SINGAPORE: Soon-to-be-Singapore PM Lawrence Wong asserted that there will always be representatives of the opposition parties in Parliament, in an interview with British publication The Economist, ahead of the official leadership handover next week.

In the interview, Mr Wong added that he does not automatically assume that the People’s Action Party (PAP) would continue to be in power after the election, or that he would necessarily serve as prime minister.

His comments appear, at first glance, to be a far cry from current Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s “fix the opposition” style of governance.

In an old rally speech delivered years ago, PM Lee expounded on how he will have to spend time thinking how to “fix” the opposition if more opposition politicians are elected.

In the 2006 speech, delivered when Low Thia Khiang, Chiam See Tong and Steve Chia were the only opposition politicians in Parliament, PM Lee urged the people to refrain from voting in more opposition lest he is forced to focus on how to “fix them” instead of focusing on the nation’s challenges. He asserted:

“What is the opposition’s job? It’s not to help the PAP do a better job! Their job is to make life miserable 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 Low Thia Khiang, we have Chiam, we have Steve Chia. So can deal with them, it’s ok. But supposing you had 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’m going to spend all my time – I have to spend all my time – thinking what is the right way to fix them, what is the right way to buy own my supporters over, how can I solve this week’s problem and forget about next year’s challenges?”

In the elections that came, the PAP continued losing more seats to the opposition with the 2020 general election culminating in the loss of ten seats to the Workers’ Party.

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PM Lee’s promise to “fix” the opposition did not sit well with a large segment of Singaporeans and Mr Wong’s assurances seem to point to a different style when it comes to working with the opposition.

Those taking a closer look, however, may notice that the incoming PM did not clarify whether these opposition politicians that will always be in Parliament might be elected politicians or unelected best losers, as part of the Government’s Non-Constituency Member of Parliament (NCMP) scheme.

The Non-Constituency Member of Parliament (NCMP) scheme in Singapore is designed to ensure a minimum level of opposition representation in Parliament, even if opposition candidates do not win any seats in the general election. Under this scheme, up to 12 NCMP seats may be allocated to opposition candidates based on their performance in the election.

While the NCMP scheme is presumably positioned to ensure opposition voices in Parliament, it has long been a topic of contention, with opposition politicians criticizing it for various reasons. From its inception, opposition members have described the scheme as a “sham” and a “toothless” office, questioning its true purpose in a Parliament dominated by the PAP.

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Veteran opposition politician J. B. Jeyaratnam once questioned whether the NCMP scheme was “a trick or a ploy” designed to maintain the ruling party’s dominance in Parliament, highlighting concerns about the scheme’s effectiveness in providing a robust opposition voice.

Critics have suggested that the presence of NCMPs “does not seem to extend beyond the decorative and the provision of debating foils for the younger PAP generation unexposed to the gladiatorial quality of parliamentary debate.”

The scheme has also been criticized as a mechanism that might discourage voters from electing opposition MPs. Since the scheme guarantees at least a minimum number of NCMP seats, it may disincentivize voters from casting their ballots for opposition candidates, as there is a default mechanism for ensuring opposition representation in Parliament.

Opposition giant Low Thia Khiang has cited the NCMP’s lack of “muscle and real grassroots grounding” as a reason for his refusal to take up an NCMP seat. Since NCMPs do not represent any constituency, they are denied opportunities to expand their influence.

Similarly, WP chair Sylvia Lim, who once served as an NCMP before she was elected proper, remarked that the scheme had no official capacity to represent the people or write letters on their behalf. She also noted that NCMPs lack a physical base to organize activities or hold dialogues with the public.

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In her view, the scheme should be considered a “stop-gap measure” to address the lack of alternative voices in Parliament due to the alleged abuse of the Group Representation Constituency (GRC) system and gerrymandering.

Another aspect that adds to the perceived unfairness is the disparity in resources and privileges between NCMPs and losing PAP candidates. While losing PAP candidates typically remain as branch chairmen in the wards they contested, they may retain influence and control over certain resources and funds that are not directly accessible to opposition politicians, including NCMPs.

This creates an imbalance in the political landscape, where losing PAP candidates may continue to wield significant influence and resources, while opposition politicians are left with limited avenues to serve constituents effectively.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, during a 2011 live television forum, refuted claims that NCMPs were not a “real opposition.” He explained that the PAP introduced and expanded the scheme to acknowledge both the desire among Singaporeans for alternative voices and the need for an opposition to represent the diverse views in society.

He noted that NCMPs were free to debate issues in Parliament and suggested that the scheme provided opposition politicians with an opportunity to establish themselves and strengthen their positions in subsequent general elections.

Despite these reassurances, the NCMP scheme remains a point of contention for many in Singapore. The scheme’s limitations and the constraints placed on NCMPs underline the challenges faced by opposition politicians in their quest for a more equitable and robust political system in Singapore.