TOC Editorial: Political changes should strengthen our democracy

Is it time for Singapore’s political system to change? If so, how much?

It’s a question that will likely attract many different answers, depending on who you ask. Yet it is vital to the well-being of the nation, and to all of us as engaged citizens, to constantly be asking ourselves such questions.

In an article for The Straits Times on 1 December 2015 organiser of SG100 Compass, Youth Edition Charles Phua Chao Rong and former Member of Parliament Inderjit Singh proposed that Singapore shift towards a bicameral political system, where there is a Lower House of elected MPs and an Upper House made up of a combination of elected and appointed members.

This system, the two argued, would help address the situation in which voters feel split between choosing a candidate who is capable in dealing with municipal issues and a one who is able to argue points of policy well on a national level in Parliament.

While citizens will continue to vote for members in the Lower House – and also some of the members in the Upper House – other members of the Upper House will be appointed based on their expertise and leadership position in society. The Upper House would then be able to function as a check on Lower House Bills; it would be given to power to veto them, thus forcing the Lower House to reconsider. Ministers and office-holders will also be able to be appointed from the Upper House, even if they have not been elected.

While we are not opposed to the principle of bicameralism, it is TOC’s view that such a system could, in Singapore’s context, not only fail to bring about the desired political plurality, but entrench one point of view further within the system. While the appointment system for Upper House members might be considered a safeguard against the “vagaries of Lower House elections”, the question of how these members are appointed – and who is given the power to appoint them – is crucial. What type of people, or what point of view, will be considered as in need of protection from the vagaries of elections? Without satisfactory answers to these questions, we could run the risk of weakening, rather than strengthening, our democratic processes.

Phua and Singh are right in highlighting the dilemma that faces many voters in Singapore: when MPs have responsibilities in both law-making and day-to-day municipal issues, which should take precedence?

This problem could be addressed by separating the duties into two separate roles, that of MP and town councillor. This is the practice in the United Kingdom, from which we derived our Westminster system of governance (and to whom Phua and Singh referred to when proposing bicameralism, as the UK has the House of Lords above their House of Commons). It is also the practice in Hong Kong, Canada, France, Australia, and many other democracies besides.

Separating the roles would mean that Singaporeans vote in both general and council elections, enabling them to elect the best candidate for each job. In the Singaporean context, this also removes the long-standing complaint from critics that the ruling party makes use of municipal benefits such as upgrading to skew the playing field and win votes during parliamentary elections.

We agree with Phua and Singh that the democratic system could also benefit from parliamentary committees. Their idea of 4PCs (Public, Private, People, Parliamentary Committees) brings together people from diverse segments of society to consult on policy issues. But whether we use 4PCs or the current cross-partisan government parliamentary committees, what’s important to the Singaporean is that these committees are open and transparent, and truly inclusive of the plurality of views. For example, parliamentary committees convened to study particular issues before policy-making could hold public hearings where relevant authorities – from independent experts to citizens who would be directly affected by the policy – could testify and share their experiences. Committee reports should, as much as possible, also be released to the public so that citizens are able to have access to relevant data while engaging on issues of national importance.

Before we decide that bicameralism is the way to go for Singapore’s future, we should remember that there is still plenty that can be done to Singapore’s political system as to make it more open and democratic, allowing citizens to participate in robust debate and have a stake in the country.