This blog post is a continuation of the previous one as part of a book reflection series. In the previous post, I outlined an anatomy of this series; I will stick to the chapters in the book as much as possible. The previous blog post was based on chapter 1. This blog post will counterintuitively be based on chapter 3 rather than chapter 2; the reason for this hop over 1 chapter is due to 2 reasons:
- Chapter 2 is highly factual and it revolves around the political history of Singapore, which Singaporeans are generally familiar with because of compulsory Singapore-based subjects in our formal education. These subjects are: Social Studies throughout our primary and secondary education, and lower secondary history which focuses on Singapore’s history. As my analysis has the dual purposes of developing my opinions and enriching the public discourse in Singapore, my audiences will logically be Singaporeans in terms of demography. As such, I concluded that it would be unproductive to mull over chapter 2.
- I already briefly covered the main points in chapter 2 as one of the “key determinants” in the previous post, i.e, I accidentally covered chapter 2 while analysing chapter 1. This is unsurprising in my case because I tend to link one idea to a web of many others, resulting in me covering subjects that may not even be discussed in the chapter itself. The first blog post is a testament of this habit of mine. This “spillover” of content is just a natural side effect of how my mind works, so pay it no heed. In any case, since I do not find a repeat of my explanation a productive endeavor, I concluded that I should skip the analysis of chapter 2 entirely.
Making sense of the book thus far…
Chapter 1 looks at what I call the “Five Horsemen of Singapore’s Politics” It summarily explains how each of these “horsemen” shapes Singapore’s politics. Chapter 2 zooms into how the “horseman” that represents Singapore’s political history continues to haunt Singapore’s politicians today, and also simultaneously make use of a chronological start-point to give a context for the better understanding of Singapore’s politics. Building on to the context established in chapter 2, chapter 3 explains the hybrid political system of Singapore that emerged from its histo-political context and how it changed over time due to various political reasons.
The British Model, Decolonization & Independence
As I’ve stated, chapter 3 builds on the historical context established in chapter 2. The strand of historical development that was used as a launchpad into this chapter is the British’s model of governance, its decolonization process and our independence.
The British Model of Governance & its Origin
First and foremost, UK is a democracy. Democracies typically diverge into either presidential democracy or parliamentary democracy; US is the former and UK is the latter. However, because of the histo-cultural significance of the crown, UK became and remains a constituational monarchy with the Sovereign as the head of state.
Upon the promulgation of the Magna Carta and its subsequent historical developments which culminated in the Glorious Revolution, England transitioned from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional one; a constitution effectively curtailed the monarch’s absolute power by placing the auhority of a stack of papers above it. This gave rise to a unicameral Model Parliament, which later developed into a bicameral one, meaning that the parliament was separated into 2 chambers: the House of Lords and the House of Commons.
As history unfolded, the proliferation of individual libertarianism and the mass politics gradually diminished the power of the monarch and the House of Lords. Today, the de-facto leader of the country is the head of the government – the Prime Minister – who is typically the leader of the party that has the majority in the House of Commons. Nonetheless, the histo-cultural significance of the crown grants the Sovereign reserve powers – prerogatives that require no approval from other branches of government – such as the authority to dismiss the Prime Minister. However, the usage of the reserve powers are limited by laws enacted in Parliament and within the constraints of convention and precedent. This is aptly demonstrated through a Netflix show called The Crown. Hence, only when the situation is dire and exceptional enough then can the sovereign use these powers. In normal circumstances, which is the case most of the time, the Prime Minister – who is in control of the Parliament – is the most politically powerful person in the UK.
In UK, general elections are held using a simple plurality electoral system where electorates elect their representatives into the parliament based on a first-past-the-post basis. Their representatives will serve as the Members of Parliament in the House of Commons. A prime minister will then be chosen among these representatives and be appointed by the Sovereign, which is conventionally the leader of the political party that owns the majority in the House of Commons.
The UK government is popularly called the Westminster Model because the parliament is geographically based in the Palace of Westminster. The mechanisms and structure of the model is extensively outlined above. I will now transit into explaining why Singapore adopted a similar model through the explanation of the decolonisation process and Singapore’s independence, before making a comparison between Singapore and UK.
Decolonisation Process in Singapore
After WWII, UK returned to Malaya and Singapore to fill up the power vacuum left behind by the surrendered Japanese. The Japanese fanned the pro-independence spirit in the region and UK had lost its colonial-moral authority to its inability to protect the colonies during WWII. Indeed, the British were able to recognize the inevitability of decolonisation and thus were able to salvage what they could by parting with its colonies on relatively good terms. To transition Singapore into a collective independence with Malaya, Sabah and Sarawak, the British established the Legislative Assembly of Singapore (LAS) as a boot-camp for elected locals to gain experience for self-governance. The model of LAS is a unicameral parliamentary democratic system, pretty much like the model parliament that was initially adopted by UK before developing into a bicameral parliamentary. The LAS was also later accompanied by the installation of the Ceremonial Governor (translated from its official malay title) which served the function of a head of state to complement the LAS. The office was first occupied by Yusof Bin Ishak in 1959 after PAP won the election.
Independence of Singapore
Upon the electoral success of the People’s Action Party (PAP) in 1959, Singapore’s history took a turn. PAP ideologically disagreed with UMNO, merger became ephemeral, Singapore seceded from Malaysia involuntarily, and Singapore was thrusted into independence. Upon independence, PAP decided that its existing unicameral parliamentary system is a suitable foundation to build on. Here’s my digressive speculation on why that is the case:
LKY preferred a unicameral parliamentary system probably because effective governance is more plausible under this form of democracy. Presidential democracy and a bicameral parliamentary system, after all, are made to provide additional checks and balances. Take the US presidential democratic system for instance, the legislative, executive and judiciary branches are independent from each other and each possesses the authority to veto one another. Unlike the Presidential system, a parliamentary system combines the legislation and executive branches of government, giving the ruling party greater control over the government. This is why LKY would not consider a presidential system more favourably over a parliamentary system. Another form of checks and balances in the system lies in the bicameral feature in a parliamentary setting. This system splits the parliament into two chambers. In the UK, although the House of Lords remains effectively a consultative body after 1999, they still have the ability to obstruct and delay bills and laws passed in the House of Commons. It should be noted though, that it is conventional wisdom that checks & balances and effective governance are logically locked in a zero-sum framework. This is why the US government shutdowns from time to time and Donald Trump, despite being at the helm of the most powerful country in the world, isn’t the most powerful man in the world. The failure to impose travel bans or pass a domestic healthcare bills? That is the trade-off between checks & balances and effective governance that America’s founding father made. In contrast to his american counterpart, LKY prioritized the latter over the former.
Digression aside, to conclude, PAP’s dominance in the LAS upon Singapore’s independence coupled with the existing structure of the LAS as the governing body in Singapore ultimately led to the mere renaming of the LAS to the Parliament of Singapore. By extension, Yusof Bin Ishak was also carried over to serve as the first president of Singapore from his previous role as a head of state. Following which, changes were made and features were added into the Parliament of Singapore and the presidency, moulding Singapore’s political system into a hybrid system that we can longer seem to call it a Westminster model anymore.
Hybrid Westminster Model (Introduction)
Upon independence, the Republic of Singapore had a parliamentary system that closely resembles that of the Westminster model, notwithstanding its unicameral feature and the different status of Singapore’s head of state. The president is the head of state of Singapore, but because the office lacks the histo-cultural significance that the monarch in UK has, the government did not see the need to grant the office of presidency reserve powers out of respect for history and tradition. A president with reserve power, after all, will only hinder LKY’s goal of efficient & effective governance as then incumbent Prime Minister. Other than these two differences, the other parts of the government were reasonably similar. General Election is held every four years, where people elect their representatives into the parliament through a simple plurality electoral system. At its conclusion, the leader of the political party that wins the majority becomes the Prime Minister. Unlike the monarch, the President merely invites the Prime Minister to form his own cabinet. The appointment of prime minister in Singapore does not require the endorsement of the President. These similar features, however, were transient. The following are changes and additions to the recognizably Westminster system, turning it into a hybrid one that is unique to Singapore:
- Non-Constituency Member of Parliament (NCMP)
- Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP)
- Group Representation Constituency (GRC)
- Elected Presidency (EP)
PAP successively won the majority in every General Election since Singapore’s inception – its successes in governance are so unfathomable to the western pundits that they often accuse PAP of being undemocratic, authoritarian and socialist. The absence of opposition in the parliament is not only a fodder for western criticisms, it is also a source of discomfort for the increasingly educated populace. The unprecedented victories of opposition in 1981 by-election & 1984 General Election and PAP’s intelligence-gathering on the grassroot level probably convinced PAP that the people want an opposition’s presence in parliament. Since it is the will of the people, PAP recognises the inevitability of such a development. Hence, it decided that it should control how it happens rather than allow an uncontrolled and accidental implosion of opposition presence in parliament, plausibly due to electorates’ miscalculation in General Elections. As such, PAP created the NCMP scheme. The NCMP scheme “provides a backdoor entry for the opposition into Parliament, as it allowed for up to 3 of the ‘best losers’ in the general election to be inducted into Parliament, albeit with limited voting powers” (from the book). The number of NCMP seats was later raised from 3 to 9 in 2010. Establishing a permanant presence of opposition in the Parliament helped to satisfy the electorates’ desire for opposition’s presence in the government. I do get the feeling that, as a Singaporean on the ground, we are influenced by western media and therefore its liberal democratic values. These values that gradually becomes “popular” or morally conventional make Singaporeans feel uncomfortable that PAP is dominating the parliament, and not to mentioned criticised by the western pundits that espouse the very values that we came to be influenced by. At the same time, however, we are also inconspicuously influenced by the ruling party’s pragmatism as it casts its giant Banyan Tree shadow over us. We want an effective government because it works for us, and so we came to a logical conclusion that we merely want an opposition voice in parliament to resolve this cognitive dissonance between the support of an effective yet controversial PAP government and the Western values that we are influenced by. PAP probably already knew this, which was why the NCMP scheme that established opposition’s presence without giving them any meaningful voting powers worked so well in pacifying Singaporeans up till 2011. This scheme that was added into the Parliament undoubtedly deviated it from the Westminster Model. This is probably because in other countries, they traditionally have more than one party that can compete on relatively equal footings with each other. As such, there is always a substantial opposition presence in their Parliaments, making our problem a non-issue in their countries. Contextual differences create different sets of problems, hence, a deviation, variation or adaptation is an encouraging development.
A scheme called NMP similar to the NCMP was introduced during Goh Chok Tong’s term as the second Prime Minister. His government publicly stated its intention to be more consultative. This is probably due to the heavy-handed approach during LKY’s term. Partially in an effort to fulfill his promise, Goh and his government implemented the NMP scheme. NMP and NCMP differs in terms of target audience. NCMP gives opposition presence, but NMP gives non-partisan experts parliamentary presence. These experts are claimed to shun politics because of the cost to public and private lives and also the hassle of joining political parties and campaigning during election. However, they are people who are deemed to be capable of providing meaningful insights to policy-makings. The mindset that supports this rationale is reminiscent of LKY’s argument for high salary of MPs and ministers. He argued that the salary has to outdo the cost of joining politics or we will not have enough talents in the government to provide good governance. To attract these people to contribute in another way, they can serve a short 2-year term as NMPs. Of course, just like the NCMPs, they have limited voting powersdue to the lack to electoral mandate. However, over the years, the PAP ministers seem to take the suggestions of the NMPs seriously. This is probably because they are non-partisan, appointed by PAP, and are indeed valued for their knowledge. Still, there is the possibility that their addition to the diversity of opinions in parliament is limited because of alleged-tamed debates and appointment by PAP. Moreover, it is also arguably a convenient scheme to shrink the recruitment pool of the opposition while making it seem as though the government is receptive to changes and different opinions. Of course, these speculations only have the same credibility as the more straightfoward one which posits that PAP genuinely wants to have more diversity in opinions in the parliament, because its members humbly believe that they do not have the monopoly over governing wisdom. I guess we will never know until there’s disclosure. Nevertheless, this is another additional feature added to the Parliament of Singapore that deviated it further from the Westminster Model.
The GRC scheme was introduced in 1988 to transform single-member plurality electoral system to a multi-member one. Instead of voting for one single person in the voting ballot, Singaporeans are voting for an entire team into the Parliament for districts under this scheme. Some voting districts, of course, are still designated as Single-Member Constituency (SMC) in every General Election. Officially, this scheme is justified on the basis of ensuring ethnic minority representation in every voting districts due to the requirement of having a member from a minority race in every team competing for the GRC seats. However, many also argued that this is another way of entrenching PAP’s hegemony. By raising the required number of contending members in voting districts, the less resourceful opposition would find its recruitment challenge even more insurmountable. This also raises the monetary cost of running for these districts as the electoral deposit for every candidates remain constant; ergo, the cost of running for election for the less resourceful opposition is mulitplied by the size of the team – usually 5 or 6. This is analogous to the economic practice of raising a barrier of entry into the market so as to secure a monopoly position. Former Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong had actually admitted that the GRC system favors the bigger political “parties”. Well, actually, that happens to just be PAP in Singapore. Moreover, GRC raises the risk of voting too many oppositions into the parliament in every GRC districts, hence deterring voters from taking the risk of doing so. Ingenious psychological strategy indeed, but it remains to be another anti-PAP conspiracy theory that will go unproven until disclosure happens. There is however, a genuine concern with regards to this scheme: Voters no longer vote for the one person that they are familair with. PAP often uses this GRC system to introduce newblood politicians, allowing them to piggyback on the well-known MPs into the parliament without having to actually win the heart of the people in their own district. This can actually perpetuate the feelings of detachment and elitism between the ruling and the ruled in Singapore. The idea that we are not voting the people whom we trust into the parliament is an unsettling arrangement. Of course, there is the need to balance the interests of ethnnic minority representation and leadership renewal/grooming on one side of the scale, and the legitimacy of the MPs on the other. In any case, this modification to the electoral system ultimately deviated the Singapore political system away from the classic Westminster Model.
This one here is rather interesting given that we are going to have a presidential election in about a month’s time. In 1991, the government released a white paper to introduce the EP. Justified as a safeguard against a future “irresponsible government” the Elected President is vested with some custodial powers. PAP’s main concern was with the irresponsible usage of the accumulated national reserves – which has a good basis as the oppositions are generally “populist-leaning” making them prone to making short-term promises that involve huge social spendings. As such, the President was appointed as the gatekeeper to the national reserves. In order to tap onto the reserves, both the Prime Minister and the President must use both “keys” respectively to open the “vault”. EP’s term was also amended to become a 6-year term rather than the standard 4-year term. However, EP is just a tool for PAP to safeguard against a future scenario of an opposition-controlled parliament. This fact alone led to a clash between PAP and the first elected president, Ong Teng Cheong, over the role of the Elected President. Ong argued with PAP MPs, his former colleague, over the limited information and authority that his office actually held with regards to the national reserves. This contestation was extensively covered by local media back then. As a result, PAP “in 1994 began to cull the powers of the EP” (from the book) through the stringent criteria of EP – which arugably resulted in S.R Nathan’s uncontested victory in the 2nd and 3rd Presidential Election – and the compulsion of the EP to act on the “advice” of the PAP-appointed Presidential Advisory Committee (PAC). After all, EP is a safeguard to obstruct an opposition-controlled parliament, not a PAP-controlled one. What started out as a prudent political safeguard became a nuisance to the PAP government that seeks to remove all obstruction to its work in governing Singapore effectively. Did the PAP government regret this decision? Maybe, but it has since recognised the irreversibility of the change that they’d made and tried to live in the shadow of this decision, making do with what they have while pulling the puppet strings on the Elected Presidents. Of course, we can expect PAP to cut the strings and empower the president when it is sure that its downfall is imminent. Also, the recent amendment to reserve the EP for malay candidate is testament to the ceremonial nature of the EP. In any case, is this modification of our political system causing a deviation from the Westminster model? I actually do not think so although Prof. Singh had implicitly argued otherwise. The modification of an elected presidency may deviate it from the monarch in UK in the sense that the Sovereign in UK isn’t popularly elected. However, in almost every other sense, EP has made the role of President much more similar to the Sovereign in UK. Here are the similarities:
- Both are predominantly ceremonial today. Before EP, the Presidency is purely ceremonial without any custodial / reserve power of any sort.
- Both have custodial powers but are limited from exercising them by the Parliament. The Sovereign can only exercise its reserve power based on laws enacted in Parliament and within the constraints of convention and precedent. The Elected President of Singapore must act on the advice of PAP-appointed PAC.
- Both are to act as a form of safeguard or last resort against a bad situation. The Sovereign still has reserve powers that can be exercised “in an emergency such as a constitutional crisis (such as surrounded the People’s Budget of 1909), or in wartime. They would also be very relevant in the event of a hung parliament.” And the president is a safeguard against an opposition-controlled parliament.
It can be argued that the popularly elected Presidents of Singapore are not actually popular elected in practice. Given that PAP controls the criteria of eligibility, Elected Presidents have so far been pro-PAP. The lack of a truly democratic presidential election is most prominent when S.R Nathan won without contest for 2 consecutive terms. As such, even the only significant difference between the Singapore President and the UK Sovereign is limited in credibility. Based on this reasoning, I actually do think that the EP has made Singapore political system more similar to the Westminster Model.
I explained the history and structure of the Westminster Model in UK. By doing so, I clarified my understanding of the Westminster Model, which can aid in my endeavor to compare Singapore’s system against it. I also explained why and how Singapore came to adopt the British model during the 2 stages of Singapore’s history: decolonization and independence. By doing so, I’ve provided meaningful insights that advances my knowledge on the historical meaning behind our political system. Finally, I moved on to elaborate on the modifications to our political systems as outlined by Prof. Singh in the book. While explaining each modifications, I developed more opinions on Singapore’s politics and also made comparison of the resulting political system in Singapore and the Westminster Model. My verdicts are as such:
- The NCMP is an additional feature.
- The NMP is an additional feature.
- The GRC is a modification that does not deviate the system much from the Westminster Model as it is still a plurality / first-past-the-post electoral system.
- The EP is a modification to the existing system in Singapore, but it fundamentally brought it closer to the Westminster Model.
Overall, Singapore’s hybrid system has a very strong Westminster Model at its foundation. However, just like how Western democracies doesn’t fit China or the Middle East, the Westminster Model isn’t a perfect fit for Singapore. As such, changes and additions were made to make the system serve us and the politicians better in our context. Several anti-PAP conspiracy theories inevitably emerged in the process of talking about PAP’s moves in the government but given the lack of evidence, we should not value these theories over its pro-PAP counterparts. In any case, even if PAP really is a power-obssessed party, it can’t be faulted on that basis alone. Power is the prerequisite to intended positive changes. The lack of courage to seek power relentlessly while mouthing idealistic changes is mere platitude. PAP should not be judged based on how much it wants power, but based on how it uses it. If proven guilty of misusing powers, then PAP should be severely penalised because with great power comes great responsibility. The bigger the responsibility, the lower the tolerance for error. The mistake of the population white-paper is one such example of an inadequate use, but not to the extent of misuse, of power. Singaporeans lack of required skills needed by MNCs isn’t Singaporeans’ fault. The one with power, and therefore the greatest responsibility, is the government and it failed to adjust the education system accordingly. It must not punish the people for its mistake. Besides, economic growth should be a mean to an end and the happiness of Singaporeans is that end. Losing sight of the final goal is not acceptable either. This issue cannot be justified on short-termism anymore because the issue goes deeper than that. It is whether PAP was actually faltering at that point. No, not faltering in terms of competence; but faltering in terms of its principles. Power, just like economic prosperity, should not be treated as an end in itself; it should always be a mean to an unwavering and benign end. It behooves the powerful to sustain clarity and remind themselves over and over again about the final goal that they promised the powerless at their mercy.
Featured image: http://www.straitstimes.com/opinion/necessary-tokenism-to-boost-long-term-multiracialism