On Wednesday, 27 January 2016, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced that the Constitution will be amended for the minimum number of opposition members will be increased from the current 9 to 12 at the next general election and for Non-Constituency Members of Parliament (NCMPs) to have the same voting rights as Members of Parliament (MPs).
Had GE2015 been contested as a part proportionate representation exercise in democracy, assuming 1/3rd or 30 seats are allocated to all parties based on the national share of votes, then the opposition parties will have 15 members; 6 MPs directly elected and 9 NCMPs from proportionate representation instead of the present 6 + 3.
Therefore in reality, the announcement from the Prime Minister is but a small step towards wider representation and greater democratic plurality. However this step needs to be viewed in a wider political context.
The Letter or the Spirit of the Constitution
That this change in the NCMP and the minimum opposition members took place amidst the ongoing debate of amendments to the Elected Presidency should cause one to reach out for the smell test. Going by the literal meaning of the Constitution, changes to the Constitution simply require a 2/3rd vote which the ruling government easy delivers. However whether any change is in accordance to the the harder-to-define spirit of the constitution remains a matter of interpretation and value judgement, in particular pertaining to principles of liberty and democracy underlying the Constitution.
An argument can be made the changes to accommodate greater rights for the NCMP and to increase the minimum number of opposition members are in accordance to that spirit. On the contrary, if the changes to the Elected Presidency is to further restrict the eligibility of candidates or worse to return to the Appointed Presidency, then perhaps a case may be evident that this violates the spirit of the Constitution.
A Sweetener for the Elected Presidency
However, bigger stakes are in play. The NCMP / Minimum Opposition Members amendment can be seen as a sweetener for further restrictions on the Elected Presidency or a reversion to the Appointed Presidency. Most certainly, the ruling party can proceed only with the amendment to the Elected Presidency without the need to sop off the electorate with the sweetener since all the ducks are lined up. But like every good general, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong knows a pre-emptive strike is required when he sees a need for one.
By the time of the next generation election, the dissipation of the emotional uplift from the passing of Mr. Lee Kuan Yew, the effects of the ASEAN Common Market on the lower to middle income groups and if the current economic malaise and property market downturn continued longer than expected, then the ground is not so sweet for the PAP. Do remember the narrow loss by the main alternative candidate Mr. Tan Cheng Bock in the last the Elected President election evidenced a large floating bloc of voters, as much as 30% of the electorate. Many of these have gone back to the PAP in GE2015 but a change in the Elected Presidency could cause yet another shift away from the PAP, and this time in the much more important General Election. The dangers for the PAP are clear and present; hence the Prime Minister pulled the NCMP / Minimum Opposition Member rabbit out of the hat to head off any dissatisfaction with the changes to the Elected President.
In the larger scheme of things, 3 additional NCMPs with greater voting rights is a very small price to pay for removing the threat of the check and balance provided by an independent minded Elected President. That is not even mentioning the real changes needed to make the democratic process fairer. Moreover the average Singaporean voter has form when it comes to the government easily placating him or her with little morsels for past transgressions – a large vote swing in GE2015 in return for, as Deputy PM Tharman said, “leaning to the left” if ever so slightly.
So one cheer for the change to the NCMP’s rights and the increase in the minimum number of opposition members if one is that way inclined but like all things political, there is a big trade-off.