Constitutional democracies are fine representative forms of government, probably the least imperfect governmental system around. Ironically, one of the oldest and finest examples of parliamentary democracy operates without a written Constitution: the United Kingdom (UK).
'Westminster' style democracies are emulated in many countries around the world, including Singapore. Of course, there are no cookie-cutter approaches to representative government so all nations modify the democratic system to suit their own particular local environment.
The British Houses of Parliament and Big Ben located at Westminster, London.
Most young democracies, including Singapore, have used a 'top-down' approach. That is, a defined Constitution is hoisted upon the state at independence. Democracy is not based on parliamentary traditions defined over centuries of transformation, from kingdoms' to democracies.
In this manner, post-colonial national Constitutions' cherry pick provisions from existing international examples. The process leapfrogs the need for citizens to undergo traumatic, often revolutionary, movements to wrest certain rights now universally accepted as inalienable to all humans. Freedom of expression, religion and association are three of the fundamental rights which come to mind.
Singapore is not Britain. Singapore is a compact island republic where differences in constituency politics are not be as severe as in the UK. For example, the 'local' issues for an MP from Jurong or Woodlands may not be as different as for MPs representing London or Glasgow.
Yet, we all know that local politics is different from national politics. Local politics is the need for a cycling path in a particular estate, complaints about a noisy commercial establishment, or pollution from a nearby factory and so on. National issues such as the economy and immigration have a whole different dynamic.
I may be wrong, but I am quite certain that under Singapore's parliamentary rules an MP does not need to maintain a primary (or secondary) residence in the constituency she represents. I know the People's Action Party (PAP) has Grassroots Organisations (GROs), party activists and regular sessions in their constituency but is that enough for an MP to accurately understand the problems of the average resident?
Singapore is a 'kiasu' society. Everyone wants to live in a private condominium and drive a luxury car. However, the fact is that the great bulk (80% or more) of Singaporeans live in state subsidized Housing Development Board (HDB) apartments. Not all ordinary citizens will succeed in their aspirations to move out of HDB 'pigeon holes' or own cars.
MPs are a privileged lot of people. And, to some extent, they should be. Nevertheless, I suggest there is a direct correlation between understanding a constituency and living in the constituency. It is a self-evident truth and one hard to argue against.
It is unlikely that an MP who lives in a landed property and only sees the road from her residence gate to her workplace will experience selfish cyclists on footpaths breaking the law or the crowded state of the trains during peak periods. Parliamentary secretaries and state bureaucrats may dutifully report statistics on the average daily number of train commuters or serious accidents involving bicycles but the impact of such numbers is impersonal.
Followers of British politics will know that a Member of Parliament (MP) must maintain a residence in their constituency and reside a certain amount of time 'at home.' (Many readers will also be aware of the scandals surrounding certain dishonest MPs which arise from fraudulent expenses centred upon the 'two home' system.)
Singapore's Parliament building
I am not certain that the GROs and the party infrastructure is enough for an MP to immerse themselves in a specific constituency. Perhaps it is time Singapore parliamentary customs (or party rules) mandate that MPs continually reside for at least a minimum number of days, say 180, each year within the constituency they represent?
Of course, living in a neighbourhood implies more than just sleeping at a registered address each night. 'Living' means sharing the same experiences of a resident through taking public transport, shopping at neighbourhood stores, walking around the estate during the evenings, etc.
In my mind, there is no doubt that someone who does not live in Woodlands will not entirely understand the subjects (or complaints) that matter most to Woodlands residents. True representative democracy is an arduous journey. It is time for Singapore to take the next step forward.