Singapore GE2020: NCMP scheme a 'stabiliser' for electoral system and a 'winning hand' for Singapore democracy, says ESM Goh Chok Tong

Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong joins the PAP's Marine Parade GRC candidate Tan See Leng (left) on a walkabout in Marine Parade on July 4, 2020.
Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong joins the PAP's Marine Parade GRC candidate Tan See Leng (left) on a walkabout in Marine Parade on July 4, 2020.ST PHOTO: JASON QUAH

SINGAPORE - The Non-Constituency MP (NCMP) scheme acts as a "stabiliser" for Singapore's electoral system, and prevents an unintended election outcome, said Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong.

In a Facebook post on Saturday (July 4), Mr Goh noted that some people have commented that the intent of the scheme is to shut out the opposition and entrench the ruling party in power.

The scheme has emerged as a key issue in this general election, with opposition parties criticising it as a ploy to entice voters to vote for the ruling People's Action Party (PAP).

Mr Goh, who was the co-architect of the scheme with founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, said they never feared having checks and balances or alternative voices in Parliament.

"In fact, it was our wish to guarantee them that led us to create the NCMP scheme," he added.

Setting out the origins and his thinking on the scheme, he noted that Singaporeans have the political right to consciously vote the ruling party out of power. "But if they vote for the opposition to ensure checks-and-balances in Parliament, even though they still want the ruling party to form the government, then an unintended election outcome is entirely possible," he said.

Singapore adopts a first-past-the-post system, which means a candidate would be the winner even with a one-vote majority.

Mr Goh also pointed out that "the reality is no NCMP scheme would prevent an incompetent, unpopular or corrupt ruling party from being swept out of power - and deservedly so".

At the same time, the stability of "sampan-sized" Singapore was always at the back of his and Mr Lee's minds. Hence, they decided to "secure the sampan with outriggers".

"Then you can put a sail on the sampan, catch the wind and go fast without fear of it capsizing. The NCMP scheme is an important outrigger for our political system," he added.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong had also assured Singaporeans that Parliament will always have opposition members.

Speaking at a press conference on Nomination Day on June 30, he also noted that NCMPs now have full voting rights, just like elected MPs.

"They can vote on budgets, they can vote on constitutional amendments, they can even vote on motions of confidence.

"So whatever happens, a significant opposition presence is guaranteed. There is no possibility of the opposition being shut out from Parliament," he added.

The NCMP scheme was introduced in 1984, after the late Mr Lee argued for younger voters to be given a taste of opposition politics.

 
 
 
 

It awards seats in Parliament to the best-performing losing opposition candidates at a general election and they can take part in debates and vote on most issues. But there were certain matters, in which they cannot vote. These include constitutional changes, supply and money Bills, votes of no confidence in the Government and removing a president from office.

In 2016, however, the Constitution was amended, giving NCMPs the same voting rights as elected MPs. Also, the minimum number of opposition MPs, including NCMPs, was to go up from nine to 12 in the new Parliament after this election.

Mr Goh said in his Facebook post he supported both PM Lee's moves, which he described as "very significant constitutional changes".

"Like me, he believes that the opposition is necessary as part of a healthy parliamentary system. He has listened carefully to Singaporeans' wishes for more opposition voices in Parliament," he wrote.

Mr Goh also recounted what led to the creation the scheme.

He said that soon after Mr J. B. Jeyaretnam entered Parliament in 1981, the late Mr Lee watched the PAP backbenchers debating ably with him.

"He concluded that it was good for the development of our democracy to have such robust debates on government policies in Parliament.

"Having opposition MPs also allows the ruling party to debate and debunk issues in Parliament which the opposition would otherwise raise outside. The opposition, too, needs checks-and-balances," he added.

 
 
 

Mr Goh also said that compared to other countries, Singapore's constituencies are rather homogeneous, since public housing is spread out across the island.

This means it is possible for a party that performs well in a general election to win all, if not an overwhelming majority, of the seats in Parliament, he added, noting that Singapore did not have a single opposition MP for almost 17 years after independence.

"It was precisely to prevent this total absence of opposition voices in Parliament that Mr Lee and I decided to establish the NCMP scheme," Mr Goh wrote.

But before that, they studied the parliamentary systems of other countries and found that Mauritius had a unique "Best Losers System" to ensure fair representation of its ethnic minorities.

Today, the Mauritius Parliament has, in addition to 62 elected MPs, "eight seats that go to the best losers from the minority ethnic groups.(For Singapore, the GRC system ensures multi-racial representation in Parliament)", Mr Goh noted.

"Similarly, our NCMP system guarantees opposition voices in Parliament. At the same time, it reduces the probability of the ruling party having its mandate significantly weakened, or even being voted out of office, when that is not really what the voters want."

To illustrate, he cited a 60 to 40 per cent vote share between the ruling and opposition parties and said it takes only a swing of 10 percentage points to change the Government, intentionally or unintentionally.

Addressing voters directly, he said: "When you vote, you are not only choosing who you want to represent you in Parliament and run your town council, you are also choosing a party to lead and govern Singapore.

"For this GE, you will be choosing the party to steer our sampan in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic and other serious domestic and external challenges.

"Politics is not a game of poker. The NCMP scheme guarantees that the new Parliament will have at least 12 opposition MPs. It is a winning hand for Singapore's democracy."