Second reading speech by DPM Wong Kan Seng on the Constitution of the Republic of Singapore (Amendment) Bill
26 Apr 2010 Posted in Parliamentary speeches and responses
Mr Speaker, Sir, I beg to move, that the Bill be now read a second time.
Sir, the Constitution of the Republic of Singapore (Amendment) Bill 2010 seeks to amend the Constitution in three areas. First, to introduce refinements to the framework for Non-Constituency Members of Parliament (NCMPs) and Nominated Members of Parliament (NMPs). Second, to allow for arrested persons to be produced before magistrates for First Mentions via Video-Conferencing. Third, to abolish the Citizenship Advisory Committee. I will go through each in turn.
Refinements to NCMP and NMP system
- In May last year, the Prime Minister announced changes to our electoral system. Of these changes, the refinements to the NCMP and NMP systems will require amendments to the Constitution. The changes to the NCMP system will also require amendments to the Parliamentary Elections Act, which will be moved by the Minister for Law and Second Minister for Home Affairs later.
Rationale behind the Refinements
- Let me first set out the context for the specific amendments.
- Like many Commonwealth countries, Singapore’s political system was modelled after the British Westminster system of parliamentary democracy. One of the key features of such a system is a legislature elected by voters through “first past the post” contests and the appointment of the Prime Minister and his Cabinet from among the elected Members of Parliament. As we have matured and grown as a sovereign independent country, so too has our political system evolved to meet the changing needs of our society. The objective, however, remains unchanged from the day we achieved independence – to have good governance for the well-being and betterment of all our people, regardless of race, language, religion or social class.
- Good governance, in our view and experience, requires a political system which on the one hand fosters political stability by representing the varied interests of an ethnically plural society, and on the other hand enables whichever party forms the Government to make well-considered decisions and implement them effectively for the national good. This gives us the strength and discipline for long-term and strategic planning, as well as the nimbleness and responsiveness that has enabled Singapore to prosper and progress since independence. Parliament in our political system therefore allows the expression of diverse independent views and the representation of constituent interests and concerns. However, these should augment and not undermine the role of Parliament to act decisively – for its Members to decide on issues and policies, balancing all relevant considerations, and after hearing and debating all relevant points of view.
- Singapore’s political system has produced political stability, prosperity and a high quality of life for citizens since independence. This is clear both to Singaporeans and external observers. For instance, the IMD World Competitiveness Report has, since 2005, consistently ranked Singapore among the three most competitive countries in the world. We have also been ranked highly by the World Economic Forum, the Political and Economic Risk Consultancy (PERC) and Mercer Consulting, among others. Investors also rate highly the political stability of Singapore and continue to invest in us because of their confidence in the Government.
- In our political system, the Government has to renew its mandate from the people at least once every five years through free and fair elections. This is how the Government secures the legal and moral authority as well as the political legitimacy to govern and lead the country, implementing policies and programmes for the betterment of our people. The ballot box is the ultimate way by which the people exercise their right to choose who they want to represent them and to govern and lead Singapore for the next five years.
- Our political system has worked well because the PAP Government has regularly reviewed and updated our framework and laws to advance our political development in tandem with societal changes. An example of this is the Group Representation Constituency (GRC) system. In the 19 70s and early 80s, when there was increasing evidence of voting patterns along ethnic lines, the Government, after long debate, decided to introduce the GRC system. GRCs encourage political parties to take a multi-racial perspective, and ensure that our ethnic minorities will always be represented in Parliament regardless of who wins the election.
- As we mature as a society and our citizens become better educated and informed, we see a growing desire among Singaporeans to follow and express views on important national matters. Singaporeans are keen to be engaged more on issues affecting their lives and futures, but they also want themselves and their children to continue enjoying stability, security, order and communal harmony. Finding the dynamic and changing balance between these aspirations and interests is a challenge for both the Government and the people. But it is a challenge that we will not ignore and will continue to seek to address in a wise and practical manner.
- A corollary of this desire for more engagement is a desire to see greater diversity of views on issues discussed and debated in Parliament. This is not just a political fashion. It is an evolution which the Government has consistently and progressively fostered. As the world we live in grows more complex and dynamic, it is vital that we maximize ideas and knowledge by engaging a greater diversity of views. Parliament is the best place to develop this. It is the highest decision making body in the land. It is the right forum to have a responsible free exchange of views and representation of interests, on the record and accountably, and ultimately to take an informed, collective decision, which will be legitimate and accepted by Singaporeans.
- To provide for this, the Government made changes to the political system with the introduction of the Non-Constituency Members of Parliament (NCMP) scheme in 1984, and Nominated Members of Parliament (NMP) scheme in 1990. The results of General Elections since then have consistently shown that the majority of Singaporeans continue to desire and support a strong and dependable Government. However, recognising that Singaporeans also desire to hear more diverse views in Parliament, and indeed the value of engaging comprehensive perspectives to help sharpen and refine policy formulation, the Government has decided to expand and entrench the NCMP and NMP schemes further.
Non-Constituency Members of Parliament (NCMP)
- Let me now focus on the NCMP scheme. The Constitution currently provides for up to six NCMPs to ensure a minimum Opposition representation in Parliament. The Parliamentary Elections Act prescribes that the number of NCMPs shall be 3, or such greater number not exceeding 6 that the President may by order specify for the purpose of that General Election after the dissolution of Parliament and not later than the day of nomination, less the number of elected Opposition MPs.
- NCMPs are provided with most of the rights, privileges and duties of elected MPs. They can participate fully in Parliamentary debates, raise motions, ask questions in Parliament and even vote on most Bills. They are thus provided with the opportunity to propagate their parties’ programmes and positions. However, as un-elected Members, they cannot vote on a Bill to amend the Constitution, a Supply, Supplementary or Final Supply Bill, a Money Bill, a vote of no confidence in the Government or a motion for the removal of the President from office. These powers will remain the privileges of an elected MP.
- The NCMP scheme was introduced in 1984 to ensure that the Parliament has at least a few Opposition Members, even if the electorate only returned candidates from the ruling party to Parliament. Three benefits were highlighted then. The first was to provide PAP Ministers and MPs with the experience of the cut and thrust of debate by sparring with Opposition Members. The second benefit was to allow the electorate to judge for themselves what elected Opposition Members can and cannot do for the people. The third was to dispel any suspicions of cover-ups, since Opposition MPs would give vent to any allegation of misfeasance or corruption or nepotism, even if these proved false, and allow the Government to rebut them.
- The NCMP scheme has fulfilled its intended purposes. It has ensured the presence of Opposition Members in Parliament. The Workers’ Party rejected the NCMP seat for its candidate in the 1984 General Election after the scheme was approved by Parliament before the General Election. But since 1988, there have been four NCMPs in Parliament – Dr Lee Siew Choh and Mr JB Jeyaretnam both from the Workers’ Party, Mr Steve Chia of the Singapore Democratic Alliance and Ms Sylvia Lim also of the Workers’ Party. Together with other Opposition Members, they have participated and contributed in their own way to Parliamentary debates.
- Clause 3 of the Amendment Bill therefore amends Article 39(1) of the Constitution to increase the maximum number of NCMPs in Parliament from six to nine, similar to the number of Nominated MPs. Coupled with changes to the Parliamentary Elections Act, there will be a minimum of nine Opposition Members in the House at any one time, whether directly elected or via the NCMP route, subject to the opposition candidate or candidates winning at least 15% of the total number of valid votes polled. Therefore, regardless of the electoral outcome, the Opposition will be a fixed and significant feature of this House. As to whether they can increase their membership in Parliament beyond what is provided for in future, it will ultimately depend on whether they can convince Singaporeans that their policies and programmes will benefit Singaporeans more than those put forth by the ruling Party. The NCMP scheme gives them access to Parliament to try and do so.
- The NCMP scheme is unique to Singapore as no ruling Party in any other country has created a scheme to allow the losing opposition candidates into Parliament. We have done so because as a Government, we think that this is a good thing that is in Singapore’s interests. But let me also say that as a Party, the PAP treats Parliamentary elections very seriously and we will therefore field our best candidates and will continue to contest each and every Parliamentary seat robustly, to win.
Nominated Members of Parliament (NMPs)
- Let me now turn to the NMP scheme. The Constitution currently provides for up to nine NMPs. After each general election, Parliament has to decide whether to pass a motion that there shall be NMPs during the term of that Parliament. If Parliament so resolves, a Special Select Committee of Parliament will invite the public to submit names of persons who may be considered for nomination by the Committee. From the nominations received, the Special Select Committee will then nominate nine persons for appointment by the President. These persons nominated come from diverse backgrounds and bring to Parliament valuable views drawn from their expertise and experiences. NMPs have been given the same rights as NCMPs to allow them to participate meaningfully in the Parliamentary process.
- The NMP scheme was first approved in Parliament in 1990 and the number of NMPs was increased from six to nine in 1997. We have extensively debated the merits of the NMP scheme in this House. This scheme has worked well in providing non-partisan alternative views.
- When we first instituted the NMP scheme, then DPM Goh Chok Tong said that each Parliament will be given the discretion to decide if it wished to have NMPs for the term of that Parliament. This safeguard was introduced because the scheme was new and it was uncertain whether the scheme will work. Twenty years have passed. I believe that the NMP scheme has become an accepted feature of this House. Past and current NMPs have played valuable roles in enriching the debate and discussion on national issues.
- As such, clause 5 of this Bill abolishes the requirement for a resolution to be passed by the Parliament before NMPs may be appointed. This will entrench the NMP scheme as a staple feature of all future Parliaments and not a matter to be determined by each new Parliament. NMPs can now be appointed any time within 6 months after the Parliament first sits following a General Election.
Other Amendments to the Constitution
- There are two non-election related amendments which I will now speak on. First, we propose to allow arrested persons to be brought before a Magistrate for First Mention through video-conferencing, in addition to the current physical production of an arrested person before a Magistrate. Second, we propose to abolish the Citizenship Advisory Committee. This Committee reviews all cases where applications for Singapore Citizenship have been rejected.
Video Conferencing for First Mentions
- The Constitution currentlyrequires a person to be brought before a Magistrate within 48 hours of arrest and that he shall not be further detained without the Magistrate’s authority. This is meant to allow the Magistrate to verify his identity and ensure the protection of his fundamental rights andliberties. The Constitution requires that the person be physically produced in front of the Magistrate for First Mentions within 48 hours excluding the time of any necessary journey. This requirement has its roots in the Constitution of Malaysia and was instituted at a time when video conferencing technology was not available.
- Today, video conferencing technology has advanced considerably and video conferencing usage for criminal proceedings, including First Mentions, has been introduced in overseas jurisdictions such as New Zealand, Australia, UK and some states in the US. In Singapore, video conferencing has also been used in Court proceedings for some time now. Singapore’s Subordinate Courts first used video conferencing with Prisons for criminal mentions in 1996. Since then, the Subordinate Courts, Prisons and the Attorney-General’s Chambers have gradually expanded the use of video conferencing to cover pre-trial processes such as further mentions, bail reviews, and represented and unrepresented pre-trial conferences.
- There are several benefits in expanding the usage of video conferencing to First Mentions. First, there will be a reduction in security risk as movement of arrested persons will be minimized. In addition, there will be a reduction in the multiple handing over and taking over of arrested persons from one officer to another during the process. This will enhance the management and security of the arrested person and will also lead to more efficient use of limited manpower resources.
- Second, in thecase of medical contingencies, such as when the arrested person is hospitalised, Field Magistrates are currently sent to hospitals for First Mentions to be carried out. With the use of video conferencing and the proposed set up of a centralised secured ward at Changi General Hospital, First Mentions and also further mentions can henceforth be conducted by the Magistrates via video conferencing from the Courts without the need to deploy field magistrates.
- Clause 2 of this Bill amends Article 9(4) of the Constitution to enable an arrested person to be produced for First Mentions before the Magistrate either physically or by way of video conferencing link or other similar technology.
- I emphasise here that there will be safeguards to ensure that the use of video conferencing does not affect the fundamental liberty of the arrested person. What has changed is just the mode of producing the arrested person before the Magistrate. First, the arrested person will still be detained for not more than 48 hours unless the Court makes a decision or an order for his further detention. Second, the Court will retain the discretion to call for the arrested person or consider the application of the arrested person to be physically produced in Court at any time before or during the First Mentions. Third, certain groups such as juveniles, by virtue of their age will continue to be produced in court in person. Fourth, video conferencing will not be used for accepting pleas or sentencing. However, in time to come, I do not rule out the possibility that video conferencing would be used and expanded to include such hearings as has been done in other countries.
Citizenship Advisory Committee
- I will now touch on the final amendment introduced in this Bill – the abolition of the Citizenship Advisory Committee. Currently, the Constitution provides for a Citizenship Advisory Committee formed by three persons to be appointed by the President. The Minister shall refer all citizenship applications identified for refusal to this Committee. The Committee shall review all of these cases to confirm that the grounds for refusal are reasonable and the cases have been fairly assessed. The Minister shall then have regard to any report made to him by the Committee before deciding whether to reject the application.
- The Citizenship Advisory Committee was introduced via a Singapore Citizenship Bill, more than 50 years ago, in 1957. There was no concept of Singapore Citizenship prior to that. After the Constitutional talks that resulted in Singapore becoming self-governing, the Singapore Citizenship Bill was introduced to provide for the granting of Singapore Citizenship to eligible persons so that they could vote in Legislative Assembly elections. Many long term residents were migrants from China, India and the Malay Archipelago, and were called “aliens” at the time. Those who were born in Singapore were called “British subjects”. Most of both groups were eligible to be registered as Singapore citizens and become voters. A Citizenship Advisory Committee was then set up to ensure that eligible persons who were qualified to become citizens under the law would not be unfairly excluded especially in view of the impending general elections for the Legislative Assembly.
- The concern that migrant residents who have lived in Singapore for many years might be denied their rights to become Singapore citizens is no longer relevant today. Today’s context is very different from the late 1950s. Singapore became self-governing in 1959 and gained Independence in 1965, 45 years ago. We no longer have the issue of local domiciles. The applications for Singapore Citizenship that we receive today are from foreigners who want to make Singapore their home. The granting of citizenship to foreigners is a privilege. Singapore Citizenship is not an entitlement or a right for a foreign resident.
- It is therefore no longer necessary to send all rejection cases of foreigners applying for Singapore Citizenship to a Citizenship Advisory Committee for review. In any case, our system for the grant of Singapore Citizenship includes a rigorous process of evaluation. And even with the abolition of the Citizenship Advisory Committee, foreigners whose applications for Singapore Citizenship are rejected by ICA can still appeal to the Minister under Section 3 of the Third Schedule of the Constitution.
- Clause 4 of this Bill thereforerepeals Section 18(2) of the Third Schedule of the Constitution and abolishes the Citizenship Advisory Committee. Clause 6 of this Bill provides that all applications for citizenship which are pending when the Advisory Committee is abolished need not be considered by the Advisory Committee.
- Sir, t his Bill marks an important milestone in the constant and progressive evolution of our political system of parliamentary democracy. Henceforth, Opposition and Non-Government voices will be expanded and entrenched in this House. We will have the opportunity to hear from a greater diversity of views in this House including the views and opinions of a larger number of Opposition members.
- And as this House considers these significant changes, I would like to end with this comment. We live in a globalised world and we are not immune to developments and pressures outside our country. But we must always be true to ourselves. When we develop and evolve our political system, we must never forget certain important fundamentals.
- One such fundamental is that whatever changes we make must be reflective of what we, as citizens, want for our country, based on what will work for Singapore. The right to steer our own social and political development as a sovereign country is not transferable and is non-negotiable. In short, Singapore politics is for Singapore Citizens. For although we are a small country, Singaporeans are no less proud of our independence than the largest country in the world.
- Sir I beg to move.
Last updated on 26 Nov 2012