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Parliament and its role in Singapore’s dictatorship

by Foong Swee Fong

Of late, we have gotten into the habit of using Parliament to exonerate politicians of perceived wrongdoings.

In 1996, the late Lee Kuan Yew defended himself admirably in parliament over the Nassim Jade saga, even telling opposition Members of Parliament to “grow up” as businessmen won’t give popular politicians “extra fish balls” as their patronage is good for business.

By the way, the businessman involved in that saga was billionaire Ong Beng Seng. He has just been issued a notice of arrest in connection with the current probe by the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau (CPIB) of Transport Minister S. Iswaran.

Then in 2017, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong defended his reputation in parliament over allegations of abuse of state resources to reverse his father’s will to demolish 38 Oxley Road.

Recently, the Parliament was again the setting when Ministers K Shanmugam and Vivian Balakrishnan were cleared of all wrongdoings over allegations of abusing their positions to rent state-owned black and white bungalows.

But is Parliament the appropriate place? What is the function of the Parliament in the first place?
Parliament is one of three arms of the government. It is the arm that is directly elected by the people and therefore is accountable to them.

Its function includes representing the wishes of the people, debating state policies, ratifying treaties, making laws and overseeing the executive arm.

The executive arm is the cabinet, comprising the prime minister and his ministers. Its function is to execute the policies agreed upon in parliament using the laws made by the Parliament.

The third arm is the judiciary. Its function is to check that the laws made by parliament and the exercise of power by the executive, are within the Constitution, the supreme law of the country.

When the power of the three arms are separated, when all three arms are independent of each other, when they do their respective jobs and guard their respective territory fervently, they check and balance each other.

Unfortunately, parliament here is dominated by the executive arm. This in part, is due to the fact that leaders of the majority party in parliament also serve as ministers in the executive. The agenda of parliament is thus driven by the executive, rather than the other way around.

Voting of bills into laws is enforced by the party whip, so that parliament is merely a rubber stamp for the executive, given that the ruling party has a supermajority.

That majority, critically, allows the executive to amend the Constitution at will. When the judiciary makes a judgment in court that the executive does not agree, the executive can amend the constitution, making the judiciary moot.

Former Attorney-General Walter Woon said of Singapore’s legal system: “We effectively don’t have a Constitution. We have a law that can be easily changed by Parliament, and by the party in power because the party is Parliament.”

James Madison, one of the founding fathers of the United States Constitution, said:

“If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.

In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.

A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.”

That is to say power has to be structured such that it is separated and checking on each other.

The French Enlightenment political philosopher, Montesquieu, said:

“When the legislative and executive powers are united in the same person, or in the same body of magistrates, there can be no liberty; because apprehensions may arise, lest the same monarch or senate should enact tyrannical laws, to execute them in a tyrannical manner.

Again, there is no liberty, if the judiciary power be not separated from the legislative and executive. Were it joined with the legislative, the life and liberty of the subject would be exposed to arbitrary control; for the judge would be then the legislator. Were it joined to the executive power, the judge might behave with violence and oppression.”

Sadly, power in our government is fused and dominated by the executive arm. Thus internally, there is little check and balance.

Externally, as Madison said, the people are the primary control of the government, but how can it be done when there isn’t a free press, only a state press?

When there isn’t a Freedom of Information Act and thus transparency? How can the people check the government when parliament has made it illegal for people to assemble peacefully and make known their views when they feel aggrieved?

When free speech, even with no ill intentions, comes with a risk of being sued?

In effect, what we have is a dictatorship, not a democracy despite the fact that we have elections every five years.

To be fair, this dictatorship has generally delivered on the material aspects of life, but what about the wishes of the people for a smaller population, fewer foreigners to steal our lunch, lower cost of living, less stressful life, more sharing of economic gains, more participation in the running of the country, a broader definition of success, more transparency? Do the wishes of the people not matter?

The role of parliament in upholding democracy cannot be over-emphasized. Parliamentarians are, after all, elected by the people.

Their main role is to represent the will of the people and to oversee the executive. But sadly, many have lacked the courage or the moral rectitude to stand up to a tyrannical executive more intent on serving the needs of big business, the rich and powerful, rather than the needs of the people.

This was first published on Foong Swee Fong‘s Facebook page, and is reproduced with permission.

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