At first glance, the new raft of amendments to our political system made me indignant. I thought it patronising on so many levels.
Firstly, it fudges the differences between NCMPs and elected MPs by allegedly giving them "equal voting powers” akin to giving a dog crumbs from the master’s table. Whether the intention is to even the playing field or not, it would be too simplistic to assume that giving NCMPs the same voting rights as elected MPs would equate the two different positions. NCMPs are essentially the best losers while elected MPs have been legitimately voted into Parliament. While PM Lee may state that they are “not second class” given that they have the same voting powers, they would not have the legitimacy of being voted in!
Secondly, PM Lee alluded to the fact that while NCMPs would have the same voting rights, they would not have the same “responsibility and scope as MPs”. What does this mean? I read a few articles trying to glean the question that was burning at the back of my mind but I could gain no clarity. All of the articles I read quoted the same phrase without explaining what it means. (link)
Let’s also not forget the vast difference in salaries between NCMPs and elected MPs. Elected MPs get an allowance of $192,500 per annum, which is more than sufficient for them to focus on their MP duties without another job. NCMPs however receive only $28,900, which means that they will more likely than not, have to keep their day job. While I am not suggesting that MPs and NCMPs get the same remuneration, it is important to remember that an NCMP will not have the same amount of time as an MP to focus on Parliamentary issues.
In the same vein, the proposed changes to the Elected Presidency were equally vague. Besides confirming that the position will remain elected but that a commission has been set up to consider the updates required to strengthen the eligibility criteria, nothing specific has been laid down.
The most controversial change however is the announcement that as of the next election, there would be more Single Member Constituencies (SMCs) and much smaller Group Representation Constituencies (GRCs).
It is the worst kept secret in the rumour mill that the uniquely Singaporean GRC system was allegedly created to handicap the ability of the opposition parties to compete under the guise of ensuring minority representation. With strict requirements in relation to ethnic balance, the opposition parties struggled to find enough candidates to field a credible team.
This strategy worked for many years until a team fielded by the Workers Party (WP) managed a valiant breakthrough in 2011 which saw 5 elected opposition MPs enter Parliament just based on victory in one constituency in one fell swoop.
This feat was repeated in 2015. Despite the PAP’s best efforts, the WP held on to Aljunied by a whisker.
If the GRC system were indeed set up to ensure minority representation, wouldn’t that same issue still be a concern? Why then the change? It does nothing to quell the suspicions that the changes are made to blunt the inroads made by the opposition parties at the grassroots level.
Instead of focusing their limited resources on an SMC, the opposition parties decided to change tact and funnel their energy into a GRC thereby increasing the fruits of their labour should they emerge victorious – a gamble that paid off for the WP both in 2011 and 2015.
Will Aljunied become a mere SMC thereby diluting the WP’s stronghold?
By increasing the number of NCMPs from 9 to 12, the PAP is ostensibly attempting to share its power and reduce its monopoly. However, an increase in 3 will hardly swing the vote in Parliament!
Once I got over my emotional reaction, I have to concede however that this is indeed a chance for opposition MPs to hone their skills and gain experience. Whatever, the PAP’s government’s intention may be, this is still a good result for our political scene.
There can also be no clearer recognition on the part of the ruling party that Singaporeans want diverse voices in Parliament. Perhaps, it feels that by introducing more alternative voices in Parliament, Singaporeans will be appeased and go back to voting for the PAP.
In all honesty, this will probably meet the concerns of most Singaporeans for now. From what I observe, the majority of people are not really unhappy with the PAP’s policies in general. They simply feel that we are ready to have more alternative voices. By increasing the number of NCMPs, the PAP is removing an incentive to vote for the opposition.
It wouldn’t be fair to say that the PAP has not learnt lessons from the recent elections. These amendments indicate that the PAP is able to adapt. They have drilled down to what most Singaporeans want and attempted to address it with a strategy that both appeases the electorate and benefits itself.
With the proposed decline of the GRC and more NCMPs in Parliament, the opposition parties will really have to up their game in terms of defining themselves. The changes will mean that opposition parties can no longer rely simply on grassroots relations in a specific area and marketing themselves as alternative voices that Parliament needs. They will need to appeal to voters by creating an identity that clearly defines them. They will need to entice the voters with more than just the provision of alternative voices.
While the changes may not have been introduced with the intention to benefit any other party but itself, the result is that it will lead to a higher calibre of politicians. PAP politicians will be kept on their toes with the realisation that Parliament is no longer a complete “old boys club” while the opposition politicians will be given the chance and incentivised to develop