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Separation of Powers in Singapore

Written By: Leon Leon

Editor: Jenna Jokhani


“If the legislative and executive authorities are one institution, there will be no freedom. There won’t be freedom anyway if the judiciary body is not separated from the legislative and executive authorities.” -Charles de Montesquieu, The Spirit of Laws (1748)


This article discusses the governmental separation of powers in the context of Singapore, as well as some brief comparisons to the models used in the United Kingdom (UK) and the United States of America (US). The state governance concept of separation of powers asserts that authority and responsibilities must not be held by any one individual or entity. In simple terms, there must be more than one group of people that influences how a country is run.


Singapore, an overview of the partial separation of powers:

Singapore employs a partial separation model with three branches of government. These branches are the:

  • Legislative (law-making)

  • Executive (implementing the law)

  • Judiciary (law-enforcement)

Singapore’s executive branch, the cabinet, runs the government directly. The cabinet is composed of the president, prime minister, and members of parliament appointed by the president. Thus, to a certain degree, it is those in the cabinet that determine parliament agendas. The cabinet also has legislative influence through delegated legislation, where laws can be passed under the authority of a statute (the highest form of law), and not through parliament.


The legislative branch, Parliament, holds the cabinet collectively responsible. This means that all cabinet ministers must support the cabinet’s decisions, even if they do not personally agree with them. The cabinet must vote for the government in the legislature. However, it is important to note that there are some checks and balances in place to prevent an accumulation of power by the cabinet. For instance, in parliament motions, cabinet ministers must justify their policies not only to one another but also to members from opposition parties and non-elected members who are not affiliated with any political party.


The judicial branch of Singapore acts more independently. Regarding governance, the judiciary reviews executive and legislative actions and has the power to declare laws unconstitutional and invalidate policies.

Hence, the partial separation label comes from the fact that the branches of government work together and have more close relationships than in a system with a full separation of powers, while still maintaining some degree of independence.


Singapore and the UK, a comparative analysis:

Singapore’s government system is largely influenced by the UK, as is common with states formerly under British Colonial rule. Like Singapore, there is no absolute separation of powers in the UK government – the legislative, executive, and judicial branches perform functions in their own areas, however, there is an overlap in function and the members of the branches. A notable example is that prior to the Reforms Act 2005, the Lord Chancellor was a speaker of the House of Lords, a member of the cabinet, and the head of the judiciary. This meant that one person had an influence in all three branches of government, which clashes with the concept of separation of powers.


The comparison to Singapore’s Cabinet, which holds executive and legislative power, is interesting. Singapore has implemented fewer checks and balances than the UK, from which its governance style is largely inherited. Despite comparatively minimal reforms, Singapore’s relative success as a nation is not uncommonly used as a talking point in favor of more centralized government authority. This is an instance which goes against the principle that without such measures, a state is bound to fall to tyranny.


Singapore and the US, a comparative analysis:

In many ways, the US is a showcase of greater, more concrete separation of powers than the format employed in Singapore (or the UK). The separation of branches and respective checks and balances stem from the US Constitution, which was written to prevent a tyrannical central government. The rest of this section elaborates on these measures.


The legislature can impeach the President, reject the President's appointment of judges, overrule/refuse to pass laws, and choose not to fund executive programs. The legislature can also keep the judiciary in check by rejecting judges, removing courts or changing court jurisdiction, and overriding some Supreme Court decisions.

The executive branch can veto laws that the legislature wishes to pass and carry out laws in a manner that does not always align with legislative plans. The executive nominates Federal Court Judges (judges of the highest courts, such as the supreme court), which influences how the judiciary system works. The President also has the power to pardon people convicted by courts and choose not to carry out court decisions.


In general, the judiciary is considered the weakest, with the fewest checks on other branches. The judiciary may declare the legislature’s laws unconstitutional and invalidate laws and executive actions.


Which is best?:

While the descriptions of the three governments discussed are not exhaustive, the relationships between the three areas of the US government are more adversarial than in Singapore or the UK and demonstrate a more distinct separation of powers. It is difficult to say that one is better than the other – a greater separation does indeed reduce the chances of authoritarian control, but it sacrifices potential efficiency as the laws and regulations of a country are slower to be made, updated, and implemented. The balance between these factors is something all democratic governments have and continue to juggle today.


Sources

SMU Apolitical, ‘ The Singapore Constitution: A Brief Introduction.’ (SMU Student Publications, December 2013) <https://ink.library.smu.edu.sg/studentpub/1> accessed 22 October 2020

All Answers ltd, 'Separation of Powers in the UK' (LawTeacher.net, October 2020) <https://www.lawteacher.net/free-law-essays/family-law/separation-of-powers-in-the-uk.php?vref=1> accessed 22 October 2020

Adam I. P. Smith, ‘The differences between UK and US governments: a brief guide’ (HistoryExtra.com, October 2020) <https://www.historyextra.com/period/modern/us-uk-government-consitution-differences-parliament-house-commons-republic-president-prime-minister/> accessed 23 October 2020

Kate Malleson, ‘The Effect of the Constitutional Reform Act 2005 On The Relationship Between The Judiciary, The Executive And Parliament’ (Parliament.uk, July 2007) <https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/ld200607/ldselect/ldconst/151/15110.htm> accessed 23 October 2020

Craig Benzine, ‘Separation of Powers and Checks and Balances: Crash Course Government and Politics #3’ (CrashCourse, February 2015) <https://youtu.be/0bf3CwYCxXw> accessed 23 October 2020



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