Lee Hsien Loong says Singapore will allow more opposition lawmakers
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Lee Hsien Loong says Singapore will allow more opposition lawmakers

SINGAPORE Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has mooted several changes in the republic’s political system, which include changes to the Non-Constituency Member of Parliament (NCMP) scheme, the Group Representation Constituencies (GRC) system, and the Elected Presidency system.

In his first address to parliament since it was sworn in on Jan. 15, Lee said on Wednesday that the next General Election, set to be held in April 2021, would see an increase in the minimum number of opposition MPs in parliament from nine to 12. It was one of several proposed changes to the city-state’s constitution.

This would mean that together with nine nominated MPs, up to 21 members of parliament would not be from the ruling party.

According to Lee, this move would help strengthen Singapore’s political system.

“Even if the government wins overwhelming, nationwide support, it will still have to argue for and defend its policies robustly,” he said.

The NCMP scheme had been introduced in 1984 to bolster the opposition’s presence in parliament, whereby losing opposition candidates with the highest percentage of votes during a General Election would be offered seats in parliament, should the number of opposition candidates elected as MPs fall short of the minimum number.

Currently, the minimum number of opposition MPs stands at nine, and up to nine NCMPs may be appointed in each Parliament. An NCMP is entitled to vote on all matters, except bills related to supply and money, constitutional amendments, motions of no confidence in the government and motions to remove the president from office.

Opposition parties have been critical of the scheme from the beginning, describing it as “a backdoor into parliament” and arguing that it was merely a ploy by the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) to discourage people from voting for the opposition.

Workers’ Party chief Low Thia Khiang voiced his doubts about the prime minister’s assertion that the changes would aid the opposition in the next General Election.

He said the change may instead lower the ambitions of opposition members and have them content to simply contest for such seats rather than focus on winning constituencies outright.

“An NCMP is just duckweed on the water of a pond,” said Low at a ‘meet the people’ session on Wednesday night.

“NCMPs, make no mistake about it, are not elected MPs. They may be given the same voting rights in parliament, but that only pertains to parliament. They don’t have roots, like elected MPs, where you have a constituency, you run a town council, you are in close touch with your residents, and you can sink roots there,” added the Aljunied GRC MP.

Low told Channel News Asia that the lack of a local electorate to serve or a venue to meet residents on the ground rendered their contribution to parliament as “academic”.

“To strengthen the political system, you need competition – what the Prime Minister said, contestable politics. I’m not sure whether having more NCMPs in the long run will help,” he said.

Additionally, in his speech, Lee had proposed that the size of GRCs should be reduced, with the creation of more Single Member Constituencies (SMCs).

During a General Election, a constituency may be designated as a GRC or multiple-member constituency, to be contested by a team of three to six candidates, at least one of whom must be a Malay, Indian or a person belonging to other minority communities. This was to ensure that minorities will be represented in parliament.

However, several members of the opposition have called for the abolition of the GRC system altogether.

Singapore Democratic Party Secretary-General Chee Soon Juan claimed that the system allowed the PAP to draw constituency boundaries to its advantage, a practice known as “gerrymandering”, while National Solidarity Party Secretary-General Lim Tean concurred, saying that the system adulterates the democratic system and allows ineffective MPs to be elected.

“It is time we did away with the GRC system completely or severely curtail it to no more than a very few, where there should be no more than two to three members in the GRC,” said Lim.

As for the Elected Presidency system, Lee said a Constitutional Commission would be appointed to study potential changes to the Elected Presidency system, which was introduced in 1991.

In particular, he highlighted reviewing the qualifying criteria of presidential candidates, whether the views of the Council of Presidential Advisers (CPA) should be given greater weight and how to ensure that minorities have a better chance of being elected.