Government response to WP's 'targeted inquiries' will determine political conversation: Pritam Singh

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SINGAPORE - JULY 07:  Workers' Party Secretary-General, Pritam Singh speaks to reporters during a campaign walkabout ahead of the general election on July 7, 2020 in Singapore. Singapore will go to the polls on July 10 as the ruling party, People's Action Party seeks a fresh mandate amid the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. As of July 6, the total number of COVID-19 cases in the country stands at 44,983.  (Photo by Suhaimi Abdullah/Getty Images)
Workers' Party Secretary-General, Pritam Singh speaks to reporters during a campaign walkabout ahead of the general election on 7 July, 2020 in Singapore. (Photo by Suhaimi Abdullah/Getty Images)

SINGAPORE — The evolution of political conversation in Singapore will depend on, among others, the quantity and quality of information that is shared by the government in Parliament, said the Workers’ Party (WP) chief Pritam Singh on Monday (31 August).

“As far as information is concerned, the opposition's output will depend very much on whether we can get the input we asked for. We intend to make targeted inquiries of government departments and public agencies, as such information is essential for crafting alternative policies,” said Singh, in his maiden parliamentary speech as the Leader of the Opposition (LO).

“On its part, the government should consider how it can put up more information without being asked to, particularly information and indicators benchmarked against other countries.”

The 44-year-old alluded to his parliamentary question in early 2018 about the number of permanent residents who remained PRs for more than 10, 15, 20 and 25 years respectively, and the common reasons cited by these individuals for not taking up Singapore citizenship. The information provided, said Singh, was “far narrower”, specifically that about 15 per cent of PRs have been PRs for 20 or more years.

“The additional details that were not provided are important, so the opposition can consider and put forward alternative approaches to population and immigration policies. The data will also put into stark relief the relevance of referring to someone as a local in our statistical data, when it is clear that some PRs do not want to become Singapore citizens, or the state has no plans to extend citizenship to them.”

Conceding that the government's unwillingness to provide the data in the format or detail requested may arise from genuine concerns about how such information could be misused to “rile pockets of the population”, Singh advocated the formation of more parliamentary Select Committees to address divisive issues.

“I strongly believe parliament is an important safety valve and a potential moderator of extreme conversations found offline and online on immigration and population issues.”

No shadow cabinet

Using up almost all of the 40 minutes that the LO is allocated to speak on any issue of his choosing, Singh noted that it is not feasible for the WP to set up a Shadow Cabinet in the tradition of Westminster Parliaments, given that it has only 10 Members of Parliament. There are currently 16 ministries in Singapore, utilising the resources of 37 political office holders.

“Despite not being able to shadow each ministry, we intend to organise our MPs to look into five areas that are critical for Singapore and of huge importance to Singaporeans.”

These five areas are: health aging and retirement adequacy; jobs, businesses and the economy; education inequality and the cost of living; housing, transport and infrastructure; and national sustainability.

And among the things that must change in Singapore, said Singh, is how it manages and accommodates foreigners in the economy. “It is precisely because we need foreigners to help our economy that we need to pay more attention to the Singapore worker, some of whom feel excluded from opportunities created in their homeland.”

In recent weeks, the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) has placed 47 companies on the Fair Consideration Framework watch list, of which 30 were financial and professional services institutions. Singh referred to the MOM’s website, where examples are given of one wealth management firm, where almost three quarters of their PMET jobs are held by persons of the same nationality, and a bank where almost two-thirds are of the same nationality.

“The obvious question is, how did those two companies get to those stages without MOM taking action before this? Singaporeans may be justified in asking if MOM has tolerated their unfair hiring practices for some time.”

Acknowledging that this is a “complex issue”, Singh, who is also an MP for Aljunied GRC, nevertheless said, “The problem is that we simply do not know enough. And the vacuum has given space for more toxic conversation to ferment. We should nip this forthwith...To this end, more information and not less is certainly more helpful.”

WP will ‘set our own standards’

Earlier, Leader of the House Indranee Rajah delivered a Ministerial Statement officially setting out the responsibilities and privileges of the LO. She reiterated the government’s warning that a greater diversity of voices in parliament must not lead to polarisation.

Singh was appointed as LO by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in the wake of the 10 July General Election, when the WP won a record 10 seats. “It would be an understatement to say that this announcement came as a surprise to the Workers Party and to members of the public...The Prime Minister has signalled a change in the narrative and culture of how politics and government is to be conducted, and I thank him for that,” said the WP chief on Monday.

He stressed that like his predecessor Low Thia Khiang, who stepped down as an MP after 27 years, “my Workers' Party colleagues and I will set our own standards and chart an independent course”.

As the LO, Singh will be given an office in Parliament and will also be provided with staff support and resources, as well as an extra allowance. While every elected MP is given a budget to hire a part-time legislative assistant (typically paid $1,300, a month) and secretarial assistant (typically paid $500, a month), the government has allocated the office of the LO a budget for three more legislative assistants, with an administrative assistant also made available.

However, each PAP backbencher can also avail themselves of the additional resources of the People's Association, including the staff at community clubs for their grassroots work. Singh added that a sitting government has at its disposal the resources of 146,000 full time officers of the Singapore public service.

“The leader of the opposition's office will not have the breadth and depth of the party in government in coming up with alternative policies. Nonetheless, the Workers Party will continue pursuing alternatives we feel are important for Singapore.”

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