SINGAPORE, July 1 — As campaigning in Singapore begins in earnest, the issue of Opposition representation in the House and the Non-Constituency Member of Parliament (NCMP) scheme designed to guarantee it has quickly risen to the forefront of public debate.
Will there be a “wipe-out” of the Opposition, as the Workers’ Party (WP) has suggested? Or is this a ploy that uses “reverse psychology”, since the Opposition will not go away after this General Election (GE), the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) has said?
At the heart of the issue lies the NCMP scheme, which was changed in the previous term of government and will come into effect in the next term of government formed after GE2020.
TODAY looks at how the NCMP scheme came about, its implications on the polls, and what has been said about the issue so far.
Who are non-constituency MPs?
The NCMP scheme, which guarantees a minimum number of opposition parliamentarians even if they are not elected, was first introduced in 1984 to ensure that there would always be a minimum number of opposition members in Parliament.
The scheme allows losing opposition candidates with the highest percentage of votes during a GE to be offered seats in Parliament, if the number of elected opposition candidates fall short of a stipulated number.
NCMPs are therefore known as the “best-performing losers”, though some in the Opposition have termed them as “backdoor MPs”.
As a result of changes made to the scheme in 2016, the minimum number of opposition MPs, including NCMPs, in Parliament will go up from nine to 12.
That means that even in a situation where no opposition members are elected, there can be a maximum of 12 NCMPs. The scheme began in 1984 with a maximum of three NCMPs.
The changes also give NCMPs the same voting rights as elected MPs. This means that NCMPs can debate and vote on constitutional changes, supply and money Bills, votes of no confidence in the Government and removing a President from office.
Speaking in Parliament in 2016, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said the amendments would mean that NCMPs will be “equal in powers” to MPs, although not in responsibility and scope.
“There will be no reason at all to perceive NCMPs as second-class,” he said.
Why the Workers’ Party opposes the scheme
Prior to the dissolution of Parliament on June 23, the WP had three NCMPs — Associate Professor Daniel Goh, Leon Perera, and Dennis Tan.
Together with the six WP MPs, they formed a bloc of nine opposition parliamentarians. The three WP NCMPs were also among the most active in Parliament when compared with the elected PAP and WP MPs.
Lee, who is also PAP’s secretary-general, noted this during a media conference on June 30: “We expect the NCMPs to participate as actively as the elected MPs in Parliament and if we look at what the Workers Party NCMPs have been doing in the last term in some cases, the NCMPs have been more active than the elected MPs, at the risk of overshadowing the elected MPs.”
Since the inception of the scheme, however, the WP has opposed it on the basis that NCMPs were not the equals of elected MPs, and were created to the political advantage of the PAP.
Following the GE in 2015, WP’s Lee Li Lian, who was the losing candidate for Punggol East, rejected the NCMP seat, which was subsequently taken up by Assoc Prof Goh.
Former party chief Low Thia Khiang, who will not be seeking re-election in 2020, once called NCMPs “duckweed on the water of the pond”, arguing in 2016 that the creation of the NCMP scheme meant “opposition members are deemed as valuable only in relation to the training they give the PAP ministers and MPs”.
This drew a response from PAP Cabinet Minister Chan Chun Sing, who said: “Please do not call them ‘duckweeds’. Because even in a pond, duckweed has a purpose Let us respect the different roles that we play in this House.”
After the changes were announced in 2016, former WP NCMP Yee Jenn Jong — as well as former NCMPs from other opposition parties — felt the changes made little difference in the face of a dominant ruling party.
Yee, who was an NCMP from 2011 to 2015, cited how he had forwarded some issues relating to upgrading or road configuration, that were raised by Joo Chiat residents, to their then-MP Charles Chong. “Because I don’t have the legal standing to represent the people to say (to government agencies), ‘Hey, you should consider doing this or that’,” said Yee.
Nevertheless, he would write in to the authorities about matters in his neighbourhood that were raised by residents, if he believed “it’s reasonable even for me as a citizen to raise”. Yee added: “And to (the agencies’) credit, they do act on those.”
Why the issue surfaced again
The changes to the NCMP scheme, which are codified in the Constitution as well as the Parliamentary Elections Act, will take effect following this GE when Parliament has to follow the new rules.
The issue arose again after WP secretary-general Pritam Singh launched his party’s manifesto and slogan last month, titled Make your vote count.
Pointing out the real risk of PAP achieving a “supermajority” in the coming polls, Singh said: “There is a real risk of a wipeout of elected opposition MPs, with 100 per cent of the elected seats in PAP hands, at this GE We need elected Workers’ Party MPs to be voted into Parliament.”
Singh had said the WP is aiming for at least a third of elected seats in the medium term, in order to deny PAP a two-third majority so that it “cannot change the Constitution at its pleasure” like it can today.
There will be 93 seats for elected MPs in GE2020. Amendments to Singapore’s Constitution require a two-thirds majority in Parliament.
Other WP candidates added to the party’s chorus on Facebook: East Coast GRC candidate Terence Tan noted that the party hung onto Aljunied by a thread in GE2015, while Marine Parade GRC candidate Nathaniel Koh said the “flight to safety” mindset may lead to a total wipeout of elected opposition seats.
Dennis Tan, who is contesting in Hougang in GE2020, said Singaporeans “must be very careful not to fall into this trap of thinking that a non-constituency MP is the solution for an alternative opposition”. Being NCMPs prevents opposition party members from sinking roots into the constituencies, he pointed out.
No chance of shutting out Opposition: PAP
Asked about the WP’s slogan on June 29, PAP’s Indranee Rajah rebutted the notion that the ruling party would sweep all the seats.
She also pointed out that all constituencies are being contested in GE2020 and that the NCMP scheme exists and has been enhanced, so that NCMPs can vote on all parliamentary matters.
Ms Indranee added: “If you have full voting rights in Parliament, that is the platform for which you can advocate and do all and say what you want to say with respect to the policies.
“So, basically, the voice in parliament, the ability to influence policy in Parliament, is all there.”
On June 29, Lee labelled WP’s argument as a form of “reverse psychology” aimed to steer voters into voting for the WP to prevent their elimination from Parliament.
At a press conference the next day after nominations for the polls had closed, Lee reiterated that there will be a minimum of 12 opposition MPs in Parliament “whatever happens in the General Election”, which is six more than the number of elected MPs from the WP in the previous term of government.
“There is no possibility of the opposition being shut out from Parliament,” he said.
“I can fully understand that the opposition parties will want to try very hard to win seats, and not just to have good, losing results in all the constituencies. But as far as the Constitution is concerned, as far as Parliament is concerned, there is no difference between NCMPs and elected MPs, in terms of their rights and their privileges.” — TODAY