Saturday, 29 October 2011

All fired up in the House

The Parliament that emerged from May's watershed election held its first debate last week.What has changed?
By Elgin Toh , Teo Wan Gek, The Straits Times, 29 Oct 2011

NUMBERS matter.

Any doubt of this would have been put to rest at last week's opening debate of the 12th Parliament, where an increase in opposition MPs from three to nine led to energy levels shooting through the roof.

Observers and veteran MPs said the proceedings were feistier, the exchanges sharper and the positions tougher.

Reflecting the more free-wheeling nature of debate, parliamentarians even spoke out of turn occasionally, in their eagerness to have their voices heard.

De facto opposition leader Low Thia Khiang (Aljunied GRC) interrupted People's Action Party (PAP) MPs in the midst of their speeches at least thrice, sometimes half in jest.

In another instance that raised eyebrows, the PAP frontbench made it difficult for Workers' Party (WP) Non-Constituency MP (NCMP) Gerald Giam to rebut PAP MP Christopher De Souza (Holland-Bukit Timah GRC) on whether the Government was accountable to opposition MPs. Mr Giam was cut off in mid-sentence twice by raised voices of disagreement from the PAP frontbench.

The Parliament of Singapore has not yet gone down the route of its more boisterous counterparts elsewhere. Shoes and other curious objects - like bananas, as was the case in Taiwan's legislature earlier this month - do not yet get flung across the legislative Chamber.

But already, strong words and barbed comments are starting to make their way from the noisy fields of election rallies into the solemn halls of lawmaking.

One exchange saw Law Minister K. Shanmugam telling WP's Pritam Singh that 'there are no games that need to be played', and the latter retorting: 'Is the minister suggesting that I'm lying?'

Might temperatures rise further yet?

'It's still early days,' says Mr Hri Kumar Nair (Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC).

'We are seeing many more exchanges, but that's because there are more opposition MPs. It's still too early to say if this will translate into any other kind of substantial change.'

Drawing party lines

THE numbers themselves tell a story.

The corresponding five-day debate at the opening of Parliament in 2006 saw just 11 points of clarification or verbal skirmishes between a PAP MP and an opposition MP.

This year there were 29.

Tellingly, the number of times a PAP backbencher stood up after a minister's speech to seek clarification went down from 12 in 2006 to zero this year.

Observers such as former Nominated MP Siew Kum Hong say that with the cross-party battle heating up, PAP MPs might have been keen to close ranks.

'Perhaps they don't want to be seen as embarrassing the ministers,' he says.

But PAP backbenchers themselves insist that they have not given up their time-honoured tradition of criticising government policies in their speeches.

Mr Zainudin Nordin (Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC) hammered away on housing policy for low-income families. Mr Zainal Sapari (Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC) asked piercingly if government ministries were contributing to the problem of stagnant wages for low-skilled, contract workers.

And Dr Janil Puthucheary (Pasir Ris- Punggol GRC) pulled no punches on what he considered the state's indefensible treatment of single mothers.

'PAP MPs were getting their points across in no less feisty fashion than the opposition MPs,' says Mr Liang Eng Hwa (Holland-Bukit Timah GRC).

Agreeing with him is Mr Tan Chuan- Jin, who was appointed Minister of State for Manpower and National Development right after his first general election and soon found himself having to defend government positions.

'Our PAP backbenchers pushed us hard on a wide range of issues... And looking through Hansard, I realise that they have been raising a number of these issues quite robustly even in the previous Parliament,' he says, referring to the archive of parliamentary debate transcripts.

But intra-party debate was never going to match the excitement stirred by inter-party debate.

After the most fiercely fought general election since Independence, the first parliamentary session was closely watched for the tone it might be setting for politics over the next five years.

'Everyone was expecting a high level of debate and tension,' says Ms Low Yen Ling (Chua Chu Kang GRC).

With nine opposition members in the House, each day saw between one and three rise to critique government policies and positions.

These were met with steady waves of rebuttals from the PAP front and backbench.

Some came swiftly - before an MP even had a chance to sit down after his speech. Others took a little longer to craft.

In a remarkable show of force after WP NCMP Yee Jenn Jong spoke on education, housing and the plight of small and medium enterprises, five office-holders from the Government - a senior parliamentary secretary, two ministers of state, a senior minister of state and a Cabinet minister - returned fire from all directions.

When Mr Tan pointed out that the Government had been ramping up the supply of flats, Mr Yee said 'it reflects that the Government has started to listen to the voices of the people after the last general election' - sparking an uproar from among the PAP MPs and a strong retort from Mr Tan.

'I fail to understand how, as a result of your entry into Parliament, we've suddenly started responding on that front. We have been providing good public housing for our people for many years,' said Mr Tan.

Indeed, some analysts even argue that the attention the opposition MPs were getting might have inadvertently given them more air time than their nine seats warranted.

Take for example the issue of gross national happiness index. Ms Sylvia Lim (Aljunied GRC) spoke about it briefly, but no fewer than seven PAP MPs chose to rebut her.

They included National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan, who spoke at length about Bhutan, where the index originated, and why 'Bhutan is not Shangri-La on earth'.

Parliament watchers in the Chamber noticed notes being passed between the PAP frontbench and backbench after opposition MPs' speeches, sparking talk that MPs were being told how to respond.

But Mr Zaqy Mohamad (Chua Chu Kang GRC) tells Insight that most rebuttals by PAP backbenchers are not centrally coordinated: 'Whoever has a point to make just makes it on his own accord.'

The sharp exchanges over the five days of debate have also led some to point out the first signs of a potentially worrying trend - criticism for criticism's sake and attacks motivated more by partisanship than substantive differences.

On these, neither the PAP nor the opposition emerges entirely spotless.

'At times, the debate became a matter of who can get the last word,' rues Mr Zaqy. 'I would like to see more MPs making substantive arguments rather than simply trying to hit one another to score political points,' he adds.

Agreeing, Mr Chan Chun Sing, Acting Minister for Community Development, Youth and Sports, says the debate reminded him of the difference between a politician and a statesman. 'The former is fast to claim credit and fast to distance himself from tough positions. The latter is slow to claim credit, firm in beliefs and bears responsibility for his actions.'

Both sides could yet seek a more constructive form of debate, going forward.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong made a speech on the third day, applauded by many as a sincere attempt to forge a consensual, cooperative style of politics.

He said he looked forward to 'joining issue with the opposition' and called on them to go beyond criticisms and to put forward serious alternative proposals.

He also noted that the opposition MPs had declared that they wanted to be 'responsible and constructive'.

'We'll hold them to their word,' he said.

Responding, Mr Low later said, on the fifth and final day of the debate, that the WP lacked resources and information to develop alternative policies, but would do its best to scrutinise policies and be the voice of the people.

Still, there are grounds for optimism.

On the whole, the debates, while vigorous, remained relatively civil.

Mr Liang calls it 'constructive on both sides'. Dr Reuben Wong of the National University of Singapore says the exchanges were 'gentlemanly, with no overbearing put-downs of the opposition by the PAP'.

First-term MP Foo Mee Har (West Coast GRC) is encouraged that all members of the House, regardless of party affiliation, speak their minds and challenge the status quo.

The more engaging style of parliamentary debates will keep MPs on both sides on their toes, says Mr Siew. He reminds them to 'do your homework and do your best to ensure that your arguments stand up to scrutiny'.

Debate, furthermore, helps Singaporeans to understand issues and policies better and to be more convinced, one way or the other, says Assistant Professor Eugene Tan of the Singapore Management University.

PAP MPs, however, continue to take the opposition to task for not offering concrete suggestions.

'They should table motions to tell us what their plans are. That would allow for a true battle of ideas,' says Mr Nair.

Dr Lim Wee Kiak (Nee Soon GRC) says he was disappointed that opposition MPs 'will state clearly their party's position rather than their individual position as an MP'.

'As PAP backbenchers, we have always been encouraged by the Prime Minister to speak openly, frankly and passionately on our views even if they are contrary to the party's position and we have always done so,' he adds.

On the other hand, Mr Giam of the WP says he was surprised that the policy issues in his speech, such as health care and housing, remained unchallenged. 'Instead, seemingly innocuous statements - like 'my colleagues and I in the Workers' Party will hold the Government accountable' - sparked a response and debate.'

He was referring to Mr De Souza, who took issue with that statement and argued that the Government was not accountable to the opposition, but to the people of Singapore.

Other analysts pointed out that when the same point was made by a PAP backbencher and an opposition MP, the Government would attack the latter but not the former.

Mr Zaqy says: 'It's part and parcel of party politics. But let's not have too much of that.'

One such example was when both Mr Baey Yam Keng (Tampines GRC) and Mr Singh raised the issue of state control over the traditional media.

Mr Baey said that if the Government were to 'persist on keeping a tight rein on mainstream media', the latter would lose credibility and people will rely even more on social media. Mr Singh made a similar point, arguing that a common perception that the mainstream media was controlled had led many to turn to new media for news and commentary.

But only Mr Singh received strong rebuttals - and from no less than Mr Shanmugam, who challenged him to say if he believed the Government was exercising indirect control over the mainstream media.

Mr Siew says he was disappointed with the performance on both sides of that exchange. He did not 'see much point to the questions from the minister', but Mr Singh could also have done better in his view, by citing, for instance, recently leaked diplomatic cables on Wikileaks that quoted Straits Times reporters discussing media freedom.

Higher standards

ONE of the more edifying debates over the five days between a PAP MP and a WP MP showed that positive sparring between the Government and the opposition can lead to higher standards - at least in the use of the Chinese language.

WP's Chen Show Mao (Aljunied GRC), whose maiden speech had the entire Chamber rapt, spoke extensively in classical Chinese, quoting from Confucius' Analects, among other classics.

Mr Chen said political diversity was not the same as political division, and that communities become stronger through debates. He also likened the relationship between the ruling party and the opposition to that between a wise emperor and his boldly critical adviser.

This drew out fellow Chinese language enthusiast Sam Tan (Radin Mas), who also peppered his reply the next day with classical Chinese, calling Mr Chen's speech 'refreshing' and worthy of applause.

'We have to give credit where it is due,' Mr Tan tells Insight.

'Under normal circumstances, I won't want to use classical Chinese, since few would understand. But to show intellectual respect to Mr Chen, I did so. Hopefully, such debate would enable us to reach out to the Chinese-speaking community and stir people who have the knowledge.'

So after Round One of exchanges between the PAP and the WP, most would agree that Parliament sittings have become a more exciting affair.

Whether or not this 'new normal' Parliament - or, as the WP prefers, these first steps towards a 'First World Parliament' - can produce better laws and policies and, in turn, improve Singaporeans' lives, remains to be seen.

The onus is on voters to stay tuned to Rounds Two, Three, Four and thereafter, and hold both parties accountable by insisting that partisan politics is ultimately made to serve national and public interests.

Newbies commended for energy, passion and knowledge in maiden speeches

AS SHE sat in the public gallery of Parliament last week, undergraduate Melissa Lin, 22, had flashbacks of opposition rallies she had attended during the general election campaign in May.

She says Workers' Party (WP) MP for Hougang Yaw Shin Leong's frequent references to his own party made his maiden speech to the House sound like 'an election rally speech'.

Ms Lin, a final-year student at Nanyang Technological University's (NTU) Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information, hastens to add that People's Action Party (PAP) members also indicated in their speeches that the May polls, and the next election due by 2016, were very much on their minds.

The election was 'still a cloud hanging over Parliament', says the Nee Soon GRC resident.

Political scientist Reuben Wong says in this new political landscape, where electoral contests are the 'new norm', it is to be expected that MPs keep an eye on the next round of assessment by voters at the ballot box.

Dr Wong, of the National University of Singapore, says first-term MPs especially are eager to show that they are representing their residents and know what is happening on the ground.

Former Nominated MP Zulkifli Baharudin agrees: 'They know that even though they are addressing each other in Parliament, at the end of the day, it's the over two million voters who are scrutinising their every move.'

Political observers say most of the 30 rookie MPs hit the ground running in their first Parliament showing, and having had to fight an election to earn their place in the House, helped.

Assistant Professor Eugene Tan of the Singapore Management University (SMU) says: 'The indications are good overall for the first-term MPs. The baptism of fire of an electoral contest seems to have sharpened their political nous.'

He commends them for the 'emotional energy' they injected into their speeches, and their insights into certain issues.

That was especially so for those first-term MPs who leveraged on their areas of expertise, such as Mr Ang Wei Neng (Jurong GRC), who is a vice-president at SBS Transit.

He put his knowledge of the Hong Kong public transport system to good use, drawing from it ideas on how Singapore's system could be improved.

Others such as orthopaedic surgeon Chia Shi-Lu (Tanjong Pagar GRC), championed more health-care subsidies for the elderly.

But most of the new MPs dwelt on 'safe topics', says Chua Chu Kang GRC MP Zaqy Mohamad, such as the cost of living and the elderly.

Mr Zaqy, a second-term MP, says that is because first-termers do not yet have the profile or the gravitas needed to raise hot potato issues.

Several veteran MPs tell Insight the first-term MPs are off to a good start.

Dr Lim Wee Kiak (Nee Soon GRC) and Mr Zainudin Nordin (Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC) commend the newbies for being frank and passionate, and for being well-prepared.

Prof Tan of SMU singles out Acting Minister for Community Development, Youth and Sports Chan Chun Sing for coming across as empathetic and having in-depth knowledge of his field, and Minister of State for National Development and Manpower Tan Chuan-Jin for speaking 'with conviction and reason'.

Mr Andrew Duffy, a lecturer at NTU's Wee Kim Wee School, was in Parliament with a group of his students the day Non-Constituency MP (NCMP) Gerald Giam spoke.

Mr Duffy says Mr Giam struck a 'fine balance' between respect and challenge, when speaking of the Government.

'I hope he has laid the groundwork for opposition MPs and NCMPs to be considered as a part of the solution, an asset to Government rather than a problem to be dealt with,' Mr Duffy says.

Mr Chen Show Mao, seen by some as a celebrity among first-term MPs, also made his parliamentary debut last week. He urged the PAP to be like Tang Dynasty Emperor Tai Zong, who listened to Wei Zheng, a wise court official known for being frank, casting the WP into the latter role.

Prof Tan says Mr Chen was 'measured, articulate and spirited' and did not aim below the belt when speaking about the ruling party.

Still, there were slip-ups here and there when new MPs displayed their lack of familiarity with House rules.

Mr Vikram Nair (Sembawang GRC) stood at the table in the centre of the chamber to deliver his speech, instead of the rostrum nearest his seat. As the main table is meant for frontbenchers and veteran backbenchers, he was gently reminded not to do so again.

Ms Tin Pei Ling bowed to the Chamber instead of the Speaker on her way out.

Mr Chen introduced new points when replying to a request for clarification from a PAP MP - a breach of Parliament rules.

But these are early days yet for the newest members of the House.

As Mr Desmond Lee (Jurong GRC) puts it: 'It is not just early days for me and other first-time MPs to learn, improve and debate issues, but also early days for the state of politics in this new political condition.'


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