A few days ago, former PAP MP Inderjit Singh and Charles Phua, a Lee Kong Chian graduate scholar at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, suggested that Singapore’s parliament has two houses instead of one it currently has. It is based on questioning three assumptions: Is unicameralism – having one parliamentary chamber – the best for Singapore? Must ministers be elected MPs? Can diversity of views be manifested only through elected opposition MPs?
I think that having those as the starting point to consider any reforms to our Parliament is not constructive. I believe that any reforms must start from understanding what it is that we are trying to achieve with the reforms. The “why” is, I believe, most important. And of all the “why’s”, I think it is most important for us to understand this: “why do we need to have a Parliament?”
Generally, a parliament has three functions: representing the electorate, making laws, and overseeing the government (i.e., hearings, inquiries). Of all these, the first function is most important. Fundamentally, a parliament must somehow have the authority to say that it represents the electorate. But why should it have such power? How can it claim to have the legitimacy to represent the will of the people? These are the most important questions to ask. Any reform to parliament must be able to give convincing answers to those two questions.
I think that is the reason why many people are against what Mr Inderjit and Mr Phua has suggested. Their system proposes an upper house that has members who are not elected, but are appointed. While Mr Inderjit and Mr Phua say that these should be “community leaders who Singaporeans trust and respect, and sectoral experts”, the proposed process takes power away from the people to determine who they are ceding the power to govern to. This is a point that Devadas Krishnadas made. He is of the opinion that “this is a dangerous slippery slope which undermines democracy”. He further emphasises that this “cannot and should not be if we are to have a legislature and an executive that is accountable to the people.”
Another commentator, Dr Chong Ja Jen, wrote to the Straits Times to explain why Singapore doesn’t need the bicameral system that Mr Inderjit and Mr Phua proposed. He explains that “bicameral legislatures exist in other jurisdictions because they represent different types of institutional interests that have to negotiate with one another over policy and legislation. These interests often separate along the lines of popular sovereignty and representation on the one hand, and state or provincial rights on the other. The British House of Lords is an anomaly, in being a legacy of the special rights and privileges afforded to the aristocracy… An appointed Upper House works against the principle of representative democracy that forms the basis for an elected Parliament – and the aspiration Singaporeans espouse when reciting the National Pledge.”
As an alternative, Dr Chong suggests “establishing cross-partisan committees that hold regular public hearings and provide reports on matters of lawmaking and policy oversight, as is the norm in mature representative democracies, is a modest extra step. Hearings involve testimony from civil servants, independent experts and interested parties, whose views can inform lawmaking and policy oversight.” He further suggests that “opposition lawmakers serve on these committees to ensure consideration of minority concerns based on information gathered from hearings. Democracy is not just about majority will but also about sufficient protection for minorities.”
I think that the idea of having cross-partisan committees that hold regular public hearings would go a long way in strengthening our parliament. As it is, our parliament appears to be nothing but a talk shop and a rubber stamping mechanism. The “debates” seem to have little, if any, contribution in shaping the policies of Singapore. The farce of a “debate” on the White Paper on population is the best indication of just how much a rubber stamp Parliament is. Mr Inderjit Singh spoke up quite vigorously against the White Paper. But when it came to voting to endorse it, Mr Inderjit conveniently absent.
The system needs to be fixed. That much is for sure. The question is how.
To determine how, I think we need to bear in mind three principle considerations. Firstly, MPs need to derive their legitimacy to speak on our behalf from having being elected into parliament. Secondly, parliament should better represent the will and support of people. It is an anomaly when 30% of Singaporeans do not support PAP, yet PAP has 93% of the seats in Parliament. This needs to be corrected. Thirdly, whatever changes we make shouldn’t result in a gridlocked legislative process.
With these three principle considerations in mind, I actually agree that we do need two houses.
One of the houses (let’s call it House A) should have MPs deal more closely with constituents though not necessarily serve as town councillors. They should the ones who will appeal to government agencies on the behalf of their residents. They should be the ones who ensure that the residents in their constituencies are served. They should be the ones who push for agencies like NParks, LTA, HDB to build and maintain the facilities that residents want. In fact, that is what MPs do now. But MPs need not be the ones actually handling estate maintenance matters. A government agency over. But this government agency should work closely with the MPs. Just as how LTA, NParks, HDB, URA do now. People should vote for the MP that they want to be in charge of the area they stay in.
Then there should be a house (let’s call it House B) where MPs focus on policy issues. The MPs should also be elected. But instead of people voting individual MPs, we could be voting for the parties we think would best represent us in this house. So let’s say we decide that there should be 50 MPs in this house. And the votes turn out that 30% of Singapore think that the MPs of this house should be from WP (for example), then 15 MPs in this house will come from WP. WP will have the legitimate power to appoint these 15 MPs. Yes. It is still a system of appointment by a certain organisation. But at least the people have a say as to who gets the power to appoint these MPs. If WP appoints rubbish people as MPs in this house, then they won’t get the same power in the next elections.
What can the MPs of this new proposed House B do?
It could be many things. But I think the most important function that MPs of this new proposed house could be is to ensure that what Dr Chong suggested happens. I would like to see this house have the power to compel the formation of cross-partisan committees that hold regular public hearings on policy matters. So whenever a Bill is put up, House B votes to decide if a cross-partisan committee is needed. I suggest that so long as 30% of the MPs agree that a committee is needed, then a committee should be formed. Once the committee is formed, the public hearings are held, the Bill can be amended and then put up to a vote in House A. House B cannot then ask for another committee to be formed. This will prevent gridlock of the legislature, yet will provide a layer of check and balance to ensure that more diverse views are taken in the policy making process, and that the process is more transparent and accountable to the people.
House B should also be able to vote for cross-committee hearings of public inquiry into any policy issues or to investigate any major incidents (e.g. incidents like the SGH Hep-C outbreak). Similarly, I suggest that a committee should be set up so long as 30% of the MPs in House B agree that there is a need.
Of course there are many finer details of this suggestion. For example, can any party “any how any how” take part in the running to have MPs elected into House B? Probably not. There probably needs to be some rules to ensure that you don’t have a cluster f**k of crackpot parties (e.g. *CoughReformCoughParty*) running to have MPs in House B. How should these rules look like? I don’t know. I mean… I am just one normal person sitting at a desk writing a blog. How should I know? It’s not as if I have an entire army of civil servants or academic scholars paid good money to do intensive research, studies and what-have-you to come up with a robust proposal. But I believe that such a system, or something similar to it, would add legitimacy to our Parliament and engage citizens more directly in the governing of our nation. So that we truly feel that our nation is ours.
[Featured image: ST file photo]