Friday, 29 January 2016

Changes to political system to prepare Singapore for long term: PM Lee Hsien Loong

NCMPs to get full voting rights; commission will be set up to review Elected Presidency
By Zakir Hussain, Deputy News Editor, Politics, The Straits Times, 28 Jan 2016

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong yesterday announced changes to the political system aimed at making it more open and accountable, and one the Government believes will help Singapore continue to succeed in the long term.

In the most significant change to the system since Non-Constituency MPs (NCMPs) were introduced in 1984, these best-performing opposition candidates who lost will get the same voting rights as elected MPs. The minimum number of opposition MPs in Parliament will also go up from nine to 12 after the next general election.

Together with nine Nominated MPs, the change ensures at least 21 MPs are not from the ruling party.

The Nominated MP and GRC schemes will remain to ensure civil society and ethnic minority voices in Parliament. But the average size of GRCs will be reduced further, with more single seats, when boundaries are next reviewed.

The President will also remain elected, but a Constitutional Commission will be appointed with Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon as chair, to review three broad areas.

These are: Keeping the eligibility criteria up to date, strengthening the Council of Presidential Advisers and ensuring that minorities have a chance to be elected.

The commission will include distinguished jurists, academics and corporate executives. They will consult the public and make recommendations on improving the system by the third quarter of this year.

PM Lee was speaking in Parliament on the third day of the debate on the President's Address.

What are the powers of an elected President? What can his "second key" unlock?
Posted by The Straits Times on Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Over 90 minutes, he drew on some of the problems other governments face today as well as Singapore's experience to make the case that while the current system is working well, it has to be updated to work well into the future.

"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," he said.

"Parliament will always be the place to debate and to decide important policies, where alternate views will always have a place. The opposition will never be shut out and the Government will be held to account, so that the government of the day - whoever that may be - is always kept on its toes," he added.

Mr Lee's speech comes months after the People's Action Party won a strong mandate - 83 out of 89 seats and 70 per cent of the popular vote at the Sept 11 General Election.

President Tony Tan Keng Yam had, in opening the 13th Parliament, said that for Singapore to have good policies, it also needs "good politics".

Expanding on the theme yesterday, Mr Lee said there was no need to change the system if his Government was concerned with just its current term or the next. But it was his generation's responsibility to have institutions and a system that will work well under a new prime minister and a different electorate.

The system, he said, had to be designed around five core principles: Ensure high-quality government; keep politics open and contestable; maintain accountability for the Government; uphold a multiracial society; and have suitable stabilisers and checks and balances in the system.

Singapore had kept these principles in mind as it introduced innovations to its parliamentary system over time - the NCMP scheme in 1984 to guarantee opposition voices, GRCs to ensure minority MPs in 1988, and the Elected President in 1991 as a stabiliser and second key to protect the reserves and the integrity of the public service.

Mr Lee told the House that improvements to these schemes will be good for Singapore and the Government at the current phase of Singapore's political evolution.

A stronger opposition presence means that even if the Government "wins overwhelming, 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, very possibly building them up for the next GE. No ruling party or government must ever be afraid of open argument. The PAP never has been and, ultimately, Singapore will benefit from a contest of ideas in the House," he said.

As for GRCs, Mr Lee said they have kept politics multiracial and would remain, but there was "the question of balance" over their size.

Similarly, the Elected President as an institution remained relevant.

"The President must remain an elected office. If the President is not elected, he will lack the mandate to wield his custodial powers," he said. But adjustments that may be needed should be made in good time, "to keep the Presidency a robust and effective institution".

Mr Lee said changes to the economy and the complexity of key organisations subject to the second key meant that the qualifying criteria for candidates should be reviewed.

Singapore has also not had a Malay President elected, and a mechanism should be considered so "minorities can be periodically elected if we have not had a particular minority as President for some time".

"It is timely to take a look at the Elected Presidency to see if there is a need to refresh it to better serve Singapore’s needs over the longer term": Dr Tony Tan, after PM Lee Hsien Loong announces a review of the system.
Posted by Channel NewsAsia Singapore on Wednesday, January 27, 2016

President Tan told reporters yesterday that the Elected Presidency has worked well but it was timely to see "if there is any need to refresh it so that it can better serve Singapore's needs in the longer term."

Workers' Party secretary-general Low Thia Khiang said his party was still assessing the impact of the changes, but likened NCMPs to "duckweed" in a pond, without the roots elected MPs have in their constituencies. He is expected to speak when the debate resumes today.

Singapore needs good policies and good politics to succeed. Our political system is working now. But we must keep...
Posted by Lee Hsien Loong on Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Changes to political system: Key principles

PM sets out core principles for Singapore political system
Designing system around five principles makes 'happy outcome more likely'
By Janice Heng, The Straits Times, 28 Jan 2016

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong laid out five guiding principles for Singapore's political system as he set the scene for changes to schemes such as the Non-Constituency Member of Parliament (NCMP) and Elected Presidency.

These are: Ensuring high-quality government; keeping politics open and contestable; maintaining government accountability; upholding a multiracial society; and having stabilisers in the system.

It is not possible for any political system to guarantee stability and prosperity forever, he told MPs when he joined the debate on the President's Address.

"But we can make such a happy outcome more likely if we design our system carefully and correctly around (these) core principles."

Mr Lee said the system must enable Singapore to have "a high-quality government" that is accountable, honest, competent and effective. With no natural resources or a hinterland, one of Singapore's key competitive advantages has been - and always must be - excellence and integrity in Government.

Singapore would not exist today if it had not had a first-class Government that could foresee and avoid problems, seize opportunities and mobilise the people, he added.

"We cannot afford ever to be paralysed, gridlocked or become dysfunctional, like some other countries," he said.

Second, Singapore's political system must be open and contestable, with free and fair elections that are not "forbiddingly expensive" for people to contest.

Keeping money out of politics is one of the greatest things Singapore has done to keep its system open, said Mr Lee.

He noted that at last year's general election, political parties here spent just $7.1 million altogether, less than $3 per voter. In contrast, candidates in the United States presidential election in 2012 raised and spent US$7 billion (S$10 billion), or about US$20 per American.

He also stressed the need to avoid the "money politics" seen in many countries, where money changes hands for votes.

The third guiding principle is that Singapore's system must foster accountability, both in Parliament and at the ballot box.

This is so that the Government is always kept on its toes, and will always be motivated to look after the interests of Singaporeans.

Parliament must be a serious forum where big issues are discussed and the Government's actions scrutinised and debated.

And voters must be able to judge the Government - re-electing it if it does well or withholding support if it does not.

"So we must have a system where the Government does not, over time, become complacent, go soft, or even worse, become corrupt."

Fourth, the system must uphold Singapore's multiracialism, which is fundamental to the country's identity, said Mr Lee.

Political parties must be made to seek a broad-based, multiracial consensus and pursue moderate policies that benefit Singaporeans regardless of race, language or religion. The political system must similarly discourage parties from being set up along racial or religious lines, or championing the interests of one race or religion over others.

The fifth principle is that the system must have in-built stabilisers.

Said Mr Lee: "The Government has to be responsive to the will of the people, but at the same time also has to have safeguards in case the country is swept off course by a transient public mood, or an erratic government - which can happen."

Other countries have an Upper House in Parliament or regional governments, such that "no single point can cause the whole system to fail", he noted. Singapore is too small to have that. But it still needs stabilisers, especially to protect the reserves and the integrity of the public service - two critical elements to assure the country's future.

The lack of safeguards could allow a profligate government to drain the reserves.

Mr Lee pointed to Australia, which had built up significant surpluses a decade ago. But when the elections arrived, the competing parties tried to outdo each other with expensive policy proposals.

"Today, the funds for the future have disappeared... They're back where they were all within 10 years."

As for the public service, Mr Lee said: "The whole of our excellence in government, competence, the performance of the country, depends on the integrity and the ability of the individuals in the key posts in the public service."

These include judges, central bankers, the Accountant-General, the Commissioner of Police and the heads of statutory boards.

"Once corrupt persons get into key positions, that's the end," he added - not just because of what they do alone, but because they "subvert and corrupt the system".

To protect both the reserves and the public service, Singapore's system thus needs "a second key" - the Elected Presidency.

After setting out the principles, Mr Lee outlined the suggested changes, such as expanding the NCMP scheme, having smaller Group Representation Constituencies and more single-seat wards, and setting up a Constitutional Commission to look at the Elected Presidency.

Mr Lee said he was raising these issues now, just after Singapore's 50th anniversary, so the country is able "to go into the next 50 years with the best chance of making a success".

"We have to have a system where all the political parties... have to fight hard, stay lean and be 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 to decide important policies, where alternate views will always have a place.

"The opposition will never be shut out and the Government will be held to account, so that the Government of the day - whoever that may be - is always kept on its toes."

Five Guiding Principles
The Straits Times, 28 Jan 2016

1 Ensuring high-quality government

2 Keeping politics open and contestable

3 Maintaining government accountability

4 Upholding a multiracial society

5 Having stabilisers in the system

Singapore 'must decide for itself how its model works'
By Janice Heng, The Straits Times, 28 Jan 2016

With no "perfect model" anywhere in the world, Singapore must find a political system of its own, in line with its own principles, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong during the third day of debate on the President's Address yesterday.

In doing so, gradual evolution and adaptation was a better approach than one that involved a complete overhaul, he said.

To succeed, Singapore needs good policies and good politics, which go hand in hand - and to keep the system working well, it is prudent to look at making changes now, said the Prime Minister.

This is not an urgent task, he noted, as Singapore's political system currently works and will continue to do so for the next decade or more.

"But if we are thinking beyond this term and this team, about how a new PM and Cabinet, with a new electorate, will need to keep Singapore working, it is prudent to consider possible adjustments now, in good time."

And Singapore must decide for itself how its political system works, he said. "There's no perfect model anywhere in the world."

He noted the political gridlock in the United States, the rise of fringe extremist parties in Europe, and communal politics in Asia.

"If you look at other people's political problems, we don't feel any schadenfreude, any sense of superiority or rejoicing. In fact, we say 'There but for the grace of God go I', because what happens elsewhere can easily happen in Singapore too."

Such political problems could occur if Singapore blindly copies the practices of such countries "or we find our own way but take a wrong turn", he warned.

In determining its political system, Singapore has taken the approach of gradual change, he noted.

Most newly independent countries start out with a new Constitution, but Singapore did not do that.

Instead, it kept and tweaked existing constitutional arrangements from when Singapore was part of Malaysia and a self-governing state before that.

PM Lee quoted Mr Lee Kuan Yew's explanation in Parliament in 1984, in which he compared the Constitutions to shoes - "the older they are, the better they fit".

Mr Lee, then Prime Minister, had said: "Stretch them, soften them, resole them, repair them. They are always better than a brand-new pair of shoes. 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."

This has been Singapore's approach, said PM Lee yesterday, "to evolve our political system as we go along".

"We've continued to do this, learning from experience, stretching and easing the old shoe and then adapting it to our needs and dealing with problems as new problems emerge, as we understand the difficulties and the weaknesses."

For instance, Singapore inherited a first-past-the-post electoral system from the British. While that has been kept, new institutions have been introduced.

These include Non-Constituency MPs, Group Representation Constituencies and an Elected President - "each institution with a purpose, each one in line with our principles", said Mr Lee.

Proposing tweaks to these institutions yesterday, he said it was the current Government's responsibility to keep the political system up to date, if it is to serve future generations well.

"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," he said.

"A system that's not set in stone, a system that's not fixed and unchangeable, but one that future generations can continue to improve and adapt in order to meet their future needs."

Changes to political system: NCMP scheme

PM Lee Hsien Loong: More opposition MPs next GE, equal voting power for NCMPs
Non-Constituency MPs to get the same voting rights as elected MPs, says PM Lee
By Walter Sim, The Straits Times, 28 Jan 2016

Singapore's Parliament will have at least 12 opposition MPs after the next general election, up from the current nine, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said yesterday.

They will include Non-Constituency MPs (NCMPs). The proposed increase is to foster even more robust debate and open contest of ideas in the House. The NCMPs are also to be given equal voting power in Parliament as their elected peers.

To allow for this, Mr Lee said he intends to amend the Constitution during this term.

These changes "will in effect aid the opposition, giving their best losers more exposure and very possibly building them up for the next general election", Mr Lee said.

"But I believe that in this phase of our political development, this is good for the Government, good for Singapore. No ruling party or government must ever be afraid of open argument.

"The PAP never has been and ultimately, Singapore will benefit from a contest of ideas in the House," he said.

The NCMP scheme was introduced in 1984 to ensure opposition presence in Parliament. Seats are offered to the best performers among the opposition losers at a general election.

While NCMPs do not represent any constituency, they can speak at parliamentary debates or file motions for debate, like an elected MP.

But currently, they are not allowed to vote on five matters: constitutional changes, supply Bills on government spending, money Bills that deal with issues like taxation, votes of confidence, and motions to remove the President from office.

The number of NCMPs in each term of Parliament also depends on how many opposition MPs had been elected. The current limit is nine, so even if the ruling party wins all the seats in an election, there will still be opposition members.

And the Government "will still have to argue for and defend its policies robustly", Mr Lee said.

He also felt it was reasonable to raise the number 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."

Together with the nine Nominated MPs who are appointed to represent the various voices from civil society, there will be at least 21 MPs who are not from the ruling party, Mr Lee said.

He dismissed as "excuses" the opposition contention that they could not put up a stronger performance in Parliament because there are too few of them.

"The opposition's impact depends on the quality of the opposition MPs and arguments, far more than on their number," he said.

"Having more NCMPs will give the opposition more opportunities 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."

He cited Workers' Party (WP) chairman Sylvia Lim, who entered Parliament in 2006 as an NCMP.

"She impressed voters and became an MP, elected in Aljunied GRC in 2011."

Giving NCMPs equal voting rights will also quell perceptions that they are "second-class MPs".

He noted that some NCMPs win a higher percentage of votes than do individual MPs in a group representation constituency.

They arguably also have more right to a seat in Parliament than some MPs in countries which adopt the proportional representation system, Mr Lee said.

Under that system, a certain number of MPs get selected by party leaders to be in Parliament, depending on the election results.

"On a party list... no voter specifically chose you. Your party boss put you on the list in position two or three or 20. And you happen to make the cut," he said.

"Here, to be an NCMP, the voters in the constituency where you contested have to have a sufficiently high regard of you to give you one of the highest (percentage of votes) among all losing candidates before you can come (into Parliament).

"You have people who are truly personally voting for you. I think that gives legitimacy as well as objectivity to the system," he said.

Mr Lee also recounted the origins of the NCMP scheme.

The People's Action Party (PAP) dominated Parliament for 16 years from independence after the then main opposition party Barisan Sosialis staged a boycott.

It was only in 1981 that the first opposition member - WP's J. B. Jeyaretam - was elected.

Mr Lee said that then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew and his colleagues had "concluded - to their surprise - that despite all the to-ing and fro-ing and unpleasantness, it was good for the Government".

"The opposition could express opposing views, question and criticise the Government, make ministers justify their actions," he said.

It also "provided Mr Lee and his team the '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", he added.

Most analysts interviewed welcomed the NCMP changes.

National University of Singapore (NUS) political scientist Reuben Wong said they were likely prompted by Singaporeans' increased expectations for debate and a diversity of views in policymaking.

It will in effect "institutionalise" a Parliament with at least two political parties, he said.

But Associate Professor Wong, as well as his NUS colleague, Associate Professor Hussin Mutalib, suggested that critics may say that voters will "have their cake and eat it too" and get used to the idea they can always vote for the PAP and still have opposition in Parliament.

Institute of Policy Studies deputy director for research Gillian Koh said the changes were a "great gift to the opposition" but Mr Lee may find it an uphill task convincing his own party's MPs of their merits.


If we accept that NCMPs have as much of a mandate from voters to be in the House as constituency MPs... then I think, even in the case of the vote of no confidence and the other restricted matters which NCMPs presently are not allowed to vote on, I think we can make the case, and I will make the case that they should not only be allowed to speak, but to vote.



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 the case of confidence motions and all the other presently restricted matters. And they will be equal in powers, although not in responsibility and scope, to constituency MPs because they do not have specific voters to look after. But there will be no reason at all to perceive NCMPs as being second-class.


Non-Constituency Member of Parliament system
The Straits Times, 28 Jan 2016

When it started: 1984

What it is about

The scheme ensures a minimum number of opposition MPs. Opposition candidates who are not elected but won the highest percentage of votes at a general election are offered an NCMP seat - if the number of elected opposition MPs is less than required.

The scheme was proposed by then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, three years after Mr J.B. Jeyaretnam of the Workers' Party (WP) was elected, making him the first opposition MP since 1966.

Mr Lee pointed to how the electorate had changed, with more than 60 per cent of voters aged 40 and below. Having NCMPs would give younger voters a taste of opposition politics, he said, and they would "learn the limits of what a constitutional opposition can do".

Changes to the scheme

The maximum number of NCMPs was raised from six to nine in 2010.

As there were six elected opposition MPs at last year's election, there can be up to three NCMPs in this term of Parliament.

Two of them are Mr Leon Perera and Mr Dennis Tan from the WP. The third seat was offered to Ms Lee Li Lian, also of the WP, who turned it down.

The WP has filed a motion in Parliament to declare the seat vacant and to propose an alternative candidate for the NCMP seat.

Why NCMPs were not given equal voting rights
By Walter Sim, The Straits Times, 28 Jan 2016

In 1984, then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew was concerned about the possibility of a split in the ruling party leading to a motion of no confidence in the House.

In such a situation, he felt that Non-Constituency MPs (NCMPs) should not have a say in determining the Government under the scheme introduced the same year.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong yesterday recounted this in Parliament, as he explained why NCMPs were not given voting powers in Parliament equal to those of their elected peers.

But the Constitution will be amended within this term of Parliament to give NCMPs the same voting rights as elected MPs, he said.

This means they will soon be able to vote on five matters: constitutional changes, Supply Bills on government spending, Money Bills that deal with issues like taxation, votes of confidence, and motions to remove the President from office.

The Prime Minister yesterday recounted to the House Mr Lee Kuan Yew's reasons for not giving NCMPs equal voting rights: "Mr Lee would still have fresh in his mind the memory of what had happened in 1961, when the extreme left wing split off from the PAP and formed the Barisan Sosialis, and the PAP hung on in the Legislative Assembly with a one-vote majority.

"I think Mr Lee must 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," he said, referring to the ruling People's Action Party.

At the General Election that year, a team of third-generation leaders - including himself - was due to enter politics, PM Lee said. He added that 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".

The Prime Minister yesterday said that it was time for the rules to be relooked today, some 32 years since the scheme's inception.

Although he has a cohesive team, he said: "We will never rule out the possibility of leadership change or challenge within the ruling party."

This has happened regularly in countries such as Australia and the United Kingdom, he said.

In the United Kingdom, for example, former prime minister Margaret Thatcher was challenged and ousted. And Mr Tony Blair, who led the country from 1997 to 2007, left because "he knew if he didn't leave, somebody would challenge him and he would be pushed out".

"We cannot rule this out from happening in Singapore," Mr Lee said.

"But if we accept that NCMPs have as much of a mandate... then I think, even in the case of the vote of no confidence and the other restricted matters, we can make the case and I will make the case that they should not only be allowed to speak, but to vote."

Earlier today in Parliament, PM announced that the Government will look into the following areas regarding the Elected...
Posted by Dr Tony Tan on Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Changes to political system: Elected Presidency

President is not an alternative centre of political power: PM Lee Hsien Loong
Constitutional Commission to be set up to study changes to Elected Presidency, but President will still be elected
By Charissa Yong, The Straits Times, 28 Jan 2016

Singapore's President will continue to be elected by the people, but he cannot be an alternative centre of political power.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong made clear these constitutional limits yesterday on the Elected President, even as he set out the three aspects of the office which needed to be reviewed.

These are: the qualifying criteria for presidential hopefuls; the powers of the Council of Presidential Advisers; and opportunities for minorities to be elected President. A Constitutional Commission will be set up to study these changes, as part of a wider political review first hinted at by President Tony Tan Keng Yam in his address two weeks ago.

But the broad parameters of the President's role will remain the same. He is above politics and represents all Singaporeans, regardless of race, language or religion, said Mr Lee in a broad-ranging speech about good governance in Parliament during the debate on the President's Address.

"By design, the President has no executive, policymaking role," he said, noting that not many understood this during the 2011 Presidential Election.

Some candidates campaigned "as if they were going to form an alternate government", he said.

"The President is neither the Government nor is he the Opposition. He is a custodian, he's a goalkeeper," said Mr Lee.

The Constitution gives the President powers to block certain actions of the Government, but he does not have the authority to initiate or champion policies.

Said Mr Lee: "He is elected for a specific purpose specified in the Constitution. And we have to operate by the Constitution, both to comply with the law and to make sure the system works."

Candidates and voters have to understand this for the system to work, he stressed.

"Otherwise, if you have a President who thinks that he is the Government, competing with the Government, you have two power centres in the system."

In this scenario, there would be confusion and possibly even an impasse between the President and the Government. This would undermine the democratically-elected Government, he said.

Making the case for a review of the Elected Presidency, Mr Lee said there was a need to continually improve the system.

But the President must remain an elected office, he added.

"If the President is not elected, he will lack the mandate to wield his custodial powers," said Mr Lee.

He reminded the House why the presidency had been changed in 1991 from one appointed by Parliament to one elected by the people.

The President's powers had been expanded to let him safeguard past reserves and appoint key members of the public service, thereby acting as a stabiliser in the political system.

But these expanded powers had to be backed by popular mandate.

Said Mr Lee: "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."

The commission reviewing and recommending revisions to the Elected Presidency will be chaired by Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon and include "distinguished jurists, academics and corporate executives". It will take views from the public as well.

The commission is expected to deliver its findings by the third quarter of the year, paving the way for changes to be made in time for the next presidential election, which must be held by August next year.

Changes to the Constitution may be introduced in Parliament for debate within the year, said Mr Lee.


The elected presidency is a relatively new institution. It is unique to Singapore,and so far, it has worked well for us. We have operated the institution now for 25 years. That's why it's timely to take a look at the elected presidency to see if there's any need to refresh it so that it can better serve Singapore's needs in the longer term. The Prime Minister has laid out areas which could be looked into. The Constitutional Commission chaired by the Chief Justicehas been set up to look into the issues and to take views from the public. I think it will take some time. I will formally give my views when the Commission has completed its work andmade its recommendations in due course.

- PRESIDENT TONY TAN KENG YAM, in comments to reporters yesterday on the sidelines of the President's Challenge Appreciation

The Elected Presidency
The Straits Times, 28 Jan 2016

When it started: 1991

1984: Then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew disclosed during a walkabout in his constituency that a constitutional amendment to elect the President and give him powers to safeguard the national reserves was in the works.

1988 to 1990: More details on the proposed Elected Presidency were given in two White Papers presented in Parliament. It was hotly debated during the 1988 General Election.

1991:The Constitution was amended to create the Elected Presidency (EP). The President would no longer be appointed by Parliament. He would now be elected directly by the people.

What it is about

The President has two key custodial powers: safeguarding the spending of the country's reserves, and making key appointments to public office.

The President is directly elected in a national election. This is so that he has the people's mandate and the moral authority to counter the Government if needed.

Changes over the years

1994: The Constitutional Tribunal was set up. The President could refer constitutional questions to this body of Supreme Court judges for advice.

2008: The net investment returns framework was introduced, which let the Government tap long-term expected real returns on the national reserves and increase the income available for use in annual Budgets.

Accordingly, the Government had to seek the President's agreement on its projected rate of return for the next 20 years.

2008: President S R Nathan exercised the custodial powers of the President for the first time, approving the Government's issue of a $150 billion guarantee on all bank deposits here amid a global financial crisis.

2009: President Nathan approved the use of $4.9 billion for two schemes to save jobs and ease credit for firms - the first time since the EP was created that the Government drew on past reserves.

Council of Presidential Advisers

Elected Presidency: Study on how to give Council of Presidential Advisers greater say
By Janice Heng, The Straits Times, 28 Jan 2016

The council that advises the Elected President should be strengthened to make sure that Singapore's political system continues to be protected by a team rather than a single person, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said.

This is one of several changes to the Elected Presidency that will be studied by a constitutional commission, he announced yesterday.

The Council of Presidential Advisers (CPA) is an integral part of the Elected Presidency, he noted.

It assists and advises the President so that the system relies not on him alone, but rather on the President being "well-advised by a team of wise and experienced men and women".

Mr Lee recalled Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong's analogy of the President and the council as playing the roles of "a goalkeeper together with a team of defenders".

But over the years, as the new institutions of the President and the council have become established, Singapore should consider "if the CPA's advice should come to count for more in the decisions made by the President" - to make Singapore's system more stable.

However, even as the review looks at strengthening the council, "a delicate balance" must be struck, Mr Lee said.

The President must retain the right to exercise his veto powers, even if the council advises otherwise, he added.

But a presidential veto supported by the council should carry more weight than a veto which the council disagrees with.

In fact, some parts of the Constitution provide for it, he noted. For instance, the President must consult the council for decisions on Supply Bills, which determine the Government's Budget, or key appointments.

If the President vetoes such a matter and the council agrees, then the veto is final and Parliament must comply.

If the council disagrees, the President can still use his veto, but Parliament can override the veto with a two-thirds majority.

Yet this arrangement does not apply when the President exercises his custodial power elsewhere, noted Mr Lee. "I think we should study if CPA's views should be given greater weight in more areas and, if so, how this can be done."

Constitutional law expert Thio Li-ann suggested another possible change: Ensuring the council has sufficient financial expertise to aid the Elected Presidency.

Eligibility criteria

Elected Presidency: Raising the bar for candidates
By Charissa Yong, The Straits Times, 28 Jan 2016

The current eligibility criteria for presidential hopefuls may no longer be a good way of vetting how suitable individuals are for the job.

This is because the economy and large corporations here have grown exponentially in size and complexity since the introduction of the Elected Presidency in 1991, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said yesterday.

Reviewing the eligibility criteria for presidential candidates is therefore timely, he added.

Mr Lee said that the Elected President must be capable of carrying out his custodial duties, and needs experience to be able to judge and to make decisions.

"They have to assess and decide on financial proposals which will involve billions of dollars, and they must decide, judge and decide to approve or reject appointments of people into posts which will involve running big organisations," he said.

This is why candidates from the public service are required under the Constitution to have held key appointments like judges, ministers and permanent secretaries.

Those from the private sector must have comparable experience running large and complex companies with at least $100 million in paid-up capital.

"The principle remains valid but I think the details may need to be brought up to date," said Mr Lee.

He pointed out that based on inflation alone, $100 million in 1990 is equivalent to $158 million today.

Furthermore, in the past 25 years, government spending and the national reserves have increased.

Mr Lee cited figures that showed how the Government Budget has increased six times from $11 billion in 1990 to $68 billion today.

The size and the complexity of the organisations safeguarded by the President have also grown tremendously. For instance, Temasek was worth $10 billion in 1990 but now has a net portfolio value of $266 billion.

On the other hand, the $100 million paid-up capital threshold may no longer be a good benchmark against which organisations should be compared for size and complexity. In 1993, there were 158 companies that fit the criteria, a number that climbed to 1,200 in 2010 and 2,114 today.

"So more and more people on paper are qualified to do this job," said Mr Lee. However, the smallest companies in Singapore with a paid-up capital of $100 million today are neither large nor complex enough to give their chiefs the experience needed to be President.

This was a concern voiced by Mr Eddie Teo, the chairman of the Presidential Elections Committee, which vets presidential candidates, at the 2011 presidential election.

Mr Teo wrote to PM Lee after the election: "The criterion of $100 million paid-up capital... 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."

Mr Lee said he agreed with Mr Teo - the chairman of the Public Service Commission - on the need to review this.

Constitutional law expert Thio Li-ann zeroed in on the need for presidential candidates to have some financial competency, given the primarily financial bent of the President's supervisory powers.

What was more important was the need for mature and competent judgment, she said, which should be written into the Constitution.

But given the expertise and advice from the Council of Presidential Advisers, she said: "The candidate should have financial literacy, not financial wizardry."

Changes to political system: Elected Presidency, GRCs - Minorities
Important that minorities have a chance to be elected President: PM Lee Hsien Loong
By Charissa Yong, The Straits Times, 28 Jan 2016

It is important for minorities to get a chance to be elected President, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong yesterday.

The reason he gave is that the President, as head of state, represents Singaporeans of all races.

This is why the upcoming review of the Elected Presidency will look at how to ensure minority representation in the highest office of the land.

Singapore has only had one Malay president, the late Mr Yusof Ishak, who was appointed to the office at the country's founding. Since the Elected Presidency was instituted in 1991, the country has not had a Malay president.

From 1999 to 2011, Singapore had an Indian president, Mr S R Nathan, who was elected unopposed in 1999 and 2005.

But with presidential elections likely to become more hotly contested in the future,"it will become much harder for a minority person to get elected", Mr Lee said.

He pointed out that this problem of ensuring minority representation had surfaced in Singapore's parliamentary elections, and was why multiracial Group Representation Constituencies were created.

"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," he said.

Several political observers agreed on the need to ensure minority representation. Said former Nominated Member of Parliament Imran Mohamed: "Right now, (even) if there is a good Malay candidate suitable to be President, I don't think he can be elected."

Similarly, National University of Singapore (NUS) political scientist Bilveer Singh said: "You're assuming the electorate is sophisticated and the competition is going to be so gentlemanly. I don't think we have reached that stage."

But political observers also called for a nuanced approach, saying that standards should not be sacrificed for tokenism.

NUS political scientist Hussin Mutalib lauded Mr Lee's intention, but said the stringent qualifications for presidential candidates must not be relaxed for minority candidates. Criteria include personal and professional competencies in areas like financial management and leadership acumen, he said.

"To loosen or lessen the qualifying criteria just to enable a minority Malay candidate to be chosen as President, will neither engender the much-needed respect that this position requires - especially as a rallying institution to unite all Singaporeans - nor will it do much good to Singapore's image internationally," said Associate Professor Hussin.

"Whatever the new changes, the present method of electing our President through an election should be kept. This will enable all Singaporeans to have a direct say in choosing the best person for the job," he added.

Commentators also suggested specific areas that the expert panel on constitutional changes could look at during the review.

Associate Professor Singh suggested having a President and Vice-President, with either always from a minority race.

Constitutional law expert Thio Li-ann, who said the idea of a Vice-President had been floated in 1988, pointed to the three-man presidential system in Bosnia as an example. The Bosnian system has one president from each of the Bosniak, Serb and Croat races.

Alternatively, Institute of Policy Studies deputy director of research Gillian Koh said, the Presidential Election Committee can make it a rule to prevent a person of a certain race from contesting, if someone from the same race had just been President for two terms consecutively.

Changes to political system: Elected Presidency, GRCs

GRCs here to stay, but will be fewer and smaller: PM Lee Hsien Loong
System remains pillar of political system as it protects the interests of minority races: PM
By Rachel Au-Yong, The Straits Times, 28 Jan 2016

There will be fewer Group Representation Constituencies (GRCs) in the next general election and, on average, they will be smaller.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong promised yesterday that he would instruct the committee that reviews the electoral boundaries before an election to further reduce the average size of GRCs. It will also be told to create more single-member constituencies (SMCs).

Mr Lee, however, did not give any details in his parliamentary speech yesterday when he outlined changes to the political system that were first mentioned in the President's Address.

GRCs require candidates to contest in teams with at least one member from a minority race.

Introduced in 1988, it remains a pillar of the Singapore political system, Mr Lee said.

"We have all the world's major religions in Singapore, and race and religion will always be fundamental tectonic fault lines for us. If we ever split along one of these fault lines, that's the end of us."

The size of GRCs has been steadily reduced, on average, from 5.4, following complaints that large ones make it even harder for opposition parties to field the required candidates for a team. The size, on average, has dipped from five in 2011 to 4.75 at last year's polls.

The number of SMCs now stands at 13, one more than in 2011.

Calls have been made recently for a return to a system with only single-seat constituencies. But Mr Lee said: "The GRC system is a good one and I think we should keep it."

It ensures a minimum number of minority race MPs, requiring political parties to give weight to the interests of minorities, he said.

"Opposition parties know they have to win support from the minorities and that they have to field credible Malay and Indian candidates in their teams, and they make quite a big effort to go and do that.

"It puts pressure on us in the PAP, but I think it's a right system that the opposition parties have to make that effort in order to put up a credible team."

With GRCs, parties that play racial politics during elections do so at the expense of votes from other racial groups.

Still, it has not stopped candidates "from being naughty from time to time", Mr Lee said.

Citing the last polls, he said some opposition candidates tried to win Malay votes by "ostentatiously performing prayers in public before election rallies and posting photos of themselves doing so on social media". He did not name names.

Another big plus of the GRC scheme is that it provides a platform to assess MPs' ability in running a town council and, in turn, the Government, said Mr Lee.

If a party can run a town council, "that's a base from which it can build and persuade Singaporeans". "If it can't, it's just as well that Singaporeans know this early and everybody is under no illusion," he said.

Still, there was a need to balance big and small GRCs, as well as GRCs and single-seat constituencies, Mr Lee said, adding that there were "pluses and minuses both ways".

A bigger GRC benefits from having a minister lead in the management of its affairs, and better economies of scale in running the town council and constituency-wide activities, while a smaller GRC allows for closer connections between MPs and their residents.

Mr Lee said: "SMCs have their place in our system too because they are not just easier to contest, but also give an MP direct responsibility for everything that happens in his constituency."

Analysts interviewed said the changes announced were a step in the right direction.

Said Institute of Policy Studies deputy director for research Gillian Koh: "Minorities comprise a quarter of the population. Having four-member GRCs in which one is a minority makes it more representative.

"An average that brings us closer to this is good."

Professor Bilveer Singh of the National University of Singapore said it was equally important to cut the total number of GRCs and have more SMCs. "Some people will continue to believe a GRC is for weak candidates to hang onto the coat-tails of senior guys," he said.

Reducing its number is in the ruling party's interest as it has "to produce good people for the future and legacy of the country".

Group Representation Constituencies
The Straits Times, 28 Jan 2016

When they were introduced: 1988

What they are

Group Representation Constituencies, or GRCs, require electoral candidates to contest them in teams that must have at least one member from a minority race.

The aim of GRCs, introduced in the 1988 General Election, is to ensure that minorities will always be represented in Parliament.

Changes over the years

1991: The Parliamentary Elections Act is changed to increase the maximum number of MPs per GRC from three to four.

The move is to minimise boundary changes for GRCs that have grown too big for the number of MPs serving them, the Government said.

1996: The Act is changed to allow up to six MPs per GRC.

The Government's reason is that the new Community Development Councils need a critical mass of residents to be effective.

2009: Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong promises to reduce the average size of GRCs from 5.4 to five MPs.

2015: The average size of GRCs in the September election shrinks to 4.75 MPs.

Changes to political system: Reactions, From the Gallery

NCMP changes may make opposition content to simply vie for such seats: WP chief Low Thia Khiang
Opposition may end up not contributing to contestable politics: Low Thia Khiang
By Lim Yan Liang and Chong Zi Liang, The Straits Times, 28 Jan 2016

The Workers' Party says it is unclear if changes proposed by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in Parliament yesterday will strengthen the political system here.

Party chief Low Thia Khiang said changes to the Non-Constituency MP (NCMP) scheme may, instead, make opposition parties content to simply vie for such seats rather than focus on winning constituencies outright.

He spoke to reporters at his Meet-the-People Session at Bedok Reservoir in Aljunied GRC on proposals outlined earlier by PM Lee.

PM Lee said NCMPs would have the same voting rights as elected MPs and there would be a minimum of 12 opposition members in the House, up from nine currently.

When outlining the proposals, PM Lee also said that elections must remain "open and contestable" so as to foster accountability.

The WP will assess the proposals' impact, but Mr Low warned that if parties are content to only compete to secure an NCMP seat, then the Opposition will simply be decorative like a "vase".

There will not be any "real functional democracy and contestable politics as what the Prime Minister wishes to see", he said.

WP chief Low Thia Khiang: "I'm not sure if it helps the Opposition, or over time, will it make the Opposition become just satisfied with competing for NCMPs instead of trying to get elected." VIDEO: CHONG ZI LIANG
Posted by The Straits Times on Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Mr Low has been critical of the NCMP scheme, even though his party agreed to allow its top losing candidates to seek the posts.

Last night, he reiterated his view that NCMPs lack both political muscle and grassroots grounding, and compared them to "duckweed on the water of the pond".

"You don't have roots, unlike elected MPs, where you have a constituency, run a town council, and you get close in touch with your residents. You can sink roots there," he said. "But an NCMP is very different, so make no mistake about it, an NCMP is not an elected MP."

Agreeing was People's Power Party (PPP) chief Goh Meng Seng, who labelled NCMPs "backdoor MPs" who lacked the people's mandate.

"What we want are people in Parliament empowered by a certain group of voters: not Nominated MPs, not NCMPs, but those given seats by virtue of a contest, according to votes," he said.

Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) secretary-general Chee Soon Juan also dismissed the proposal to increase the number of NCMPs and said it only "distracts the people from the real problems that plague elections in Singapore".

He repeated calls made by the SDP during last year's General Election to, among other things, abolish the group representation constituency (GRC) system.

Democratic Progressive Party secretary-general Benjamin Pwee, however, said he was "encouraged" by the proposed changes: "The PAP Government appears to be responding positively to the electorate's and opposition's call for greater voices in Parliament".

Agreeing with him was former NCMP Lina Chiam of the Singapore People's Party, who said it was an acknowledgment by the ruling People's Action Party of Singaporeans' desire for more alternative voices in Parliament.

"My hope is the people will not give opposition parties just enough votes to be NCMPs without actually winning, so they can have the Government in power while still having opposition in Parliament," she said.

On PM Lee's proposal to review the qualifying criteria for the Elected President, former candidate Tan Jee Say, who contested in 2011, said this was unnecessary as the existing criteria are "sufficiently tight and yet flexible to permit candidates from a broad background to come forth and contest".

He also did not agree with proposals to give the Council of Presidential Advisers' views more weight, because it "is not elected by the people and has no mandate or moral authority to have more powers".

Dr Tan Cheng Bock, who also contested the 2011 Presidential Election, declined to comment when contacted last night.

PPP's Mr Goh said changes to the presidency can go much further to include the power to appoint judges and to take charge of the Elections Department.

But PM Lee told Parliament yesterday that the President has no executive or policymaking role by design as such a role is the prerogative of the elected government.

He added that regrettably, many Singaporeans, including some candidates in the 2011 presidential poll, did not understand this.

"For the system to work, candidates and voters must understand this," PM Lee said. "Otherwise, we may end up with two rival power centres, or an impasse between the President and the Government, undermining the democratically-elected Government."

Political changes: Surprising PAP does it again
By Chua Mui Hoong, Opinion Editor, The Straits Times, 28 Jan 2016

The People's Action Party (PAP) has always been a party that can surprise the electorate, and it did so again yesterday.

Just four months after a landslide win in the general election, and on Day 2 of the debate on the President's Address to open the new Parliament, the Prime Minister served notice of the Government's intention to make a few significant political changes.

The first set of changes was not unexpected: To reduce the average size of Group Representation Constituencies (GRC), and have more single-member constituencies. This will be done by the next general election.

The second set of proposed changes to the Elected Presidency had been hinted at, and again, was not so surprising. The changes will cover: Updating the eligibility criteria; the weight given to the voice of the Council of Presidential Advisers; and how to ensure someone from the minority community can be elected periodically.

A Constitutional Commission headed by the Chief Justice will study the issues, get views from the public and make recommendations, slated by the third quarter of the year.

The tightening of criteria was expected, following the 2011 Presidential Election when four candidates contested, including some who campaigned as though they would form an alternate government, disingenuously ignoring the fact that the Constitution gives the President only limited custodial powers - the power to say "no" to spending on reserves and key public appointments.

Although PM Lee Hsien Loong said several times in his 90-minute speech that there was no urgency as the changes were for the long term, he appeared to be a man in a hurry to institute political reform. This would be understandable, as the six-year term presidency is due for another election by August next year.

But it was the changes to the Non-Constituency MP (NCMP) scheme that were a surprise. On this, there was no need for a committee or public feedback. Instead, Mr Lee said categorically: "I intend to amend the Constitution during this term to give NCMPs the same voting rights as constituency MPs."

NCMPs are top losers among opposition candidates invited to take up seats in Parliament.

Mr Lee said their number could go up, from nine now, to 12.

With the change, NCMPs will be able to vote on all Bills, including on the Constitution and the Budget, and on motions of confidence.

Said Mr Lee: "They will be equal in powers, although not in responsibility and scope, to constituency MPs because they do not have specific voters to look after. But there will be no reason at all to perceive NCMPs as being second class."

Mr Lee argued that NCMPs have more of a mandate to enter Parliament than an MP elected under proportional representation, a system some countries have, in which the party decides which of its MPs should enter the Chamber.

Here, by contrast, the NCMP would have won many votes directly.

An NCMP may also have a bigger mandate than some constituency MPs in a GRC, Mr Lee pointed out.

This is entirely possible: Consider an MP in a GRC who won just 48 per cent of the vote in his division, but enters Parliament because his colleagues in other wards in the GRC helped lift the total vote there to 51 per cent. In comparison, a top-losing NCMP may have received 49 per cent of the vote in his single seat. The latter may thus be said to have a stronger mandate to be in Parliament than the former.

By making this argument, Mr Lee appears to be lending weight to the views of opponents of the GRC system, who say weaker candidates enter Parliament on the "coat-tails" of stronger ones, and don't really have a mandate of their own.

What is one to make of the changes to the NCMP scheme?

Overall, as Mr Lee himself acknowledged, upgrading NCMPs to give them full voting rights with elected MPs will be good for the opposition - "giving their best losers more exposure, very possibly building them up for the next general election".

Democratic Progressive Party chief Benjamin Pwee hailed the bold changes. But Singapore Democratic Party secretary-general Chee Soon Juan considered them a distraction.

Workers' Party leader Low Thia Khiang said NCMPs were like "a vase" - for show - unlike elected constituency MPs.

The political sceptic in me jumped ahead to a possible scenario where the PAP is in opposition and in a position to take part in a no-confidence vote against the governing party.

But what works for the PAP might also work against it.

There is a more benign explanation for the change, and it is consistent with the PAP's longstanding position, which is to change the political system before it is forced to, or as the late founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew used to say, citing British political theorist Harold Laski: "If you don't have a system that allows fundamental change by consent, you will have a revolution by violence."

This is a party that believes in revolution by consent. It has tried to entrench opposition and alternative voices in Parliament since the 1980s, with the NCMP and the Nominated MP schemes.

The NCMP scheme has come a long way since two top losers turned down the seat in succession after the 1984 General Election.

These days, parties are keen to have their most outstanding candidates take up the post.

One can object to the NCMP scheme in principle for keeping Singapore voters and opposition candidates content on a baby diet of gruel, never graduating to solids.

Giving full voting rights without the requisite constituency responsibilities might prove seductive and over time cause the opposition to "become just satisfied with competing for NCMP instead of trying to get elected", Mr Low warned.

Or one can adopt a pragmatic position, take up an NCMP post, learn from it and come charging full tilt at the PAP at the next election.

Indeed, odd as it may seem, egging the opposition on to contest the PAP was one objective of the scheme. Mr Lee Kuan Yew, moving the Bills to introduce the scheme in 1984, said one of its aims was to embolden political contenders.

"I am saying to them, 'Come out. Take advantage of the next four to five years of exposure. Build up'.

"And if we find that they accept our parameters, we may well develop a two-party system."

Parliament debates what makes for 'good politics'
By Janice Heng, The Straits Times, 29 Jan 2016

Proposed changes to Singapore's political system drew the approval of MPs yesterday, the fourth day of debate on the President's Address.

Four People's Action Party (PAP) MPs cheered plans to expand the Non-Constituency MP (NCMP) scheme and review the Elected Presidency, announced by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Wednesday.

They also rebuked Workers' Party leader Low Thia Khiang (Aljunied GRC) for comments made outside Parliament the day before.

The only opposition MP to speak yesterday, Mr Low did not comment on the specific changes proposed but gave an alternative view of what makes "good politics", arguing that the outcome should not just be good policy and a lack of gridlock - as Mr Lee had suggested - but a resilient political system.

Earlier, on Wednesday night, Mr Low told reporters that his party had to study the changes carefully.

Mr Lee had proposed to giveNCMPs full voting rights and expand the minimum number of opposition MPs, including NCMPs, from nine to 12.

But Mr Low drew a clear distinction between NCMPs and elected MPs, comparing the former to rootless "duckweed" on the surface of a pond - a comment which PAP MPs seized upon yesterday.

Ms Rahayu Mahzam (Jurong GRC), for instance, took issue with Mr Low's point that NCMPs have no roots in constituencies.

"Nothing stops the NCMPs from going to the ground, doing house visits, organising sessions to gather the ground concerns," she said.

Mr Ang Wei Neng (Jurong GRC) also defended the NCMP scheme, saying: "Let us all embrace the NCMP (scheme) as a unique feature of the Singapore political system."

Mounting the strongest defence of the Prime Minister's proposed changes was Mr Edwin Tong (Marine Parade GRC), who said opposition parties had little reason to criticise the moves.

The NCMP scheme "not only introduces greater diversity and debate in Parliament, it helps opposition members gain exposure and recognition", he argued.

Mr Tong also defended the need for "the very most stringent conditions and criteria" for the Elected Presidency, given the weighty responsibilities of the role.

Tightening the eligibility criteria is one aspect of the upcoming review by a Constitutional Commission, which will also look at strengthening the Council of Presidential Advisers and ensuring that minority presidents are elected periodically.

The proposed political changes were just one thread in yesterday's parliamentary sitting, with speeches ranging over topics such as the elderly and families.

The debate on the President's Address continues for the last day today, with the six elected WP MPs in the House set to move a motion to fill the NCMP seat rejected by Ms Lee Li Lian.

Changes to NCMP scheme 'meet desire for more diverse voices'
But some observers warn more voting rights for NCMPs may erode legitimacy of elected MPs
By Rachel Au-Yong, The Straits Times, 29 Jan 2016

Singapore's plan to raise the minimum number of opposition members in Parliament will strengthen the two-party system and satisfy the electorate's desire for more alternative voices, said observers.

But some felt that giving Non-Constituency MPs more voting rights could undermine the legitimacy of elected representatives.

The academics and former politicians interviewed by The Straits Times were commenting on proposed changes to the NCMP scheme announced by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in Parliament on Wednesday.

Mr Lee said that he intended to raise the minimum number of opposition MPs in Parliament, including NCMPs, from nine to 12, and give NCMPs the same voting rights as elected MPs.

The scheme was first introduced in 1991 to allow the best-performing opposition party losers at a general election to still make it to Parliament.

Institute of Policy Studies deputy director for research Gillian Koh said the changes "ensure a two-party, if not 1.5-party, system in Singapore".

With at least 12 seats, opposition parties will have a sizeable presence in the House, she said. There are currently 89 elected MPs in this Parliament, plus two NCMPS.

Former Nominated MP Shriniwas Rai, meanwhile, said the proposed changes would make Singapore's system more representative, and combines the best of the first-past-the-post electoral system with the proportional system.

In a first-past-the-post system, the candidate with the most votes in any given constituency wins a seat in Parliament. In proportional systems, parties are allocated seats according to their vote share.Former Nominated MP Shriniwas Rai, meanwhile, said the proposed changes would make Singapore's system more representative, and combines the best of the first-past-the-post electoral system with the proportional system.

By expanding the NCMP scheme, more of the candidates who did well, but did not win seats, will make it to Parliament, he said.

"In some constituencies, the opposition has close to 40 per cent of the vote," he noted.

National University of Singapore political scientist Hussin Mutalib, who is against the NCMP scheme in general, felt that having 12 guaranteed opposition seats may deter people from voting for the opposition come election time.

Other observers, including Dr Koh, disagreed. She said that Singaporeans would still cast their votes based on how capable a candidate is and how credible his party is.

But Dr Hussin said voters had to learn "the harsh lesson" if they did not "vote wisely".

If voters did not vote for opposition candidates at the polls, then they have to "be prepared to accept an outcome where the august Parliament is deprived of" robust debates on policies and laws, he said.

Former MPs interviewed were generally supportive of raising the minimum number of opposition MPs in Parliament.

But they also cautioned that giving NCMPs the same voting powers as elected MPs could undermine the legitimacy of the latter group.

Previously, NCMPs could not vote on matters such as constitutional changes, votes of no confidence and removing a president from office. But with the change, they will be allowed to vote on these matters.

Mr S. Chandra Das said giving both types of MPs equal voting powers would not be fair to the elected MPs who would have worked hard to win their seats in the elections.

Mr Inderjit Singh agreed, saying that NCMPs do not have the same responsibilities as elected MPs.

Constituency work and municipal issues form the bulk of the work MPs do, he said, adding that "NCMPs don't formally represent any constituency and thus don't have the same responsibilities as their elected peers".

PM Lee had said on Wednesday when proposing the changes that with NCMPs having the same voting rights as elected MPs, "there will be no reason at all to perceive NCMPs as being second-class".

Referring to this, Mr Alvin Yeo wondered if the public opinion on NCMPs would change.

"I'm not sure the public would necessarily see it that way," he said.


It is important for minority communities to feel they have a chance, they have the opportunity to play various roles in politics, be it in Parliament, or as Elected President. It is important to reassure the minority communities that they are equal to any other community in Singapore. Having said that, the issue of merit is also very important - that whoever gets the job of Elected President is able to do the job.

We want someone who can do the job, to feel the needs of not only the minority community, but all communities in Singapore, because he or she must be a president for all Singaporeans, not just for the Malay or Indian communities.

That role is very important, because he has to safeguard the reserves, be the gatekeeper, to make sure that we can continue to grow Singapore, protect the reserves, use them wisely.

For the community to feel good, we must feel that the person is good not just for us, but for all Singaporeans.

- DR YAACOB IBRAHIM, Minister for Communications and Information and Minister-in-charge of Muslim Affairs, in response to questions from reporters about plans to review the Elected Presidency and feedback on this from the Malay/Muslim community. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced in Parliament on Wednesday that he would appoint a Constitutional Commission to study, among other matters, how to ensure that minorities have a chance to be the Elected President periodically, especially if there has not been a president from that community for some time.


I never expected the PAP to be so generous and give NCMPs so much more power.

The Workers' Party wasn't so keen on the scheme when it first started, but accepted it over time. I think both sides realise that articulate Singaporeans want an alternative voice.

The opposition will still go for the jugular: they'll criticise the incumbent and aim to win elections. But it's consoling to know that even if they don't, the best of them will get a seat in the House.

- FORMER NOMINATED MP SHRINIWAS RAI, who said the proposed changes to the NCMP scheme are "bold and good".


A guaranteed 12-member opposition presence in Parliament might deter voters from casting their votes for the opposition. Some voters, accustomed to the minuscule presence of opposition in the legislature for many decades, would feel more than contented now that the number seems sufficiently visible enough for those yearning to see alternative voices in parliamentary debates.

- NUS POLITICAL SCIENTIST HUSSIN MUTALIB, who disagrees with the NCMP scheme and the proposed increase in numbers and parliamentary powers.

Build political system that can withstand shock and turbulence: WP chief
By Chong Zi Liang, The Straits Times, 29 Jan 2016

A political system needs to be resilient in the face of adversity, said Workers' Party chief Low Thia Khiang yesterday when he gave his party's perspective on the debate on what is good politics.

Such a system can "withstand shock and turbulence, including the unexpected collapse or slow corruption of the ruling party", he said.

To build such a system, he pointed to the SkillsFuture programme, which encourages lifelong learning among workers.

He expressed the hope that Singapore's political future will be built on the same principles that guide the programme, which is for all Singaporeans, regardless of their socio-economic status.

Mr Low noted the scheme trusts people to make the best choices for themselves. It does not measure value in narrow economic terms or adopt a carrot-and-stick approach. Instead, it "nudges" people towards self-improvement, he said.

Similarly, politics should be "all-inclusive", so that national interests can be agreed on by consensus instead of being "monopolised by the ruling party".

"The Government should recognise that there are many ongoing and independent national conversations and should allow for differences in opinions to flourish without marking these conversations as disloyal and divisive," he said.

He also said those with narrow political interests should be encouraged to engage in dialogue, which should be seen as "an educational process for Singaporeans to learn and to discern what is politics for the collective good of the nation and society".

Singaporeans should be trusted to be "independent, rational and wise social actors" who can build up institutions not affiliated with the Government, he said.

Citing Singapore universities, he noted they were tightly controlled for fear of their political influence. Yet they have achieved world- class status after their autonomy was protected, he noted.

Academics can criticise the Government and have even joined alternative political parties but "our political system has not been destabilised as a result".

Finally, politics cannot be defined just by good policies and the absence of gridlock, he said.

Excessive fears of political gridlock will lead Singapore to depend on just one political party, "waiting for it to rot to the point of no return before any alternative party can be formed to take its place".

"If this Government truly believes in preserving this shiny red dot, then the onus is on it to build a political system conducive to the growth of alternative parties as well as the renewal of the ruling party."

Mr Low's speech in Parliament came a day after Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong spoke on the need for Singapore's political system to evolve. Mr Lee had cited the example of political gridlock in the US as an undesirable outcome that Singapore needs to avoid.

Mr Low also called for SkillsFuture's "policy DNA" to be applied to education as well to foster a confident population.

Graduates of Singapore's schools must become "self-driven and unafraid to take risks to pursue their interest", Mr Low said.

PAP MPs critical of WP chief Low Thia Khiang's comments on NCMP changes
By Lim Yan Liang, The Straits Times, 29 Jan 2016

PAP MPs were critical of Workers' Party chief Low Thia Khiang's position on proposed changes to Singapore's political system, saying yesterday that contrary to his view, schemes such as for Non-Constituency MPs (NCMPs) led to a greater diversity of voices in Parliament.

They also responded to suggestions he made yesterday on what the Government needed to do to "get our politics right".

Ms Rahayu Mahzam (Jurong GRC) was surprised Mr Low said NCMPs were like "duckweed" floating in a pond, and lacked political roots in a constituency, unlike elected MPs. She said there was nothing to stop NCMPs from getting to know and address residents' concerns.

Mr Low's comments to reporters on Wednesday night came after Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong outlined proposed changes to the political system. These included having a minimum of 12 opposition MPs and giving NCMPs the same voting rights as elected MPs.

Said Ms Rahayu, referring to Mr Leon Perera, the WP's new NCMP: "I recall Mr Perera mentioning that he does grassroots work at East Coast and Aljunied, and he definitely can bring value to this House with the issues that he will collate from all these people that he's met.

"These improvements will strengthen the NCMP's position and I think it's hard to argue otherwise."

Mr Low's view that an NCMP cannot be as close to residents as an elected MP who runs a town council also "misses the point", said Mr Edwin Tong (Marine Parade GRC).

While the privilege of managing a constituency can come only from the mandate given by voters, the NCMP scheme did not take away the opportunity of a candidate to contest freely for the privilege of running a constituency, he said.

The scheme gives losing candidates another chance to enter Parliament, Mr Tong said, noting instances over the years when the WP used it "for the advancement of (its) own political agenda".

These included when Ms Sylvia Lim (Aljunied GRC) first entered Parliament in 2006 as an NCMP, and when the WP reassigned the NCMP seat from former NCMP Gerald Giam to Mr Perera, he said.

"The fact of the matter is that the NCMP scheme not only introduces greater diversity and debate in Parliament, (but) it also helps opposition members gain exposure and recognition," he said.

Mr Ang Wei Neng (Jurong GRC) said the expansion of the scheme from a maximum of six NCMPs in 1984 shows it has worked: "The intention to increase the NCMP numbers entrenches the importance of the NCMP scheme, and recognises the contributions of past NCMPs."

Mr Low's call yesterday for a political system conducive to the growth of alternative parties as an "insurance policy" drew a response from Mr Heng Chee How (Jalan Besar GRC). Mr Heng said that given the more complex challenges ahead, Singaporeans must think about the kind of insurance policy they need.

The proposals by PM Lee also showed that the Government recognised the need for a diversity of views. Said Mr Heng: "That is a practical example of a political party that understands what the people want, and is taking steps to ensure that what they want is reflected."

WP chief Low Thia Khiang's bid to tackle govt offensive
Low Thia Khiang tries to counter PM's speech but WP no longer has its previous political heft
By Lydia Lim, Associate Opinion Editor, The Straits Times, 29 Jan 2016

The opposition leader's speech had nice flourishes, to be sure, about the Government's "narrow, technocratic view of politics" and the dangers of "focusing on the PAP navel" in place of chasing ideals.

Mr Low Thia Khiang (Aljunied GRC) made a brave attempt to counter Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's tour de force of a speech on Wednesday, in which he set out the reasons for planned changes to Singapore's Constitution and political system.

And there is no doubt the Workers' Party (WP) chief was closely listened to by the front and backbench yesterday.

Not only did he attack what he saw as the Government's narrow view of good politics, which he said merely produces good policy and avoids gridlock, but he also offered a counter-definition: "The outcome of good politics is the fostering of a political system that is able to withstand shock and turbulence, including the unexpected collapse or slow corruption of the ruling party, to ensure the continuity of the nation."

He warned that excessive fear of political gridlock would "lead to a society depending on only one political party, waiting for it to rot to the point of no return, before any alternative party can be formed to take its place".

Alternative parties, he added, are the insurance against any collapse or failure of the ruling party, and there is value in giving such parties the chance to develop.

There was nothing wrong with Mr Low's speech really, except that in this Parliament, his party no longer commands the political heft that it did in the last one, due to its weaker showing at last year's polls as compared with 2011.

It is hardly surprising then that yesterday's speech packed far less of a punch than the one Mr Low delivered on constructive politics in May 2014.

That, too, was in response to the President's Address, when Parliament returned after a mid-term prorogue or pause, and Mr Low came out with guns blazing to criticise the PAP for preferring compliant to constructive politics.

Nineteen months and one general election later, it is now the PAP that is on the offensive, and the WP has little choice but to react to the ruling party's advances.

At the heart of the WP's dilemma is a political innovation that no one saw coming - the Prime Minister's decision to change the Constitution to raise the minimum number of Non-Constituency MPs (NCMPs) in the House from the current nine to 12, and to grant them the same voting rights as elected MPs.

NCMP seats go to opposition candidates who fail to get elected but win the highest share of votes among losers in a general election.

On Wednesday night, responding off-the-cuff to reporters' questions on PM Lee's announcement, Mr Low compared NCMPs to "duckweed" that float on a pond's surface and lack roots, unlike elected MPs, who have a constituency, run a town council, hold Meet-the-People Sessions and "can sink roots" in the wards they represent.

Yesterday, two PAP backbencher MPs sought to poke holes in Mr Low's simile.

Ms Rahayu Mahzam (Jurong GRC) expressed surprise that NCMPs were being compared to duckweed as "nothing stops the NCMPs from going to the ground to do house visits, organise sessions to gather ground concerns".

Referring to newly appointed NCMP Leon Perera of the WP, she said: "I recall Mr Perera mentioning that he does grassroots work at East Coast and Aljunied."

Mr Edwin Tong (Marine Parade GRC) issued a more substantive rebuttal, saying: "I think Mr Low misses the point. The privilege to run a town council and manage a constituency is one that can only be bestowed by the electorate of that constituency.

"It is a mandate from the people. And if, in elections, the electorate does not choose the WP to run its town council, perhaps because the electorate feels they are incapable of doing so, that choice has to be respected.

"The NCMP scheme does not, in any way, take away the ability or opportunity of any candidate to contest freely for the privilege to run a constituency or a town council. If you win your seat, then you run the town council. You grow your roots.

"But if you don't, then the NCMP scheme still gives an opposition candidate a second chance... a seat in Parliament - with all the parliamentary privileges of an elected MP."

Despite these PAP protestations to the contrary, Mr Low was spot on when he said on Wednesday night - speaking from his gut and not from a text before a Meet-the-People Session in his ward - that the NCMP role "does not give any political party muscle because you don't have the competitive advantage on the ground".

He also acknowledged that there was a real danger that opposition parties would become satisfied with second-best, and end up "competing for NCMP (seats) instead of trying to get elected" outright.

Therein lies the Government's cunning in moving to strengthen the NCMP scheme, in a bid to better manage the pace of political change which it knows is, in the long term, moving towards greater pluralism.

For now, Mr Low finds himself in the unenviable position of having to point out the pitfalls of the NCMP scheme, even as he prepares to move today a motion asking Parliament to give a third NCMP seat to sociology professor Daniel Goh - a rising star in the WP ranks - after Ms Lee Li Lian, the losing WP candidate for Punggol East, turned it down.

Political changes ahead: Don't be bochap
The Government may have powers to make Constitutional revisions but Singaporeans must discuss their merits
By Han Fook Kwang, Editor At Large, The Sunday Times, 31 Jan 2016

There is something remarkable about Parliament discussing and devising rules on how its own members are chosen.

At once, it shows how extraordinary its powers are to make legislation that affects its own make-up and the way it operates.

This power to change the rules of the game is especially stark in Singapore which has only one House and no other institutional check apart from an Elected President with limited powers.

But that's how parliamentary democracy works, and the proposals by the Prime Minister on Wednesday to make changes to the political system, including the Elected Presidency (EP), are good examples of how wide those powers are.

It is, of course, a double-edged sword. A government with an overwhelming majority can change the laws, but it also has to subject itself to the people in a general election every five years. Abuse that power and there is no telling how voters might react in the polling booth.

That is why fundamental changes to the political system are not made frequently or lightly, and, when they are, the ruling party has to go out of its way to justify them and not be seen to be doing so for its own partisan purposes.

To its credit, the Government understands this, which is why Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong spoke for more than an hour and a half on Wednesday to make his case.

He announced the setting up of a Constitutional Commission, headed by Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon, to look into the proposed changes to the EP, but set a tight deadline to effect the changes by the end of the year, in time for the next presidential election due next year.

As for changes to the Non-Constituency MP (NCMP) scheme - expanding their voting rights and increasing their numbers - he was even more forthright, proposing that the changes be made in the current term of Parliament.

He appeared to have made up his mind and that was that.

What to make of these moves?

Firstly, they clearly show a confident PM buoyed by the impressive electoral victory of the 2015 General Election.

Without such a strong mandate, it is likely he would have proceeded more cautiously.

On the EP, for example, a less-than-assured PM might have hesitated to make the changes so quickly ahead of the next election, for fear of an electoral backlash from voters upset that he was trying to influence the outcome.

As for increasing the number of opposition seats, including NCMP seats, to 12, it seemed almost like he was daring the opposition to take up the offer.

During last year's elections, he had argued that, despite having six MPs, the Workers' Party (WP) had not made much of an impact in the House and had refused to engage the Government on many issues.

"You voted for a tiger in the Chamber, and you got a mouse in the House," he had declared.

It is possible the point registered with enough voters to the detriment of the WP.

It is also possible the People's Action Party (PAP) believes it can play the same card and even up the ante by allowing more opposition MPs into the House in the hope of exposing their weaknesses.

If it succeeds, look out for it replaying the line to even greater effect: Even with 12 MPs, the mouse did not roar!

But it is a high stakes game because the WP might rise to the challenge, make the extra numbers count, and reap the benefits at subsequent general elections. So, why is the Government confident it can ride this tiger?

One possible reason: GE2015 showed that the opposition tide many had thought irresistible, wasn't.

The Singapore electorate is much more discerning and expects higher standards from both the ruling party and the opposition. It will not give its vote lightly.

So, barring a dramatic loss of confidence in the PAP or a sudden rise in quality of the opposition, the political balance is likely to change in a gradual way and not precipitously. This allows the PAP more room to experiment and take calculated risks.

And so it is too with the moves to make changes to the EP.

The two proposals put forth, to limit further the number of people who can qualify to be candidates and to allow for the election of minority candidates, are far-reaching.

It isn't clear now what the actual amendments will be; that will be up to the Commission. But however it is done, they will significantly affect the type of candidates and the conduct of future elections.

You can understand why the Government wants to make these changes now while it has such a commanding position in the House.

Wait too long, and the public mood or its own dominance might change.

But it also has to be careful it does not tighten the rules so much as to unduly limit the choices available to voters.

If it does and the election is not seen as truly free because the choices are too limiting, it will taint the office of the presidency and undermine its credibility.

How to strike the balance between ensuring quality candidates and giving voters real choices will be a delicate task for the Government and the proposed Commission.

These are important issues that will need to be thoroughly discussed not just within the House or among members of the Commission, but by Singaporeans at large.

From the looks of it though, there hasn't been a great deal of interest in the issues so far. The day after the PM's speech, the story wasn't among the top 10 most read in this newspaper's website. Nor were the keywords associated with it trending on Google, which is an indication of the level of interest online. This newspaper has received some letters from readers but not a large number.

These may be early days and interest might pick up when the Commission starts work or the Constitutional changes are debated in the House.

I hope it will be the case because the matter is too important to be discussed only by a few men and women, no matter how well-qualified.

* Nine-member panel to review Elected Presidency
Constitutional Commission includes public, private sector leaders, and will consult people
By Walter Sim, The Straits Times, 11 Feb 2016

Nine prominent Singaporeans have been named to a committee to study the Elected Presidency and recommend how it can be updated.

Their appointment comes two weeks after Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong told Parliament that the President had to remain elected, but certain aspects of the process had to be reviewed.

The growth in Singapore's reserves, of which the President is custodian, means that individuals with character as well as competence are needed.

Another consideration is the need for candidates from the minority races to get a chance at being elected from time to time.

Leading the group of eight men and one woman is Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon. They will hold their first meeting next week.

This Constitutional Commission includes Public Service Commission chairman Eddie Teo, who helmed the Presidential Elections Committee that vetted potential candidates in 2011.

Also on the panel are Supreme Court judge Tay Yong Kwang, former Speaker of Parliament Abdullah Tarmugi and Ambassador-at-Large Chan Heng Chee.

The rest are business leaders Chua Thian Poh of Ho Bee Land, Philip Ng of Far East Organization, Peter Seah of DBS Bank, and Wong Ngit Liong of Venture Corp.

The names were announced by the Prime Minister's Office yesterday, which also set out the panel's terms of reference. People will be invited to give their views.

CJ Menon said yesterday that the members of the committee "bring with them the valuable perspectives of their diverse backgrounds and experience". "We will undertake and complete our work with due care and expedition," he said.

Although no timeline was given, PM Lee told Parliament he hoped the Commission could make its recommendations by the third quarter of the year. This would pave the way for changes to be made ahead of the next presidential election, which is due by August next year.

Mr Lee had said the Elected President is above politics and acts as a "stabiliser in our political system", but three areas had to be reviewed.

These were spelt out in the committee's terms of reference.

First, review the criteria for who is eligible to stand. This must consider the President's custodial role over the reserves and public service - a role that requires "individuals of character and standing" with experience and ability to do the job "with dignity and distinction".

Second, consider provisions for minority candidates to have "fair and adequate opportunity" to be elected, given the President's status as a unifying figure who represents a multiracial Singapore.

Third, consider refinements to the role and composition of the Council of Presidential Advisers, to ensure that key decisions are made after careful consideration from people with substantial suitable experience in the public and private sectors.

Mr Seah said: "I hope that my years of experience will help me contribute to the very important task of the Commission."

PM Lee Hsien Loong's speech at the debate on President’s Address 2016
Workers’ Party duckweed Daniel Goh is now a NCMP

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