SINGAPORE – Singapore's prime minister on Wednesday announced constitutional amendments that would result in more opposition politicians in Parliament, long dominated by his ruling People's Action Party.
Lee Hsien Loong, who is also secretary general of the party, said the changes will ensure the government is "always kept on its toes."
The PAP has ruled the island nation since independence in 1965. It won 83 of 89 seats in last September's general election, securing nearly 70 percent of all votes and boosting its confidence after winning only 60 percent of the votes in the 2011 general election.
"In raising this major issue now, my aim is to strengthen our system to make it more open and contestable, and to keep it accountable to the people," Lee said.
He said Parliament should "always be the place to debate and decide on important policies, where alternative views always have a place, where the opposition will never be shut out, and the government will be held to account."
The move to give more room to the opposition in Parliament comes as a surprise. Lee's father, Singapore founding leader Lee Kuan Yew, who died last March, had no tolerance for opposition voices and often took detractors to court on defamation charges.
The proposed constitutional changes need to be voted on in Parliament after Lee files an official request, which he said he will do "during this term," which could be any time within five years. They are expected to be approved because of the ruling party's dominance.
Critics say Singapore's electoral system, in which some constituencies are represented by a group of four to six lawmakers, has unfairly boosted the ruling party's numbers. Lee said the size of those groups will be reduced, giving smaller opposition parties the chance to cobble together enough candidates to contest the constituencies. He did not say how large the new groups would be.
He said the minimum number of opposition members in Parliament will also be increased from nine to 12 starting from the next general election. If fewer than 12 opposition members are elected, the "best losers" from the opposition will be selected as non-constituency members of Parliament, meaning they don't represent a group of residents.
Such non-constituency members are currently barred from voting on changes to the constitution or on votes of no confidence in the government, but Lee said that would change.
The secretary-general of the opposition Workers' Party, Low Thia Khiang, said non-constituency members of Parliament are just "duckweed on the water of a pond" because they don't have roots or a power base in a constituency.
"They may have the same voting rights in Parliament, but that is only pertaining to Parliament. Non-constituency members of Parliament do not give any political party muscle, because you don't have the competitive advantage on the ground. That does not help you to build your strength in political competition," he said.
Reuben Wong, a political science professor at the National University of Singapore, said the PAP was responding to public expectations of broader voices in policy making.
"It is an important symbol that we are moving toward a more mature political system, from a longstanding mantra that one party is good for Singaporeans. (The PAP) is changing its tune," he said.