Singapore’s government wants more opposition?

FEBRUARY 7 — The authorities have announced prospective changes to the nation’s electoral and political system.

Some commentators have gone so far as to call these changes the most significant to our political system since the introduction of non-constituency members of Parliament (NCMPs) in 1984.

The NCMP scheme allowed/allows a certain number of the best-performing losing opposition candidates — runners up in general elections — to enter Parliament as NCMPs. A maximum of nine opposition NCMPs can enter Parliament to ensure a minimum amount of opposition representation in Parliament which is to say if the opposition wins no seats directly, nine opposition NCMPs will sit in Parliament, if four opposition MPs are directly elected, then five NCMPs will enter Parliament to ensure a minimum of nine opposition seats.

Currently there are three NCMPs in parliament and they enjoy many of the same privileges as elected MPs but they do not have the right to vote on certain Bills, such as those to amend the Constitution and motions of no confidence against the government.

However, from the next general election it has now been proposed to allow NCMPs to enjoy equal voting rights with elected MPs. Additionally a minimum number of 12 opposition MPs will be present in the next Parliament, up from the current nine.

Together with the nine NMPS who are nominated Member of Parliaments appointed by the president and not affiliated with a political party there will now be a minimum of 21 non-ruling party MPs in parliament — out of a total number of 101 seats.

In addition to raising the number of seats the government has also undertaken to change some of the country’s electoral boundaries and divisions. The number and size of GRCs — group representative constituencies which are contested by teams of candidates from each party will be reduced.

Each GRC may elect between three to six MPs and the party that wins the most votes within the GRC wins all the seats in the constituency. The system is more or less unique to Singapore and has long been criticised with the opposition claiming the government is prone to redrawing GRC boundaries to the disadvantage of opposition candidates. Their extreme first past the post nature, with a plurality in a GRC ensuring up to six MPs in Parliament has also long been a bone of contention.

Now though the government is pledging to cut back on GRCs and looking to offer more single member constituencies — one constituency, one MP with the candidate with the largest number of votes entering Parliament. Basically a more conventional first past the post system. 

While the Singapore government should be praised for its move to increase opposition voices in Parliament, a managed democracy has obvious long-term problems. — AFP pic
While the Singapore government should be praised for its move to increase opposition voices in Parliament, a managed democracy has obvious long-term problems. — AFP pic

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All of this seems like movement in the right direction. The government appears to be taking on board the need for opposition voices in Parliament and ruling party MPs have spoken out about the need for a strong opposition to hold the government accountable.

But these changes leave me asking several questions; Singapore has been holding elections with a universal franchise on an ostensibly democratic basis since 1965. Yet we must be one of only a real handful of countries where after decades of election cycles the government must step in to ensure opposition representation.

Currently directly elected opposition MPs stand at just six out of the total 101 MPs.

And the fact that unelected MPs — runners-up NCMPs are being drafted in as a key part of the solution strikes me as lacking. While I’m all for a strong opposition voice in Parliament should we really give unelected NCMPs the same voting rights as elected MPs?

Then of course the modification of the GRC system isn’t the same as its wholesale replacement with a more conventional and proportional system. While Singapore’s opposition definitely does seem to be underperforming, it did muster around 30 per cent of the popular vote in the last election. It could be argued therefore that the opposition should organically hold around 30 per cent of seats in Parliament without the need for NCMPs etc. 

So perhaps what we really need is to move to a system where the opposition begins to win more seats in its own right, instead of being allocated more seats out of the government’s concern for democracy.

Otherwise we are in danger of having nothing more than a managed democracy with the ruling party assuring us an opposition voice which isn’t quite the same as have having a truly competitive opposition. The danger is that Singaporeans will begin to feel the opposition will now be represented in Parliament by default so they don’t need to actually go out and vote for them — which can’t be a healthy situation.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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