Constitution of the Republic of Singapore (Amendment) Bill – Speech by Leon Perera

(Delivered in Parliament on 9 November 2016)


Madam Speaker, yesterday saw a robust debate on the government’s constitution amendment bill and the WP’s proposal for an elected Senate. But what we saw from the PAP was a disappointing point-scoring exercise focusing on technical aspects of our proposal, as well as casting misleading aspersions like this will lead to a politicized Senate.

I would like to return to the fundamentals of what we ought to be debating. This Bill. Fundamentally the government has not made its case.

A politicised election for President undermining the President’s unifying role? That is the crux of the issue. And no, it’s not something we should simply accept.

And what is the case for giving the unelected CPA so much power? This creates a President supposed to be a checker who is prone to be checkmated by an unelected council, with both parties interacting in a black box. Arguing that the President need only persuade four members of the CPA to support him is neither here nor there. Why should he or she have to?

It seems that the PAP afraid that it is more likely that their preferred candidate would lose in the PE rather than the GE and so the Elected President now needs to be further checked by an unelected body. If in future the CPA does not return the kinds of decisions the PAP likes will you introduce a fourth body to check the CPA?

Madam Speaker, the Presidency is the one precious, unifying symbol of our national unity. Above party politics. As a National Serviceman, I pledged my allegiance to the President and the Constitution of the Republic of Singapore.

When we elect this office, inevitably it becomes a proxy General Election. I voted in the 1992 and 2011 PEs. There was a palpable sense that many Singaporeans wanted to elect a non-Establishment candidate to provide an alternative voice and balance a one-party dominant system. That explains why the late Mr Chua Kim Yeow obtained 41.3% of the vote although he was relatively unknown and hardly campaigned at all. What is the PAP’s strategy for managing this politicization of the Presidency? So far no one has explained it!

Is there anything wrong with a Presidential election tinged with partisanship?  Yes! The Menon Commission recognized this and suggested that we cast our eyes back to the time when Presidents were not elected. “The President would retain his symbolic and ceremonial role of the Head of State, as it had been at independence, and hold an appointed office. Parliament would abide by the convention of rotating the office among the different ethnic groups.”[1]

They are right.

Yet the government has rejected the Menon Commission’s advice on this hugely important issue, which is the nub of this debate.

It wants to retain Presidential elections, but introduce changed eligibility and racial criteria. Why? Because, we are told, we had no Malay President for a long time, we need to clarify the powers of the CPA, we need to “update” the eligibility criteria to make them less lax. Many of these concerns seem to stem from the last PE in 2011.

But if so, why didn’t the government moot these changes soon after that 2011 PE? Why wasn’t that part of the National Conversation in 2012? Why didn’t the government talk about these planned changes in GE2015? Why introduce these changes now, without a referendum? Singaporeans cannot be said to have consented to these changes at the last general election because they didn’t know about them.

Madam, this is gravely troubling. What aspect of our constitution will the government with its supermajority choose to amend, without a referendum, right after GE2020 – the one-person one vote system itself?

The government has pointed out that we have not had a Malay President since 1970. We agree this is a concern. Then why didn’t the government urge a Malay candidate to run for one of the PEs between 1992 and now? The PAP has controlled all of the levers of political power since 1992. What was the PAP doing all this time on this issue? Under the WP’s proposal for an appointed President, we would have had a Malay President a long time ago. In fact we would have multi-racial Presidents in succession as we did in the past. No need to reserve elections.

Madam on reserved elections, it opens up a Pandora’s box of racialized, divisive politics. Where will it end? The Prime Minister is also a hugely symbolic office, possibly even more so than the Presidency as far as many Singaporeans are concerned since the PM is featured in the media on practically a daily basis unlike the President. Should we reserve the office of the Prime Minister for some races?

Rather than focusing on the ethnicity of the President, I suspect many ethnic minority Singaporeans would rather the government address concerns like the possible existence of labour market discrimination facing some, a matter that has yet to be definitively studied, quantified and debated, as was recently discussed in this House. Or helping minority Singaporeans who struggle to sell their flats due to HDB ethnic quotas.

Madam, reserved elections risk creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. They may entrench the notion that Singaporean minorities need mandates to be elected because they are unelectable. A new generation of Singaporeans may grow up internalizing this view. Is this what we want for Singapore? Does this help the forging of genuine multi-racialism?

I hope that no one inside or outside this Chamber twists the Workers’ Party position as meaning that we oppose a Malay President. Nothing could be further from the truth.

As for updating the paid-up capital requirements, this Bill replaces a $100m threshold with a $500m one. There is a deliberative track yes, but the bar for automatic inclusion is now raised. What is the basis for this? Why $500m and not $400m or $600m? Did the PAP designers of this system have in mind limiting automatic eligibility to some arbitrarily defined number of candidates because the pool cannot be too big? The government has said that the number of eligible candidates would not decrease versus the number in 1992. This is misleading. It does decrease from the number in 2016! Why can’t the pool be too big? To exclude some individual?

Take it all together and it is hard to resist the conclusion that the government is making these changes to prevent an alternative, non-Establishment sanctioned candidate from becoming the next President of Singapore.

There is a better solution to protecting the reserves and public service. The Workers’ Party has proposed an elected Senate which would have the clout to stand up to the executive and say no when necessary. The PAP seems determined to oppose this proposal for the sake of opposing, trying and probing to find any detail to attack it with.

But let’s think: the Menon commission suggested “the unbundling of the President’s custodial role and its devolution to a specialist body”.[2] Our proposal for a Senate builds on this suggestion but extends it in the following ways.

Why not let the public be the judge of this council’s wisdom by electing them?

Let them form a Senate. Let the public see them exercise their collective wisdom by deliberating publicly. Where matters are sensitive, let them discuss in camera.

Let these wise men – and women! – have the staffing and resources to really form an independent fact-based opinion about whether any executive request for reserves draw down really makes sense for the economy and for the country.

Let the Senate engage public finance consultants and economists where necessary. Or let them engage non-partisan full-time staff like other legislators have, who do not report to either party – like the Congressional Budget Office or the Canadian Parliamentary Budget Officer, to research reserves decisions independently from the civil servants who report to the executive. The President and CPA do not currently have this. All the President has to go on, it would seem, is his regular lunch meetings with the PM.

Most importantly, let this Senate, under the OSA, have access to the data they need to do their job, the kind of data that the late President Ong requested.

Rules of non-partisanship would apply to Senatorial elections as per current Presidential elections. Can we guarantee not the slightest taint of partisanship will creep into Senatorial elections? No. But the PAP cannot guarantee that for PEs, as PE2011 showed. What our system would deliver is a President seen to be above partisanship. And that’s important for Singapore.

Madam, please allow me to speak briefly in Malay.

(in Malay)

Pemerintah telah menyatakan bahawa Singapura tidak mempunyai seorang Presiden Melayu sejak tahun sembilan belas tujuh puluh (1970). Mengapakah pemerintah tidak pernah menggesa calon-calon Melayu untuk bertanding di pilihanraya Presiden di antara tahun sembilan belas sembilan puluh dua (1992) sehingga sekarang?

Saya mengesyaki kaum-kaum minoriti di Singapura lebih merasa bimbang mengenai isu-isu seharian, seperti kemungkinan adanya diskriminasi di tempat kerja atau kesukaran untuk menjual flat-flat mereka disebabkan oleh kuota perkauman yang dikenakan oleh HDB, daripada perdebatan mengenai bangsa seorang Presiden Singapura.

Cadangan Parti Pekerja untuk kembali semula kepada Sistem Presiden Dilantik adalah cadangan yang wajar kerana melalui Sistem Presiden Dilantik, Parlimen dapat memastikan bahawa setiap kaum diberi peluang untuk dilantik sebagai Presiden seperti yang pernah kita lakukan. Parlimen juga boleh memastikan Presiden yang dilantik adalah seorang yang berwibawa dan dihormati oleh semua rakyat Singapura. Tidak payahlah untuk kita memilih Presiden melalui pilihanraya yang terhad kepada calon-calon dari satu kaum sahaja.

Saya berharap pandangan Parti Pekerja tidak akan diputarbelit oleh sesiapa pun dan disifatkan sebagai bermakna bahawa Parti Pekerja tidak akan menyokong seorang Presiden Melayu. Kami tidak boleh menerima dakwaan itu kerana ia bermakna mereka yang mendakwa sedemikian telah menggunakan isu perkauman untuk kepentingan politik. Yang sebenarnya, kami berpendapat bahawa seorang Melayu yang berwibawa dan dihormati sepatutnya telah dilantik sebagai Presiden Singapura sebelum ini.

Lastly, I would like to say a few words about the NCMP scheme.

The honourable member Mr Cedric Foo told me after my maiden speech that my presence in this chamber as an NCMP was effectively a gift from the PAP that proved the PAP’s commitment to political diversity. If indeed it is a gift, it is a Trojan Horse.

Every NCMP in history other than Ms Sylvia Lim has gone on to lose the next general election they contested. The PAP knows this.

NCMPs cannot use public facilities or draw on the Peoples Association’s lavish resources to fund grassroots activities in the wards they contested.

The NCMP scheme allows the PAP to ask voters to vote out all Opposition from elected parliamentary seats and leave only NCMPs. The likely effect of this is to cap Opposition members in this chamber at 12. But more importantly, if this scheme is fully exploited by the ruling party and fully embraced by voters in the way that the PAP hopes, it would be 12 unelectable Opposition NCMPs.

Such NCMPs would not play the balancing role that a healthy democracy needs.

If the Opposition is no more than token, unelectable NCMPs, the ruling party need never fear losing in any elected seat. It can then do what it likes, never mind what the people think. It can steamroll alternative voices, even amend the constitution wily nily. It can force Singapore into a never-ending dependence on only one party for generations to come, like a computer with no back-up.  This is good for the PAP. But is this good for Singapore?

I am sure some honourable members of this House will say later that if the NCMP scheme is so bad, why did you accept the NCMP position? Because this isn’t a choice between rejecting an NCMP seat and accepting it with gratitude and praise, as the PAP would have us believe. Because I decided that being in Parliament and arguing for what I believe is right outweighed the risk of damage to our politics from accepting this NCMP position. Whether that was the right call, whether I am contributing positively in this chamber is best left to others to judge.

The PAP will say that the WP would not have accepted NCMP seats unless it benefitted the WP. By the same token, we should conclude that the PAP would not have offered NCMP seats unless it benefitted the PAP.

What if the ruling party fails in the future? What if we wind up with an erratic Prime Minister of the PAP one day and there is no credible, rational and electable Opposition ready to provide an alternative government or even an effective check?  Some countries are in this position today.

What if we get another mismatch between population and infrastructure such as happened during the 2000s, when our trains, hospitals and housing stock were severely stressed and Singaporeans suffered, necessitating policy reversals after GE2011 to repair the damage? Would those policy corrections have happened if the ruling party faced no risk of losing even a single seat in a general election?

Is this the legacy we want to leave for Singapore? A politically imbalanced one party-dominant state that buys international respectability with a token, unelectable opposition of only NCMPs? That’s good for the PAP. Is it good for Singapore?

Rather than focus on the NCMP scheme as the solution to Singaporeans’ desire for alternative voices, we should enhance our existing Parliamentary democracy to make it truly contestable.

Delink the People’s Association from the ruling party. Reform the regulation of the media to allow for regulated but free competition in broadsheet newspapers, TV and radio. Set electoral boundaries transparently and consultatively. Educate every voter aggressively from the classroom onwards that their votes are in fact secret. Many voters still don’t believe this.

Madam, I would like to conclude with a single, very simple question to the government. With this amendment to the NCMP scheme, is it your goal that your party wins 100% of elected seats in Parliament? This is not a question about whether the people will ultimately determine the outcome of elections and not the government. I know they will. It’s a question about your goal as a ruling party for the next GE. And it is a yes or no question.


[1] Constitutional Commission Report Pg 143

[2] Constitutional Commission Report, Pg 143