What Singapore can learn from the United Kingdom’s bicameral legislature: A Comparative Legal Study

By Neal Kok

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Despite Singapore’s foundation in a British Westminster first-past-the-post majoritarian system, Singapore elected to adopt a unicameral legislature. In contrast, the British Parliament consists of two Houses, the House of Lords and the House of Commons. Singapore’s unicameral legislature resembles the lower House of Commons, consisting mainly of elected Members of Parliament, with no equivalent for the House of Lords. This article will identify what Singapore can learn from having a second chamber, and will argue that the unique benefit and function of the House of Lords is its enhanced deliberative function and its ability to keep the executive accountable. Singapore’s ability to meet these needs in a unicameral system will be assessed in turn.


Diversity in the Legislature

The composition of the House of Lords enables it to better achieve its deliberative function. The Life Peerages Act 1958 [1] and the House of Lords Act 1999 [2] had the combined effect of reducing the number of hereditary peers in the House of Lords and allowing the appointment of Life Peers by the Queen following the Prime Minister’s recommendation. The result of these Acts is that the House of Lords, as the second chamber, consists mainly of Life Peers (85% in 2019). [3] This has the added benefit of enabling experts from all backgrounds to be appointed, and ensures that no single party enjoys an overall majority in the House of Lords. [4] Possessing expert knowledge in various fields, such as law and commerce, the Lords are able to provide a platform for the sharing of informed opinion and for discussion, using their specialist knowledge to inform their debates. This is beneficial not only because it allows for more detailed consideration of the unique issues faced by those in a specific industry, but also because it enables more practical and effective solutions to be discussed. This was illustrated in the House of Lords’ European Union Committee, where it was observed that the Lords’ expertise, esoteric knowledge and experience in the relevant fields enabled them to provide a more insightful and comprehensive report on European legislation compared to the House of Commons. [5] It was also noted that the comparative absence of partisanship in the House of Lords as compared to the House of Commons contributed to comprehensive nature of the report. This is testament to the risk of having an elected second chamber which would almost inevitably introduce party politics. It is therefore imperative that the second chamber be free from such politics to ensure the representation of minority views. As observed by New Zealand philosopher J Waldron, there is no single consistent entity known as the ‘majority’ [6] – its demographic make-up is always changing, leaving a significant minority whose views are not necessarily heard on various issues in an elected body. This problem is further exacerbated by parties in the first chamber wanting to appeal to the majority to secure votes and remain in power, to the detriment of the minority whose views might be then ignored. The burden thus falls on the Lords to use their independence from party politics to advocate for minority views that are less likely to be explored in the first chamber. [7]


In the context of Singapore, to ensure that minority views are represented in Parliament, Group Representation Constituencies (GRCs) were introduced in 1988 through section 3 of the Parliamentary Elections (Amendment) Act 1988 [8], which gives effect to section 8A of the Parliamentary Elections Act 1954 [9]. This requires that at least one member of each GRC be from a racial minority group, ensuring the representation of racial minorities in Parliament. Similarly, in order to ensure that racial and religious views are consulted and respected in the passing of legislation, all Bills must pass scrutiny by the Presidential Council for Minority Rights (PCMR) to ensure that they do not discriminate against any racial or religious community. [10] It is clear from these measures that Singapore has taken concrete attempts to ensure the representation of minority views in Parliament and in the passing of legislation.


However, another minority group that requires representation is that of the political minority, and given the dominance of the ruling party in Singapore’s Parliament, these measures alone may fail to give sufficient voice and effective power to the political minority in Parliament. To address this, Singapore introduced the Non-Constituency Member of Parliament (NCMP) scheme under Article 39(1)(b) of the Constitution of the Republic of Singapore to ensure that there is a minimum number of opposition members in Parliament. Since 2016, this number has risen to 12, from the previous cap of 9, which was also an increase from the original cap of 6 in 1984. [11] In the current fourteenth Parliament of Singapore, there is a total of 103 Members of Parliament, with 12 being from an opposition party and 9 being Nominated Members of Parliament (NMP). [12] The NMP scheme was introduced to meet the need of having independent representation in Parliament that is free from political partisanship. [13] Despite the increasing representation of opposition parties and those without political affiliations, the effectiveness of the NMP and NCMP schemes in providing effective deliberative contribution is curtailed by their limited presence and restrictive formal powers. Furthermore, the introduction of appointed members to the only chamber in Singapore’s unicameral legislature, that is predominantly elected, also raises the issue of derogating from Parliament’s democratic legitimacy. This is in contrast to the bicameral system, where the elected and unelected chambers are kept separate. This distinction helps facilitate the relationship between the two chambers, with the British constitution being careful not to give the upper chamber a mandate that undermines that of the democratically elected lower chamber. Singapore could therefore learn from the British bicameral legislature in maintaining such a distinction that protects its democratic legitimacy, while at the same time retaining minority and expert perspectives in a deliberative chamber.


Holding the Executive Accountable

The second unique function of the House of Lords is its ability to keep the executive accountable. It has been argued by American Political Scientist A Lijphart that the two dimensions required to achieve effective accountability are strong formal powers of the House of Lords and a compositional difference from the House of Commons. [14] Waldron argued that the most important difference between the two chambers is in their relation to the executive. [15] Given that the executive dominates the House of Commons through the party system and the system of whips, it is vital that the second chamber be a distinct body, kept separate from the authority of the executive. Only with this distinction can effective separation of powers between the executive and the legislature be achieved. This is necessary to achieve independent checks on the executive, lest it becomes an elective dictatorship. [16]


Singapore’s Parliament faces a similar reality as the House of Commons in the British Constitution – the executive dominates the chamber. This reality is exacerbated by the supermajority that the ruling party currently enjoys and has enjoyed since the inception of the first Parliament. This may prove to be problematic because it means that the ruling party effectively has the power to amend and legislate not just ordinary Bills, but Constitutional articles as it pleases. As a result, the only accountability present is through Parliamentary debates and questions for Ministers. However, even this may be limited given how the government does not necessarily need to justify its proposals because it does not require the opposition’s votes to secure a majority, even a supermajority, of votes. Following Lijphart and Waldron’s analysis, Singapore’s legislature is limited in its ability to provide effective accountability of the executive because it is itself dominated by the executive and lacks formal power to effectively challenge the executive. An attempt by the ruling party to meet the need of government accountability was the introduction of the Government Parliamentary Committees (GPCs) that serves to scrutinise the legislation and administration of the various Ministries. [17] A potential limitation of this instrument is that it comprises of the ruling party’s backbenchers, which can introduce elements of political bias and partisanship, resulting in a lack of objectivity in its scrutiny. This limitation is similarly faced by the House of Commons, and it is the non-partisan nature of the House of Lords that helps plug this gap. It is evident that Singapore can learn from the British bicameral structure and implement more independent mechanisms to keep the executive separate from the legislature in order to achieve a constructive separation of powers with each body being able to hold the other accountable.


Lessons Learnt

In conclusion, two functions of an upper chamber in the British Constitution have been identified, namely its enhanced deliberative functions and its unique ability to keep the executive accountable. It has been identified that Singapore’s unicameral legislature has taken steps to ensure racial and religious minority representation in Parliament, but it is unclear whether it has been able to effectively incorporate expert opinion in Parliament. It is also suggested that the effectiveness of political minority representation is limited due to Parliament’s lack of formal powers. Further, the current relationship between Singapore’s Parliament and the executive has also been shown to result in a restricted ability of the legislature to keep the executive accountable. Through this comparative study of the British and Singaporean systems, it is argued that Singapore should fill the gaps identified, be it by introducing a second chamber or through the implementation of other measures.






References:

[1] Life Peerages Act 1958, s 1


[2] House of Lords Act 1999, ss 1-2

[3] Mark Elliott and Robert Thomas, Public Law (4th edn, Custom Publishing, Oxford University Press 2020), 204

[4] Bogdanor, The New British Constitution (Hart, 2009), Chapter 6

[5] C Grantham and C M Hodgson, ‘The House of Lords – Structural Changes – the Use of Committees’, in P Norton (ed) Parliament in the 1980s (Oxford, Blackwell, 1985)


[6] J Waldron, Democracy in the Oxford Handbook of Political Philosophy (2012)


[7] Mark Elliott and Robert Thomas, Public Law (4th edn, Custom Publishing, Oxford University Press 2020), 195


[8] Parliamentary Elections (Amendment) Act 1988, s 3


[9] Parliamentary Elections Act 1954, s 8A


[10] Constitution of the Republic of Singapore, Articles 76-78


[11] Constitution of the Republic of Singapore (Amendment) Act 2016, Article 25


[12] Parliament of Singapore, ‘Members of Parliament’, <https://www.parliament.gov.sg/about-us/structure/members-of-parliament> Accessed 27 December 2021


[13] Goh Chok Tong, Second Reading of the Constitution of the Republic of Singapore (Amendment No. 2) Bill, col. 701


[14] M Russell, ‘Rethinking Bicameral Strength: A Three-Dimensional Approach’ (2013) 19(3) The Journal of Legislative Studies 370


[15] J Waldron, ‘Bicameralism and the Separation of Powers’ (2012) 65 CLP 31


[16] V Bogdanor, The New British Constitution (Hart, 2009), Chapter 6


[17] People's Action Party, ‘Government Parliamentary Committees’, <https://www.pap.org.sg/whos-who/gpc/> Accessed 27 December 2021