COMMENT: Polarisation in Parliament? PAP will set the tone

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

SINGAPORE — It was a collegial atmosphere reminiscent of the first day of school – except class attendance was happening amid tight security and everyone was wearing face masks. Singapore’s 14th Parliament kicked off on Monday (24 August) with a record number of opposition Members sworn in.

With Parliament House surrounded by concrete barriers and security personnel patrolling with shotguns and sniffer dogs, this reporter chanced upon the Workers’ Party (WP) Members of Parliament (MPs) and their spouses, dressed in their Sunday best, taking photographs at the main Parliament sign at the junction of North Bridge Road and High Street before entering the premises.

Meanwhile, at the main foyer of Parliament House, Singapore Press Holdings, Mediacorp and the so-called social news site Mothership were the only outlets invited to take photos and conduct doorstops with MPs. Other journalists had to follow proceedings on a live feed in the press room, given that the press gallery was closed for the day. As ever, there was no live stream available for viewing by the general public.

While this reporter has covered Parliament on multiple occasions, it was the first time that a sitting was held across two venues: Parliament House and the Arts House. Listening to the muffled voices of the MPs taking the Oath of Allegiance, it all felt strange and surreal. Newly re-elected Speaker Tan Chuan-jin also spoke from behind a plexiglass screen, acknowledging that the presence of 10 opposition MPs signified the desire of Singaporeans for more choices and voices in Parliament.

Tan warned against the dangers of polarisation and populism amid the pandemic – a view echoing the People’s Action Party’s (PAP) oft-touted rhetoric that too much of an opposition presence could lead to gridlock in Parliament.

“Will we focus on solution-ing, or will we focus on politicking?” he asked, notwithstanding that the PAP still holds a supermajority in the 93-member House – almost a 90 per cent buffer – and will have little difficulty in passing legislation.

Polarisation in Parliament?

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: Mediacorpo telecast

Meanwhile, in her Presidential Address, Halimah Yacob made the usual promises to protect and create jobs, get the economy going and strengthen the social safety net. Interestingly, she pledged that Singaporeans’ anxieties about competition from foreigners for jobs will be addressed, while urging, “We must keep our hearts open to those who come from beyond our shores.”

Halimah also echoed calls by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Education Minister Lawrence Wong for the opposition to come up with alternative policies. With the WP constantly being urged to raise their game and WP chief Pritam Singh now the Leader of the Opposition, the bar has been well and truly raised.

But just how amenable will the various government agencies be to sharing information when Singh or another MP fields uncomfortable queries about say, a precise breakdown of immigration figures? Or how about a breakdown of foreign professionals by sector?

After all, Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat once chided Singh for “repeatedly” asking about the size of Singapore’s reserves, claiming that it went against the national interest to do so.

As Singh himself pointed out, the WP’s ability to formulate “realistic policy alternatives” is dependent on the PAP government’s willingness to share information. Civil servants take their lead from the top: if even the heir apparent to PM Lee can question the questioner’s motives, how forthcoming would the various ministries be?

There’s a storm coming, Mr Singh

Workers' Party MPs and their spouses taking photos ahead of the official opening of Singapore's 14th Parliament on Monday, 24 August 2020. PHOTO: Nicholas Yong/Yahoo News Singapore
Workers' Party MPs and their spouses taking photos ahead of the official opening of Singapore's 14th Parliament on Monday, 24 August 2020. PHOTO: Nicholas Yong/Yahoo News Singapore

For now, it is the calm before the storm: the real fireworks will begin from the next sitting of Parliament on 31 August, particularly for the newly elected WP MPs of Sengkang GRC. And all this talk of civility and prescribing the role of the opposition belies one simple fact: it is up to the PAP, and the PAP alone, to set the tone for parliamentary debate.

Consider the numerous exchanges over the years, when parliamentary queries from the opposition were met with responses ranging from the defensive to the downright hostile.

For example, when Singh asked Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing to clarify how many jobs went to Singaporeans and how many went to permanent residents from 2015-2018, Chan responded with the now-classic line, “We can get you the numbers, but let me say this: what is the point behind the questions?

Or how about the occasion when Aljunied MP Sylvia Lim said the government had floated “test balloons” on the impending GST hike, to which Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam, a man who relishes verbal combat like a boxer reacting to an opening bell, retorted, “Can I invite her (Lim) to agree that that’s a thoroughly hypocritical and dishonest statement and typical of the statements she makes in this House?”

This was eventually followed by former Leader of the House Grace Fu’s ineffectual attempt to get Lim to apologise for her remarks. Lim politely declined, citing her constitutional duties as an MP.

The list of altercations goes on and on. Perhaps the PAP should get its own house in order before appealing for good behaviour from the House. Singaporeans are watching, and have already spoken at the ballot box. Flaunting the advantages of a supermajority does not make for good optics.

The WP also has to live up to the expectations of a demanding electorate. It must be able to craft compelling policy alternatives and robust arguments - in other words, a viable “shadow Cabinet” alongside the dominant PAP.

But one can only hope that the MPs are not too well behaved. Speaker Tan may have quipped that he has no intention of ejecting anyone from the chamber, but it would be terribly unexciting if he never had occasion to, at the very least, bellow “Order!”

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