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I was at a Ho Yi Jian’s Talk Politics session last night, and at one point, Justin Ong (Reform Party’s youth chief) mentioned that the Singaporean constitution was too easily amended, and therefore (if I’m not mistaken) cannot have a normative effect as a supreme law.

I used to think the same was as Justin Ong, and on some levels, I do. In both Malaysia and Singapore, only a two-third majority in Parliament is required to amend the constitution. With a dominant party system in both countries, it was inevitable that the constitution was degraded by frequent amendments. But is it so?

Assume for a moment that Malaysia has the same rules on amending the constitution as the United States – and therefore, in addition to the two-third majority requirement, three-forths of states need to ratify an amendment. And it would have made absolutely no difference – until 2008, more than three-forths of the states were under and subserviant to Barisan Nasional. Assume different standards are used – like a referendum.

Increasing the amendment requirements does make amending the constitution harder – and some onnerous amendments may not have passed, but the main reason why the constitution was degraded and devalued wasn’t for the lax rules. It was a dominant party system. United Kingdom, New Zealand and Israel have much of their written constitution in regular legislative acts, easily amendable by a regular legislative majority.

Personally, I would prefer a constitution resembling more of New Zealand and the United Kingdom than of the United States for the very reason that the evolution of the constitution will be easier. In Malaysia, should Pakatan Rakyat form the next government, it is unlikely they will have an easy time amending the constitution – and thus, the constitutionally order will almost permanently be in favour of Barisan Nasional (bits like a static allocation of parliamentary seats to the states, regardless of population, favour rural-based Basian Nasional far more than urban-based Pakatan Rakyat).

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5 Comments

  1. Given that we’re only… around 44 years old in independence, is it reasonable to expect a hard, concrete and monolithic constitution? Do we have the concrete political fundamentals to allow us to hold on to one form of the constitution without heeding paradigm shifts in the regional and global political scene?

    • Johnny, I never expected (or for that matter, advocated) for a “hard, concrete and monolithic constitution”. I was just disputing that the ease of amending the constitution led to the erosion in constitutional principles and values.

        • johnny
        • Posted 28 November 2009 at 9:09 pm
        • Permalink

        hey rajan, i’m not arguing against you haha. don’t worry.

  2. Hi Rajan. Brian here from the discussion the other night. Not disputing your point, just adding on another possible source where this might be coming from. Part of the problem may be the way Malaysian and Singaporean society view the Constitution. In Western liberal democracies — the U.S. being the prime example — the belief that certain basic freedoms come prior to any social calculus or political bargaining (whether or not they actually are in practice) is valued far more than they are here. Perhaps, as was raised that night, Malaysian and Singaporean society is far more amenable to bargaining away freedom for other socioeconomic advantages. Whether this is right or not falls under the purview of political philosophy, which was what I was trying to put across that night.

    • Yes, but just as those norms were developed/acquired in the west, so it could have gone through the same process here. Take Germany for example – today, those Western liberal democracy norms are extremely strong there. Twenty years ago, a third of Germany was under a totalitarian dictatorship. Five decades earlier, all of Germany was under the Third Reich.

      The only other period other than post-war West Germany where there was democratic and liberal norms in Germany was during the failed Weimar Republic.

      Perhaps the biggest mistake post-colonial Malaysia and Singapore did was to attempt democracy before building those norms. After all, only India is the exception in terms of a low income country implementing electoral democracy.

      To maintain its grip on society, Barisan Nasional and PAP chose to destroy the normative institutions and values (like an independent judiciary, civil liberties and so on), when it could very well have jettison with electoral democracy.

      Compare this with Hong Kong, which, other than a brief moment before the handover, did not experience electoral democracy. Yet things like freedom of speech and assembly, independent judiciary, and so on, have become societal norms. And if Beijing allows full suffrage in the SAR, Hong Kong’s transition to democracy will be far more seamless than any transition in Malaysia or Singapore.


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