EDUCATIONAL RESOURCES

Road to Independence

There are several landmarks on Singapore’s road towards independence. In this factsheet, we trace the route and revisit the key events which shaped our history and parliamentary system. When you visit Parliament House, you will be walking down the same corridors which led us from a colony to a nation.

The Legislative Council

The Legislative Council
In 1819, Sir Stamford Raffles established a British trading post in Singapore. This new commercial centre attracted many Indian, Chinese, Bugis, Arab and British traders due to its good geographical position and free port status. Singapore was so successful that in 1824 the East India Company decided to purchase the island. Together with the other colonies of Penang and Malacca, we became known as the Straits Settlements under the administration of the Governor-General in India. In 1867, the Straits Settlements became a Crown Colony and came under the Colonial Office in London. Many important decisions affecting Singapore were made by the Governor. The Governor was a powerful man who made the laws and was in charge of running Singapore. He was assisted by an Executive Council and a Legislative Council. The work of the Legislative Council was to help the Governor in legislating laws. The members the Legislative Council were appointed by the Governor and did not really represent the people of Singapore. Whampoa Hoo Ah Kay was the first Asian Council member. He was appointed in 1869.

The Japanese Occupation

The Speaker leaving Legislative Assembly
Top: The Speaker leaving the Legislative Assembly at the
end of the first session of the Legislative Assembly. The
government bench is on the left of the picture and the
opposition is seated on the right. 

The Japanese invasion began in 1941. In less than three months, the Japanese Imperial Army had marched down Peninsula Malaya and conquered the impregnable fortress, Singapore. The surrender to the Japanese shattered the people’s confidence in the British.

Singapore was renamed Syonan-to or "Shining Light of the South". The Japanese ruled Singapore between 1942 and 1945, a period known as the Japanese Occupation. Many families and individuals suffered terrible hardship during the Occupation. This experience opened the eyes of an emerging group of Singaporeans. These people were born here and regarded Singapore as their home. They realised that the people who lived, loved and going to die here should have a say in the government of the country.


The First Elections

After the 2nd World War, the British allowed some members of the Legislative Council to be elected. Singapore’s first elections were held in 1948. Only British subjects were allowed to vote. All who wished to vote had to register themselves as voters first. However, out of more than 200,000 eligible voters in Singapore at that time, less than 14,000 people voted. The Progressive Party was the only political party that took part in the elections and won 3 out of the 6 seats. In 1951, another election was called and the Progressive Party won 6 out of 9 seats.

The Legislative Assembly

In 1953, a commission headed by Sir George Rendel recommended the establishment of a Legislative Assembly with an elected majority and a ministerial form of government for Singapore. This was a step towards self-government. However, many important departments such as foreign affairs, defence, internal security and finance remained in British hands. The Governor also had the power to veto any proposed law.

The first elections for the Legislative Assembly were held in 1955. Singapore was gripped in an election fever that year. There was a big change in the attitudes of the people from the 1950s. The people became more critical of the colonial government. This political awareness was the result of the increase in the process of decolonisation and rise of independence movements in many colonies, the rise of communism in China and its influence among the Chinese workers and students in Singapore, and the colonial government’s less than sensitive treatment of issues relating to citizenship, language and education.
Mr David Marshall
Bottom: Mr David Marshall, 
the first Chief Minister of  Singapore taking his oath as Member of the Legislative Assembly.  
The 1955 elections became a landmark event. It was the starting point for the people’s struggle for independence. Automatic registration increased the number of voters to over 300,000. The Labour Party won the elections and David Marshall became the Chief Minister of Singapore.

One of the main aims of the Legislative Assembly was to obtain early self-government. Three constitutional meetings were held between the British and members of the Legislative Assembly headed by the Chief Minister in 1956, 1957 and 1958. It ended with an agreement to grant Singapore self-government. Singapore’s status would change from that of a colony to a State. In 1958, a State Constitution was enacted for Singapore to allow for elections, compulsory voting and to grant powers to the elected government for all matters except defence, foreign affairs and internal security.

What is Parliament?

The word "parliament" comes from a very old French word "parley" which means "to discuss". The word was first used to describe a meeting between the king of England and his bishops and lords known as the King’s Council.

At such meetings, the king would ask the bishops and the lords for their advice and for money. Through the years, the body was enlarged and separated into the House of Lords and the House of Commons. The role of the Houses evolved through time and historical events to the present-day parliament.

As Singapore was a British colony for many years, we have inherited some British institutions such as the Westminster parliamentary system of government. Other countries which share a similar system are Australia, Canada, India and Malaysia.

Parliament and the Government

Parliament HouseIn Singapore, there are three organs of state which are legislative, executive and judiciary. Parliament falls under legislative which makes the laws, the executive exercises it powers according to the law and the judiciary interprets the law. These powers and functions are found in a supreme law called the Constitution. The Singapore Legislature comprises the President, elected Members of Parliament or "MPs", Nominated MPs and Non-Constituency MPs.

In a parliamentary system of government, the party which wins more than half the seats in Parliament at the General Election will form the government. Sometimes two or more parties may form partnerships to have the majority of seats in Parliament. They are called a coalition government.

The Prime Minister, appointed by the President, is usually an elected Member of Parliament who is likely to command the confidence of the majority of the Members of Parliament. The President shall appoint other Ministers from among the Members of Parliament upon the advice of the Prime Minister. Collectively, they are referred to as the government or executive.

Members of the political party which forms the executive are sometimes known as government MPs whilst the members belonging to the other parties are known collectively as opposition MPs.

In a parliamentary system of government, the Prime Minister and his Cabinet remain in office only while they have the support of the majority of MPs in Parliament. His government is answerable and accountable to Parliament for all its actions. In Parliament, you can hear MPs asking Ministers questions and for explanations. If a government does not have the support of Parliament, Parliament may pass a vote of no confidence and force the government to resign.

Besides debates in Parliament, many discussions are held "behind the scenes", for example, at party meetings, through party bodies such as the Government Parliamentary Committees and through informal channels.

The President is constitutionally a part of the Legislature. This fusion of power is the result of our historical heritage from Britain where the legislative power is exercised by Parliament in the name of the Queen and on her behalf. The President is also the Head of State of Singapore. The executive powers of the state are vested in him and exercised by the Prime Minister and the Cabinet on his behalf.

In practice, the President acts on the advice of the Cabinet except on certain matters set out in the Constitution. The President is elected by the people for a term of six years. The President can prevent Parliament from amending the Constitution to affect his powers and have it referred to a national referendum. In a national referendum, the matter is referred to the people to vote.

The Constitution

Our Parliament derives its authority and power from a supreme law called the Constitution. The Constitution states who can qualify to be an MP, the life of a Parliament and how the powers of Parliament are to be exercised. There are also other provisions relating to individual rights, the powers and functions of the President, the Prime Minister, the Courts, etc.

The Constitution is often referred to as the supreme law. This is because any law made by Parliament which is inconsistent with the Constitution will not have any effect. Most of the provisions of the Constitution can be changed by Parliament. However, unlike other laws which only require a majority vote in Parliament, at least two-thirds of all the elected MPs must agree to the changes (or amendments). There are some provisions in the Constitution that cannot be changed by Parliament alone, but must be subject to a national referendum.

Presidential Council for Minority Rights

Although Singapore does not have a bicameral parliament, there is another body that scrutinises most of the Bills passed by Parliament. This body is known as the Presidential Council for Minority Rights.

One of the functions of the Council is to ensure that the proposed law does not discriminate against any race, religion or community. If the Council feels any provision in the law is biased, it will report its findings to Parliament and the Bill will be referred back to Parliament for reconsideration. The Council is currently headed by the Chief Justice of Singapore and its members are representatives of the main races and religions in Singapore.

Who is My Member of Parliament?

Members of Parliament are the people’s representatives. During a General Election, which must be held at least every five years from the first sitting of Parliament, Singaporeans are asked to choose a person to represent them in Parliament.

Elections

Once in about every five years, elections are held in Singapore. The people who stand for elections are called candidates.

Many candidates are members of political parties such as the People’s Action Party, Singapore Peoples’ Party and Workers Party. Some candidates do not belong to any political party and are called independent candidates. Singapore is divided into various areas or constituencies. There are Single Member Constituencies (SMCs) and Group Representation Constituencies (GRCs). In an SMC, the people vote for one candidate to represent them in Parliament. In a GRC, several wards are combined and voters elect for a team of candidates. At least one member of the GRC must be from a minority race. GRCs ensure that there will always be minority representation in Parliament. In the last General Election in 2015, there were 16 GRCs and 13 SMCs.

During elections, political parties will broadcast their political message on television, organise public rallies, walk-abouts and hold press conferences to bring the party’s message to the people. Candidates are voted into Parliament on a first-past-the-post basis. This means that the candidate with the highest number of votes wins. The party with the most number of seats in Parliament will go on to form the government. The Prime Minister and his Cabinet will be chosen from the party’s elected MPs. If no party wins a majority of seats in Parliament, several parties may join together and form a coalition government.

The constitutional life of Parliament is five years after the date of its first sitting. parliament must be dissolved after its term and the government must hold another General Election within three months from the dissolution of Parliament.
Election Rally
Top: Election rally of the People's Action
Party at Fullerton Square in the 1959
General Election. The party has won every
election since Singapore's independence
in 1965.
Since independence, Singapore has had thirteen General Elections.

Your MP is elected to look after your constituency’s interests. Elections give you the choice to vote for a candidate in your constituency. On a larger picture, your vote will also determine which political party will form the next government.

Voting

Every Singaporean, regardless of sex, race or religion, who is aged 21 years and above has the right to vote for an individual candidate or group of candidates standing in his constituency.

Queue for Legislative Assembly ElectionsAny person above the age of 21 years and is not disqualified under the provisions of the Constitution can stand for elections. Voting is compulsory for all citizens aged 21 years and above.

Each eligible voter has one vote and his choice of candidate(s) is secret. The right for all persons to vote is known as universal adult suffrage. In England, all men were given the right to vote only in 1918. In 1893, New Zealand became the first country to allow women to vote. The aboriginal people of New South Wales, Australia, were given the right to vote only in 1962.

Who Makes Up Parliament?

The Legislature is made up of the President and Parliament. The Constitution provides for 3 types of MPs: elected, non-constituency (NCMP) and nominated (NMP). Elected MPs are chosen by the people during a General Election. At present there are 88 elected MPs.

The Constitution was amended on the 26th of April 2010 to allow up to 9 NCMPs from opposition political parties to be appointed. During the recent General Election, 6 opposition party MPs were elected. This means 3 seats in the Parliament were offered to candidates from the opposition parties who obtained the greatest percentage of votes but did not win in the General Election.

Nominated MPs are chosen by Parliament and appointed by the President. After each General Election, Parliament can appoint a Special Select Committee to invite the public to submit names of persons for consideration as NMPs. The aim of the NMP scheme is to offer Singaporeans more opportunities for political participation and to evolve a more consensual style of government where alternative views are heard and constructive dissent accommodated. Such non-government MPs can question government policies and argue for alternative courses of action. They serve a term of two and a half years.

What is the difference between elected MPs, NMPs and NCMPs?


NCMPs and NMPs cannot vote on any amendment to the Constitution or Bills relating to the provision of money or grants to the government, taxes and public funds. They also cannot vote on any motion of no confidence against the government. However, they can take part in all the debates.

Who's Who In Parliament?

Parliament Sitting cannot commence without them. Identify the key roles, items and ceremony involved in a Parliamentary Sitting.

Speaker and Speaker's Procession

At 1.30 pm sharp, the bells in Parliament House suddenly stop ringing. In the silence that follows, there is an air of expectancy as a few MPs rush to their seats in the Chamber and all conversations stop. Suddenly a gentleman in black coat tails carrying a rapier and bearing a Mace appears at the Chamber doorway and announces "Mr Speaker!" Everyone quickly stands up and there is a soft rustle as men and women dressed in flowing black robes lead a procession to the head of the Chamber. A distinguished-looking woman moves to the highest seat, turns around to face the MPs and bows at them. You can tell that he is a very important person. He is the Speaker of Parliament.

Speaker

The main role of the Speaker today is to watch over proceedings and enforce the rules of Parliament to ensure the smooth and orderly conduct of business. If you watch a debate, you will notice that the Speaker's role is very much like your teacher in the classroom. He decides who should speak first and for how long, he puts the question to Parliament to vote on and he announces the decision of Parliament. He is also the guardian of the privileges of Parliament. MPs look to him for guidance on matters of procedure and he gives his rulings on any point of order if necessary.

In medieval England when the king was the absolute ruler of the country, not everyone could see or speak to him. So, when Parliament needed to make any request to the king, it chose one of its members to speak on behalf of Parliament. This person became known as the Speaker. It was a dangerous job then because the king could order the Speaker's head to be chopped off if he was displeased with Parliament!

The Speaker is elected at the beginning of a new Parliament by the MPs. The Speaker may belong to a political party but, upon his appointment, he puts aside party loyalties and is impartial and fair to all MPs; that is why he does not take part in the debates. The Speaker is assisted by two Deputy Speakers.

Leader of the House

The Leader of the House is appointed by the Prime Minister and is responsible for the arrangement of government business and the legislative programme of Parliament. He also proposes any steps which Parliament should take, for example, when any MP has refused to follow the Speaker's order. In such an event, the Leader may move that the MP be suspended or that the matter be referred to a Select Committee for consideration and to make recommendations.

The Leader also moves procedural motions relating to the business of Parliament, such as extending the times of sitting beyond the usual time as set out in the Standing Orders (the rules of Parliament).

Party Whip

The term "whip" owes its origins to the sport of fox hunting which was popular with the noblemen in medieval England. During a hunt, hound dogs were used to find and chase the foxes. Assistants known as whipper-in people were employed to keep the hounds in order.

The Party Whip controls and maintains discipline among party members. During a vote in Parliament, the Whip will ensure that there are sufficient party members in the Chamber to support the party's position. He also ensures that MPs, who belong to the party, vote according to the party line. On some occasions, he may "lift the whip" and allow MPs to vote according to their conscience.

The Whip also ensures the smooth running of the party's machinery in Parliament. He lists the speakers for each item of business and estimates the time required so that Parliament's business is completed within schedule. The Whip assists the Leader of the House to ensure the smooth running of business in Parliament.

Clerk of Parliament

The Clerk of Parliament and the Assistant Clerks form part of the Secretariat. The Clerk is the most senior official in the Secretariat. During sittings, the Clerks wearing black robes are seated at the table directly below the Speaker's Chair.

The function of the Clerks at sittings is to assist the Speaker and advise MPs on the rules and procedures of Parliament. The Clerk of Parliament is responsible for the administration of the Secretariat. The Secretariat staff comprises officers such as reporters, interpreters and librarians who assist Parliament to carry out its work.

Serjeant-At-Arms

The Serjeant-at-Arms' duty is to maintain order within the grounds of Parliament House. During sittings, the Serjeant is the gentleman who wears the sword and bears the Mace. His office is an ancient tradition which dates back hundreds of years to medieval England.

The Serjeant regulates the admission of the public to Parliament House and has the power to arrest, without warrant, upon the order of the Speaker, any person who creates a disturbance in Parliament. He works with the Security department to ensure the security of the Parliament House and its precincts are taken care of.

The Mace

The Mace

The Mace is the symbol of the power and authority of Parliament and of the Speaker. You can see the Mace being carried on the shoulder of the Serjeant-at-Arms during the procession at the beginning and conclusion of each sitting. The Mace is always in the Chamber during sittings. Without it, proceedings cannot take place.

The Serjeant places the Mace on the upper brackets of the Table of the House when the Speaker is in his Chair. When the Speaker leaves his Chair and takes the role of the Chairman of the Committee, the Mace is placed on the lower brackets. The Mace is removed altogether when the President is present during proceedings.

What Does My Member of Parliament Do?

MPs represent the people who voted for them in their constituencies and have to live up to their election promises. They look into their constituents’ needs and try to help them.

For example, if the roads are always jammed, they will try to get the roads widened. Sometimes, individual constituents have personal problems which may require MPs to assist. MPs are also chairmen of the town councils which oversee the management and maintenance of common areas in HDB estates in their constituencies. Other evenings and weekends are spent meeting constituents, attending community functions, advising grassroots organisations, etc. Being an MP requires much time, commitment and hard work.

To improve the lives of the people, the government will create new programmes and policies or change the old ones. Sometimes, this is done by making new laws or changing outdated legislation. The government also needs to get money to carry out its programmes. To make laws and obtain the money, the government must seek the approval of Parliament. Parliament can ask the government to explain its policies and answer for its actions.

Formation of the Government

In our parliamentary system of government, effective power lies not with the President, but in the Prime Minister and his Cabinet (Ministers).

The party or coalition of parties with the majority of seats in Parliament will form the government. The Prime Minister and his Cabinet must be elected MPs and will come from the majority party. The government is collectively and individually responsible to Parliament. If the government does not have the support of the majority of MPs in Parliament it will have to step down.

Law-Making

Parliament makes laws or legislates. Scrutinising and debating proposed legislation is one of the main duties of an MP.

Before any law is passed, it is first introduced as a draft version known as a Bill by the Minister in charge of it. The Bill is then read for the first time. Copies of the Bill are then given to the MPs to read. In reviewing the Bills and in drafting speeches, MPs are assisted by their legislative and secretarial assistants who perform research and administrative work.

A Bill must go through three readings in Parliament. MPs are given an opportunity to debate on the Bill from its Second Reading. At the start of the Second Reading, the Minister will explain the principles behind the Bill. After his speech, MPs will debate in support of or against the Bill.

The Minister will reply to all the points raised at the end of the debate. A vote is then taken. The Bill needs the support of a majority of the MPs present for it to be passed. In raising questions on the Bill and in answering those questions, the MPs and the Minister respectively must be well prepared. The debates can be fiery and often require Members to think on the spot and to speak up almost immediately.

Financial Control

To carry out the programmes for the country, the government needs money. Every year, in February/March, the Finance Minister would present his Budget Statement reviewing the country’s economic performance of the previous year and announcing the economic proposals for the coming year. There will be a debate on the Budget Statement and a vote is then taken in Parliament whether or not to support the Budget Statement.

The government would then present a document known as the Estimates of Expenditure to Parliament. The Estimates tells you how much money each of the Ministries will receive and what they will be spent on. Parliament will debate on the Estimates of Expenditure for at least seven days. Each Ministry’s budget must be approved by Parliament. MPs can propose nominal cuts to reduce the budget for any of the government’s programmes.

The last stage of the Budget process is the passing of the Supply Bill. The Bill authorises the government to take the money from the treasury to spend according to the approved Estimates of Expenditure.

Critical Function

At the start of each Parliament sitting, one hour is reserved for Question Time. The purpose of the questions (filed by MPs) is to get information or some explanation from the government on its policy or programme.

The public also gets to hear a range of views and opinions. This forms an integral part of Parliament’s role. Through questions, Parliament makes the government account for its actions. Through motions, Parliament can endorse government policies and even criticise them.

During Question Time, you will see MPs raising their hands to "catch the Speaker’s eye" (to get the Speaker’s attention). This means that they wish to ask further questions. Sometimes you will see many hands lifted and you must be fast to be called by the Speaker!

How Are Laws Made?

Laws or Acts of Parliament begin life as Bills which are drafted by lawyers in the Attorney-General’s Chambers. Drafting a Bill is a specialised skill. The draftsman must write the law as concisely as possible using simple and clear language.

A Bill is broken down into many parts. Each part contains clauses which are identified by numbered paragraphs. Each paragraph deals with a certain aspect of the law. The various parts and clauses help to organise a Bill and make it easier to understand. Once a Bill has been drafted and refined, it must go through a process before it can be made law. This process is known as the legislative process and we sometimes use the word "legislature" to describe Parliament.

First Reading

A Bill must first be introduced in Parliament. This is known as the First Reading of the Bill.

Only the short title of the Bill is read out by the Clerk of Parliament. There is no debate. Copies of the Bill are then printed and distributed to Members of Parliament. They are expected to read the Bill, do their research and prepare their comments for the Second Reading of the Bill.

Second reading

Notice will be given to MPs for the Second Reading of the Bill. At this stage, the Bill will be debated.

The Minister will begin by explaining why he had introduced the Bill and how the Bill works. He then says, "I beg to move that the Bill be read a second time." After this, the debate begins with MPs taking turns to comment on the Bill. Questions may be raised for the Minister to answer and doubts can be raised on the whole Bill or parts of the Bill. You will hear both arguments for and against the Bill. After the debate, the Minister will reply to the points made by the MPs. A vote is then taken. Excerpts of these debates are televised and reported in the press.

If sufficient MPs support the Bill, the Clerk will read out the title of the Bill a second time, hence the term "Second Reading".

Committee Stage

After the Second Reading, the Bill has to be referred to a Committee to go through the clauses of the Bill. Usually, Parliament will form a Committee of the whole House immediately after the Second Reading. You can tell that Parliament is sitting in Committee when the Speaker steps down from his Chair and sits beside the Clerks.

MPs who support the Bill in principle but do not agree with certain clauses can take this opportunity to amend those clauses at this stage. Another debate follows and the Committee will then vote whether or not to support the amendments.

In special cases, the Bill may be referred to a Select Committee comprising several MPs. A Select Committee on a Bill can seek the comments of the public on the contents of the Bill.

The Select Committee will advertise for written representations from the public. Some representatives may be called to appear before the Committee. The purpose is for the Committee to discuss the recommendations made in the representations. The Committee will consider all the representations and may make amendments to the Bill. The Committee’s report containing minutes of meetings, representations considered and recommended amendments will then be tabled before Parliament. At the next sitting, the Minister in charge of the Bill will then move that the Bill be read a third time.

Third Reading

This stage is a formality. Any debate at the Third Reading is limited to only minor amendments, for example, corrections of typographical errors.

This is to prevent any repetition of proceedings since Parliament had already approved the Bill at the Second Reading and in Committee. If any MP disagrees with the Committee’s amendments or wishes to propose further amendments, the Bill can be recommitted to a Committee of the whole Parliament for consideration.

Presidential Council for Minority Rights

Except for certain cases as provided for in the Constitution, most Bills are referred to the Presidential Council for Minority Rights to determine if any clause in the Bill is discriminatory to any religious or racial group.

If the Council feels that certain provisions are discriminatory, it will refer the Bill back to Parliament to consider amending the Bill. Parliament can either amend the Bill and refer the amended Bill back to the Council or present the Bill to the President notwithstanding the Council’s adverse report.

Presidential Assent

After the Council has reported that the Bill is not discriminatory, the Bill is presented to the President for approval.

This step is usually a formality as the President will act according to the advice of the Prime Minister on most Bills. Once the President assents to a Bill, it becomes an Act of Parliament. For certain Bills or amendments to the Constitution, the President acts according to the advice of the Council of Presidential Advisers and can refuse to approve the Bills. These exceptions are provided for in the Constitution.

Gazetting

The Act does not come into operation until it is published in a document known as the Government Gazette. The Government Gazette basically contains notices published by the government. The Act will have effect from the day it is published or on the date stated in the Gazette.

Origin of Bills (To give an icon to represent additional info)
Bills originated from the Petitions of the early English Parliaments. When Parliaments wanted the king to correct any injustice, they would send a petition to the king. If the king agreed to the petition he would send a reply. This reply had the force of law. As Parliament grew in power, it began drafting the laws themselves.

These drafts laws were called Bills. It presented them to the king for his assent. As more and more Bills were sent to the king, Parliament developed into a legislative body. All Bills are read in Parliament. This dates back to the practice in the early English Parliaments where not all members could read and copies of Bills were not easily available. The Speaker or the Clerk would read the Bill before asking Parliament to agree to it.

Voting: Collection of the “AYES” and “NOES” and Division (To give an icon to represent additional info)
All decisions of Parliament are taken by a vote. A vote can be taken in two ways. Firstly, there is the collection of voices, that is the "ayes" and "noes", and secondly, by way of a division.

For most Bills and motions, unless it is one which requires the support of two-thirds of all MPs, the Speaker would first ask all those in support to say "aye" followed by the "noes". How does the Speaker decide the vote? He listens carefully and determines whether the "ayes" or the "noes" have the loudest support.

Sometimes, this can be less than accurate and any MP supported by at least four others can call for a division. In a division, bells are rung for two minutes to summon all MPs into the Chamber. After that, the Chamber doors are locked. The MPs will cast their votes by pressing on one of the buttons “Yes”, “No” or “Abstain” found on the right armrest of their seats.
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