12 June 2015

Opposition MPs — More Are Better

When asked recently to comment on the progress made by the opposition, which now has more members in Parliament, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said:

"If we have an opposition which is responsible, which raises serious issues which concern the country, which offers real alternatives to the population and which then debates the hard choices which the country has to make.

If they do that, whether they have one member, whether they have ten members, they are good opposition. If they don’t do that, you may have 20, 30 members, you are not being responsible. So, I would not go on the numbers. I would go on the substance of the debate."[1]

Mr Lee made a similar point earlier this year:

"It does not matter how many MPs you have. The issue is whether these MPs — the opposition MPs — can perform in Parliament, raise crucial questions, and ask the Government necessary questions so that the Government can explain clearly and clarify. This is the most important. You can do a lot of work if you are a good opposition MP."

Mr Lee's comments are disingenuous and self-serving.

Only the simple minded and the hard-core supporters of Mr Lee's People's Action Party ("PAP") will agree with him.

The quality of opposition MPs (though not necessarily quality as defined by Mr Lee) matters but so does the number of opposition MPs.

Erroneous Illustration
Earlier this year, Mr Lee cited the time when the PAP was in the opposition to show that numbers do not matter:

"The PAP was formed in 1954 and took part in the first election in 1955. Only three people were elected to the Legislative Assembly — Lee Kuan Yew, Lim Chin Siong, and Goh Chew Chua. Three of them were sufficient to be a force. So it is about having the best and not the most."

There were 25 elected members in the 32-member Legislative Assembly then. David Marshall's government consisted of 10 elected members from his Labour Front and three elected members from the Alliance and two nominated members from Labour Front (out of the four members that the Governor was allowed to nominate). The Attorney-General, the Chief Secretary and the Finance Secretary (none of whom were elected) sat with the government because they were part of the Council i.e., cabinet.

What about the opposition? The three elected PAP members were not alone; there were nine other elected opposition members. Altogether, there were 12 elected opposition members — a not insignificant numerical presence.

Flawed First Past The Post
The British parliamentary election first-past-the-post system, which Singapore inherited, is flawed.

In the recent British general election, the Conservatives won a majority of the seats in Parliament (331 out of 651) with only 36.9 per cent of the vote. However, the UK Independence Party won only one seat with 12.6 per cent and the Liberal Democrat won 8 seats with 7.9 per cent.

In the 2011 general election here, the PAP won 60.1 per cent of the votes and ended up with 80 out of the 86 elected MPs. In the 2006 general election, it won 66.6 per cent of the valid votes and ended up with 77 out of the 79 elected MPs.

More opposition MPs will ensure a fairer and more balanced representation of the popular vote.

PAP MPs
It is evident that Mr Lee does not apply the same argument to the number of PAP MPs.

Not all PAP MPs are present at every Parliament sitting. Sometimes, or perhaps often, many of them do not stay for the entire duration of the sitting and on at least one recent occasion, the Speaker's attention was drawn to the fact that a quorum did not exist to pass a Bill. Some PAP MPs seldom speak in Parliament.

Opposition's Aspiration To Govern
Some opposition parties aspire to form the government in the not-too-distant future. To do this, they need to have not just enough MPs, but MPs with sufficient experience in politics.

Support
Whilst opposition MPs such as the late JB Jeyaretnam, Chiam See Tong and Low Thia Khiang did an admirable job in Parliament despite being overwhelmingly outnumbered in a sometimes hostile environment, they could have done a better job had they received encouragement and support from more like-minded opposition MPs.

Speaking Time
More opposition MPs mean more speaking time to present their parties' views in Parliament. According to Standing Order 48 of the Standing Orders of the Parliament of Singapore:

(8)(a) Subject to sub-paragraph (b) of this paragraph and unless Standing Orders otherwise provide, no Member shall be entitled to speak to any question in Parliament for more than twenty minutes, or to address a Committee of the whole Parliament for more than ten minutes at any one time, except that a Minister or Parliamentary Secretary shall be entitled to speak for up to forty minutes to any question in Parliament.

(b) The mover of an original motion shall be entitled to not more than forty minutes for his opening speech and forty minutes for his reply, but Parliament or a Committee of the whole Parliament may at any time by motion made, without notice and decided without amendment or debate, extend this time by fifteen minutes.

(c) The ruling of the Speaker as to time taken shall be final.

Fixing The Opposition
At an election rally in May 2006, Mr Lee expressed his concerns with an increased number of opposition MPs:

"What is the opposition's job? It is not to help the PAP to do a better job. Their job is to make life difficult for me so that I screw up and they can come in and sit where I am here and take charge. Right now we have [three opposition MPs], so we can deal with them so it's okay. But suppose you have a Parliament with 10, 15, 20 opposition Members out of 80, then instead of spending my time thinking of what is the right policy for Singapore, I have to spend all my time thinking what is the right way to fix them, what's the right way to buy my own supporters over, how can I solve this week's problems and forget about next year's challenges."

Perhaps, this is the real reason why Mr Lee fears a Parliament with more opposition MPs.

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Notes

1. Channel News Asia broadcast on 4 Jun 2015.

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