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Unpacking Singapore's System Of Government: Overview And Separation Of Powers

Updated: Aug 2, 2023


Image: Free to use under Unsplash license

Introduction

The term ‘government’ is commonly used as an overarching label comprising different facets of policy-related issues. But do the frequently heard phrases ‘the government this’ or ‘the government that’ refer to more intricate systems behind the laws we abide by and the policies that shape our lives?


This Policy Explainer seeks to provide an overview of the key structures of Singapore’s elected government. It is also the first of a six-part series on Singapore’s System of Government and the groups that support Singapore’s System of Government, comprising:

  1. System of Government Overview

  2. The Presidency

  3. The Legislature

  4. The Executive

  5. The Public Service

  6. The Judiciary


Singapore's System of Government

The Government of Singapore is modelled after the Westminster parliamentary system of the United Kingdom (UK), with three separate branches:

  • The Legislature (Comprising the President and Members of Parliament)

  • The Executive (Comprising the Cabinet Ministers and the Prime Minister)

  • The Judiciary (Comprising the Supreme and Subordinate Courts)


Each branch is co-equal to each other and is separate and distinct to preserve liberty and the rule of law.¹ The three-branch structure is also based on the Separation of Powers, designed to ensure that there are Checks and Balances to prevent the abuse of power.²


In this Policy Explainer, the roles and responsibilities of each branch will be covered briefly, with a more in-depth discussion in later entries in this series. This Policy Explainer will focus on overall structures, and the key concepts of “Separation of Powers” and “Checks and Balances” that serve as the foundation for Singapore’s System of Government.


The Westminster Parliamentary System

As a former colony of the British Empire until 1959 when it was granted self-governing status, the Westminster system of government has remained a legacy in Singapore,³ but not without certain deviations and innovations.


The Singapore Parliament consists of Members of Parliament (MPs) who are elected at the constituency level through regular general elections.⁴ These elections are mandated to take place within intervals of up to five years and voting is compulsory.


The Westminster system is unlike presidential systems, adopted by countries such as the United States (US), where the Executive is not a part of nor appointed by the Legislature.⁵ In the Westminster system, the two branches intermingle. For example, the Prime Minister, who is the head of government, and the Cabinet Ministers are appointed by elected MPs who constitute a large part of the legislature.⁶ This demonstrates how the branches overlap, given the Legislature has the ability to determine who is a part of the Executive.


Roles of Each Branch

While the specific roles of each branch will be covered in-depth in later entries in the series, the broad roles of each branch of Government and the Civil Service are stated below.


  • The President: Responsible for safeguarding the national reserves and the integrity of the public service.⁷ The President also performs other ceremonial and community duties. It is important to note that while the President serves a special role, they are a member of the Legislature.⁸


  • The Legislature: Responsible for engaging in discussion and debate about relevant national issues and proposed policies.⁹ Members of Parliament (MPs) are elected to form the Legislature.


  • The Executive: Responsible for directing the government’s efforts in administering the laws and policies after they have been passed by the Legislature.¹⁰


  • The Public Service: Responsible for implementing the policies that are set by the Executive, and for providing expert technical advice to assist the Executive in making decisions.¹¹ It is important to note that the Public Service is not a branch of government, and advises and supports the government while remaining independent from government and politics.¹²


  • The Judiciary: Responsible for interpreting and enforcing laws to ensure all individuals and office-holders in each branch are carrying out all affairs in a just and fair manner.¹³


These three branches notably have a clear Separation of Powers so as to ensure all branches are able to check and balance each other.


The Separation of Powers

What is the logic behind the Separation of Powers into three distinct entities in Singapore? If power is concentrated into one person or a group of people, less people are involved in the procedure of implementing a proposed policy, and the speed of policy change can happen faster.¹⁴


When power is separated, the pace of progress is slowed down as more people have the power to study the policy and propose changes that slow down the pace of policy making.¹⁵ There are also many cases of deadlock, where well-intentioned reforms fail to be enacted due to conflicting opinions among the parties involved in policy making.¹⁶


While deadlock can happen in a government with separated powers, it is important to acknowledge that this slowdown in pace is a necessary trade-off to ensure all branches can verify that the policies passed are in the public’s best interest. Each Branch requires adequate time to closely examine whether measures taken by the other Branches are consistent with Singapore’s overall efforts.


Checks and Balances

Not only is a structural Separation of Powers important, it is also necessary to ensure that Checks and Balances are present to ensure that power remains separated and does not slowly become concentrated in the hands of an individual or group over time. It is ineffective having this structure when it remains possible for any branch to completely overrule another, ensuring overall balance in power is maintained.¹⁷


Checks and Balances are procedures set in place to reduce the risk of centralised power and the corruption that comes with providing one individual or group with too much power.¹⁸


Think of each branch as a player in a three-way game of Rock-Paper-Scissors. Each player is able to throw out either Rock, Paper, or Scissors to counter what the other players throw out. This is the case where Checks and Balances exist, where every player wins the game sometimes and loses sometimes, as power is split evenly between all three branches.

Without Checks and Balances, it is as if you were telling a player to “play without using paper”. Now that player can only use Rock and Scissors, and the other two players are going to always play Rock in response to either win against or tie with the player with the handicap. The handicapped player is never able to win against the other two players in this scenario, losing any power they had in this game.


Checks and Balances are tools the branch can use to counter the power of another branch.¹⁹ Lacking these crucial tools means the branch is unable to properly question and “counter” other branches when it determines the other branch is acting in an irresponsible manner. Instead, possessing these tools ensure that all branches can win sometimes and prevent unchecked power from concentrating into any one branch.

Figure 1: Rock-Paper-Scissors Diagram (adapted from Beninghof, 2018)²⁰

Examples of Checks and Balances

The Executive are the main direction setters for all of government, and carry out this responsibility by setting national priorities which determine the issues people think about and eventually debate in Parliament and in the Courts.²¹ An Executive Branch is structurally positioned to gain the most power (given they are key decision makers), thus having strong checks over the other two branches. Given this initial starting point, the Legislature and Judiciary need to have especially strong checks on the Executive in order to keep its power in check.²²


The Legislature can check the Executive through asking questions in Parliament during Parliamentary Questions (PQs) and holding Cabinet Ministers from the Executive accountable to the direction they are taking their respective ministries.²³ The President also directly nominates Supreme Court Justices,²⁴ and thus has influence over how the Judiciary is run.


The Judiciary can check both branches by striking down proposed laws from both the Executive and Judiciary that contravene the Singapore Constitution. ²⁵They are also able to hold the other two branches accountable during cases of misconduct through bringing offending individuals to trial and delivering fair and independent judgements.²⁶


Conclusion

With clear Separation of Powers that is in practice and not just in theory, Singapore’s System of Government manages to ensure all three branches are able to check and balance each other to make sure all of the government works together to ultimately help the public.


The next Policy Explainer in this series will focus on the roles and responsibilities of the elected presidency. This will hopefully serve as a timely reminder to help in understanding the debate and discussion during the lead-up to the 2023 Presidential Elections.


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¹ Judiciary.gov.sg. “About the Legal System,” August 12, 2021. https://www.judiciary.gov.sg/who-we-are/about-legal-system.
² The Constitution Unit. “Checks and Balances: What Are They, and Why Do They Matter?” Checks and balances: what are they, and why do they matter? | The Constitution Unit Blog, January 19, 2023. https://constitution-unit.com/2023/01/19/checks-and-balances-what-are-they-and-why-do-they-matter/.
³ Tan, Kenneth Paul, Yongnian Zheng, and Fook Lye Liang. “The Singapore Parliament: Representation, Effectiveness, and Control.” eBook. In Parliaments in Asia: Institution Building and Political Development, 1st ed., 27–46. Routledge, 2014.
⁴ Elections Department Singapore. “ELD | Parliamentary Elections.” ELD | Parliamentary Elections. Accessed June 30, 2023. https://www.eld.gov.sg/elections_parliamentary.html.
⁵ Watts, Duncan. “4 Executives.” eBook. In Understanding US/UK Government and Politics, 1st ed., 66–105. Manchester University Press, 2003. https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctvnb7jvq.7.
⁶ PARL. “The Cabinet.” Accessed June 30, 2023. https://www.parliament.gov.sg/about-us/structure/the-cabinet.
⁷ The Istana. “President’s Duties.” Accessed June 28, 2023. https://www.istana.gov.sg/The-President/Presidents-Duties/Ceremonial.
⁸ PARL. “System of Government,” March 2, 2019. https://www.parliament.gov.sg/about-us/structure/system-of-government.
⁹ PARL. “Functions of Parliament.” Accessed June 28, 2023. https://www.parliament.gov.sg/about-us/parliament-information/functions.
¹⁰ Ibid.
¹¹ Careers.gov. “The Public Service.” Accessed June 28, 2023. https://www.careers.gov.sg/who-we-are/the-public-service.
¹² Ibid.
¹³ Judiciary.gov.sg. “About the Legal System,” August 12, 2021. https://www.judiciary.gov.sg/who-we-are/about-legal-system.
¹⁴ ConnectUS. “17 Advantages and Disadvantages of Authoritarian Government,” April 24, 2019. https://connectusfund.org/8-advantages-and-disadvantages-of-authoritarian-government.
¹⁵ Ibid.
¹⁶ Samuelson, Robert J. “The Deadlock of Democracy.” Washington Post, November 1, 2004. https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/opinions/2004/11/01/the-deadlock-of-democracy/c840249a-6ae9-4dc3-a600-24684a410cfe/.
¹⁷ May, Capucine. “Separation of Powers Under Attack in 45 Countries.” Verisk Maplecroft, November 17, 2021. https://www.maplecroft.com/insights/analysis/separation-of-powers-under-attack-in-45-countries/.
¹⁸ Shanmugam, K. “THE RULE OF LAW IN SINGAPORE.” SSRN Electronic Journal, 2012. https://doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2255270.
¹⁹ The Constitution Unit. “Checks and Balances: What Are They, and Why Do They Matter?” Checks and balances: what are they, and why do they matter? | The Constitution Unit Blog, January 19, 2023. https://constitution-unit.com/2023/01/19/checks-and-balances-what-are-they-and-why-do-they-matter/.
²⁰ Beninghof M. Anne. “Rock, Paper, Scissors as a Teaching Tool”, Ideas for Educators, December 3, 2018, http://www.ideasforeducators.com/idea-blog/rock-paper-scissors-as-a-teaching-tool
²¹ PARL. “Functions of Parliament.” Accessed June 28, 2023. https://www.parliament.gov.sg/about-us/parliament-information/functions.
²² Tsebelis, George. “Agenda Setting and Executive Dominance in Politics.” Parlamente, Agendasetzung Und Vetospieler, published, 13–24. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-531-91773-3_2.
²³ Tan, Kenneth Paul, Yongnian Zheng, and Fook Lye Liang. “The Singapore Parliament: Representation, Effectiveness, and Control.” eBook. In Parliaments in Asia: Institution Building and Political Development, 1st ed., 27–46. Routledge, 2014. https://www.academia.sg/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/Tan-2013-Parliament.pdf.
²⁴ The Istana. “President’s Duties.” Accessed June 28, 2023. https://www.istana.gov.sg/The-President/Presidents-Duties/Ceremonial.
²⁵ Judiciary.gov.sg. “About the Legal System,” August 12, 2021. https://www.judiciary.gov.sg/who-we-are/about-legal-system.
²⁶ Ibid.


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