At first blush, the recent revisions to the Non-Constituency MP (NCMP) scheme seem decidedly liberal. In the unlikely event of a complete electoral wipe-out, the political opposition stands to receive 12 instead of 9 NCMP seats. And now that NCMPs have the same voting rights as regular MPs, it would stand to reason that we will have more constructive debate and dialogue in Parliament.
But upon giving this further thought, I’m not convinced that this is a change in the right direction. Far from building towards political liberalisation, I’m concerned that these alterations may merely be another means of subtle political control. The PAP learned from the 2011 General Election that appealing to authoritarian values and incumbent superiority will only have an adverse backlash effect – the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew warning that Aljunied GRC voters would “repent” if they ushered in the Workers Party team fell on deaf ears. They also learned that the large, undecided middle ground of voters feared a scenario where there would be no legitimate Opposition representation in Parliament. With Mr Chiam See Tong leaving his Potong Pasir seat to contest in Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC, and Mr Low Thia Khiang similarly leaving Hougang SMC to fight in Aljunied GRC, there was a real chance that no Opposition MPs would be voted in. Hence, there was a significant vote swing toward the WP and other opposition parties.
The 2015 General Elections taught the PAP a different set of lessons. The overwhelming popular mandate handed to the government hinted that the Singaporean electorate doesn’t actually want more opposition representation – instead, they want to hold things at some indeterminate equilibrium where the WP is a vocal minority in Parliament but the PAP still has a super-majority so it can freely make decisions. Perhaps in the future, when opposition parties grow in strength and competence, Singaporeans might consider giving them a greater stake in Parliament.
The overhaul of the NCMP scheme is a brilliant political manoeuvre, because it so elegantly combines the lessons learnt in both elections. On one hand, the Singaporean electorate’s desire for some opposition representation is satiated, because the number of opposition MPs will never dip below 12. And since NCMPs will have the same voting rights as ‘regular’ MPs, they wouldn’t be perceived as an inferior substitute. On the other hand, this entrenches the PAP supermajority in Parliament in the near future, because voters see no pressing need for more opposition representation.
Counter-intuitively, the average reasonable voter is now more likely to vote for the PAP candidate when the opposition candidate is strong. In scenarios where the opposition candidate(s) is probably going to be the “best loser”, it makes sense to vote for the PAP candidate. Why? Because you’ll get the benefits of having an awesomely-run Town Council and estate, while not compromising on the opposition candidate’s chances of entering Parliament! This means that PAP candidates are no longer seen as mutually exclusive from opposition candidates – you can literally have your cake and eat it.
Probably the most ridiculously astute part of this proposed revision is that it serves as the perfect coup de grâce to the Aljunied-Hougang Town Council controversy. With the PAP pressing the WP hard on its self-governance and transparency of accounts, and the WP taking a worryingly long time to come clean, it raises serious question marks regarding the opposition’s ability to manage a GRC. If the PAP can continue down this line of attack with tactical precision, it can completely discredit the WP’s administrative capabilities in the eyes of the public. This alone wouldn’t be enough to cost WP to lose the GRC – after all, the electorate would be loath to see Low Thia Khiang and Sylvia Lim shackled by the constraints of an NCMP’s position. But now that an NCMP has been advertised as being effectively equivalent to a ‘regular’ MP, who knows? It’s interesting to see the revised NCMP post described as “equal in powers – though not in responsibility and scope – to MPs” in the Straits Times. I’m convinced that this is part of the PAP’s endgame to retake Aljunied-Hougang GRC, without sacrificing any WP politicians in the process.
This makes sense in the context of PM Lee’s speech in Parliament. He adroitly pointed out the flaws inherent within many liberal democratic regimes, and also those which plagued states under single-party rule:
“Some countries face division and gridlock, and the government gets paralysed, like the United States. The executive and the legislative branches are controlled by different parties … there is rancour and suspicion, and no willingness to compromise.”
“Systems without elections have their own difficulties, e.g. PRC. It’s a major challenge for President Xi Jinping to keep his system clean, and officials accountable. Chinese officials visiting Singapore invariably ask to see our MPS and they try to do go back and do the same. Not the same.”
Clearly, we have a well-intentioned government. In trying to reduce the disorder of liberal democracies and remove the dangers of unchecked autocracy, the PAP is cobbling together some sort of democracy-sans-chaos. In this conception of democracy, the opposition plays a crucial role in voicing concerns and criticising the ruling party – but should never be in a position to veto important legislative decisions or suddenly take power, because the nation would then be thrown into disarray. Other unique aspects of our parliamentary democracy, like Nominated Members of Parliament (NMPs), must be viewed in this context.
I understand these concerns, but am not particularly sympathetic to them. Surely it is only when opposition parties present a credible threat to the incumbent’s position of power and privilege that they serve as an effective check. I believe that the revised NCMP scheme champions diversity and disagreement for its own sake – just so the sounds of vigorous debate can bounce off the hallowed walls of Parliament. Yes, NCMPs can now vote on constitutional changes, supply and money Bills, votes of no confidence, and on removing a President from office. But in the face of a PAP whip that can muster a consensus of 83 voices against 12 NCMP dissents, this might as well count for nothing. Most importantly, it keeps the opposition weak. Voters are no longer confronted with the dilemma between a Parliament with stronger opposition presence, or one without opposition presence.
In my view, either you are a full-fledged MP who represents his or her constituents’ views in Parliament or you can try again in the next election. The NCMP scheme, especially in its new format, dramatically alters the way people vote and still (despite initial appearances) does not give the opposition a meaningful legislative stake. Perhaps it may help to provide exposure to some opposition politicians, and engender slightly more debate. But it is my belief that it will severely hinder the opposition’s prospects of one day gaining enough ground to extract concessions from the government.