Today, 11 September 2015, Singaporeans go to the poll. For the first time since its independence in 1965, every (elected) parliamentary seat is being contested. A total of nine political parties are contesting in this year’s general elections. Among the questions about the anticipated outcomes is whether there will be any Non-Constituency Members of Parliament (NCMP) in the new Parliament. The NCMP scheme was introduced in 1984. It allocates parliamentary seats to opposition candidates who have obtained the highest number of votes but did not win any seats in any constituency. Article 39 of the Constitution of the Republic of Singapore states that apart from elected Members and nominated Members, Parliament shall consist of members “known as non-constituency Members, as the Legislature may provide in any law relating to Parliamentary elections to ensure the representation in Parliament of a minimum number of Members from a political party or parties not forming the Government”.
In introducing the constitutional amendment bill providing for this new class of parliamentarians, then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew explained that the NCMP scheme was introduced primarily as an educative tool for younger PAP Ministers and MPs, as well as for the younger generation of Singaporean voters. As he puts it:
“First, from our experience, since December 1981 when the Member for Anson [JB Jeyaretnam] entered this Chamber, we discovered that there are considerable benefits for younger Ministers and MPs. They have not faced the fearsome foes of the 1950s and 60s. Initially, they were awkward in tackling the Opposition Member. But they soon sharpened their debating skills and they have learned to put down the inanities of the Member for Anson.
“Secondly, and much more important, Opposition MPs will educate a younger generation of voters who, not having experienced the conflicts in this House in the 1950s and 60s, harbour myths about the role of an Opposition. Although they may be disillusioned by the performance of the Member for Anson, some hope that other Opposition candidates can be more credible and effective. Well, let there be others. The people will learn the limits of what a constitutional Opposition can do.”
There is also a third reason that the Prime Minister provided, which is to enhance the reputation of Parliament by giving voice to discontent. He says:
“Thirdly, some non-PAP MPs will ensure that every suspicion, every rumour of misconduct, will be reported to the non-PAP MPs, at least anonymously. We all know that. These MPs, unlike PAP MPs, will give vent to any allegation of misfeasance or corruption or nepotism, whereas PAP MPs know that they should only take up the matter after enquiries show that allegations have some shadow of truth. This approach of Opposition Members will dispel suspicions of cover-ups of alleged wrongdoings…”
The NCMP scheme initially provided for up to three members. However, this was later revised to provide for up to nine members. The number of NCMPs in Parliament however very much depends on the number of opposition candidates who are elected as Members of Parliament. The formula for determining the number of NCMPs is 9 minus the number of elected opposition candidates. Section 52 of the Parliamentary Elections Act states:
(1) At any general election, the number of non-constituency Members to be declared elected shall be the whole number (ignoring any less than 0) ascertained in accordance with the formula 9-B, where B is the total number of Opposition Members elected to Parliament in accordance with section 49(7) or (7E) or 49A(5), as the case may be.
After the General Elections in 2011, a total number of three NCMPs were selected after six opposition members were elected. The aim of the NCMP scheme to provide minimal political plurality to a dominant government is clear in that the formula uses as the “total number of Opposition Members” regardless of the political party affiliations of these members.
Despite the initial rhetoric suggested that the NCMP scheme would show up the opposition as being unsuitable for government, it is arguable that the scheme has instead allowed some opposition members to increase their esteem in the public eye. Opposition politicians have certainly received more airtime as Members of Parliament. Another possibly unanticipated outcome of the NCMP scheme is that it has shown voters that the presence of some opposition voices in Parliament have not and probably will not undermine the political stability that Singapore has enjoyed. Indeed, while opposition parties had initially decried the NCMP scheme, they later on participated in the scheme, presumably realizing its potential benefits.
Today’s polls will no doubt return the incumbent PAP party to power but there is an expectation that it may return nine or more candidates from the opposition. If that happens, there would not be any NCMPs in Parliament. The future of the NCMP scheme therefore hangs in balance. But this should be seen as a good thing. One can view this as the NCMP scheme having served the purpose of introducing political plurality, and perhaps could even be said to have benefited opposition politics. The fact that we are now at the cusp of rendering the scheme obsolete should thus be seen as testifying to its success, rather than its failure.
Jaclyn is an Assistant Professor at the NUS Law Faculty where she teaches and researches on constitutional and administrative law and theory.