Wednesday, 2 December 2015

Time for two Houses of Parliament?

An Upper and a Lower House could address needs for diversity and constituency service
By Charles Phua Chao Rong and Inderjit Singh, Published The Straits Times, 1 Dec 2015

It is now two months after the general election and a good time as any to review Singapore's political system to meet evolving needs.

From the Westminster system, the People's Action Party Government has already introduced several changes. These are the introduction of Non-Constituency Members of Parliament (NCMPs) in 1984 to institutionalise political diversity; the group representation constituencies (GRCs) in 1988 to level the playing field for minority candidates; and the Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP) scheme in 1990 to include civil society voices in Parliament.

One challenge that has reared its head is that some voters feel they have to choose between MPs who are good on the ground and can serve constituents' needs, and those who will add to the diversity of views in Parliament.

To be good at both local grassroots work and policy advocacy is a tall order, since the two require different skill sets.

To address this, and as Singapore nears the end of SG50 celebrations and looks towards SG100, we propose Upper and Lower Houses of Parliament, instead of the current single legislative chamber. This allows diversity and municipal needs to be served.

This involves questioning three assumptions about the current system: Is unicameralism - having one parliamentary chamber - the best for Singapore?

Must ministers be elected MPs? Consider India, where former prime minister Manmohan Singh was not an elected MP but was nominated to the Upper House; or Indonesia, which has technocratic ministers appointed based on expertise.

And, can diversity of views be manifested only through elected opposition MPs?


We propose a Singapore-style Upper House of advisers/ representatives/councillors/penghulu (village heads) comprising well-respected leaders. Candidates include community leaders who Singaporeans trust and respect, and sectoral experts.

To a certain extent, it is an amalgamation of Justice of the Peace , Council of Presidential Advisers and NMP systems, while guarding against gerontocracy (rule by elders), a problem that has plagued several countries with such Upper Houses.

Exact details of the Upper House need to be deliberated as a "whole-of-nation" effort, but a few considerations should be made.

First, to exercise effective advisory power, the Upper House's terms of reference must include sufficient powers to initiate new Bills and check Lower House Bills (the British Upper House can veto Lower House Bills once, hence forcing the Lower House to reconsider), oversee the functions of the presidency (appointment of key officials, reserves) and perhaps the requirement for both Houses' approval for constitutional amendments.

Second, the Upper House needs both appointed and elected members in sufficient numbers and a sensible proportion of both to give broad-based advisories without being too large or unwieldy.

The appointment system safeguards against the vagaries of Lower House elections, while also inducing experts who might not have otherwise served because of an unwillingness to participate in the electoral process.

The elected system will elect private- and people-sector leaders (political parties included) based on their ability to offer diverse views in Parliament, judged through their prior writings, speeches, actions and/or civic contributions. Elected members would be expected to consult their respective sectoral groupings - their constituencies - throughout their term.

Third, ministers and office-holders can be appointed from the Upper House. This may be especially crucial for certain ministerial posts. For example, do we want our Foreign Minister to be hard-working internationally (for Singapore's interests) or domestically (for residents)?

However, the Prime Minister needs to be an elected member from the Lower House to demonstrate electoral confidence in his leadership.

Fourth, the head of the Upper House could be elected President (head of state). This suggestion stems from reflections that the presidential election today has become a proxy battlefield for partisan contest and will continue to be so, defeating the original intent of the President's office.

Last, the Upper House members should be remunerated according to the solemnity and importance of their work.


In terms of processes, we propose 4PCs (Public, Private, People, Parliamentary Committees), in place of government parliamentary committees (GPCs), comprising members from all four sectors including both Houses, opposition politicians and civil servants in their private capacity as people-sector representatives.

Membership in the 4PCs should be based on relevant expertise, experience and a heart for Singapore. The 4PCs should be given more data access in order to crowdsource, conduct public consultations and make policy recommendations. Their work must be rigorous in order for it to act as an effective cross-check on government policies.

Each country needs to grow its own political institutions, sensitive to its context and conditions.

Here, a good political system must efficiently aggregate people's voices and effectively foster robust debates to strengthen policies for the benefit of Singapore and Singaporeans. To avoid paralysis as observed in other democracies, a good balance of powers of each House needs to be studied for effective implementation.

We believe bicameralism will ensure Singapore's survival and prosperity for the people, with the people, and as one people.

Charles Phua Chao Rong is a Lee Kong Chian graduate scholar at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. He is president of the Association for Public Affairs, and organiser of SG100 Compass, Youth Edition. Inderjit Singh was a Member of Parliament for Ang Mo Kio GRC for 19 years and volunteered to step down at the recent general election.

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