Why We Shouldn’t Have 2 Houses of Parliament

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1 Parliament with 2 Houses, or bicameralism, is an idea that is most intriguing. The Mother of Parliaments has the House of Commons and the House of Lords. The world’s oldest democracy has the House of Representatives and the Senate. The world’s largest democracy has the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha. Even our neighbours across the causeway have the Dewan Rakyat and the Dewan Negara. While bicameralism may be a feature of the most well-known parliamentary systems in the world today, it would do little to further democracy and strengthen our existing institutions in Singapore.

 

The potential creation of an upper chamber was viewed by the Rendel Commission in the mid-1950s as the unnecessary stratification of Singapore’s political society – an upper class of the political elite in contrast to a lower class of elected representatives. An unelected upper chamber would be symbolic of a parliamentary feature that even our former colonial masters are trying to do away with today in their own country. Reform of the unelected House of Lords in the UK has been rendered as a common-sense cause tainted with political inertia to do anything about it. As recently as 1999, the UK moved to severely limit the hereditary peerage system, where the son of a Baron or Earl could inherit not only his father’s title but also his seat in the House of Lords by right of birth. Today, hereditary peers remain a vestigial component of the House of Lords. Nonetheless, the unelected Life Peers who replaced most of the hereditary ones may be of questionable quality themselves, in terms of what they have to offer. Why should we should have a wholly or partially unelected upper chamber of people deemed to be experts on policy or some other area of public interest appointed by a committee of other politicians (or worse, bureaucrats) rather than elected by the people themselves? What often happens is people who might ordinarily be unelectable because of other attributes get a free ticket into Parliament. For instance, renowned playwright Andrew Lloyd Webber who conceivably, being a celebrity, would not have had the interest or humility to put himself before the people in an election was given a peerage to sit as ‘the noble Lord Lloyd-Webber’ in the House of Lords and could then vote on a motion on government tax credit cuts for the poor when he had no professional expertise or experience, let alone the democratic mandate, to do so. Establishing an upper chamber with people similar to Justices of the Peace, Presidential Advisers, NMPs and other professionals would unnecessarily create an elite upper class who do not deserve to sit in Parliament without having to fight for their seats through a public debate of their values and policy platforms in what are known as general elections.

 

Proponents of an upper chamber also suggest that two chambers would be useful in allowing some parliamentarians to focus on grassroots work while others can be left to focus on political advocacy. The more pertinent issue therein is whether the vote means so little in Singapore as to suggest that its usefulness in electing policy makers pales in comparison to its importance in electing constituency managers or vice versa. MPs have always had to be competent in both policy making and the running of their town councils. In the same vein, ministers should also be experts in their own field whilst being expected to manage a constituency for they must be directly accountable to the people just as any other MP is, or arguably even more so as they are entrusted with greater responsibility than the ordinary backbencher MP. Indeed, ministers would be better off having first-hand knowledge of the experiences and grievances of their constituents.

 

We should also not underestimate the usefulness of the vote’s ability to lawfully depose ministers who lack the confidence of even their constituents let alone the nation. Suppose for a second that Dr. Manmohan Singh was truly unworthy of being the Prime Minister of India such that the people of the state of Assam would never have elected him to be their representative in a hypothetically elected Rajya Sabha – the Congress Party’s senior leadership would still have been able to keep him and other ministers with seats in the unelected Rajya Sabha in power for personal reasons rather than because these ministers had won the right to govern on their own merit through securing the confidence of the people via an election. In other words, elections have real value in establishing the merit of a politician by means of a popular vote; the will of the people should never be underestimated in a democracy to the extent that we begin to assume that technocrats must surely know best. Hence, an upper chamber might pose unseen threats to our democracy borne out of the whims of technocrats who cannot in any way be lawfully kicked out of power by the people for doing a bad job. This goes against the grain of the meritocratic pedestal that Singapore has been built on.

 

Moreover, in view of the reality that exists in the Parliament of Singapore today, an upper chamber would be practically unnecessary. One of the argued merits of an upper chamber is that its members would be able to scrutinise bills more thoroughly. To this end, upper chambers like the US Senate and the House of Lords, whether elected or not, do provide a greater scope and more time for debate on each bill that passes through these chambers. However, is there a need for this additional avenue of legislative scrutiny in Singapore when our Parliament already does so little to scrutinise bills? The Parliament of Singapore has certainly not exhausted its own means of scrutiny as far as bills are concerned and has a long way to go in improving its procedures to do so. It is extremely rare for a bill to be committed to an ad-hoc Select Committee of MPs for further deliberation, even though such calls for this to happen have been made before. Amendment motions on bills are unheard of. We have come to point where Parliament does not even need to sit as often as the UK’s House of Commons upon which it was based because bills in Singapore are rushed through the House. This is partially due to nature of the PAP supermajority as there is little political impetus for PAP MPs to publicly scrutinise Government bills in Select Committees or to seek to amend these bills even if they feel they cannot completely agree with pieces of legislation introduced by ministers while the few Opposition MPs lack the power or resources to do so. Hence, so long as the current Parliament of Singapore does not do all that it technically can to improve scrutiny, extend debates and raise more issues in the House, an upper chamber would be unneeded and would instead add nothing more than financial burden on the public purse with respect to its hypothetical members’ remuneration.

 

I recall a random afternoon in my secondary school library when I chanced upon a book on the 1953 Rendel Commission and its report which paved the way for the establishment of the Legislative Assembly of Singapore. (The Assembly would later be reconstituted to Parliament after Independence in 1965.) The book outlined the Commission’s reasons for recommending a single chamber in a unicameral system rather than two chambers in a bicameral system which included the fear of political class stratification and the overall lack of any practical need for two chambers. The truth that Singapore’s politics lacks the space for an upper chamber remains as evident today as it was back then, during the time our forefathers were on the brink of self-government.

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Transboundary Haze – Care To Air Your Views?

Haze
Dr Haridas
Ms Lee Li Lian
Beckham
Tirta

The haze affects different people in different ways. But there are things we can do to make life a bit better for those around us and ourselves as well.

My aunt, Dr Haridas, whilst keenly aware of the health hazards posed by the haze and that she has to look out for patients showing symptoms of haze-related health issues, also knows she has to exercise due diligence by not assuming that every patient who reports irritation to his or her eyes, for instance, is not suffering as such due to the haze alone.

Ms Lee Li Lian, using her voice and influence as my Member of Parliament, had tabled a Parliamentary Question in 2013 to ask the Minister for Health “(a) what effort has been made to make parents more aware of the advice that N95 masks are not designed for children; and (b) whether the Government intends to make available masks that are certified for children in public health emergencies.” 1Today, she continues her efforts to help the local community in various ways, having distributed masks to residents at a grassroots event recently.

My young friend and neighbour, Beckham plays his own part as well by reminding his secondary school friends on Facebook to wear masks when leaving the house.

And last but by no means least, my best friend Tirta whilst feeling sympathetic towards his fellow countrymen who have little choice but to bear the worst consequences of the haze, also recognises that this is a problem that not only doctors, politicians and those more vulnerable to the effects of the haze should be worried about – it is a problem that speaks to all of us, young or old, with urgency regardless of how seemingly helpless ordinary folk like us may perceive ourselves to be.

References:

[1] Parliament of Singapore. (2013). Safeguarding Singaporeans’ Health During Occurrence of Haze. Official Reports -Parliamentary Debates (Hansard), 90, Sitting 19. Retrieved from http://sprs.parl.gov.sg/search/topic.jsp?currentTopicID=00000151-WA&currentPubID=00000140-WA&topicKey=00000140-WA.00000151-WA_2%2Bid-43fcd59a-3ee3-45fa-a762-817fde5e1d55%2B4.

Photo Credits:

IMG: Ms Lee Li Lian – Punggol East Constituency Committee

IMG: Beckham – Beckham Song Ying

The Transboundary Haze Pollution Act: What It Can and Cannot Do.

Hansard

The Transboundary Haze Pollution Act was introduced to Parliament on 7th July 2014. It was debated by the House on 4th August 2014, committed to a Committee of the Whole House and passed after its Third Reading a day later on 5th August 20141. The Act came into effect on 25th September 20142.

The introduction of the Bill to the House came a year after Singapore suffered its worst incidence of air pollution caused by haze, with the highest recorded PSI levels the country had ever experienced3. In his opening speech to the House on the occasion of the Second Reading of the Bill4, then Minister for the Environment and Water Resources, Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, noted that the a legislative approach to Singapore’s response to the haze was necessitated not so much by Indonesia’s lack of environmental laws as by their lack of ability in enforcing these laws.

Part II of the Act sets out commercial or other entities’ liabilities for transboundary air pollution5. The provisions contained therein make it an offence for entities to be involved in causing haze. The law extends the scope of entities or companies covered under the Act to include those that may not be directly causing haze but are in some way involved in the management of another entity or company that owns land and contributes to causing haze from there. Furthermore, the legislation also specifies that it shall be a statutory duty of such companies to ensure compliance. Entities that have been found to have acted in contravention of the Act are also liable to provide compensation if there is evidence that the haze caused by them has affected any “person, property or the environment” in Singapore.

A key feature of the Act is the extraterritorial nature of the extent and reach of the legislation. The Act applies not only to companies based within Singapore but also to foreign-owned ones. Minister Balakrishnan assured the House that, “This exercise of extra-territorial jurisdiction under this Bill is in line with international law, specifically the objective territorial principle.” However, the effectiveness of the extraterritoriality of the Act is questionable. Then Non-Constituency Member of Parliament, Mr Yee Jenn Jong of the Workers’ Party, rose to point out6 that Singapore has no extradition treaty with Indonesia and that, “If the accused person fails to appear in court, a warrant of arrest is issued under Section 17. This will likely have little or no effect if the person is not in Singapore.”

Other practical constraints limit the effectiveness of the Act. In order to prosecute perpetrators, the Government of Singapore would have to be able to accurately identify them according to the lands on which forest fires were started and spread to. However, this can only be done if Indonesia agrees to share cartographic information with Singapore. Even if the Indonesian authorities agreed to do so, the prevailing complexity of forested land tenure issues in Indonesia would render it onerous to distinguish the rightful owners of the land in question from commercial perpetrators if indeed such distinctions can and ought to be made in the first place. This was a point raised by the then Nominated Member of Parliament, Ms Faizah Jamal, who represented environmental interests in the House.

During the debate on the Bill, MPs from all sides of the House recognised that the key to solving the woes of transboundary haze lies beyond a legislative approach. Member of Parliament for Marine Parade, Associate Professor Fatimah Lateef said, “Education must continue. Commitment must be inculcated. Mutual trust must continue to be strengthened.” Mr Yee of the Workers’ Party urged the Government to not only look at how forest fires can be prevented but to extend our diplomatic efforts to helping Indonesia develop “a more sustainable agro-industry.” The most sobering view, however, came from Ms Jamal, who proclaimed that the Government has to take the lead in changing our approach to the bigger picture of consumerism for the better. She said, “The ordinary citizen as consumers should be made aware that they have the power to change a business model that has thus far been more concerned about profits than about people or planet, provided citizens start by taking back responsibility for their own part in the problem. It is no use playing the blame game when there is no sense of personal responsibility for the consumer choices that we make individually and collectively as a country.” Today, with the greying of our skies once again, local companies took to improving their consumption practices with much support from the public.

Two things are certain. From an environmentalist’s perspective, it should not have to take a bad bout of haze for us to improve the way we use the environment. And, from a political and legal perspective, it will not take a single Act of Parliament alone to prevent these bouts from recurring to colour our skies grey once again.
References:

[1] Parliament of Singapore. (2014). Bills Introduced. Singapore: Parliament of Singapore. Retrieved from http://www.parliament.gov.sg/publications/bills-introduced.

[2] National Environment Agency. (2014). Parliament Statements. Singapore: Government of Singapore. Retrieved from http://www.nea.gov.sg/corporate-functions/newsroom/parliament.

[3] Velasco, E. & Rastan, S. (2015). Air quality in Singapore during the 2013 smoke-haze episode over the Strait of Malacca: Lessons learned. Sustainable Cities and Society, 17, 122-131.

[4] Parliament of Singapore. (2014). Transboundary Haze Pollution Bill. Official Reports -Parliamentary Debates (Hansard), 92, Sitting 10. Retrieved from http://sprs.parl.gov.sg/search/topic.jsp?currentTopicID=00006470-WA&currentPubID=00006417-WA&topicKey=00006417-WA.00006470-WA_2%2Bid-2242cb2e-c3e5-4597-9bfa-bbaa6c57a231%2B.

[5] Transboundary Haze Pollution Act 2014 (Act 24 of 2014).

[6] Parliament of Singapore. (2014). Transboundary Haze Pollution Bill. Official Reports -Parliamentary Debates (Hansard), 92, Sitting 11. Retrieved from http://sprs.parl.gov.sg/search/topic.jsp?currentTopicID=00006478-WA&currentPubID=00006482-WA&topicKey=00006482-WA.00006478-WA_1%2Bid-4067f594-ea00-4e20-ac4b-1ad5493c5b74%2B.