One year after GE2020: Key issues debated in Singapore's Parliament

Singapore's Parliament House. (PHOTO: Dhany Osman / Yahoo News Singapore)
Singapore's Parliament House. (PHOTO: Dhany Osman / Yahoo News Singapore)

SINGAPORE — A year after the 2020 General Election (GE), Singapore’s 14th Parliament has debated on issues ranging from the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic, sustainability, impact of free trade agreements to racism.

There were also several procedural changes for debates in the House after the historic gains by the Workers’ Party (WP) at the GE, with the opposition party winning 10 parliamentary seats.

Here are some of the key issues that were debated by Members of Parliament on both sides of the aisle since Parliament opened on 24 August last year:

Free-rider voters

For the first time in Singapore’s history, Parliament has a Leader of the Opposition (LO), with WP chief Pritam Singh taking on the role. As an LO, he is allocated up to 40 minutes to speak on any issue of his choosing in Parliament.

Shortly after the opening of Parliament, Singh said WP aims to make targeted inquiries of government departments and public agencies in order to seek “essential” information so as to craft alternative policies.

He also called for the formation of more Select Committees to facilitate more positive conversations on policy-making.

On its part, the government said it strives to take an open and constructive approach on policies amid a stronger opposition presence in Parliament.

The government and the WP had a robust debate on the outcome of GE 2020. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong raised the prospect of voters who are “free-riders” – Singaporeans who vote for the opposition but want a People’s Action Party (PAP) government. This drew a rebuttal from Singh who said that the residents of WP’s constituencies in Aljunied, Sengkang and Hougang would not appreciate being labelled as “free riders”.

CECA and racism issues

One of the most heated parliamentary debates was the issue of the Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (CECA) between Singapore and India, arising from allegations that CECA has had an adverse impact on Singapore’s workforce.

Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam challenged Progress Singapore Party NCMP Leong Mun Wai, who had consistently spoken against CECA, to raise the issue in Parliament. Health Minister Ong Ye Kung, a former trade negotiator, and Manpower Minister Tan See Leng last week delivered their separate Minister Statements in the issue.

Ong accused PSP of using Free Trade Agreements and CECA as “political scapegoats” to discredit the government. Tan revealed certain official manpower data for the first time, such as workers from India accounting for a quarter of the 177,100 employment pass holders in Singapore.

The debates over CECA also came amid a number of racially motivated attacks, which were condemned by both sides of the House.

Sustainability plans

This year, the government made its strongest push to elevate sustainability to the forefront of policy-making.

Among the steps, Singapore will carry out studies on the protection of its coastlines, build sensors to monitor the effects of heat build-up in urban areas, and introduce more ways to get cashback for recycling items.

Every ministry also unveiled sustainability plans in Parliament amid increasing global concerns about climate change. Among the slew of plans, the Ministry of Defence will set up a Singapore Armed Forces Sustainability Office, the Ministry of Transport is expanding green assets across Singapore, and the Ministry of Education will boost sustainability education in schools.

Statutory boards are also doing their part to fight climate change. Among them, the National Environment Agency will roll out the Environment Sanitation regime to improve cleanliness.

COVID-19 response

With the COVID-19 pandemic stretching into its second year, Parliament continued to debate on the safe management and support measures in Singapore to help workers, businesses and households tide through the country’s biggest challenge since independence.

In lieu of the National Day Rally, PM Lee delivered a parliamentary speech and focused on Singapore’s response to the pandemic to date. He acknowledged that the government would have handled issues such as the quarantine of returning Singaporeans and the migrant worker dormitories differently. He said that with the benefit of hindsight, the government would have asked residents in Singapore to wear masks and acted more aggressively in the dormitories earlier.

In response to a question by Singh on whether the government would convene a Committee of Inquiry, Senior Minister Teo Chee Hean said an after-action review of the government's response to the coronavirus will be more broad-ranging.

One of the most debated issues related to the pandemic was the use of data obtained from Singapore’s contact tracing systems. Parliament passed the COVID-19 (Temporary Measures) (Amendment) Bill specific to the systems to ensure that data collected can be used only for contact tracing or the investigation of serious criminal offences.

Parti Liyani case

The high profile acquittal of former domestic helper Parti Liyani, who was employed by the family of prominent corporate executive Liew Mun Leong, sparked intense public interest and led to a Ministerial Statement by Shanmugam in Parliament.

The one-month gap between the time that a police report was filed against Liyani for theft and officers visiting the alleged crime scene was one of several lapses in police procedures that arose from the case and led to a probe into the conduct of the officers involved.

Consequently, the Attorney-General’s Chambers (AGC) highlighted two specific areas for improvement. AGC will develop guidelines on the valuation of stolen items and look at how it prepares for trials by learning from the Liyani case and others.

Shanmugam also told the House that the Ministry of Law is exploring setting up a Public Defender’s Office, under which the government employs lawyers to defend financially troubled persons facing criminal cases.

Restructuring of SPH

The media business of Singapore Press Holdings has been undergoing intense challenges in recent years as a result of plunging advertisement revenue and shifting consumer trends.

Consequently, SPH announced that it would restructure its media business to become a not-for-profit entity and a company limited by guarantee (CLG), with funding support provided by the government and other investors.

After delivering his Ministerial Statement on SPH’s restructuring, Minister for Communications and Information S Iswaran replied to parliamentary questions and said that a culture of editorial independence already exists in Singapore’s media industry and this will continue under SPH’s new business model.

Iswaran also announced that former Minister Khaw Boon Wan would be the chairman of SPH’s media business.

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