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Unpacking Singapore’s System of Government: The Executive

Updated: Sep 29, 2023


Image: Free to use under the Unsplash License

In this Explainer, find out...

  • What are the roles and responsibilities of Singapore's Executive?

  • What is the Executive's relationship with other branches of the Government?

  • How does the Executive engage Singaporeans and gather inputs to inform policy making?


Introduction

Colloquially referred to as the ‘Government’, the Executive branch typically comes to mind when one considers the body setting the general direction of the Government. There is, however, some overlap between the Executive and Legislature, where we tend to see the same few members convening to make speeches and engage in policy debates in Parliament. One might wonder why we see these select people so often. What sets them apart from the other Members of Parliament?


This Policy Explainer is the fourth of the six-part series on Singapore’s System of Government. By breaking down the general structure of the Executive, this piece looks into the Executive’s key responsibilities and its relationship with other branches of government (Legislature and Judiciary). As the main body that manages the administration of state affairs, we also examine how the Executive engages Singaporeans beyond the General Elections, gathering the people’s input to inform policy making.


Roles and Responsibilities of the Executive

Broadly speaking, the primary role of the Executive is to formulate government policies and work with the public and civil service to implement government programmes.¹ This means that the scope of the Executive’s work spans across a wide range of areas, including national security, foreign affairs, economic management and social services.


In addition, the Executive typically acts as a board of advisors to the Head of State (the President), who must seek advice from them before exercising his or her discretionary powers.² This is no different for Singapore.


General Structure of the Executive

The Executive comprises the Cabinet of Singapore, which is led by the Prime Minister.


The Prime Minister is the effective head of the Executive, and chairs the Cabinet in the administration of the Government.³ The Prime Minister therefore takes charge of endorsing the national agenda, chairs meetings, and oversees the government’s general policy direction. He or she must also regularly determine the setting up of Cabinet committees to look into specific subject areas e.g. on national population and climate change policies.


Under Article 25 of the Constitution, the Prime Minister is appointed by the President. This is usually the leader of the political party which secures the majority of seats in Parliament during the General Elections. The appointed individual, assessed by the President, should command the support and confidence of the majority of the Members of Parliament (MPs).


The Cabinet determines the general direction of the Government.


This is achieved by appointing MPs to be Ministers in charge of a specific department or subject.⁴ Positions within the Cabinet include: the Prime Minister, Deputy Prime Ministers, the Ministers of Communication and Information, Culture, Community and Youth, Defence, Education, Finance, Foreign Affairs, Health, Home Affairs, Law, Manpower, National Development, Social and Family Development, Sustainability and the Environment, Trade and Industry, and Transport.


MPs may also be appointed as a Coordinating Minister to oversee all policies relevant to a certain field e.g. Economic Policies and National Security, or Ministers in the Prime Minister's Office, who are non-portfolio ministers sitting in the Cabinet.


Cabinet Reshuffles

A Cabinet reshuffle involves the movement of government ministers to different posts. These changes can be relatively minor – such as replacing a minister, or significant transformations, where several Cabinet ministers change ministries, or where ministerial roles are created or removed. While reshuffles do occur most commonly after General Elections, the Prime Minister can decide to reshuffle the Cabinet during his term in office. Such a reshuffle is usually held for the following reasons:⁵

  1. Performance Management: A reshuffle can be an opportunity to promote high-performing ministers by moving them into positions of greater responsibility. Similarly, ministers who are not doing well can be removed to improve performance.

  2. Policy Shifts: Moving ministers around is a possible indication of shifts in a government’s priority. This can include adding new ministerial roles or changing the responsibilities of the different ministries.

  3. Refreshing the Government: To avoid seeming stale and to introduce newer and younger MPs, a reshuffle can be done to ‘refresh’ the government, especially when members are unpopular.

  4. Unexpected Events: Prime Ministers can be forced to reshuffle the Cabinet for unexpected reasons. These include a minister suddenly resigning, losing their seat in an election, or for other reasons that they can no longer serve in the government.

During a Cabinet reshuffle in 2020, current Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong stated that rotating the ministers regularly was required for them to gain exposure and experience. This way, they could gain both breadth and depth to understand the intricacies of a variety of issues in Singapore, as well as be able to see things from different perspectives.⁶


Cabinet Collective Responsibility

In Singapore, the myriad of individuals who make up the Cabinet must present a united front to the public, and bear collective responsibility to Parliament for decisions made.⁷ This also means that members of the Cabinet must publicly support all governmental decisions made in Cabinet, even if they do not privately agree with them.


Any significant decisions or actions taken must thus be first discussed and collectively agreed upon by the Cabinet.⁸ Cabinet collective responsibility also dictates that should a vote of no confidence be passed in Parliament, the entire government resigns.


Cabinet collective responsibility is a tradition in parliamentary governments where the Prime Minister is responsible for appointing the Cabinet ministers. In non-parliamentary governments like that of the United States, cabinet collective responsibility is not practised due to a clearer separation of powers between the Executive and the Legislature in policy making. In the case of Singapore, the Executive works closely with the Legislature and Judiciary to ensure some semblance of cohesion as well as accountability.


Relationship With Other Branches of Government

The Executive’s relationship with other branches of government are multi-faceted. The President carries the responsibilities of maintaining and championing Singapore’s community, a foil to the heavily administrative duties of the Executive. The Executive and Legislature work very closely within Singapore’s System of Government, with the same individuals taking up seats in both the Cabinet and Parliament. As far as the Executive’s relationship with the Judiciary is concerned, it mainly serves to prevent abuse of executive power.


Relationship with the President

Although Article 23 of the Constitution vests executive authority to the President of Singapore,⁹ the President is only a nominal holder of executive power, lacking the authority to make governmental decisions. Instead, the President has a unique set of constitutional, ceremonial, and community duties to fulfil (as discussed in our Policy Explainer on the Presidency).


However, the President may still act as a check on the Executive. This is possible as the President has legislative powers vested to them under Article 38 of the Constitution and is required to assent to Acts of Parliament before they can be passed.¹⁰ In certain cases, the President may opt to exercise their limited discretionary executive authority to withhold assent to certain bills,¹¹ such as bills that attempt to drawn down on the reserves accumulated by past governments. This effectively serves as a check on the Executive, since draw downs on past reserves must be thoroughly justified.


It should be noted, however, that under most circumstances, the President relies on the Cabinet’s advice in exercising his or her legislative power.¹²


Relationship with the Legislature

In traditional parliamentary systems, the Executive and Legislature are distinct entities, with the Executive administering the law written by the Legislature. In the Westminster system of parliament, however, the Executive and Legislative branches have overlapping duties and powers. This is especially prominent in Singapore as ministers, who are part of the Executive, are appointed from MPs in the Legislature. For example, an MP may be appointed as a Minister of a specific ministry, such as the Ministry of Finance or the Ministry of Health. In this capacity, they are responsible for formulating policies and managing day-to-day operations of their respective ministries. These MPs still continue to hold their seats in Parliament and participate in the Legislative process, including debating and voting on bills and policies.


While the Legislature is responsible for lawmaking, the Cabinet is able to influence the process. Bills are introduced to Parliament by Cabinet ministers. Thereafter, Parliament exercises its parliamentary power — the ability to create Acts of Parliament via debating and passing bills. Some Acts of Parliament may grant ‘subsidiary’ legislative powers, meaning that ministers can make new laws based on the ‘primary’ (original) Acts. This system is made to work around the issue of Parliament not having enough time to enact all the laws. That being said, only Cabinet ministers are able to make and execute laws.


Relationship with the Judiciary

The decisive authority to appoint Supreme Court judges falls to the President, but is made in accordance with and reliance on the advice of the Prime Minister.


Apart from this, the Executive cannot interfere with the Judiciary, and is subject to judicial review (a procedure where the courts can supervise an administrative action made by a public body).¹³ A judicial review will only be conducted by the court when preliminary requirements are met under Order 53 of the Rules of the Court.¹⁴


The ability of the courts to reexamine and even reform administrative actions is yet another example of the intricate system of checks and balances among the branches of government, which seek to prevent illegal, irrational, or improper actions taken by any one entity.


Trust and Accountability

In a 1991 White Paper presented to Parliament, then-Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong stressed the importance of Confucian values (a focus on benevolent leadership, moral persuasion, and ultimately the trust of the people) to Singapore’s system of governance. He thought the concept of government by honourable men “君子” (junzi) better described the country’s political system than the Western conception of government, which restricted the powers of its leaders and asserted that they be viewed in a sceptical light unless proven trustworthy. Instead, it was believed that leaders who were given the trust and respect of the population would feel a sense of duty to do right for them.¹⁵ The ‘fusion of powers’ observed in Singapore, where separate government branches overlap instead of limiting each other, creates and affirms a system of mutual trust and honourable leaders that the Executive operates on.


While the concept of mutual trust has generally prevailed within the Singapore Government since its inception, there has been a growing call for greater public participation in policy making.¹⁶ This offers an additional layer of accountability on the government.


Engaging the People

As Singapore society becomes more diverse, the Executive has recognised the importance of public engagement. In recent years, there has been a growing effort to seek the public’s input in decision-making processes that shape policy. Deputy Prime Minister (DPM) Heng Swee Keat established that the guiding principle for the fourth-generation leadership team would be: Working with you, for you.¹⁷ What had once been a government that focused primarily on working for Singaporeans was shifting towards one that would partner Singaporeans to take the country forward.


The welcoming of more ‘active citizens’ and civil society campaign groups also comes with a higher sense of political literacy among citizens, as they gain greater access to media channels.¹⁸ As society becomes increasingly educated and mature, there is a growing inclination to engage in open dialogues with the Government, where their views can be heard and valued.¹⁹


Recognising these societal shifts, a key feature of the Singapore Together movement, launched in 2019 by DPM Heng, has been to open up several areas for Singaporeans to get directly involved in designing and implementing policies. New platforms such as the Citizens’ Panel and Citizens’ Workgroup have been set up to engage Singaporeans on their ideas for improving work-life harmony and household recycling.²⁰


While the government continues to exercise leadership in areas of security and defence, more government agencies are learning to adopt a collaborative approach to policy solutions. This new model of partnership between the government and Singaporeans will give citizens a stake in their country and a share in its progress.


Conclusion

The Executive plays a crucial role in Singapore’s political sphere. While the Prime Minister and the Cabinet are chiefly in charge of directing the government as a whole, the Executive does not function independently of the other branches of government.


Singapore has always relied on a model of trust for its leaders. While government leaders in the Executive assert the need for a strong state to “do what is right”, a strong society is emerging with different views on what exactly constitutes the right thing to do.²¹ As we move forward as a society, active contributions from both the government and its citizens will be required to create sustainable and effective policies.


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This Policy Explainer was written by members of MAJU. MAJU is an independent, youth-led organisation that focuses on engaging Singaporean youths in a long-term research process to guide them in jointly formulating policy ideas of their own.


By sharing our unique youth perspectives, MAJU hopes to contribute to the policymaking discourse and future of Singapore.

 
¹ Constitution of the Republic of Singapore, Art 23.
² Britannica, 2023. “Cabinet: Government”. Accessed September 22, 2023. https://www.britannica.com/topic/cabinet-government
³ Prime Minister's Office Singapore. n.d. “PMO | The Government.” Prime Minister's Office Singapore (PMO). Accessed September 18, 2023. https://www.pmo.gov.sg/the-government.
⁴ Constitution of the Republic of Singapore, Art 30.
⁵ Haddon, Catherine, Tim Durrant, and Colm Britchfield. 2020. “Government reshuffles.” Institute for Government. https://www.instituteforgovernment.org.uk/article/explainer/government-reshuffles.
⁶ Lai, Linette. 2020. “PM Lee Hsien Loong announces new Cabinet line-up; changes at the helm for 6 ministries.” The Straits Times. https://www.straitstimes.com/politics/pm-lee-hsien-loong-announces-new-cabinet-line-up.
⁷ Constitution of the Republic of Singapore, Art 24.
⁸ Prime Minister's Office Singapore. n.d. “PMO | The Government.” Prime Minister's Office Singapore (PMO). Accessed September 18, 2023. https://www.pmo.gov.sg/the-government.
⁹ Constitution of the Republic of Singapore, Art 23.
¹⁰ “Constitution of the Republic of Singapore, Art 38.
¹¹ Constitution of the Republic of Singapore, Art 22.
¹² “Constitution of the Republic of Singapore, Art 21.
¹³ Singapore Legal Advice. 2022. “Judicial Review in Singapore: What is It and How to Apply.” SingaporeLegalAdvice.com. https://singaporelegaladvice.com/law-articles/judicial-review-singapore-apply/.
¹⁴ Singapore Law Review, 2020. “Judicial Review in Singapore.” https://www.singaporelawreview.com/juris-illuminae-entries/2015/judicial-review-in-singapore.
¹⁵ National Archives Singapore. 1991. “Shared Values.” National Archives Singapore. https://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/government_records/docs/a487bfde-7aea-11e7-83df-0050568939ad/Cmd.1of1991.pdf?
¹⁶ Government of Singapore. 2020. “DPM Heng Swee Keat at the Singapore Perspectives Conference 2020.” Prime Minister's Office Singapore (PMO). https://www.pmo.gov.sg/Newsroom/DPM-Heng-Swee-Keat-at-the-Singapore-Perspectives-Conference-2020.
¹⁷ Prime Minister's Office Singapore. 2019. “DPM Heng Swee Keat at the 'Building Our Future Singapore Together' Dialogue.” Prime Minister's Office Singapore (PMO). https://www.pmo.gov.sg/Newsroom/DPM-Heng-Swee-Keat-Building-Our-Future-Singapore-Together-Dialogue.
¹⁸ Koh, Gillian, and Debbie Soon. 2012. “The Future of Singapore's Civil Society.” https://lkyspp.nus.edu.sg/docs/default-source/ips/socialspace2012-gilliankoh-debbiesoon.pdf.
¹⁹ Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth. 2021. “Governance and Civic Engagement in Singapore - SG Together.” Forward Singapore. https://www.forwardsingapore.gov.sg/emergingstrongerconversations/governance-civic-engagement.
²⁰ Prime Minister's Office Singapore. 2019. “DPM Heng Swee Keat at the 'Building Our Future Singapore Together' Dialogue.” Prime Minister's Office Singapore (PMO). https://www.pmo.gov.sg/Newsroom/DPM-Heng-Swee-Keat-Building-Our-Future-Singapore-Together-Dialogue.
²¹ Koh, Gillian, and Debbie Soon. 2012. “The Future of Singapore's Civil Society.” https://lkyspp.nus.edu.sg/docs/default-source/ips/socialspace2012-gilliankoh-debbiesoon.pdf.

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