Come election season or whenever anyone talks about politics, we are often overwhelmed by a barrage of acronyms MP, NCMP, NMP, GRC, SMC. Parliament is composed of many people who all have different titles, and serve different roles to make the entire institution of Parliament work properly to facilitate discussion.
With debates that span multiple hours about key issues that are close to the hearts of many Singaporeans, Parliament is a place of immense importance owing to its status as a platform for discussion, critique, and subsequent improvement of policies and laws before they are enacted.
So what is Singapore’s Legislature? What does it do, and what are the underlying principles guiding why Parliament - its structures, people, and procedures - is constituted in this way? This Policy Explainer is the third of MAJU’s six-part series on Singapore’s System of Government which seeks to introduce Singapore’s legislative body.
Roles and Responsibilities of the Legislature
Parliament serves three essential roles in Government, which are summarised as: (1) Lawmaking, (2) Critique, and (3) Financial Scrutiny.¹
Members of Parliament introduce Bills in Parliament which are essentially drafts of laws that they would like to enact in future. Bills undergo three readings, which are periods of time blocked off specifically for other Members of Parliament to discuss the pros and cons of enacting this Bill into law.² After passing three Readings, where the Bill undergoes some amendments each Reading, and a final vote, the Bill is deemed to have stood up to rigorous scrutiny, with the perspectives of all relevant stakeholders considered.³ The Bill then officially becomes law and comes into operation shortly after.
Relating to the Parliament’s role of acting as a crucial Check and Balance on the Executive branch of Government, Members of Parliament are encouraged to ask questions to the various Ministers during the one and a half hour Question Time during the start of every sitting of Parliament.⁴ Members of Parliament hold the Executive accountable for its actions by raising up questions that highlight viewpoints of the constituents they represent. These may be viewpoints that the Government has not considered, and provides an opportunity for the Executive to consider new perspectives and improve policies.⁵
3. Financial Scrutiny
The Government needs to seek approval from Parliament before it begins spending public money in the new financial year, to ensure it is spent wisely.⁶ Singapore’s annual Budget Statement, which describes how the Government plans to spend money in the upcoming year is delivered to Parliament for debate.⁷
Overall Parliamentary Structure
The Parliament in Singapore is unicameral, meaning that it only has one house, with a single parliamentary body that will debate and legislate.⁸ In Singapore’s Parliament, some of the significant stakeholders include the Speaker of Parliament, The Cabinet (which will be discussed in greater detail in the next Policy Explainer in the series), The Leader of the House, the Government Party Whip, The Leader of the Opposition, Members of Parliament (MP), Select Committees, and Parliament Secretariat.
1. Speaker of the House
After a general election, Parliament elects a Speaker of the House.⁹ The Speaker acts as an “umpire” for sittings in Parliament as they will be the enforcer of debate rules (e.g. Standing Orders of Parliament) and parliamentary procedures (e.g. who gets to speak next).¹⁰ However, as the “umpire”, the Speaker must remain impartial and fair. As such, the Speaker does not take part in any debates. If the Speaker is an elected MP however, they can still exercise their vote for or against a motion.¹¹
2. Leader of the House
The Leader of the House is appointed by the Prime Minister and acts as the Government’s representative in Parliament by delivering their legislative programme to Parliament. They will also propose and initiate actions on procedural matters, including extending the timings of sittings beyond what is set out in the Standing Orders.¹²
3. The Government Party Whip
The Government Party Whip is appointed by the ruling party and acts as a “disciplinarian” to ensure that MPs from their party collectively make the same vote, in line with the party’s view.¹³ This creates a display of unity within the party as it comes off as a collective decision. The Party Whip also plays a role in ensuring that a Parliamentary sitting can be completed on time as they will list the items of business, the MP speaking for that subject matter and the time required for each item.¹⁴
4. Leader of the Opposition
The Leader of the Opposition refers to the politician leading the largest opposition party in Singapore.¹⁵ This position was formally established in 2020. Prior to 2020, it was an unofficial position in Parliament.¹⁶ Apart from leading the Opposition in presenting alternative views during debates on policies, bills and motions, the Leader of the Opposition also has additional parliamentary duties such as attending official state functions. Additionally, they would also have access to confidential briefings by the Government on select matters.¹⁷
5. Members of Parliament
MPs are the main part of the Legislature and act as the voice of the electorate. They propose and vote on legislation that they deem best for their constituency or the country.
There are currently three kinds of MPs: elected, non-constituency, and nominated, where majority of the MPs are elected MPs.¹⁸ Non-Constituency MPs (NCMPs) are unelected Opposition candidates who had the highest percentage of votes if the number of elected opposition MPs are less than 12, and Nominated MPs (NMPs) are independent, non-partisan persons who are appointed by the President to provide Parliament with more representation.¹⁹ The latter two kinds of MPs are able to vote like the elected MPs, with the exception of a small number of matters such as amendments to the Constitution and anything relating to public funds.
6. Select Committee
Select Committees consist of small groups of MPs (usually up to seven MPs) appointed to serve a particular function within Parliament. The nature of such functions are usually multi-disciplinary. While some carry out investigative work and provide advice for parliamentary procedural matters,²⁰ others are set up to consider the implications of bills.²¹ They are chaired by either the Speaker or another MP appointed by the Speaker. There are currently eight Select Committees that serve different functions in Parliament:²²
Committee of Selection: Selects MPs to each committee;
Committee of Privileges: Investigates any breach of parliamentary privilege;
Estimates Committee: Examines Government’s budget and reports on the economy;
House Committee: Oversees the comfort of MPs and advises the Speakers on it;
Public Accounts Committee: Examines the Government’s usage of public funds;
Public Petitions Committee: Considers and reports public petitions received by Parliament;
Standing Order Committee: Reviews Parliament Standing Orders;
Specical Select Committee on Nominations for NMP: Nominates candidates for the appointment of NMPs by the President.²³
7. Parliament Secretariat
The Parliament Secretariat assists Parliament with procedural matters and organises Parliament’s business.²⁴ They are made up of 10 different departments, which each provide specialist advice on proceedings or provides support for certain practices.²⁵ For instance, the Parliamentary Clerks Department advises the Speaker and MPs on parliamentary procedures and laws.²⁶
The main reason why many countries have appointed lawmakers whose main role is to represent citizens, and enact and debate law is due to the pros of Representative Democracy as opposed to Direct Democracy.²⁷
A Representative Democracy is a form of democracy where citizens vote for a group of people to represent them in lawmaking. MPs act as representatives of various groups of people in the system of Representative Democracy — this explains why MPs also have the role of acting as a “bridge between the community and the Government”.²⁸ MPs act on behalf of their constituents in Parliament by writing Bills and raising questions that directly support the views of their constituents.²⁹
In contrast, a Direct Democracy is where each individual represents their own interests and are all given the power to vote and raise debate about potential laws.³⁰ Systems of Direct Democracy have historically existed in Ancient Athens,³¹ where each individual was responsible for voting and educating themselves about policy. While a Direct Democracy may seem to be the more straightforward way to run a government, it places a heavy burden on everyday citizens.³² Everyday citizens are expected to understand complex policy and to participate in politics even when they have other important duties that occupy a lot of time.
This is where the true perks of a Representative Democracy such as Singapore’s come in. Instead of having to expend time, and effort understanding the implications of certain policies and navigating the world of politics, an everyday citizen can instead trust their elected MP to act in their best interest.
However, what happens when an MP breaches this trust or acts in a way that does not benefit his constituents? In this case, their constituents can choose to vote the MP out of office during General Elections, and replace them with someone else who will better act in their interests.³³
Having a Representative Democracy ensures that the right of citizens to make their voices heard is retained through the bridge that is their elected MP. This is all while reducing the burden of everyday citizens by leaving the complex work of decoding policies and their implications to a small group who have the knowledge, time, and commitment to fully understanding these policies.³⁴
Tyranny of the Majority
In discussing democracy in general, it seems that a glaring flaw of the system is exposed. “What if there is a large group of people that outvotes all other smaller groups at every vote?”
This is like allowing the popular student in school to do whatever he wants, bullying unpopular students or violating school rules simply because he is well-liked by his teachers and other students. This seems like an obvious case of unfairness, however this cannot be fixed through pure democracy since it provides power to those already in power. Instead, other means must be used to empower those who are in the minority.
This is an especially important concern in Singapore given our racial makeup, with 75% Chinese and all other races being of the minority.³⁵ In a pure democratic system, laws might be made along racial lines that privilege the majority race while discriminating against minority races.
Understanding that a pure democracy leads to this “Tyranny of the Majority”,³⁶ Singapore deliberately does not adopt a pure democratic system, however its system has many safeguards within the Legislature that prevents the Tyranny of the Majority.
Power is deliberately granted to specific individuals or groups of individuals who represent minority groups like ethnic minority groups and groups that have alternate viewpoints about policy issues which may not necessarily agree with the Government. These groups are namely the Presidential Council for Minority Rights, NCMPs, and the Opposition.
1. Presidential Council for Minority Rights
The Presidential Council for Minority Rights is a non-elected body of government whose members are nominated by the President to scrutinise bills that pass through Parliament to ensure they respect the rights of minority groups.³⁷ Should a Bill be deemed by the Council to violate minority rights, the Council has to refer the Bill back to Parliament for reconsideration.³⁸
NCMPs comprise of unelected MPs who are able to vote and speak on most bills.
NCMPs represent the voices of those who may not align themselves with the views of the ruling party.³⁹ The NCMP Scheme was started in 1984 as a way to ensure that there would always be MPs in Parliament that were not from the ruling party.⁴⁰ This comes from the context where PAP won all seats in Parliament and even when an opposition candidate won a single seat, they were unable to initiate meaningful debate as no other MP would second their motions in Parliament.⁴¹
NCMPs are from the political party that are the best-performing losers at elections, because parties which lost the election still do represent the views of a large group of people, and with more opposition voices in Parliament, more meaningful debate which considers alternative viewpoints is possible.⁴²
3. The Opposition
Perhaps the greatest force for championing the minority that possesses minority viewpoints is a credible Opposition. If the ruling party makes decisions or enacts policy that is disagreeable to citizens with alternative viewpoints, the Opposition is able to exercise their role to express the people’s views of disagreement.⁴³ Without a credible Opposition that is able to work effectively in consolidating and expressing disagreeing alternative views, those who hold these views might become under-represented in the policymaking process.⁴⁴
Parliament serves to represent all, not just the majority, but also minority groups and those with special interests. To do so, Parliament needs robust systems that properly ensure MPs are held accountable by their constituents who have put faith in them to represent their interests well. Strong safeguards must also be in place to ensure Parliament is not ruled by one majority group, and is able to account for minority rights and proposed laws and policies are scrutinised carefully to ensure they best align with everyone’s interests.