Assistant Professor of Law, National University of Singapore
First published on ConstitutionNet on 30 September 2016
In February 2016, and only for the second time since Singapore’s independence, the government convened a Constitutional Commission to consider changes to the constitution. Led by Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon, the commission was tasked to consider and recommend constitutional changes to safeguard minority representation in the Presidency. This was one of its three tasks, the other two of which were to review the eligibility criteria for presidential candidates and to review the framework governing the exercise of the President’s custodial powers, particularly the role and composition of the Council of Presidential Advisers (see its Terms of Reference).
Safeguarding minority interests as a necessary aspect of peaceful coexistence among the different racial groups is a frequent fixation of the government in multiracial Singapore. Demographic data in 2015 shows that persons of Chinese ethnicity constitute more than three quarters of the total citizen population (at 76.2%) while Malays form the largest minority at 15%, followed by those of Indian descent at 7.4%. Eurasians are classified along others as “Others”, which together constitute 1.4% of the citizen population. Indeed, the safeguarding of minority rights was also a concern for the first constitutional commission convened in 1965 and chaired by Singapore’s first post-independence Chief Justice Wee Chong Jin. That commission was tasked to consider how the rights of minorities can be adequately safeguarded in the Constitution. There, the Commission opted for a strong emphasis on equal individual rights for all. In recent years, however, there has been a shift from individual rights to protective measures aimed at groups. The Group Representation Constituency (GRC) scheme, for instance, is one such measure that the government adopted to ensure minority representation in Parliament. Under the scheme, certain constituencies are contested on a team basis in parliamentary elections with at least one member belonging to a designated minority group.
In its report released on 7 September 2016, the Constitutional Commission recommended a model of reserved elections for the presidency to safeguard minority rights. This means that if there has not been an office holder from a racial group for more than five consecutive terms of six years each, then only candidates from that particular group can contest the next election. While it was not within its Terms of Reference, the Commission also recommended that the presidency be reverted to its previously nominated, as opposed to elected, form as it opined that this was better suited for its symbolic function as a unifying figure for all races in Singapore. The government has, however, emphatically stated that this specific reversal is not an option.
By instituting safeguards for minority representation, the government seeks to reaffirm and strengthen the presidency’s symbolic function as a unifying figure for all racial groups in Singapore. However, this symbolic function sits uneasily with the elected nature of the presidency and changes to ensure that minority candidates would be elected as President would necessarily restrict political choice.
By Swati Jhaveri (Assistant Professor, Faculty of Law, National University of Singapore)
The idea of the “basic structure” of the Constitution of Singapore has been the subject of ongoing deliberation in the courts since the case of Teo Soh Lung v Minister for Home Affairs. The Constitution of Singapore can be amended by a two-thirds majority (a national referendum is only required where the issue is one of the relinquishment of sovereignty). Due to the presence of a strong majority by one political party in the legislature this may not be a significant hurdle especially as voting is done on the basis of a party whip system. The question of constitutional entrenchment in a system committed to constitutional supremacy as part of its text (Article 4) is therefore an important one.
This question has been addressed directly by the courts in Singapore in the form of a discussion on the ‘basic features doctrine’. The language of the “basic features doctrine” comes from Indian constitutional law jurisprudence, most notably the case of Kesavannada Bharati v State of Kerala where the Supreme Court of India held that:
“every provision of the Constitution can be amended provided in the result the basic foundation and structure of the Constitution remains the same”
The Supreme Court of India has gone on in subsequent cases to identify such fundamental features of the Constitution of India that are beyond the reach of constitutional amendment. The application of this doctrine was first tested in Singapore in the case of Teo Soh Lung v Minister for Home Affairs where the High Court held that:
“…the Kesavananda doctrine is not applicable to our Constitution. Considering the differences in the making of the Indian and our Constitution, it cannot be said that our Parliament’s power to amend our Constitution is limited in the same way as the Indian Parliament’s power to amend the Indian Constitution”
The High Court took an originalist interpretation of the Constitution to reach this conclusion positing that “[i]f the framers of the Singapore Constitution had intended limitations on the power of amendment, they would have expressly provided for such limitations”. The applicant had tried to argue that constitutional amendments which sought to immunise national security decisions from judicial review violated the basic structure of the Constitution as being in contravention of the rule of law and the separation of powers and relied on the Supreme Court of India’s decision in Minerva Mills to do so.
Jaclyn L Neo
Faculty of Law, National University of Singapore
The High Court today struck out Wee Kim San Lawrence Bernard’s application for judicial review on the basis that the plaintiff had no locus standi. Mr. Wee had argued that the government’s failure to clarify the position that homosexual males are protected from discrimination under Article 12 of the Constitution of the Republic of Singapore is a violation of his constitutional rights. One of Mr. Wee’s arguments was that the Singapore government’s obligation to provide protections for homosexuals stems from its accession to both the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (“UNCRPD”) and the Convention to Eliminate All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (“CEDAW”).
Leaving aside the substantive question of whether the provisions under UNCRPD or CEDAW cover and assist claims for protection against sexual orientation discrimination, the case raises interesting legal question of the status of ratified treaties/conventions under Singapore law. Singapore is a dualist state. This means that ratified treaties/conventions are not part of domestic law until specifically incorporated. This contrasts with monist states, where treaties are self-executing/automatically incorporated; no additional legislative act is required. Continue reading
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Here’s an excerpt:
4,329 films were submitted to the 2012 Cannes Film Festival. This blog had 14,000 views in 2012. If each view were a film, this blog would power 3 Film Festivals…
Adjunct Professor of Law
National University of Singapore
I noted in my 1992 article, ‘The Constitutional Implications of the 1991 General Elections’ (1992) 13 Sing. L Rev 26 that the GRC system could cut both ways. While a strong personality (such as a respected minister) can waltz into Parliament with 4 or 5 silhouettes, the stakes can be quite high. This is why it would be unwise for the PAP to grow the GRC beyond a certain point. The election saw the revival of the 4-member GRC (albeit only in 2 constituencies – Moulmein-Kallang; and Holland-Bukit Timah), and a reduction of the number of 6-member GRCs. This indicates the PAP’s concern that should the scales tip against them, they could well end up losing 6 seats in one swoop. Continue reading