Beware of polarisation, rhetoric must be responsible: President Halimah, Speaker Tan CJ

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PHOTO: Nicholas Yong/Yahoo News Singapore
PHOTO: Nicholas Yong/Yahoo News Singapore

SINGAPORE — President Halimah Yacob and Speaker Tan Chuan-jin warned against the dangers of polarisation and populism, as Singapore’s 14th Parliament officially opened on Monday evening (24 August).

Proceedings kicked off with the re-election of Tan as Speaker, and the swearing in of all 93 Members of Parliament (MPs). and two Non-Constituency MPs (NCMPs). This was followed by the President’s Address, which traditionally precedes the opening of every term of Parliament.

And for the first time ever, a Parliament sitting was held across two locations: Parliament House and the Arts House, which served as the Singapore Parliament’s home from 1965 to 1999. This was done in order to adhere to COVID-19 safe distancing measures. The former venue was chosen due to its proximity and seating capacity.

In his speech to Members, Tan stressed that Parliament must continue to play its role of keeping the government of the day accountable to citizens, and MPs must represent and advocate for the interests of their constituents. In an apparent nod to criticism of some MPs’ poor attendance records, Tan stressed, “But to be able to do this, we need to participate in parliamentary proceedings, and to participate in parliamentary proceedings, you need to be here in chambers, so I look forward to seeing all of you here at every sitting, unless you have official duties, or (are) on urgent leave.”

Tan acknowledged the record number of elected opposition MPs – 10, all from the Workers’ Party – in the House, alongside a formally designated Leader of the Opposition in WP chief Pritam Singh. “These developments reflect a greater desire by Singaporeans to have more choices and voices in Parliament. We can expect, and I think we will expect, more contestation.”

And while Singapore grapples with the “raging storm” that is the pandemic, which will lead to difficult and sometimes unpopular decisions, the 51-year-old, who has held the post of Speaker since 2017, warned, “Do beware that the wide and easy path towards polarisation and division is easy to embark on: the pathway to populism, and short-termism.”

“Extraordinary times call for extraordinary people and leaders. Let our politics drive us forward and not to drive us apart.”

‘Demystify the work of Parliament’

The Workers' Party's 10 elected Members of Parliament, just before the official opening of Singapore's 14th Parliament on Monday, 24 August 2020. PHOTO: Wong Twee Liang/Workers' Party Facebook page
The Workers' Party's 10 elected Members of Parliament, just before the official opening of Singapore's 14th Parliament on Monday, 24 August 2020. PHOTO: Wong Twee Liang/Workers' Party Facebook page

In his first speech as Leader of the Opposition, Singh paid tribute to Tan’s efforts to increase public awareness of Parliament, especially in his efforts to engage younger Singaporeans on social media. “In doing so, you have encouraged Singaporeans to take an active interest in Parliament as an organ of state that is fundamental to our democracy.”

The Aljunied MP urged Tan to continue to “demystify the work of Parliament”. He noted, “Parliament's direct and indirect impact on each and every Singaporean and our businesses is massive. And it is only appropriate that we amplify the choices, and the reasons behind the decisions made or not made in Parliament, more widely.”

Constructive criticism, rational debate

Singapore's President Halimah Yacob delivers the Presidential Address to the 14th Parliament on Monday, 24 August 2020. SCREENCAP: Mediacorpo telecast
Singapore's President Halimah Yacob delivers the Presidential Address to the 14th Parliament on Monday, 24 August 2020. SCREENCAP: Mediacorp telecast

President Halimah also acknowledged the increasing diversity of views and interests among Singaporeans, promising that the government will be open to constructive criticism and rational debate. Nevertheless, she added, “It cannot shy away from taking difficult and tough decisions in the national interest, or shirk the duty of winning support for such decisions.”

Halimah also echoed Education Minister Lawrence Wong’s call for the WP to put forth serious policy alternatives to be scrutinised and debated, instead of simply asking the government questions. She urged the government and opposition to set aside differences and work together to secure the safety and future of our nation, when the situation demands.

“The key question is how to forge a common cause together, regardless of our own political inclinations. We need to base our rhetoric on a responsible sense of the realities, and come to a shared understanding about our goals and constraints.”

Alluding to Singapore’s long history of multiculturalism, the president also urged “restraint and mutual respect” in discussing “emotive issues” of race and religion, even as younger Singaporeans prefer talking about such issues more candidly and openly.

She said, “Debates on such sensitive matters can easily become polarised. So as we open up more areas for meaningful discussion, Singaporeans must work even harder to listen to and understand one another.”

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