Form of Government
The Republic of Singapore is a city-state with a governing structure patterned on the British system of parliamentary government. In 1989 legislative power was vested in a unicameral Parliament with eighty-one members who were elected for five-year terms (or less if the Parliament was dissolved prematurely). Members of Parliament were elected by universal adult suffrage from forty-two single-member constituencies and thirteen group representation constituencies. Voting was compulsory for all citizens above the age of twenty-one. The group representation constituencies elected a team of three members, at least one of the whom had to be Malay, Indian, or a member of one of Singapore's other minorities. The group representation constituencies, introduced in the 1988 general election, were intended to ensure multiracial parliamentary representation to reflect Singapore's multiracial society. In another departure from the British model, members of Parliament elected on a party ticket had to resign if they changed parties. A 1984 amendment to the Parliamentary Elections Act provided for the appointment to Parliament of up to three nonconstituency members if the opposition parties failed to win at least three seats in the general election. The nonconstituency members were chosen from the opposition candidates who had polled the highest percentage of votes. The seventh Parliament, elected on September 3, 1988, and meeting for the first time on January 9, 1989, included one elected opposition member and one nonconstituency member.
Singapore had only one level of government--national government and local government were one and the same. The form of the government reflected the country's unusually small area and modest total population of 2.6 million. Below the national level, the only recognized territorial divisions were the fifty-five parliamentary constituencies. Members of Parliament thus performed some of the same functions as municipal aldermen in foreign cities and often won political support by helping to find jobs for constituents or doing other favors requiring intercession with the powerful civil bureaucracy. The single-member constituencies varied in population from 11,000 electors to as many as 55,000; some of the variability reflected population movement away from the old urban core and out to new housing developments.
As in all British-style polities, the government was headed by a prime minister who led a cabinet of ministers of state selected from the ranks of the members of Parliament. The cabinet was the policy-making body, and its members directed the work of the permanent civil servants in the ministries they headed. In 1989, the cabinet comprised fifteen members. Below the prime minister were a first deputy prime minister and a second deputy prime minister. They were followed by the ministers in charge of such functional departments as the Ministry of Finance or the Ministry of Defence and by two ministers without portfolio. The prime minister could reassign his cabinet members to new portfolios or drop them from the cabinet, and successful ministers headed several progressively more significant ministries in their careers. There were thirteen ministerial portfolios in 1989: defence, law, foreign affairs, national development, education, environment, communications and information, home affairs, finance, labour, community development, trade and industry, and health. Some portfolios were split between different ministers. The first deputy prime minister (Goh Chok Tong) was also first minister for defence. The minister for communications and information (Yeo Ning Hong) also served as second minister for defence (policy). The minister for trade and industry (Brigadier General (Reserve) Lee Hsien Loong) was concurrently second minister for defence (services). The foreign affairs and law portfolios were similarly divided.
The cabinet met once or twice a week; its meetings were private and confidential. Administrative and staff support to the prime minister and cabinet was provided by the Office of the Prime Minister, the officials of which included a senior minister of state, a political secretary, a secretary to the prime minister, and a secretary to the cabinet. The Office of the Prime Minister coordinated and monitored the activities of all ministries and government bodies and also directly supervised the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau and the Elections Department. Each minister was assisted by two secretaries, one for parliamentary or political affairs and the other for administrative affairs. The latter, the permanent secretary, was the highest ranking career civil servant of the ministry.
The constitutional head of state was the president, who occupied a largely powerless and ceremonial role. The president was elected by the Parliament for a four-year term. He could be reelected without limit and removed from office by a two-thirds vote of Parliament. In turn, the president formally appointed as prime minister the member of Parliament who had the support of the majority of Parliament. On the advice of the prime minister, the president then appointed the rest of the ministers from the ranks of the members of Parliament. The president, acting on the advice of the prime minister, also appointed a wide range of government officials, including judges, and members of advisory boards and councils.
In 1988 the government discussed amending the Constitution to increase the power of the president. A white paper introduced in Parliament in July 1988 recommended that the president be directly elected by the people for a six-year term and have veto power over government spending as well as over key appointments. It also proposed an elected vice president with a six-year term of office. The proposed changes originated as a device intended to permit Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, who had been prime minister since 1959, to retain some power should he retire, as he had hinted, and assume the presidency. No specific dates for the proposed constitutional change were given in the white paper. As of late 1989, no action had been taken.
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