Constitution of the Republic of Singapore (Amendment) Bill – Speech By Dennis Tan

(Delivered in Parliament on 8 November 2016)


Madam, I rise to oppose this Bill. In my speech today, I will be touching on the contradictions of the President being a head of state and unifier of the country versus the President in his custodial role. I will also be touching on the topic of NCMPs.


The Contradictions of the President being a head of state and unifier of the country versus the President in his custodial role

Madam, there are two unique and important roles which our Elected President currently plays under the present Elected President regime:

(1)   One, the President is a head of state as well as a symbol of the unity of the country.

(2)   Two, the President has a custodial role in safeguarding our financial reserves and the integrity of our public service;

The Workers’ Party believes that the Office of the Elected President should be abolished and the Presidency be reverted to its former ceremonial position.

Though we understand that many Singaporeans desire that this right of election should not be taken away from them, it does not remove the fact it is difficult for an elected President to concentrate on being a head of state and be a unifying force for Singapore and Singaporeans while having a separate custodial role in respect of our country’s reserves.

The Constitutional Commission of 2016 led by Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon (“the Constitution Commission”) reflected on seven principles that have informed the evolution of the Elected Presidency. The Constitutional Commission accepted that there is (I quote) “an undeniable tension” between some of the principles reviewed (and I quote) “especially those pertaining to the President’s historical role and the custodial role that was subsequently grafted on” (unquote).  Please allow me to quote the Constitutional Commission here on the seven principles as I feel that they are important and have been aptly described (I quote):

First, the President’s historical role as a symbol of the country’s unity is premised on the President being non-partisan. However in discharging the custodial role, the President faces the prospect of having to confront the Government of the day – a task which might appear to be at odds with a non-partisan unifying role. Further, the prospect of having to stand up to the Government necessitates an electoral mandate, in order to endow the President with the requisite legitimacy to do so. This requires that candidates undergo an intensely political and potentially divisive election process. It may fairly be asked whether a person who emerges victorious after a sharply contested election can convincingly lay claim to being the nation’s symbol of unity. Finally, in terms of the President’s eligibility criteria, the maximisation of his symbolic and unifying role suggests a premium on inclusivity, in particular with respect to matters such as minority representation, as well as the ability to relate to and connect with the general populace. In contrast, however, the custodial role entails a significant degree of exclusivity, particularly in relation to the requirement that the candidate possesses demonstrable experience in high office, in matters of policy and/or financial and technical expertise.” (Unquote)

The Constitutional Commission heard submissions and proposals from many Singaporeans. After deliberation, the Constitutional Commission found it difficult to overcome (and I quote) “the strains rooted in the unavoidable tension between the President’s historical and custodial roles” (unquote) and recommended that the Government may wish to consider unbundling the custodial role from the symbolic role of the President and have the custodial role be performed by an appointed body of experts operating like a second chamber of Parliament but with no veto or blocking power.

The Workers’ Party studied the Constitutional Commission’s report and we agree with the Commission’s alternative proposal to revert to an appointed ceremonial Presidency and to have a separate body to exercise the custodial role. The main difference is that we think that this body must be elected by the people directly, not merely appointed by any persons.

The custodial role of the President requires that he be prepared to confront the Government if necessary. He can only do so if he has gone through a national election, competed in the hustings to be elected above other candidates and received the elected mandate of the people. The Constitutional Commission said that the election will likely be politicised and divisive. To contest in such an election to be the head of state will require one to be partisan in some ways, even if it should not be along party lines like for Parliamentary elections. Being partisan may not sit comfortably with the notion of a unifier of the entire country which the President is supposed to be, even if an election may not be divisive.

The strict eligibility criteria which is said to be necessary for the President’s custodial role are not similar to the traits that may make a candidate a good head of state and unifier of the country. The strict eligibility criteria ensure that only a very exclusive group of people are eligible. The eligibility criteria will be made even stricter under the proposed amendments being debated, and become even more exclusive and narrow such that only a very small group of people with a very exclusive profile may qualify.

In contrast, as a unifier, the President must have, in the words of the Constitutional Commission, “a premium on inclusivity”. I feel that this must surely include the ability to relate to Singaporeans from all walks of life, all races, all ages and all classes.

By combining the roles and having the strict eligibility criteria, we have restricted the eligible persons to a very exclusive group: some past political office holders or senior public servants or chairman or CEO of a company with a minimum average value in shareholders’ equity of at least $500 million.  In my view, we have unnecessarily limited ourselves here. Good political leaders of the world have come from very diverse background. There must be people from different walks of life who can be a good Singaporean head of state and unifier of our people without being a CEO of a company with such a large shareholders’ equity or who have not been in politics previously. Surely it is very possible that we can have someone who come from a charity or VWO background, or someone who is an educationist, a doctor or even a journalist, but who may not have the financial management experience required under this system? President Sheares was a doctor. President Wee Kim Wee was a journalist. Under our present rules or the proposed Bill, they would never have qualified.

Yes, admittedly our elected President system with its two distinct roles is unique, but are we not selling ourselves short in the process when we force the two elements to co-exist? The Constitutional Commission clearly thinks that it is better to split these roles. This was the second time since independence that the Government has convened a Constitutional Commission to consider changes to the constitution. Isn’t this a very good time to consider this recommendation from the Constitutional Commission?

Next, on the proposed minority requirements in the Amendment Bill (ie the reservation for a community to be represented by the office of a President if the community has not held office for 5 previous terms). I am concerned that these requirements can be construed as patronising and unmeritocratic. They may encourage unhealthy stereotyping of racial perceptions. I also fear that by having the statutory assurance of a reservation for a certain minority after 5 terms, people may unintentionally and unwittingly be encouraged to vote along racial lines. What we should be doing is always to encourage people to think beyond the race of the candidate. I fear that any minority requirement will not encourage people to think beyond the race of the candidate but may achieve the opposite result. I believe that this provision is unnecessary as Singaporeans will rise to the occasion to choose their Head of State based on the person’s character and achievements regardless of race, language and religion.

The Government in its White Paper on the Review on Specific Aspects of the Elected Presidency (“White Paper) rejected the Constitutional Commission’s proposal to unbundle the President’s symbolic and custodial role and assigning the custodial role to an appointed body of experts operating like a second chamber of Parliament but with no veto or blocking power. The Government said that the second key should be held by an elected body with direct mandate from Singaporeans. The Government also said that the body of experts as proposed by the Constitutional Commission would not be able to veto as it lacks the democratic mandate and this would impair the efficacy and rigour of the second key.

The Workers’ Party’s response to the Government on this point is that we can still have such a body as proposed by the Constitutional Commission but that, as this body is supposed to perform a check on Parliament, it should have the popular mandate of the people and be directly elected.

The Workers’ Party is therefore proposing that the Senate be established as the upper house of the Legislature. The Senate shall essentially take over the custodial powers of the Elected Presidency. Madam, this will allow the custodian role to be taken away from the President and free the President to perform the role of head of state and be the symbol of unity for Singapore and Singaporeans.

Madam, the Government accepts in its White Paper that there is an inherent tension between an electoral process and a President who discharges a unifying, symbolic function but believes that it can be mitigated, even if not entirely eliminated. The Government did not elaborate on how it intends to do this in its White Paper. May the DPM please clarify how the Government intend to do this?

The Constitutional Commission touched on their concerns on how Presidential elections can be divisive and recommended that the elections rules be improved upon, including the understanding of candidates on the roles of the Elected President. The Constitutional Commission also touched on the need for greater public education to have a better understanding of the role of President.

The Government’s response in its White Paper that the risk of Presidential elections being politicised can be dealt with to some extent through rules governing election campaigns.

I expect that the Government would probably have rightly considered such changes before it tabled the present amendment bill. Can the DPM share with the House what would be the proposed changes to the election rules for future Presidential elections. It is important that we should also know this now as we should consider critically all the proposed changes, both in this bill as well as other changes that the Government intend to introduce.


Non-Constituency Members of Parliament

I now move to the topic of Non-Constituency MPs. The Constitution of Singapore was amended in 2010 to provide for a minimum of 9 opposition MPs via the NCMP Scheme.  If there are fewer than 9 opposition MPs elected in a general election, the NCMPs would be selected in priority among best losers from the opposition, depending on the percentage of votes obtained, until there were 9 opposition MPs (including both elected opposition MPs and the NCMPs).

This Bill is now seeking to increase from a maximum of 9 to 12 NCMPs.

The Workers’ Party’s position on NCMPs was enunciated at the Debate on the President’s Address at the beginning of the 13th Parliament in January this year and our position has not changed.

The Workers’ Party has always objected to the NCMP Scheme since its inception in 1984.  We believe that the Parliament should consist of fully elected MPs with the full mandate of the people.

The introduction of Group Representation Constituencies (GRCs) and the consistent gerrymandering at every general election with the re-drawing of electoral boundaries compelled the Workers’ Party to consider after each election whether to accept NCMP seats.  We believe that if GRCs were abolished, the NCMP Scheme would be unnecessary.

Our Workers’ Party’s Secretary-General, Mr Low Thia Khiang, has likened NCMPs to duckweed, which float on the water surface and do not sink roots. A NCMP is not the elected MP of any particular constituency.

As NCMPs may not gain direct ground experience in the running the Town Council, an opposition party without any elected MP will be placed at a distinct disadvantage.  We have seen from recent elections that a political party who is not able to show a track record of having run a town council gives room for scare-mongering to make voters less certain about whether to vote for its candidates.

The PAP is hoping that a system with more NCMPs will distract the electorate from the need to vote in elected MPs from alternative parties and if Singaporeans buy their story, it will only help to entrench the Parliament supermajority of the PAP. We need more than NCMPs alone to check the government. It is the fear of losing elected seats that will enable Singaporeans to check the PAP government and to compel the ruling party to take the people seriously.


Madam, may I speak briefly in Mandarin.

议长女士, 这项修正案也同时要求将非选区议员的人数由9人增加至12人。

工人党自1984年以来, 就反对非选区议员体制。工人党认为国会应该由大选中得到人民委托权的中选议员组成。

人民行动党政府修改国家宪法,更改国会竞选的条规, 引入集选区制度,提高反对党中选进入国会代表人民的难度;并每次在大选前进行选区重新划分,迫使工人党在每届大选后都必要 以选举后 的情况,考虑是否接受非选区议员的议席。


工人党秘书长刘程强把非选区议员比喻为浮萍,只能浮在水面上,但长不了根。非选区议员不是民选国会议员。没有市镇理事会方面的管理和行政经验,即使 一个 在野党在国会里有非选区议员,但没有中选并管理过市镇会,这个在野党处于明显的不利地位。

因此,如果国会有在野党的非选区议员,但没有 任何 经人民 授权 的中选在野党议员,这会使 在野党 无法有管理市镇理事会的经验和机会。这对新加坡政治的未来,会有不健康的影响。

人民行动党希望有一个更多非选区议员的体制,这样一来,能够减少选民对投选在野党候选人的需求,确保巩固行动党的 持续 执政。我们需要的不仅仅是非选区议员在国会进行辩论,我们需要一个运作良好的政治体制,通过有实际竞争性的选举过程,产生制衡与监督政府的作用。


重点是: 当执政党担心在大选失去议席时,他们才会    被迫 认真 对待人民的 诉求。议长女士,我反对有关于非选区议员的宪法的修订。


Madam, in English again. I have a general question for the DPM regarding this Bill. There are many changes that have been introduced in this Bill. Can the DPM explain to the house which of the proposed changes are now being tabled because of something that has gone wrong in the past and thereby necessitating the changes required under this Bill? If there are any such instances, will the DPM elaborate on the circumstances which took place?

Madam, in conclusion, I oppose the proposed amendment to the provisions in the Constitution for NCMPs. I also oppose the other amendments in this Bill relating to Elected President scheme and the Council of Presidential Advisors.

The Workers’ Party calls for a referendum on the Elected Presidency. Let the people decide whether the Presidency should remain an elected office in the manner under the present law or as proposed by the Workers’ Party.