COMMENT: Illiterate? Singapore MPs need to be schooled on Parliament

Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan (L) apologised to Non-Constituency Member of Parliament Leong Mun Wai for remarks made in Parliament on Tuesday, 14 September 2021 (PHOTOS: Getty Images, Yahoo News Singapore file photo)
Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan (L) apologised to Non-Constituency Member of Parliament Leong Mun Wai for remarks made in Parliament on Tuesday, 14 September 2021 (PHOTOS: Getty Images, Yahoo News Singapore file photo)

SINGAPORE — It was the gaffe that reverberated around the vast echo chambers of Singapore's online spaces.

At first, it could barely be heard during Tuesday's (14 September) marathon 13.5-hour Parliament sitting. But then the video clip of someone remarking "He is illiterate", followed by "Seriously, how did he get into RI?" and "Must have been a lousy school", began circulating.

The gasps – and sniggers – could almost be heard across the island. Online wags quickly pointed to Non-Constituency Member of Parliament (MP) Leong Mun Wai as the target of the comments, while at least one minister was fingered as a culprit. But there was no smoking gun, particularly as the MPs pictured were all masked.

Then, Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan owned up to his "private comments to a colleague" in a Facebook post. "I should not have said what I said," said the man who was once Minister-in-Charge of the Smart Nation Initiative, and who failed to notice the hot mic just metres away.

And just like that, the multiple talking points put forth by the government during the interminable debate on, among others, the Singapore-India Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (CECA), have been practically forgotten.

Not to mention Leong's hapless performance during the sitting – at one point, he even asked the Speaker for permission to let his party colleague Hazel Poa answer the relentless queries of Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam, a man whose style of questioning is reminiscent of the Spanish Inquisition.

Instead, all anyone can talk about is the sight of a Cabinet minister ceding the moral high ground to a man whose party ministers had accused of being racist and xenophobic. Dr Balakrishnan's comment also opened the door to age-old accusations of elitism, with netizens sarcastically quoting the government's own oft-quoted claim that "every school is a good school".

To be fair, politicians are only human. Indiscrete, even snide, comments in private are hardly new. Perhaps the minister's real mistake was a lack of awareness of the recording devices around him.

Live streaming has changed the game

Dr Balakrishnan is certainly not the first, nor will he be the last, to slip up in the House. Back in 1996, the late Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) chair Ling How Doong was censured by Parliament for uttering the infamous line, "Don't talk c**k".

Worse things have been said in the chamber. In 1992, the People's Action Party's (PAP) Choo Wee Khiang provoked an uproar when he spoke of driving to Little India one evening and finding it "pitch dark" because "there were too many Indians around".

But now that the government has belatedly begun live-streaming Parliament proceedings, it is a whole new ball game. There is even less room for error now: every loose word and indiscretion is amplified, while the entirety of Parliamentary sittings, as opposed to just selected clips in the past, are now freely available online for anyone to peruse.

Among my peers, there were nervous jokes about the Ministry of Communications and Information shutting down the livestream. After all, former Leader of the House Grace Fu had claimed that live broadcasts risked turning the House into a "form of theatre".

"Members need to... avoid playing to the gallery and striking poses for histrionic effect," said Fu.

Eight months after live streaming began, this reporter, a regular observer of the House, has yet to see any noticeable increase in dramatic poses or histrionics. Proceedings remain largely sedate, with the odd fireworks.

Accountability and political theatre

At the risk of stating the obvious, Parliament's principal purpose is still as a forum for the debate of ideas. While the PAP's supermajority makes the passage of legislation a formality, it is still a means for the government of the day to convince citizens of the merits of its policies. The live aspect of the broadcast arguably enhances this.

But the PAP repeatedly makes the mistake of attempting to win an emotional argument with facts, and often comes across as bullies while doing so. This is exactly what it did again on Tuesday.

Consider this: Leong habitually looks unprepared in Parliament, stumbling over his own unsubstantiated arguments and getting easily caught out by PAP MPs. He has also advocated puzzling and impractical proposals such as a $10,000 qualifying salary for Employment Passes (EPs) for foreign professionals.

Dismantling Leong's suggestions is not a difficult task. Ameliorating the optics of multiple PAP MPs hammering away at him is far harder. To his credit, Leong did not back down, even if he desperately needs training in public speaking. Little wonder that some online celebrate him as an underdog, regardless of his simplistic, perhaps even dangerous, rhetoric.

Furthermore, the government wants to have it both ways – during Tuesday's session, it stressed the importance of remaining open to foreign talent, even while providing limited data about the presence of foreigners in Singapore. This ultimately discredits its own arguments.

Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh was right when he said, "The government needs to reflect on its own omissions and resistance when it comes to providing data and information, and how it ought to take some responsibility for the groundswell of misinformation about CECA."

The PAP has the natural advantage in the House, but every MP – PAP or opposition – needs to up their game in Parliament. Otherwise, they may find themselves going viral for all the wrong reasons.

The views expressed are the writer's own.

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