SINGAPORE: The Non-Constituency Member of Parliament (NCMP) scheme is a “stabiliser” for Singapore's electoral system, former Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong said on Saturday (Jul 4) in a Facebook post.
A debate on the scheme has been simmering, with the People's Action Party (PAP) telling the electorate that there will be a minimum of 12 opposition voices in Parliament no matter how they vote, and opposition parties saying that NCMPs are not as effective as elected MPs in representing the people.
This comes as the PAP has asked voters for a “strong mandate” to lead the nation through the COVID-19 crisis, while opposition parties have warned of a “wipeout”, with no alternative voices to act as checks and balances on government power.
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Mr Goh, who is not contesting this General Election, outlined in his post why he and founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew started the NCMP scheme.
The scheme took shape as he and Mr Lee watched how PAP backbenchers debated with former Workers’ Party chief J B Jeyaretnam after the latter entered Parliament through the 1981 Anson by-election.
“(Mr Lee) concluded that it was good for the development of our democracy to have such robust debates on government policies in Parliament,” Mr Goh wrote on his MParader Facebook page.
“Having opposition MPs also allows the ruling party to debate and debunk issues in Parliament which the opposition would otherwise raise outside. The opposition, too, needs checks and balances.”
He said neither he nor Mr Lee feared having checks and balances or alternative voices in Parliament, and it was their wish to guarantee this that led them to create the NCMP scheme within Singapore's first-past-the-post electoral system.
One of the reasons was that with public housing spread across the island, Singapore's constituencies are rather homogeneous, so a party that performs well in a General Election can possibly win an overwhelming majority if not all of the seats.
“Indeed, for almost 17 years after independence, Singapore did not have a single opposition MP. It was precisely to prevent this total absence of opposition voices in Parliament that Mr Lee and I decided to establish the NCMP scheme,” he said.
After studying other countries’ parliamentary systems, they found that Mauritius had a unique “best losers system” to ensure fair representation of its ethnic minorities.
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Mr Goh added that the NCMP scheme guarantees opposition voices in Parliament while reducing the probability of the ruling party having its mandate weakened significantly, or being voted out of office, when that is not really what the voters want.
“Let’s say there’s a 60/40 vote share between the ruling and opposition parties. It only takes a swing of 10 percentage points to change the government, intentionally or unintentionally,” he said.
“If Singaporeans consciously vote to remove the ruling party from government, that’s their political right. But if they vote for the opposition to ensure checks and balances in Parliament, even though they still want the ruling party to form the government, then an unintended election outcome is entirely possible.”
He added that no NCMP scheme could prevent an “incompetent, unpopular or corrupt ruling party from being swept out of power — and deservedly so”.
What he and Mr Lee had their eye on, however, was the nation’s stability.
“Singapore is a ‘sampan-sized’ country ... Therefore, we decided to secure the sampan with outriggers. Then you can put a sail on the sampan, catch the wind and go fast without fear of it capsizing,” he said. “The NCMP scheme is an important outrigger for our political system.”
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The scheme now guarantees at least 12 opposition MPs in the House, a number that has increased gradually in the years since the scheme was started 1984 with three NCMP seats.
In Singapore’s last Parliament, there were six elected opposition MPs and three NCMPs.
Mr Goh said he supported Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's move in 2016 to increase the number of NCMPs from the maximum of nine previously and to accord them the same voting rights as elected MPs.
“He has listened carefully to Singaporeans’ wishes for more opposition voices in Parliament. Increasing the number of NCMPs by three and giving them the same voting rights as directly elected MPs are very significant constitutional changes,” wrote Mr Goh.
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Mr Goh added that voters are not only choosing who they want to represent them in Parliament and run their town council, but also choosing a party to lead and govern Singapore.
“For this GE, you will be choosing the party to steer our sampan in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic and other serious domestic and external challenges,” he said.
“Politics is not a game of poker. The NCMP scheme guarantees that the new Parliament will have at least 12 opposition MPs. It is a winning hand for Singapore’s democracy.”