[The Angle] “Refreshing” Singapore’s Political System

Jan 16, 2016 at 6:55 pm | Hits: 4957

By Gillian Koh

President Tony Tan’s speech at the opening of the 13th Parliament last night was very comprehensive. It covered the key areas of policy for the government as Singapore moves beyond its 50th year of independence — securing peace and our sovereignty; renewing the economy; developing a caring society; improving urban liveability and fostering an engaged citizenry.

The President also referred to the sense of social and political solidarity that was built up through SG50 and that citizens are invited to work together with each other and the government to co-create our future. It will nonetheless be a challenging task, for people cannot just be driven by their private and sectoral interests in putting forward ideas, policies and programmes.

Each of us has to be self-aware and if there is a higher purpose, a community or national interest that is put forward, the argument should be done with integrity and for that purpose and not with some hidden agenda of trying to simply defend one’s private or sectoral interests. We want shared governance, but there is a danger of that “shared governance going wrong”. Certainly, there should be room for people to declare their interests and then speak and put up well-defended and argued proposals.

What stood out for me in the President’s speech was the point that the Government would study “whether and how we should improve our political system so that we can be assured of clean, effective and accountable government over the long term”.

As we can expect a presidential election in August 2017, and also given the debate on the system itself towards the end of last year, it is an intriguing statement which leads us to wonder if there is indeed going to be a review of this young institution. It is also a system that has parts that are yet to be entrenched in the Constitution, as the Government views the Elected Presidency as an evolving institution in need of further refinements.

 The impetus for review comes from two angles — first, if there are more contenders, the size of the mandate that the eventual winner receives will tend to be a very slim sliver of votes. Will this suffice for the important custodial powers that the President has? Second, does having an election in the first place politicise the office and give voters and the candidates the idea that the President has all the powers of say, a member of Parliament or even a Prime Minister in terms of that “political mandate”.  The answer to that would be clear to those who study the system but what if there is a demagogue that disregards the limits of the Office?

For the first, my IPS colleague and I have suggested ways to tweak the election system.  For the second, others have suggested having a second House of Parliament — one that incorporates the powers of the President as well as the role of Non-Constituency Members of Parliament (NCMPs) and Nominated Members of Parliament (NMPs).  Others have said to scrap everything and put in place a national council of elders to provide the second key to the finances.

Given that there seemed to be a positive tone that the speech took to the NCMP and NMP schemes, it seems unlikely that they will replaced by having a second House to provide alternative views to legislation. 

As for citizens and candidates misunderstanding the role of the President as per the constitution, it is vitally important that political education is provided well before the election. Any debate on proposed changes to the system will have the natural effect of providing that public education.

One other area of unfinished business is the clarification and strengthening of the Town Councils Act. Stemming from controversies created in the Workers’ Party-held wards, the 12th Parliament had discussed the limitations of the Act and the need to review it.  This will be important as the WP is back at Aljunied GRC and Hougang SMC and it will not be productive to end up with the some problems and controversies in the 13th Parliament.  Again, after the changes are made, time will be needed to familiarise everyone with the new system.

All areas that the Government might review would be scrutinised and discussed with great interest by public intellectuals and citizens no matter whether there are minor revisions or substantial reforms.

This is a good thing as the general Singaporean public recognises that they have an integral role in ensuring that we have a political system and government that is clean, effective and accountable over the long term. And, as President Tan explained, “good policies and good politics go together”; both are needed for the long term interests of Singapore and Singaporeans to be served well in the years to come.


Dr Gillian Koh is Deputy Director (Research) at the IPS, where she leads the work of the Politics and Governance research cluster

Top photo from Tony Tan’s Facebook Page

Category: Politics & Governance, The Angle


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