PM Lee Hsien Loong at the debate on President's Address on 27 January 2016
I rise in support of the Motion.
The President and many members of this House have spoken about the bracing challenges that we face in the future — terrorism, the economy, maintaining our social cohesion, amongst other things. Indeed, it is 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? 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.
Members would have read the addenda to the President’s Address. These comprehensive documents lay out the agenda for this term of Government.
The business of Government is to govern. Voters elect us to develop policies, to implement them, to make things happen. They want policies which respond to people’s needs, like enhancing social safety nets, making housing more affordable and accessible, improving public transport, managing the growth of foreign workers. 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, for example with SkillsFuture; Implementing major projects which transform Singapore, like Changi Airport – building T4, putting up Project Jewel, planning for T5 – or Jurong Lake District, or the Southern Waterfront City. One by one, brick by brick, building a better Singapore.
That is what this Government has done for many years. And this is what my Government will do in this term. We will fulfil our promises. But in order to have these good policies done, we also must have good politics, because the two go hand-in-hand. Good politics make sure that we will elect governments who will develop good policies, who will expand our common space and strengthen our society for the future. 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 do not 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. The actors are in place. We are familiar with one another. We know where the levers are. We know the response function — you press this button, this will happen; you pull that lever, something else happens. We know how to make it work today.
But if we are thinking beyond this term and this team, about a new PM and a new Cabinet, and a new population, different electorate, then we will need to keep Singapore able to work well with them in charge and with them being the team that leads Singapore. Then, it is prudent 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.
No perfect political system in the world
In theory, to get your politics right should not be such a very difficult problem for most countries, because there is some sense of identity and unity, and leaders and your followers of different political persuasions should be able to come together and work for the common good. It makes sense to work together; it is a lot of trouble if you are in odds with one another. But if you look around the world, in fact, it is not such a simple matter.
There are some countries which face division and gridlock, and the government is paralysed, like the United States. The executive and legislative branches are controlled by different parties. The government is stalemated on issues ranging from gun control to trade policy. Democrats run the administration; the President is a Democrat. Congress is led by Republicans. The two do not see eye to eye and are unable to compromise. Three years ago, in 2013, the Federal Government had to shut down for 16 days, because Republicans and Democrats in Congress could not agree to pass a budget. Last year, they nearly had to shut down again. In President 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. He described how the Founding Fathers of the US – Washington, Jefferson, Madison – had distributed power between states and the branches of government (that means between the Federal Government and the different states) between the executive, the legislature and the judiciary; checks and balances. And they expected people to argue over matters, as they themselves did, but eventually to find common ground and be able to work something out. But now the basic bonds of trust between the major parties, between the Democrats and the Republicans, have totally broken down. There is rancour and suspicion and no willingness to compromise. The system desperately needs to be fixed, but no Congressman, no Senator, not even the President, is able on their own, to put it right. That is the US, the most powerful country in the world.
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 the new coalition. 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 are left-wing or right-wing. It is the extreme parties, the ones who just say, “To hell with it. I am 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 is called Syriza. They are now in government and having to make decisions which their supporters do not like at all. In Spain, they have Podemos. They have just had elections, and Podemos won a significant number of seats. Now they are having a lot of difficulty forming a new government. In Germany, AfD – Alternative fuer Deutschland, an anti-immigration party. In France, the National Front. In Britain, UK Independence Party (UKIP). Pushing anti-immigrant, anti-EU, anti-globalisation platforms. Just expressing angst and anger, not propounding compromises and solutions. They are reflecting public unhappiness, but they are also riling up the public, offering no coherent policies or viable alternatives.
In many Asian countries, whom you vote for depends on your race, depends on your religion. In some countries, it depends on what caste you belong to. It is not policies, it is not integrity, but is he my guy, does he have the same caste name as me, then I know whether I can trust whether he will look after me. These are fundamental divides, which countries have tried to close but which remain deep and have sometimes even deepened decades after independence.
You may say, well, that is the problem of democracy. But even countries which do not have elections also have not such an easy time. You take China. It is 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. Chinese officials visit Singapore. Invariably, they ask to see our Meet the People Sessions. They come, they sit in, they watch our MPs and Ministers take cases, and they are deeply impressed at how the system works. They go back, they try to do the same. It is not the same. What is the fundamental difference? In Singapore, MPs and Ministers are taking cases for their voters; the 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 positions to the votes of the people they are in charge of.
The moral of the story is: there is no perfect model anywhere in the world, much less one which we can import wholesale and apply in Singapore. If we look at other people’s political problems, we do not feel any schadenfreude, any sense of superiority or rejoicing. In fact we say, “If not for the grace of God go I”; because what happens elsewhere can easily happen in Singapore too, if either we blindly copy other people’s practices which do not work here, or we find our own way but take a wrong turn. We can end up in such a situation also. It does not mean we do nothing, it does not 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 interests. We have to find our own way forward.
Principles of Singapore’s political system
What kind of political system do we want in Singapore? I would list five desiderata, desirable things.
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 ahead 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 have 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. I will put this quite bluntly: If we had not had a first-class government in Singapore, led by exceptional leaders who were able to foresee problems, head them off, seize opportunities, reap dividends for Singapore and mobilise people to work with them and to support policies, sometimes tough ones, we would not have Singapore today. So we cannot ever afford to be paralysed, gridlocked, or become dysfunctional, like some other countries. For America, you can live with it. You go down, you go up; it is an aircraft carrier. For Singapore, you go down, you are finished. You do not come back up again.
Secondly, the political system has to be open and contestable. What do I mean? There has 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 does not cost a lot of money to contest elections. So you take last year’s General Elections. All of the parties together, added up, during the national General Elections, they spent all of S$7 million, less than S$3 per voter. The Straits Times calculated it at S$2.89. You compare that with the cost of the US elections. In 2012, when they last had the Presidential election together with the Congressional elections, it cost them US$7 billion — not cost the government to run it; cost the candidates to raise it and to spend it. US$7 billion, divided by about 350 million Americans — that’s US$20 per American. That, you may say, is American-class, one of its own. But look at the money politics that 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 is a reality. It is an insoluble problem, and ours must never become like that.
Thirdly, 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, economy, choices to tax and spend, plans for the future. Government’s actions have to be scrutinised and debated in Parliament. If an MP, whether it is an opposition MP or a government MP, 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. That is 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 an MP makes a good proposal, and advocates convincingly for it and persuades the Government, then I think the Government should support it, back it with resources and help to make it happen — as also has happened with PAP MPs and Nominated MPs, 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 in Singapore, on both sides of the House. It is a place where you have debates, where big issues have to come to be decided. You can agree or disagree, and vigorously, and you ought to disagree if you have strong views. But you must take it seriously. It is not a place 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 Parliament 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 purpose, 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 have to 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. Race and religion will always be fundamental tectonic fault lines for us. If we ever split along one of these fault lines that would be the end of us. Therefore, our political system must encourage multi-racial and secular politics, not racial or religious politics. It has 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 and 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 be marginalised, or shut out, or discriminated against. 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 there must also be safeguards in case the country is swept off course by a transient public mood, or an erratic government, which can happen. By the time you change your mind and realise it is unwise, it is too late to come back. So you need stabilisers to make sure that you respond to the mood, but you do not get 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 or the House of Lords in UK, or especially in big countries you have a division of powers between the City and Regional Governments and the National Federal Government on the other. So no single point can cause the whole system to fail. You clear the lower house, you must still pass the upper house. Elections may be at different times, and may have different rules. You persuade one region to do something, but it is a big country and other regions have to go along. You have to get consensus, take some time, sleep it over, think carefully and perhaps think the better of it.
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. We have overlaid on top of them mayors, but actually if you compare them with the Mayor of London, or Mayor of New York, it is what you call 小巫见大巫. It is a small personality, same title, but is quite a different entity indeed. We may be small but we still need stabilisers, especially in two areas: protecting our reserves and safeguarding the integrity of the 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 has taken us decades to build up our foreign reserves. They are our oil in the ground. If you do not 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. This happens in countries much richer than us. Look at Australia. 10 years ago, under basically a conservative government, they built up significant amounts of reserves of surpluses. They set up a pension fund for the future and said this is our sovereign wealth fund and said this is to make sure that in the future you will be provided for with 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 had no choice. One side offers something and the other side offers more. As they move back and forth, it is (like) an auction. Today, the funds for the future have disappeared. The country is in deficit, the commodities boom is over, the budget cannot be settled and they have to cut back spending. It is extremely contentious, and they are 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 is Singapore.
That is money, what about people? The whole of our excellence in government, the competence and performance of the country, depends on the integrity and ability of the individuals in key posts in the public service – judges, central bankers, the Accountant General, the Commissioner of Police, the people who head and sit on our key statutory boards and the people who manage our reserves. Once corrupt persons get into key positions, it will be the end. It is not only the end because they take money to help themselves, as you can stop that, and put them in jail; it is 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.
Look at other countries. President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono of Indonesia, used to lament publicly about the problem he had with what he called “judicial mafia”. He does not mean the mafia on the streets, he means judges whom he could not trust for their integrity as they had become corrupt and had become part of the problem. If you look at other countries where the police are in cahoots with the crooks, and if you have a problem you are not sure whether you should go to the police station or run away from the police station. Or you may look at countries where those responsible for safeguarding state assets instead raid the bank. As the Malay proverb goes, pagar makan padi. You are the hedge but you are eating the rice which you are supposed to protect. To prevent this, or at least to make this harder, this system needs a second key. The challenge for us is how to ensure this second key strengthens and stabilises our system of government.
Evolving Our System Over Time
We have evolved our system of politics over the years. It has served us well. Our political and constitutional system is quite different from most other newly independent countries, countries which were colonies but became independent after the war, in Asia and Africa and particularly in Southeast Asia. Most newly independent countries start life anew, with a brand new fresh-minted constitution. But when we became independent, we did not do that. We decided to retain and tweak our existing constitutional arrangements that had worked for Singapore when we were part of Malaysia, and had been working before that, when we were a self-governing state before we joined Malaysia. Mr Lee Kuan Yew felt that it was better to evolve our model gradually, learning from experience, rather than to strive for some unworkable perfection. 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, Mr Lee was in the Tunku’s office, admiring a beautiful leather-bound green-covered volume – the Pakistani Constitution – presented to the Tunku by Ayub Khan who was at one time President of Pakistan. Mr Lee admired the book and the Tunku told Mr Lee: “You know, Kuan Yew, they make very good constitutions. They have many brilliant lawyers. With every leader, they have to make a new one.” 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 are from Singapore’s State Constitution, part of the provisions are 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 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 is (like) rojak. It was such a messy document that in 1970, Mr Lee asked the British High Commissioner to get British Constitutional law experts to polish it up. 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 has lasted 200 something years and over these 200 something years it has only had 20 plus amendments and so you worship it. You get it precisely right, with beautiful form of words, and every school child knows it and that is 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 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 Non-Constituency Members of Parliament (NCMP) scheme. 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, (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 requires a change.”
Like many of Mr Lee’s speeches, this speech made in 1984 in this House, or in the old Parliament House, 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. 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. The taxi driver took him around, showed him the sights, brought him to the National Assembly, this was 1956 and it was a democracy and the politicians could not agree. The taxi driver pointed to the National Assembly and said to him “wala wala wala” (together with a hand gesture of a finger pointing to the head and spinning) and he said that was an education for a young politician into the reality of politics. Unfortunately Hansard did not quite catch the nuance of this expression and Hansard, I just recently noticed, transcribed it as voila three times, and as a result of which it made no sense. You will therefore not find it in The Sunday Times as The Sunday Times made no sense of it and edited it out. But this is a most vivid example of how things can go wrong in politics. It was a highly civilised nation but the system did not work and General de Gaulle had to come back out of retirement to change the rules. He took very stern measures and created the Fifth Republic. But even de Gaulle must die. Till today, the French, they also and other countries have political problems. Today in the newspapers if you read the Straits Times, Paris is in upheaval because there are strikes. Who is 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, 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 and we continue to do this. Learning from experience, stretching, and easing the old shoe and adapting it to our needs and dealing with problems as new problems emerge as we understand the difficulties and the weaknesses. For example, we inherited a first-past-the-post parliamentary system modelled on the British House of Commons, in Westminster. We have kept the first-past-the-post system. That is why here we sit opposite one another – the government and in principle the opposition on the other side. We do not sit in a semicircle the way the Americans sit in a semicircle, or the way the European legislature sit in a semicircle. It is a parliamentary system first-past-the-post, you are in opposition to each other. We kept that system, but subsequently we introduced new institutions – NCMP, Nominated Members of Parliament (NMP), the Group Representation Constituencies (GRC), and an institution of an elected President. Each institution with a purpose and each in line with our principles. Let me say something about that.
Non-Constituency Members of Parliament (NCMPs)
The first-past-the-post parliamentary system tends to produce clear election outcomes. You either win decisively or lose decisively. 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 tend to have a natural swing and it goes across the board and so you end up with a clear majority in the house. After Independence and after Separation, the Barisan Sosialis opposition walked out of Parliament in 1965. From then, Parliament was composed entirely of PAP MPs. In the next four GEs, the PAP won all the seats, as well as all the by-elections in between. 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 into 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 Mr Jeyaretnam came in. After some time, they concluded to their surprise, that despite all the to-ing and fro-ing and unpleasantness, it was good for the government, and good for the Singapore system, that we have opposition voices in Parliament. The opposition could express opposing views, could question and criticise the government, and could make Ministers justify their actions. The opposition provided Mr Lee and his team with a “foil” or 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. Through the debate in Parliament, this helped Mr Lee and his team get their message across and aid public understanding.
So Mr Lee proposed the NCMP scheme in 1984. It ensured that whatever the election outcome, there would always be at least 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. Over time we have gradually increased and we have brought it now to nine.
The design of the NCMP scheme is unique, 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 and Taiwan, they have Mixed Member Proportional Representation Systems. Some MPs are elected from constituencies, others are chosen from party lists, in other words, the proportional representation system. How many you take off the party list depends on the proportion of the total vote that your party got. One reason that New Zealanders do this is to ensure that there is Māori 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. That is why we did the NCMP system. We did not do the proportional representation way because we felt it 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 bring us together. Because to win in a proportional representation system you have to have your base. What is your base? It can be Christians, Buddhists, Muslims or 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 decision and demand as much as you can for your group. Then you increase your percentage. You do not have to win seats, you just get a higher percentage and you will get seats in Parliament. You do not have to win constituencies. I think if you do that you end up split, polarised and severely weakened. So instead, we created the NCMP scheme.
NCMPs are the opposition candidates who had the best results, but did not quite win their seats. In fact, some NCMPs have a higher percentage, if you look at it on a personal basis, than other people, MPs elected in GRCs, if you just count their chunk of the GRC and how many votes they got and the percentage, the NCMP may have got more than the person in the GRC. But the point is he did well, he is one of the best losers and they come in ensuring that oppositional voices are always represented in Parliament. They have at least as much right to be in Parliament as MPs who are elected on a party list, under a proportional representation system. In fact arguably more, because on a party list under a proportional representation system, no voter specifically chose you. Your party boss put you on the list in position number two or three or 20 and you happened to make the cut. Here, to be an NCMP, the voters in the constituency which you contested have to have a sufficiently high regard to give you one of the highest votes amongst the losing candidates before you can come in. So you have got people who are really truly personally voting for you. I think that gives legitimacy as well as objectivity to the system. It depends on electoral contest and not just 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 NMP scheme to bring into Parliament diverse voices from civil society. So now elected opposition MPs, NCMPs and NMPs, together, altogether about 20 per cent of MPs in the House will at all times be not government MPs. So there is diversity and debate and I think there is value.
The NCMP is a good one which has achieved its purpose. In the last 30 years, other than the very first time in 1984 where there were 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 for Aljunied GRC in 2011. In the last term, we have had three NCMPs. Ms Lina Chiam, Mr Yee Jenn Jong and Mr Gerald Giam. They all took up their seats, and participated actively in Parliamentary debates. This term, the Worker’s Party NCMPs have also taken up their seats. We have Mr Leon Perera and Mr Dennis Tan, they made their maiden speeches this week. Except for Ms Lee Li Lian, who has said that 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 Worker’s Party candidate. Now whether that is 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, speak and debate in Parliament that a constituency MP has. They can file parliamentary question, move motions, speak in all debates and show voters, past and future, what they can do.
There is just one distinction between an NCMP and a constituency MP today. Unlike constituency MPs, NCMPs are restricted on what they can vote for 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, as Mr Jeyaretnam was in Parliament and challenged him on this. I suppose this is an example of how Mr Jeyaretnam as an 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. He felt that in such a situation, NCMPs should not have a say in determining the Government. There is a context to this. In 1984, it was still fresh in Mr Lee’s mind the memory of what had happened in 1961, when the extreme left wing split from the PAP to form the Barisan Sosialis, and the PAP hung on in the Legislative Assembly with a one seat majority. And then one MP died and there was no seat majority. Mr Lee must also 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 August 1984 and the General Election was upcoming and took place in December 1984. It was a crucial General Election, as many of the third generation leaders entered politics in that election – Wong Kan Seng, Yeo Cheow Tong, Mah Bow Tan, Abdullah Tarmugi and myself. 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. 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 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.”
It happens regularly in other countries, for example in Australia and United Kingdom, it is marvellous theatre! Suddenly you hear news that there is going to be a spill – Australians call it a spill. A spill means somebody has mounted a challenge, the leader then has to call his MPs together to vote. It happens within 24 hours. Ministers take positions, MPs take positions, furious to-ing and fro-ing. Next thing you know, there is a new Prime Minister and I am writing a new letter of congratulations. It has happened three to four times within the last five years in Australia. In Britain, leadership challenges are also dramatic events. Mrs Thatcher was challenged and deposed. Tony Blair left because he knew that if he did not leave, somebody would challenge him and he would be pushed out. So we cannot rule out this 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 mandate in the House than party list MPs would in a Proportional Representation System, then even in a case of vote of no confidence and the other restricted matters which NCMPs are presently not allowed to vote on, I think we can make a 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 case of confidence motions, and all the other presently restricted matters. They will be equal in powers although not in responsibility and scope to constituency MPs because they are non-constituency and they do not have specific voters to look after. But there is no reason at all to perceive NCMPs as second class.
I will also increase the minimum number of opposition MPs, including NCMPs, in this House from the next General Election. I will increase the number from nine to 12. 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 over¬whelming, 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 and 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 and good for Singapore. No ruling party or government should ever be afraid of open argument. The PAP never has been and ultimately Singapore will benefit from a contest of ideas in the House.
Group Representation Constituencies (GRCs)
Next, let me talk about GRCs. We introduced the GRC scheme in 1988 to ensure that we will always have a minimum number of minority race MPs in Parliament. This would also encourage all political parties to pursue multi-racial politics rather than sectarian politics. This is unlike a proportional representation system which would also have led to minority MPs in Parliament but via racial political parties. With the GRC system, parties and MPs have to give weight to the interests of minorities. 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. They make quite a big effort to do that. It puts pressure on us and the PAP but I think it is the right system. The opposition parties have to make that effort in order to put up a credible team. 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 to always strike that balance and internalise that balance within your team and amongst your voters. Of course, this has not 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 and the minorities swung solidly against Tang Liang Hong and his Worker’s Party teammates. They lost. In the last elections, some opposition candidates tried the opposite. They 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 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. 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 it works together with the system of town councils. The Constituency MPs have to run the town council. They have to manage the Service & Conservancy Charges (S&CC) collections. They have to receive, spend and account for government subsidies. They have to maintain the estates to a proper standard. They have to administer rules and fines, and look after substantial sinking funds. This makes sure that any party which aspires to form the Govern-ment of Singapore, first has a chance to demonstrate in a town council what it can or cannot do. And if it can do, that is a base from which it can build and persuade Singaporeans. If it cannot do, it is 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 (SMCs)?
There are pluses and minuses both ways. A bigger GRC benefits from having an anchor Minister to 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 the MP direct responsibility for everything that happens in his constituency.
We have to strike the right balance between GRCs big and small, and between GRCs and SMCs. In the last two elections, we have created smaller GRCs and more SMCs. I think the results have been good. The next General Election is a long way off. I do not want to raise excitement prematurely but I will say now, 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.
Elected Presidency (EP) and Council of Presidential Advisors (CPA)
Now let me talk about the institution of the elected President. 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 – the two vital areas which I talked about earlier. 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 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. 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. He is a symbol of our sovereignty and of our nation.
By design, the President has no executive, policy-making role. This remains the prerogative of the elected Government commanding the majority in Parliament.
But in the last Presidential Election, many people did not understand this. I suspect even now, quite a number of people still do not understand this. Regrettably, during the last Presidential Election, those who did not understand it, included some candidates. They campaigned for President as if they were going to form an alternate Government.
But the President is neither the Government nor is he the Opposition. He is a custodian, he is 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 is a very delicate balance. He is 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. For the system to work, both candidates and voters have to understand this because otherwise, if you have a President who thinks 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. As the Chinese phrase goes “天无二日, 国无二君”, you have no two suns in the sky, you have no two Governments in a country. There are one or two countries which have had two Prime Ministers simultaneously and it was not a happy experiment.
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 have refined how the financial safeguards operate. The details are complex. 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 is 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. It costs $4.9 billion. We briefed the President, President Nathan. He consulted the CPA, the CPA supported him and 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 had we not done that, if we did not 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 had not locked it up in ordinary times, and if we had just helped ourselves from time to time from it for some good purpose or other, come a crisis we would not have had the kitty. If we have 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 did not 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 have hesitated from calling it an old shoe but it is 25 years and we have mended and adjusted it from time to time and generally it has fitted well. Yet, we need to continue to review and 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 have read various Op-Eds in the newspapers which say we can go back to the old system, just do away with Elected Presidency and have Parliament elect the President; do not have a national election. I think Worker’s Party has sometimes expounded this view too. I think it is most unwise. The President has a role. It is a difficult system to get right but we have to adjust it, try and get it more right that 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 is timely for us to review specific aspects of the elected President system. I would like to set out three areas which merit further consideration.
Before I do that, I would like to state up front that the Government has a very good and constructive working relationship with this President, President Tony Tan. 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, 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 am going to say today. 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 of the Elected President. The elected President is elected to fulfil specific constitutional duties. To be capable and qualified in carrying out those duties, he needs to have that experience to be able to judge and make decisions. 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 judge and decide to approve or reject appointments of people into posts which will involve running big organisations, making decisions, investing, managing and spending billions of dollars. The person making those decisions must understand what those decisions are, what is involved in that job before he can decide if the person is fit to do this job or not, and before he decides if a spending proposal is right or wrong, justified or otherwise. Therefore the candidates are required under the Constitutions to have held key appointments themselves like Speaker, Chief Justice, Judges, Ministers, and Permanent Secretaries. That is 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 Public Utilities Board (PUB) because 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 is much more than the inflation issue. Over 25 years, our economy has grown, government spending has gone up, government reserves have accumulated, and the size and complexity of the organisations 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 Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS), Temasek Holdings, Government of Singapore Investment Corporation (GIC), Housing and Development Board (HDB) and Jurong Town Corporation (JTC). These are big organisations and they have grown much bigger over the last 25 years. I have prepared a table that shows this. Madam Speaker, with your permission, may I ask the Clerk to distribute the table to members.
The table shows you a list of items with their values in 1990 and their values today. The first row shows the Consumer Price Index (CPI). If you take 1990 as 100, today it is 158, which is what I have told you. If you look at our nominal GDP, it was S$72 billion in 1990, today, it is nearly S$400 billion. Our Government spending has gone up from S$11 billion (in 1990) to S$68 billion (in 2015). Six times. CPF Balances – members’ money – S$41 billion (in 1990) to S$275 billion (in 2015). MAS Official Foreign Reserves – this is in US Dollars, because these are Foreign Reserves and we are holding them overseas – US$28 billion (in 1990), increased to US$248 billion (in 2015). 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 considered comparable, suitable and experienced to become the President. SingTel in 1993 – I do not have 1990 because they had not yet been corporatised and listed – was S$500 million of paid-up capital. Today, it is S$2.6 billion. If you look at their Net Tangible Assets, it has gone from S$2.5 billion to S$25 billion. The amount and complexity has gone up. On the other hand, if you look at the qualifying criteria, and how many companies qualify, with S$100 million paid-up capital, I do not have the 1990 number, but in 1993 it was 158, back in 2010 it was 1,200, today it is 2,100 plus. More and more people on paper are qualified to do this job. During the Presidential Election, there is a Presidential Elections Committee (PEC), which vets candidates to make sure they are qualified. It is chaired by the Chairman of the Public Service Commission. In the last (Presidential) Election, the Chairman was Mr Eddie Teo. After the (last Presidential) Election, they sent me a report, and I quote from the report paragraph 6.1 in the conclusion:
“In the course of its work, the Presidential Elections Committee (PEC) noted that there were about 1,200 registered companies with a paid-up capital of $100 million or more in 2010.”
As I pointed out today, it is 2,100; it has gone up further.
“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…”, presumably the Telecommunications Authority of Singapore, “…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 S$100mil 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 CPA 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 judgement of a single person acting alone, but rather, on the President well advised by a team of wise and experienced men and women. As Emeritus Senior Minister 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 institution of the President and CPA establish 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 has thought about it, he believes that he should say no, then 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, the President should have the discretion to say, “I believe it is right, I want to veto it”. But if the President says veto and the CPA says, “Yes, I agree”, that is a heavy veto. If the CPA says, “No, let it through”, and the President says, “Regardless, I want to veto”, 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. 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. The supply bill is the bill when we vote money for the Government to spend during the year. If the CPA concurs with the President’s view, the veto is final, that is 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 is okay, the President says no, the Government can come back to Parliament, make the argument, explain its position and try to get the 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. We should study if the 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, even hotly contested, I believe it will become much harder for a minority President 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, and 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 these issues, 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. 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.
Ensuring Good Politics for the Future
Madam Speaker, 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, 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 have evolved it carefully along the way, to suit our changing needs and circumstances, in light of our growing experience.
But our responsibility is not only to make 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, improved, while preserving the principles that it was built upon.
At the beginning of this term, after SG50, I am raising this major 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 decide important policies, where alternate views will always have a place, where the opposition will never be shut out, and where 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 is a PAP 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 do not 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 is not set in stone, a system that is not fixed and unchangeable, but one that future generations can continue to improve and adapt in order to meet their future needs.
That way, future Governments can work with the future citizens of Singapore, to achieve happiness, prosperity and progress for our people.
. . . . . .
Explore recent content
More from Notes
Explore related topics