which is one of the companies on the fifth schedule protected by the President. In 1990 they were worth about S$10 billion; today, the net portfolio value is about S$266 billion.

I also put Singtel, which is one of the jobs which you consider comparable and suitable as an experience to become the President. And Singtel in 1993 was $500 million of paid-up capital. Today it's $2.6 billion. If you look at their net tangible assets, it's gone from $2.5 billion to $25 billion. So the amounts and complexity have gone up.

On the other hand, if you look at the qualifying criteria and how many companies qualify $100 million paid-up capital. I don't have the 1990 number but in 1993, it was 158. Back in 2010 it was 1,200. Today it's 2,100 plus. Today it's so more and more people on paper are qualified to do this job...

During the Presidential Election, there is a Presidential Elections Committee which vets candidates to make sure they are qualified and is chaired by the Chairman of the Public Service Commission. And in the last election, the chairman was Mr Eddie Teo.

After the election, he sent me a report. And I quote from the report para 6.1 in the conclusion:

"In the course of its work, the PEC, the Presidential Elections Committee, noted that there were about 1,200 registered companies with a paid-up capital of $100 million or more in 2010. The criterion of $100 million paid-up capital in Article 19(g)(2)(iii) of the Constitution was set more than 20 years ago. It is therefore unclear whether or not with inflation, the threshold continues to reflect the original intent of the requirement.

" The PEC noted that in the Report of the Select Committee on the Constitution of the Republic of Singapore (Amendment No. 3) Bill, the examples of PUB and Telecoms were cited as benchmarks against which organisations should be compared to for size and complexity. However, the smallest companies in Singapore with a paid-up capital of $100 million today would fall well short in both size and complexity. This is an issue that the Government may wish to review."

I agree with Mr Eddie Teo that we should review the qualifying criteria for candidates to be President.


The second aspect of the presidency that we should review is examining how we can build up the Council of Presidential Advisers further. The CPA is an integral part of the two-key mechanism.

The Council assists and advises the President in exercising his powers, so that the system does not solely rely on the judgment of a single person acting alone but rather, on the President well-advised by a team of wise and experienced men and women. As ESM Goh once described it, together the President and CPA will play the role of "a goalkeeper together with a team of defenders".

Over time, as the new institutions of the President and CPA established themselves, we should consider if the CPA's advice should come to count for more in the decisions made by the President so as to make our governance system more stable. We have to strike a delicate balance because the President must have the right to exercise his veto powers, even against the advice of the CPA. He's thought about it, he believes that he should say no, he should have the right to say no.

But a veto which is supported by the CPA should carry more weight than a veto which the CPA disagrees with. Let me say that again. Whether or not the CPA agrees that something should be vetoed, I think the President should have the discretion to say 'I believe it is right, I want to veto it.'

But if President says veto and the CPA says 'Yes, I agree', I think that's a heavy veto.

If the CPA says 'No, let it through' and the President says, 'Regardless, I want to veto', well, I think the President's view must carry weight. But the weight, in this instance, will be less than if the CPA had agreed with him. I think it makes sense.

And in fact, some parts of the Constitution are drafted like that today. For example, decisions on Supply Bills or key appointments, the President has to consult the CPA. And if the CPA concurs with the President's views, the veto is final, that's the end of the matter. The government must redo its sums or put up a new candidate.

But if the CPA disagrees with the President, then the President can still veto, but Parliament, in this case, can override his veto with a two-thirds majority. So if the veto is unilateral, the CPA thinks it's okay, the President says no, Government can come back to Parliament, make the argument, explain its position and try and get a two-thirds majority to pass it through. This applies to Supply Bills, it applies to key appointments. But this arrangement does not apply uniformly when the President exercises custodial powers in other areas.

And I think we should study if CPA's views should be given greater weight in more areas, and if so how this can be done.


The third aspect we should examine of the Elected President is how we can ensure that minorities will have a chance to be elected to the office of President. The President is the Head of State. He represents all Singaporeans in our multi-racial society. I think it is important that minorities have a chance to be elected President, and that this happens regularly.

Since we introduced the Elected President system and brought it into effect in 1991, we have not had a Malay President. From 1999, we had an Indian President - Mr S R Nathan, who served for two terms with distinction. Mr Nathan was elected unopposed both times. But in future, when Presidential elections are more likely to be contested, and even hotly contested, I believe it will become much harder for a minority person to get elected. It is the same problem with parliamentary elections which led us to create GRCs, to ensure a minimum representation of minority race MPs in Parliament.

We should consider a similar mechanism for Presidential elections, to ensure that minorities can be periodically elected if we have not had a particular minority as President for some time.

These are three broad areas to look into: to bring the eligibility criteria up to date, to strengthen the CPA, to ensure minority Presidents periodically.

I will appoint a Constitutional Commission to study these issues and make recommendations. It will be chaired by Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon and will include distinguished jurists, academics and corporate executives. The Commission will look into each of the issues, and take views from the public and in due course it will recommend how we can improve the system - I hope by the third quarter of this year. And then, depending on the Commission's recommendations and the Government's response to them, we will follow up to table any legislation which may be necessary within this year.

Singapore has had a good 50 years, because we have had good policies and good politics and because the government has never shied away from doing the right thing and putting issues squarely to the people, and persuading the people to come along, and do things that ultimately benefited them and benefited Singapore.

Despite unpromising conditions at Separation, we have developed a political system that has worked well for us, and we've evolved it carefully along the way, to suit our changing needs and circumstances, in the light of our growing experience. But our responsibility is not only to keep our political system working today, but to make sure it works for the longer term.

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 up to date - regularly recalibrated, adjusted and improved, while preserving the principles that it was built upon.

At the beginning of this term, after SG50, I'm raising this issue now because my aim is to strengthen the system to make it more open and contestable, to keep it accountable to the people, to go into the next 50 years with the best chance of making a success of Singapore.

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, a system where 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. We must not assume that future Governments, whether it's the PAP government or a different party forming the government, will never falter.

In fact, 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 multi-racial society, and institute suitable stabilisers and checks-and-balances in the system.

In 50 years' time, SG100, I think many of us will not be around. We don't know what Singapore will be like, or whether the PAP will still be in Government. But whatever the shape of Singapore 50 years from now, today we can and must help Singapore build a political system that will give us the best shot at prosperity and progress over the next 50 years.

A system that's not set in stone, a system that's not fixed and unchangeable but one that future generations can continue to improve and adapt in order to meet their future needs. And that way future governments can work with future citizens of Singapore to achieve happiness, prosperity and progress for our nation.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 28, 2016, with the headline 'Updating the political system'. Subscribe