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GE2020 explainer: Understanding the debate on opposition representation and the NCMP scheme

SINGAPORE — As campaigning in Singapore begins in earnest, the issue of opposition representation in Parliament and the Non-Constituency Member of Parliament (NCMP) scheme designed to guarantee it has quickly risen to the forefront of public debate.

GE2020 explainer: Understanding the debate on opposition representation and the NCMP scheme

Mr Pritam Singh walks past Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong after delivering a speech at Deyi school on Nomination Day, June 30, 2020.

  • The NCMP scheme guarantees a minimum number of opposition parliamentarians, even if none are elected in the GE
  • The Workers’ Party has opposed the scheme since its inception in 1984
  • The debate re-surfaced after the party suggested the possibility of an “opposition wipe-out”
  • The People’s Action Party said there is no chance of that happening due to the recently amended scheme

 

SINGAPORE — As campaigning in Singapore begins in earnest, the issue of opposition representation in Parliament 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), as 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 scheme came about, its implications on the polls, and what has been said about the issue so far.

WHO ARE NON-CONSTITUENCY MEMBERS OF PARLIAMENT?

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

Before the dissolution of Parliament on June 23, WP had three NCMPs in the House — Associate Professor Daniel Goh, Mr Leon Perera and Mr Dennis Tan.

Together with six WP MPs, they formed a bloc of nine opposition parliamentarians. The three NCMPs were also among the most active in Parliament when compared with the elected PAP and WP MPs.

Mr 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 PAP.

Following the GE in 2015, WP’s Lee Li Lian, who was the losing candidate for single-seat ward Punggol East, rejected the NCMP seat, which was later taken up by Assoc Prof Goh.

Former party chief Low Thia Khiang, who will not be seeking re-election this year, once called NCMPs "duckweed on the water of the pond", arguing in 2016 that the creation of the NCMP scheme meant that “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 — said that the changes made little difference in the face of a dominant ruling party.

Mr Yee, who was an NCMP from 2011 to 2015, recalled 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. “I don’t have the legal standing to represent the people to say (to government agencies), ‘Hey, you should consider doing this or that’,” Mr Yee said.

He would write in to the authorities anyway about matters in his neighbourhood that were raised by residents, if he believed “it’s reasonable even for me as a citizen to raise”. Mr 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 “super majority” in the coming polls, Mr Singh said: “There is a real risk of a wipe-out 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.”

Mr Singh said that 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: Mr Terence Tan, candidate for East Coast Group Representation Constituency (GRC), noted that the party hung onto Aljunied GRC by a thread in GE2015, while Marine Parade GRC candidate Nathaniel Koh said that the “flight to safety" mindset among voters may lead to a total wipe-out of elected opposition seats.

Mr Dennis Tan, who is contesting for the single seat in Hougang this time, said that 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 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, are all there.”

On June 29, Mr Lee, who is also prime minister, labelled WP’s argument as a form of “reverse psychology” aimed to steer voters into voting for WP to prevent their elimination from Parliament.

At a press conference the next day after nominations for the polls had closed, Mr 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 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.”

Related topics

NCMP Singapore General Election SGVotes2020 PAP Workers' Party

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