How is the Constitution Amended in Singapore?

Last updated on January 26, 2024

constitution book

Most countries in the world have a Constitution. A Constitution holds important legal force as well as symbolic meaning to a state.

Singapore’s Constitution has previously been amended to include provisions for the Group Representative Constituency (GRC) scheme, the establishment of the Presidential Council for Minority Rights (PCMR) as well as the reserved presidency for minority candidates. The reasons for these amendments were to strengthen Singapore’s institutions and support her unique societal needs. Another amendment was made in 2023, which allows Singapore’s president to hold global roles with international organisations in addition to the presidency.

In light of such amendments, this article looks into the process and significance of amending a Constitution. It will cover:

What is the Constitution? 

A Constitution can be written or unwritten. A written Constitution means that the state’s constitutional rules and conventions are codified in a single document, while an unwritten Constitution is not based on a single document but on custom and precedence. In Singapore, we have a written Constitution known as the Constitution of the Republic of Singapore.

The Singapore Constitution is regarded as the supreme law of the land and functions like a rulebook for the state. It sets out the fundamental principles by which the state is governed. The Constitution also states the main institutions of the state such as the executive (body responsible for the execution and enforcement of laws created), legislature (law-making body of the state) and judiciary (system of courts that enforce and interpret the law). It details the functions of these institutions and places limits on their exercise of power.

The key articles that can be found in Singapore’s Constitution include:

  • Rules for the legislature and government (Part 5 and 6)
  • Rules for the election of the President and performance of the President’s functions (Part 5)
  • Rules for limits on each member of parliament’s power to vote and tenure of office of the members (Part 6)
  • Rules on powers and limits of the executive branch such as the appointment and tenure of Prime Minister and Ministers (Part 2)

The Singapore Constitution also contains provisions relating to fundamental liberties, citizenship and public service. These include:

  • Provisions for freedom of speech and freedom of religion (Part 4)
  • Provisions for citizenship regarding citizenship by birth, citizenship by naturalisation and procedure for citizenship deprivation (Part 10)

2023 Constitutional Amendment in Singapore

Singapore’s Constitution was amended in November 2023. The amendment allows Singapore’s President to accept global appointments in their private capacity, under the condition that:

  • The role does not breach existing rules in the Constitution that forbids the President from engaging in commercial enterprise
  • The Cabinet, executive branch of government, must advise the president on whether it is in the national interest to accept the appointment
  • The President, “acting in his discretion, must concur with the advice of the Cabinet”

This amendment was proposed by the Attorney-General’s Chambers. While there is no express prohibition in Singapore’s Constitution that prevents Presidents from taking on international appointments in their official capacity, the amendment was introduced to provide greater transparency about the President’s involvement in international organisations rather than operate in an area of ambiguity. Such a policy was assessed to be important enough to be put in the Constitution rather than an ordinary piece of legislation.

This amendment expressly allows the current President, Mr Tharman Shanmugaratnam, to continue holding on to his various global roles, such as chairman of the board of trustees of the Group of Thirty (G30), co-chairman of the Global Commission on the Economics of Water and co-chairman of the advisory board for the UN Human Development Report. This is because the President serves both Singapore’s domestic and international interests, and the international roles are part of his contributions to Singapore.

Process of Amending the Constitution

Like various schemes of law, amending the Constitution helps the state keep up with its political and other needs to function effectively as a state. Since the Constitution contains fundamental, supreme law, a more rigorous process for amendments is necessary, as compared to ordinary legislation.

Amendment process      

The Constitution can be amended by a law enacted by the Legislature, which is the elected parliament of Singapore. Similar to other bills, the amendment bill has to go through the legislative process (detailed below). However, unlike other bills which only require a simple majority (>50% of votes), the amendment bill has to garner at least two-thirds (>75%) of the total number of Members of Parliament (excluding nominated Members) in the Second and Third reading of the bill.

A Constitutional amendment bill will be excluded from the legislative process if it touches on the protection of the sovereignty of Singapore such as by way of merger or incorporation with other sovereign states. Such a bill requires at least two-thirds of the total number of votes cast by electors at a national referendum for the bill to be passed by Parliament.

The legislative process 

A Bill may be introduced in Parliament by any Member of Parliament. A government bill is introduced by a Minister, while any private member can also introduce their own bill. A notice of introduction must be given before the bill is introduced in Parliament.

At the first reading, the long title of the bill is read and then handed over to the Clerk of Parliament who will print and circulate the bills to the Members of Parliament. There is no debate during this stage.

The second reading takes place after at least 10 days have passed from the printing and circulating of the bill to Members of Parliament and the bill’s appearance in the Gazette. The bill will be read a second time, and the Members of Parliament will then debate on the merits and general principles of the bill before voting on the bill.

A committee formed by all the Members of Parliament (MPs) present in Parliament may propose changes to the bill. These proposals will be considered and changes to certain clauses may take place. If the bill is more complex, controversial or has a wide-ranging impact the bill may be examined by a select committee made up of a smaller group of MPs. After the bill is considered by the select committee, the bill is then reported to the whole Parliament where it is ready to be read a third time.

The third reading of the bill will contain any amendments to the original bill. At this stage, the merits and principles of the bill can no longer be debated, and only minor amendments to the wording are allowed. The debate is confined to the contents of the bill and the bill is then put to vote.

All the bills, except for money bills, urgent bills or bills affecting defence, security, public safety, peace or good order in Singapore, will be sent to the PCMR. The PCMR helps to ensure that the proposed bill does not discriminate against any racial or religious community.

Difference between Constitutional amendments and passing of regular law 

Proposed Constitutional amendments that do not touch on the protection of sovereignty of Singapore will go through the same legislative process mentioned above, which also applies to general motions for amending, repealing or passing a new law. The key difference being a higher voting threshold required of Constitutional amendments – two-thirds (75%) as compared to a simple majority (50%).

One example was the simultaneous repeal of section 377A of the Penal Code and Constitutional amendment to Article 156 endorsing the definition of marriage. While both amendments were introduced together and have an overlapping effect, the repeal of a section in the Penal Code, an ordinary law, requires only a simple majority. The Constitutional amendment was introduced to cement the traditional definition of marriage and prevent that definition from being ruled unconstitutional.

Who gets to vote on the amendment passed?

While all MPs may debate the bill at the second and third reading, only elected MPs and Non-Constituency Members of Parliament (NCMPs) are allowed to vote on an amendment bill. Nominated Members of Parliament (NMPs) will not be permitted to vote on Constitutional amendments.

  • MPs are elected by the largest vote share at the General Elections
  • NCMPs are opposition members who lose in the General Elections but obtain the higher percentage of votes out of all the opposition members (‘best losers’). This is to ensure representation of the opposition party in Parliament. The number of NCMPs is 9 less than the number of elected opposition MPs.
  • NMPs are not members of any political party and do not participate in the General Elections. They are appointed by the President based on nominations made by a Special Select Committee of Parliament chaired by the Speaker.  NMPs help to ensure wide representation of community views and contribute independent and non-partisan views in Parliament.

MPs would typically vote according to the party’s positions because of the party whip. The party whip is in charge of the discipline of MPs belonging to his party and is responsible for arranging the order of MPs who will take part in parliamentary debates and voting. The party whip also imposes discipline on the way the MPs vote in order to ensure that there are sufficient party members in chambers to support the party’s position. This helps to support the party’s policy agenda and be effective in enacting laws. For example, the party may impose consequences for MPs who fail to vote in line with the party line, the most serious being that they may be expelled from the party.

Occasionally, the party whip may ‘lift the whip’ and allow MPs to vote according to their conscience. This was precisely the case in the Constitutional amendment endorsing the definition of marriage. The Leader of the Opposition lifted the party whip to allow the nine MPs to vote according to their conscience, resulting in two opposition MPs abstaining from voting on this constitutional change. The MPs reasoned that the constitutionality of the decision should be left to the judiciary and not Parliament.

After the proposed amendment is passed

After the Constitutional amendment meets the two-third majority threshold in the second and third reading, the bill becomes law only when it is formally assented to by the President. The date on which the Constitutional amendment comes into force is typically determined by the Minister in charge of the Act and notified by a commencement Notification published in the Gazette.

The Constitution is considered the supreme law of the land and undergoes a more demanding amendment process due to the higher voting threshold that has to be met before amendments can be passed. Other than that, Constitutional amendments would still have to go through a similar legislative process as other laws.

Including a provision in the Constitution rather than a normal legislation suggests that the issue has fundamental importance to the state and reveals which policies are held in higher regard. A Constitution may very well embody the aspirations of the state and points the way forward.

Miscellaneous Articles
  1. Telemedicine in Singapore: Doctor’s Duties and Protecting Patients
  2. What You Need to Know About Treasury Bills
  3. Singapore Citizenship: How to Obtain & Can It Be Renounced?
  4. Egg Freezing Laws in Singapore: What You Need to Know
  5. Pet Adoption in Singapore: Legal Considerations & Procedure
  6. Guide to Singapore’s Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act
  7. Stay of Execution in Singapore: When is It Granted?
  8. Finfluencers in Singapore: Legal or Not?
  9. National Service (NS) Reservist in Singapore: What to Know
  10. What to Do If Someone Steals Your Car in Singapore
  11. Renouncing Islam in Singapore: Procedure and Implications
  12. Transgender Laws and Rights in Singapore
  13. Holding a Coroner's Inquiry for Deaths in Singapore
  14. Sexual Sterilisation Rights in Singapore
  15. Commercial Vehicle: A Legal Guide to Buying One in Singapore
  16. Guide Dogs in Singapore: What You Need To Know
  17. 4 Life Milestones Where You Might Need a Lawyer
  18. Explained: Singapore's Official Secrets Act
  19. The Kiasu Singaporean’s Guide to Hiring a Migrant Domestic Worker
  20. Military Law and How It Affects Every Singaporean Son
  21. Justices of the Peace in Singapore
  22. Drone Laws in Singapore (Registration, Permits, No-Fly Zones)
  23. If My Dog Bites Somebody, Will I be Liable?
  24. Raising Funds for Charity: Dos & Don’ts
  25. What is the Offence of Contempt of Court in Singapore?
  26. Right to Freedom of Speech and Expression in Singapore: Myth or Reality?
  27. Getting a Driving Licence & Learner Driver Rules in Singapore
  28. Death Procedures and All Death Expenses in Singapore
  29. Adopting a Dog in Singapore: 4 Guidelines to Follow
  30. What is Haj and How to Register for Haj in Singapore
  31. Parents' Guide to National Service Liability in Singapore
  32. Is It Legal to Offer or Accept a Finder’s Fee in Singapore?
  33. How is the Constitution Amended in Singapore?
  34. Here's How You Can Sell Your Insurance Policy in Singapore