By Yudhishthra Nathan
1 Parliament with 2 Houses, or bicameralism, is an idea that is most intriguing. The Mother of Parliaments has the House of Commons and the House of Lords. The world’s oldest democracy has the House of Representatives and the Senate. The world’s largest democracy has the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha. Even our neighbours across the causeway have the Dewan Rakyat and the Dewan Negara. While bicameralism may be a feature of the most well-known parliamentary systems in the world today, it would do little to further democracy and strengthen our existing institutions in Singapore.
The potential creation of an upper chamber was viewed by the Rendel Commission in the mid-1950s as the unnecessary stratification of Singapore’s political society – an upper class of the political elite in contrast to a lower class of elected representatives.
An unelected upper chamber would be symbolic of a parliamentary feature that even our former colonial masters are trying to do away with today in their own country. Reform of the unelected House of Lords in the UK has been rendered as a common-sense cause tainted with political inertia to do anything about it. As recently as 1999, the UK moved to severely limit the hereditary peerage system, where the son of a Baron or Earl could inherit not only his father’s title but also his seat in the House of Lords by right of birth.
Today, hereditary peers remain a vestigial component of the House of Lords. Nonetheless, the unelected Life Peers who replaced most of the hereditary ones may be of questionable quality themselves, in terms of what they have to offer. Why should we have a wholly or partially unelected upper chamber of people deemed to be experts on policy or some other area of public interest appointed by a committee of other politicians (or worse, bureaucrats) rather than elected by the people themselves?
What often happens is people who might ordinarily be unelectable because of other attributes get a free ticket into Parliament. For instance, renowned playwright Andrew Lloyd Webber who conceivably, being a celebrity, would not have had the interest or humility to put himself before the people in an election was given a peerage to sit as ‘the noble Lord Lloyd-Webber’ in the House of Lords and could then vote on a motion on government tax credit cuts for the poor when he had no professional expertise or experience, let alone the democratic mandate, to do so.
Establishing an upper chamber with people similar to Justices of the Peace, Presidential Advisers, NMPs and other professionals would unnecessarily create an elite upper class who do not deserve to sit in Parliament without having to fight for their seats through a public debate of their values and policy platforms in what are known as general elections.
Proponents of an upper chamber also suggest that two chambers would be useful in allowing some parliamentarians to focus on grassroots work while others can be left to focus on political advocacy. The more pertinent issue therein is whether the vote means so little in Singapore as to suggest that its usefulness in electing policy makers pales in comparison to its importance in electing constituency managers or vice versa.
MPs have always had to be competent in both policy making and the running of their town councils. In the same vein, ministers should also be experts in their own field whilst being expected to manage a constituency for they must be directly accountable to the people just as any other MP is, or arguably even more so as they are entrusted with greater responsibility than the ordinary backbencher MP. Indeed, ministers would be better off having first-hand knowledge of the experiences and grievances of their constituents.
We should also not underestimate the usefulness of the vote’s ability to lawfully depose ministers who lack the confidence of even their constituents let alone the nation.
Suppose for a second that Dr. Manmohan Singh was truly unworthy of being the Prime Minister of India such that the people of the state of Assam would never have elected him to be their representative in a hypothetically elected Rajya Sabha – the Congress Party’s senior leadership would still have been able to keep him and other ministers with seats in the unelected Rajya Sabha in power for personal reasons rather than because these ministers had won the right to govern on their own merit through securing the confidence of the people via an election.
In other words, elections have real value in establishing the merit of a politician by means of a popular vote; the will of the people should never be underestimated in a democracy to the extent that we begin to assume that technocrats must surely know best. Hence, an upper chamber might pose unseen threats to our democracy borne out of the whims of technocrats who cannot in any way be lawfully kicked out of power by the people for doing a bad job. This goes against the grain of the meritocratic pedestal that Singapore has been built on.
Moreover, in view of the reality that exists in the Parliament of Singapore today, an upper chamber would be practically unnecessary.
One of the argued merits of an upper chamber is that its members would be able to scrutinise bills more thoroughly. To this end, upper chambers like the US Senate and the House of Lords, whether elected or not, do provide a greater scope and more time for debate on each bill that passes through these chambers.
However, is there a need for this additional avenue of legislative scrutiny in Singapore when our Parliament already does so little to scrutinise bills? The Parliament of Singapore has certainly not exhausted its own means of scrutiny as far as bills are concerned and has a long way to go in improving its procedures to do so.
It is extremely rare for a bill to be committed to an ad-hoc Select Committee of MPs for further deliberation, even though such calls for this to happen have been made before. Amendment motions on bills are unheard of. We have come to point where Parliament does not even need to sit as often as the UK’s House of Commons upon which it was based because bills in Singapore are rushed through the House.
This is partially due to nature of the PAP supermajority as there is little political impetus for PAP MPs to publicly scrutinise Government bills in Select Committees or to seek to amend these bills even if they feel they cannot completely agree with pieces of legislation introduced by ministers while the few Opposition MPs lack the power or resources to do so.
Hence, so long as the current Parliament of Singapore does not do all that it technically can to improve scrutiny, extend debates and raise more issues in the House, an upper chamber would be unneeded and would instead add nothing more than additional financial burden on the public purse with respect to its hypothetical members’ remuneration.
I recall a random afternoon in my secondary school library when I chanced upon a book on the 1953 Rendel Commission and its report which paved the way for the establishment of the Legislative Assembly of Singapore. (The Assembly would later be reconstituted to Parliament after Independence in 1965.) The book outlined the Commission’s reasons for recommending a single chamber in a unicameral system rather than two chambers in a bicameral system which included the fear of political class stratification and the overall lack of any practical need for two chambers.
The truth that Singapore’s politics lacks the space for an upper chamber remains as evident today as it was back then, during the time our forefathers were on the brink of self-government.
This article was first published at mappedmusings.wordpress.com