Constitutional Supremacy: Still a Little Dicey?
in Thio Li-ann and Kevin YL Tan (eds.), Evolution of a Revolution: Forty Years of the Singapore Constitution 153-192 (Routledge, 2008) (with Yvonne CL Lee)
40 Pages Posted: 23 Mar 2018
Date Written: 2008
Like most post-colonial nations, Singapore adopted the British Westminster parliamentary system of government with a slight twist. Singapore has a written constitution and Article 4 declares that the ‘Constitution is the supreme law of the Republic of Singapore and any law enacted by the Legislature after the commencement of this Constitution which is inconsistent with this Constitution shall, to the extent of the inconsistency, be void’. The legislature and the executive derive their powers from the Constitution and are subject to its terms. In contrast, the British constitution is unwritten and Parliament, not the constitution, is supreme. This means that Parliament has ‘the right to make or unmake any law’ and ‘no person or body is recognised by the law of England as having a right to override or set aside the legislation of Parliament’. Parliament is sovereign, which means its legislative power is not constrained by any constitutional or legal limit. However, while the Singapore Constitution formally meets the Diceyan criteria for supremacy in theory, the practice of constitutional supremacy in Singapore is still a little ‘dicey’ insofar as Parliament effectively has the power to alter the Constitution as freely as other laws. This is so even though the Constitution is the formal source of parliamentary powers, and despite the existence of different procedures for amending statutory laws and the Constitution; while the former requires a simple parliamentary majority, a special parliamentary majority is minimally required by the latter. Furthermore, although the judiciary may adjudge an Act of Parliament unconstitutional and void, this power has not been robustly exercised to limit executive and legislative powers. The ‘diceyness’ in relation to the doctrine of constitutional supremacy in Singapore may be attributable to the uneasy relationship between Singapore’s formal constitutional framework and its constitutional ethos. Singapore inherited British parliamentary traditions and mindsets which presumed and worked on the basis of a supreme Parliament. Thus, while the superstructure of Singapore’s constitutional democracy is formally based on the doctrine of a supreme constitution, the constitutional ethos from the government’s perspective remains firmly characteristic of parliamentary sovereignty.
Keywords: constitutional law, constitutional interpretation, comparative constitutional law, common law
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