SINGAPORE — Fumbled. Dropped the ball. Whichever sporting analogy you prefer, Deputy Prime Minister (DPM) Heng Swee Keat appears to have done it during the latest sitting of Parliament on Tuesday (5 November).
Having proposed a motion that called on Workers’ Party (WP) Members of Parliament (MP) Low Thia Khiang and Sylvia Lim to recuse themselves from financial matters relating to Aljunied-Hougang Town Council (AHTC), he was supposed to carry the ball.
After an hour-long speech that was harsh in tone (“The High Court has found Ms Sylvia Lim and Mr Low Thia Khiang to be dishonest and deceptive”) but rambling in delivery, it should have been a slam dunk for the heir apparent to PM Lee Hsien Loong, alongside the 82 People’s Action Party’s (PAP) MPs.
Instead, just minutes into the debate on the motion, Heng had to call for a time-out. He hummed and hawed, flipping through his folder like a student stumbling through his class presentation. And it all happened under persistent questioning from Lim and even typically mild-mannered Hougang MP Png Eng Huat.
With the greatest of respect, Png is not a gifted orator. Yet, even he managed to make the 58-year-old Finance Minister look unprepared.
Heng’s reason for requesting an adjournment? "Because Ms Sylvia Lim...has made the point that it was improper for me to raise this, and I would like an adjournment for us to consider the matter and respond to you,” explained Heng.
And just like that, the game plan was upended. Normal service resumed shortly after, with Senior Minister of State for Law Edwin Tong and other office-holders thundering at length about the “serious and grave findings” of the High Court judgement on AHTC and the WP’s “litany of excuses”.
But it was too late to undo the own goal scored by Heng.
The importance of political theatre
Despite the PAP’s overwhelming dominance, the legislative branch remains an important platform for debating matters of public interest. But Parliament as political theatre, regardless of the merits of the discussion at hand, is a time-honoured tradition the world over.
Singapore’s is mild by comparison with its counterparts in the British House of Commons or the US House of Representatives, but there are still sharp exchanges and, on occasion, fireworks.
This reporter has watched proceedings unfold in real time for years from the Parliament press room - only Singapore Press Holdings and Mediacorp outlets are given access to a ‘live’ feed in the comfort of their newsrooms. It was not the first occasion that he has observed 4G leaders who were unable to think on their feet.
Last March, Leader of the House Grace Fu was nonplussed when WP’s Lim politely declined her demand to apologise for her “allegations” in Parliament regarding the planned GST hike. Like Heng, Fu seemed unable to adapt accordingly when proceedings went off-script.
And therein lies the rub. One might argue that these are one-off occasions, that governance and administrative competence are far more important than the ability to spout political rhetoric.
But a highly visible and public platform like Parliament exists for a reason: so that the government of the day can explain its policies at length, and MPs are subject to the full glare of questioning from the opposition, and the attendant publicity that follows. They will either shine or wilt.
We have been told time and again that the 4G leaders are ready to take over. They need to do a better job of convincing Singaporeans of this.
As politicians, they should know full well that perceptions regularly win out over the facts. The court of public opinion is harsh and unforgiving. Fortunately for them, the damage could have been worse as the public is unable to watch “live” broadcasts of regular parliamentary sessions.
Having been anointed first among equals, Heng will need to quickly grow into the role with a general election looming - a convincing victory is needed to cement the 4G’s political legitimacy.
Heng and the 4G leaders need to step up their game. Whatever one’s political persuasions may be, it is in all our interests that they succeed.