Wednesday, 26 August 2020

Opening of 14th Parliament of Singapore on 24 August 2020

President Halimah Yacob spells out how Govt will lead Singapore in time of major change
It will have to be open to new ideas, rethink policies, but stay the course when needed
By Lim Yan Liang, Assistant News Editor, The Straits Times, 25 Aug 2020

Singapore is at an inflection point and the country needs to understand the major changes taking place, both at home and abroad, as its rethinks its social models and policies to suit the new circumstances, President Halimah Yacob said yesterday.

This includes taking a fresh look at its crucial pillars of society, such as its concept of meritocracy, multiracialism, and the way Singapore conducts its politics, the President said at the opening of the 14th Parliament.

For the first time, the event took place at two locations - Parliament House and the Arts House - to ensure safe distancing due to Covid-19.

Sketching out the Government's plans and priorities for its new term in office, President Halimah noted that this takes place under the shadow of Covid-19, which has sharpened global fault lines and disrupted the stable international order under which Singapore has long thrived.

The pandemic has fuelled a new wave of protectionism and this is "especially challenging for Singapore, as we make our living by doing business with the world", she said.

At home, new generations coming of age have their own aspirations, such as a desire for more diverse voices to be heard and stronger checks and balances. New leaders are also emerging to take the country forward, she noted, adding that they would have to forge bonds and a new compact with the people.

"For Singapore to continue to succeed, we need to understand these changes in our external and domestic environments, rethink our problems and improve on our status quo," said President Halimah.

There is also a "great urgency to transform the economy and find new ways of making a living", including a push for sustainable growth and a greener future.

Singapore, she said, cannot take its hub status for granted, assuming that its role and scope would remain unchanged.

Securing jobs for Singaporeans will remain the Government's top priority for the next few years, but it must also ensure the benefits of progress are shared widely with all citizens, she said.

While meritocracy has served Singapore well for the past 55 years, the model has to evolve in tandem with the country's development, the same way social safety nets have been strengthened over the past decade.

As part of this shift in social policy, she said the Government will do more to support every Singaporean, at each stage of life.

"More redistribution cannot be the only way to level up those who are doing less well," she said. "We also have to continue strengthening social mobility and broadening our conception of merit."

And while multiracialism has been a core element of Singaporean identity since independence, it remains a work in progress, said the President. Younger Singaporeans want these issues discussed candidly, but it must be done with care, she added.

Singaporeans need to recognise that there are larger forces at play that will test the nation's solidarity and pull people in different directions, she said.

Urging against turning inward in the face of tough times, she said: "Our Singaporean identity has been formed and strengthened not by excluding those who arrive later, but by successive arrivals adding to the richness of our society."

On politics, the designation of a Leader of the Opposition reflects the larger number of opposition MPs in Parliament, and that both the Government and the opposition have roles to play to build trust in Singapore's public institutions and achieve good outcomes for the country, said the President.

The Government will be open to constructive criticism, rational debate and a new way of doing things, while the opposition should propose policy alternatives to be scrutinised and debated besides raising questions and criticisms, she said.

"The key question is how to forge a common cause together, regardless of our own political inclinations," she said. "We need to base our rhetoric on a responsible sense of the realities, and come to a shared understanding about our goals and constraints."

For its part, the Government will evolve its policies, recognising that no solutions are right for all time, and will listen to new ideas objectively.

But where staying the course remains the best way forward, it will have to convince Singaporeans to persevere. The Government must not shy away from taking tough decisions in the national interest, or shirk the duty of winning support for such decisions, she added. "In all cases, we will seek to do what is best for Singapore and Singaporeans," she said.

From today to Friday, ministries will give details of their programmes. Parliament will then debate these plans and policies from next Monday.

President’s AddressJobs top priority for next few years; economy must transform quickly
To sustain job creation, economy must be kept competitive, says President Halimah
By Joanna Seow, Assistant Business Editor, The Straits Times, 25 Aug 2020

Jobs will continue to be the top priority for the next few years, said President Halimah Yacob yesterday.

Keeping people in work is the best way to help them take care of their families, and keep their skills current until the economy improves, she added, as the Covid-19 crisis continues to weigh heavily on the job market.

Speaking at the opening of the first session of the 14th Parliament, Madam Halimah said that to sustain job creation, the economy must be kept strong and competitive, which is why there is an urgency to transform it and find new ways to make a living.

For instance, air travel will be resumed safely to maintain Singapore's role as a global and regional hub, while digital connectivity will be strengthened.

Businesses will get the help they need to develop links to new markets.

Efforts to increase the nation's resilience in critical areas like food, healthcare and supply chain management can become new sources of growth, said the President.

The economy itself will undergo significant structural shifts, she added, with some sectors changing forever and some jobs disappearing for good, but Singapore must remain open and connected.

She said: "Much of our economy thrives because we have made ourselves a vibrant hub for the region and an attractive place for trade, investments, talent and ideas. We cannot take our hub status for granted or assume that its scope and role will remain the same."

Madam Halimah acknowledged Singaporeans' fears and anxieties about jobs, and said Covid-19 has worsened the pressure caused by a slowing global economy in recent years. Lower-wage workers, mature workers and mid-career Singaporeans with heavier financial commitments and families to support have been hit especially hard.

The Government, said Madam Halimah, is doing all it can to help. For instance, it is supporting businesses, especially small and medium-sized enterprises, with cash flow and credit so that they can stay afloat and retain their workers.

And the National Jobs Council is also working hand in hand with the Government, employers and unions to create new jobs and skills upgrading opportunities for Singaporeans.

The council, which is chaired by Senior Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam, is overseeing the design and implementation of the SGUnited Jobs and Skills Package to create 100,000 jobs, traineeships and training places.

Said Madam Halimah: "We will continue to look out for our lower-wage and mature workers, many of whom are also essential workers who have been keeping Singapore going during the crisis.

"We are also making a concerted effort to help workers in their 40s and 50s, by matching them to suitable jobs and SkillsFuture programmes.

"I urge employers to see mid-career Singaporeans as valuable assets, and provide them with opportunities and training for new jobs."

Another area of focus will be sustainable growth. This means reimagining city planning, redesigning urban mobility and growing using fewer resources in a low-carbon future, said the President.

Singapore will also push for green financing and sustainable infrastructure development across the region, to ride on Asia's growth while protecting the environment, she said.

"With creativity and resourcefulness, we can turn our aspirations for a greener Singapore into a competitive advantage."

Singaporeans' concerns over job competition from foreigners will be addressed: President Halimah
By Tham Yuen-C, Senior Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 25 Aug 2020

President Halimah Yacob yesterday acknowledged the growing anxiety over competition for jobs from foreigners, and said the Government will address these concerns.

As masters of their own land, Singaporeans must have confidence in the rights and privileges of citizenship, she said, adding that their interests are "always paramount" in all that the Government does.

But at the same time, Singapore cannot afford to turn inwards, away from the world, and should continue to welcome those who can contribute and improve the country's future, she added.

Addressing the issue of work pass holders, which has become more emotive amid the economic downturn caused by the coronavirus crisis, she said: "This has become a major source of anxiety, especially among mid-career Singaporeans."

"We understand these concerns. They not only touch on matters of livelihood, but also on our sense of identity and belonging. They will be addressed."

In her traditional address to open Parliament, which was drafted by the Government, she said the authorities will work with employers to build up the capabilities of the workforce, and to ensure Singaporeans are treated fairly when companies recruit or retrench workers.

"Our strong education system and training pathways have produced a workforce that can compete against the best in the world," she said.

Singapore's economy contracted 6.7 per cent in the first half of this year as the Covid-19 crisis deepened, and unemployment and retrenchments surged between April and June.

Urging Singaporeans to keep their hearts open to those who come from beyond the country's shores, the President said: "We should continue to welcome and integrate those who can contribute to Singapore, and improve our lives and our children's future."

She acknowledged that the issue can be polarising, and urged Singaporeans to listen and to try to understand one another as more meaningful discussions are opened up on the issue.

She also said it was important to break out of online echo chambers to try and bridge the gap with those who think differently.

"We must strive to obtain greater insight, build shared understanding and use our diverse perspectives and ideas to achieve better outcomes for all," she said.

The Singaporean identity, she added, has been formed and strengthened "not by excluding those who arrive later, but by successive arrivals adding to the richness of our society".

More social support will be given to Singaporeans amid greater uncertainty and disruption, says President Halimah as Parliament opens
By Yuen Sin, The Straits Times, 25 Aug 2020

Singaporeans will receive more support at each stage of life, as part of a shift in the Government's social policy after the Covid-19 crisis ends, said President Halimah Yacob yesterday.

The Government will do more to help young families own their homes, and to improve their own and their children's lives through quality education and training pathways, she said.

Middle-aged Singaporeans will receive more help to secure good jobs and give them greater assurance of retirement adequacy, she added. Seniors will be well taken care of so that they can age well and with dignity.

In her traditional address at the opening of Parliament, President Halimah said Singapore began strengthening its social safety nets more than a decade ago, and has rolled out many emergency measures amid the Covid-19 crisis to help Singaporeans cope.

These include the Covid-19 Support Grant and the Temporary Relief Fund, which provided financial assistance to those whose jobs or income were affected by the pandemic.

"These are temporary relief measures, but we do expect a permanent shift to a new normal after the crisis," she said.

The President noted that individuals will need greater social support than before as Singapore enters an era of volatility, uncertainty and disruption.

"We will have to consider carefully how to strengthen our social safety nets, to give Singaporeans more assurance coping with life's uncertainties," she said, adding this will have to be done in a way that is financially sustainable for future generations.

But more redistribution cannot be the only way to help those who are lagging behind, said Madam Halimah.

Beyond this, Singapore will also have to continue strengthening social mobility and broadening its conception of merit, she added.

Meritocracy, a crucial pillar of society, has served Singapore well over the past 55 years, she said.

"However, just as our social norms and policies have evolved in tandem with Singapore's development, so too must our model of meritocracy."

She said the Government recognises that unfettered meritocracy can foster excessive competition.

"We also realise the need to level up families who are at a disadvantage, and give their children a fair start in life," she added.

"We want to keep our society open and socially mobile, and not allow it to stratify and ossify over time."

That is why Singapore has made a concerted effort to value a wide range of talents, and continues to invest heavily in education and training, she said.

For instance, schools and institutes of higher learning admit students through other benchmarks besides academic results, while the Public Service Commission has widened its catchment of scholarship holders.

Political parties are also fielding candidates who took different paths in life, and have diverse talents and strengths, she said.

Multiple pathways are also being developed for young Singaporeans to achieve their fullest potential regardless of their starting point, while the SkillsFuture scheme will enable every worker to gain more skills and progress throughout his career, beyond his initial qualifications, she added.

"Employers must support lifelong learning as the new norm. Society must value people for what they contribute, in every job and every role," said the President.

She added that building a fair and just society goes beyond government actions. "It requires the support and participation of all Singaporeans," she said.

It also turns on how Singaporeans look after the most vulnerable members of society, from helping students from disadvantaged families through schemes that bring different groups together, to providing training and job opportunities for people with disabilities as well as bridging the digital divide for seniors.

"We have made progress over the last decade, and we will do much more in this term of government to see our people through the crisis and beyond," she said.

"The more closely knit we are as a people, the further we can move ahead as a nation."

Conduct conversations on race, language, religion with restraint and mutual respect, says President Halimah at Parliament opening
By Tham Yuen-C, Senior Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 25 Aug 2020

Younger Singaporeans may prefer to discuss issues such as race, language and religion candidly and openly, but such conversations need to be handled sensitively, said President Halimah Yacob yesterday.

She sees their willingness to talk about such issues as a positive development, but urges restraint and mutual respect in conducting conversations as these "will always be visceral subjects".

"If each group pushes its own agenda to the extreme, we risk eroding the common space, and fracturing our social cohesion," she warned.

She added that multiracialism - core to the Singapore identity - is still a work in progress, with each successive generation bringing different life experiences and perspectives.

There is much more to be done to strengthen the sense of togetherness in society, she said.

"Multiracialism will always be a core element of our Singaporean identity. Everyone, regardless of race, language, or religion, must have an equal place in our society," she added.

"Here, in Singapore, we embrace our plurality and diversity, even as we continue to develop a stronger Singaporean ethos, and strive together to become more than the sum of our individual parts."

Since independence, she noted, a distinctive culture and identity have evolved and people, regardless of race, language, or religion, think of themselves as Singaporeans.

This is reflected in their attitudes, memories and experiences, in the arts and heritage, and even in the way Singaporeans can easily identify one another in a foreign land and have one another's back in a crisis, the President said.

It is, therefore, important to shape the multicultural instincts in Singaporeans when they are young, to sustain this mindset across communities and workplaces, she added.

She further said that the methods and approaches of doing so must also evolve as the outlook and attitudes of younger Singaporeans change.

Noting that social media has amplified contending voices and views, she pointed out that there were larger forces at play that will test the solidarity of Singaporeans.

"We are more exposed than ever to causes, attitudes and values from other societies that may not be relevant to our social context, but will influence us nonetheless.

"Economic distress arising from Covid-19, or social inequality, can breed a sense of insecurity amongst different groups of Singaporeans."

Ultimately, whether Singapore can protect its sense of shared identity will determine the country's success, President Halimah said.

"Singapore can endure and secure her place in history only if Singaporeans feel passionately about our country, and put our hearts and souls into making this a better home," she added.

Build broad consensus on issues core to country's survival and future
By Linette Lai, Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 25 Aug 2020

Singaporeans must learn to handle their differences constructively, and find common ground to build a broad consensus on issues core to the country's survival and future, said President Halimah Yacob.

Their expectations and choices will determine the kind of politics Singapore will have, she added, with the key question being how to forge common cause despite differing political views.

In her traditional address at the opening of the 14th term of Parliament yesterday, the President noted that more differences in views and interests among Singaporeans are to be expected, given the magnitude of the challenges and uncertainties.

"On some issues, we can agree to disagree. But on issues core to Singapore and our survival and future, we must do our best to find common ground and build a broad consensus," she said.

The Government, she added, "will be open to constructive criticism and rational debate, and to new ways of doing things".

But having been elected by the people, it must also govern for everyone, she said. "It cannot shy away from taking difficult and tough decisions in the national interest, or shirk the duty of winning support for such decisions."

Last month, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong noted in his speech at the swearing-in of the new Cabinet that Singapore's political system will have to evolve to accommodate the strong desire for greater diversity of views in politics.

In her address, Madam Halimah noted that one significant change is the appointment of Workers' Party (WP) chief Pritam Singh as the formal Leader of the Opposition, reflecting the larger number of opposition MPs in Parliament.

There are 10 WP MPs and two Progress Singapore Party Non-Constituency MPs in the new term of Parliament.

Madam Halimah said both the Government and opposition have roles to play to build trust in public institutions, and achieve good outcomes for Singapore.

Besides raising questions and criticisms of government policies, the opposition should put forth policy alternatives to be scrutinised and debated, she added.

"And when the situation demands, both the Government and opposition should set aside differences and work together to secure the safety and future of our nation."

She also urged Singaporeans to work harder at breaking out of their echo chambers and making genuine attempts to bridge the gap with those who think differently.

These must also be the guiding principles of politics in Singapore, she said, with Parliament the central platform to debate national policies and set the tone for the country's political discourse.

Singaporeans' expectations and choices will determine the kind of politics in Singapore, the President said.

"We need to base our rhetoric on a responsible sense of the realities, and come to a shared understanding about our goals and constraints," she added. "Our public debates should be honest and open about the trade-offs of different options, and what they will cost society. Only in this way will our system continue to encourage able and committed individuals to step forward to serve."

The ultimate goal is for Singapore to evolve in a way that engages the aspirations and creative energies of its people, she added.

"Singaporeans aspire to make this a better place, and have interesting and diverse ideas to pursue. Such a diversity of views and ideas can be a source of strength, for us to navigate the challenges and possibilities ahead."

But to realise this strength, Singaporeans need a sense of common purpose and a readiness to act to make a difference for causes that they care about. This is the spirit of Singapore Together, and all Singaporeans are invited to partner with the Government on this journey, she said.

"Singaporeans must come together, in partnership, to pursue the greater good, united by a belief in Singapore and a desire to turn our vision into reality."

Workers' Party MPs given enough time to engage Govt on issues in Parliament, says Pritam Singh
By Tham Yuen-C, Senior Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 25 Aug 2020

Workers' Party (WP) chief Pritam Singh yesterday congratulated Speaker of Parliament Tan Chuan-Jin on his re-election, and said that he gave WP MPs appropriate time to engage the Government on the issues that matter.

"We trust that you will continue in the same vein," Mr Singh added in his first speech in Parliament as Leader of the Opposition.

Speaking on behalf of nine other WP MPs and two Progress Singapore Party Non-Constituency MPs, he pledged to continue to support Mr Tan's efforts in raising the esteem of Parliament and Singapore.

He also urged Mr Tan to lend support to a suggestion he made in 2016, for the Government to consider setting up more parliamentary select committees, such as on key issues like population.

This would demystify the work of Parliament, a central pillar of Singapore's system of government, and make politics more accountable and policies better, he said.

In turn, it would help Singaporeans to better appreciate law-making and debates on policy imperatives and trade-offs, he added.

"Parliament's direct and indirect impact on each and every Singaporean and our businesses is massive, and it is only appropriate that we amplify the choices and the reasons behind the decisions made or not made in Parliament more widely," he said.

"In doing so, I hope Singaporeans are in turn driven to understand the issues we debate deeply, but always in the context of a small and multi-racial society which has to balance and accommodate many different viewpoints and shifting norms."

Mr Singh said Mr Tan has sought to increase public awareness of the work of Parliament since assuming the Speaker's role in 2017, such as through increased use of social media, without compromising on the formality and serious purpose of Parliament. "In doing so, you have encouraged Singaporeans to take an active interest in Parliament as an organ of state that is fundamental to our democracy," he added.

Another thing Mr Tan has done is to take an active interest in engaging the parliamentarians of Singapore's closest neighbours, taking delegations on visits to the Parliaments of Malaysia and Indonesia, said Mr Singh.

"Indeed, as this generation of Singaporeans traverses a more volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world than before, we would be remiss to ignore our closest neighbours and the context of Singapore's place in our neighbourhood and the wider world."

He recounted how, during a courtesy visit to the Dewan Rakyat - Malaysia's Lower House of Parliament - in March last year, a Malaysian MP had asked Mr Tan for his advice on the removal of an MP, which was being fiercely debated at that sitting.

"I do not think it was a coincidence that another Malaysian MP stood up and invited the Dewan Rakyat to seek your advice from the visitor's gallery as to whether such a removal of an MP was proper," said Mr Singh. "Though we have not experienced such an episode ourselves in the Singapore Parliament in recent memory, it is clear that your views on how such a matter should be handled are valued in the region."

Several MPs also spoke in support of Mr Tan, including Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC MP Saktiandi Supaat.

Responding later, Mr Tan thanked MPs for their support for his re-election, and said he had no intention of ejecting anyone from the chamber - in an apparent reference to Mr Singh's speech. "And as Mr Saktiandi has said, I've also no intention of photo-shopping anyone out of the picture."

MPs should debate robustly without being fractious, says Speaker Tan Chuan-Jin at Parliament opening
Don't forget common purpose: Speaker
He reminds MPs on both sides that they are striving for better outcomes for Singaporeans
By Lim Min Zhang, The Straits Times, 25 Aug 2020

More than 20 years after it closed its doors to elected officials and august assemblies, the Old Parliament House last night again came to life for the opening of the 14th Parliament.

Now called The Arts House, it was designated the second venue for the event, in addition to Parliament House, as part of safety measures amid the Covid-19 pandemic.

The significance of the dual sitting was not lost on newly re-elected Speaker of Parliament Tan Chuan-Jin.

In his speech yesterday, Mr Tan said: "There is a special sense of nostalgia for many of the members - those of you in The Arts House - to be there in the same chamber taking the oath as many of our predecessors did, when they pledged to serve Singapore and Singaporeans honourably and faithfully.

"If I may be candid, I think many of us here would have wished we were one of those that were designated to be there this evening."

For those who were in the old chamber, it was a chance to soak in the nostalgia and political history the place is steeped in.

Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat, in a Facebook post yesterday, put up photos of the seat he sat in during the ceremony. It was the seat once occupied by former health minister Ahmad Ibrahim - who was in the first People's Action Party (PAP) Cabinet in 1959.

Mr Heng said: "The last time that elected Members of Parliament were sworn in at the Old Parliament House was in 1997, for the ninth Parliament. Joining politics in 2011, I never expected that I would be taking my oath of allegiance here."

Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen, in a separate Facebook post, put up a photo of the seat that former deputy prime minister and PAP Old Guard leader Goh Keng Swee had once sat in. Dr Ng was sitting yesterday in the seat beside it.

The area around both venues yesterday was virtually shut down under a security blanket and MPs started streaming in as early as 4.45pm - 45 minutes before the event was to start.

Everyone made sure they sat at least one seat away from the next person. All were wearing masks, of course - but some seemed to be sporting a special edition white mask featuring a tiny logo of Parliament House.

The Speaker, in his speech yesterday, reminded the MPs gathered in the two Houses that regardless of their political stripes, they should not forget that they are working towards a common purpose - to achieve better outcomes for Singapore and Singaporeans.

And while there will be passionate and vigorous debates on policy issues and Budgets, Mr Tan challenged MPs to show the world that such a robust contest of ideas can take place without being fractious.

He also cautioned against the "wide and easy path" towards polarisation and division, populism and "short-termism".

Mr Tan said Singapore is now in a situation where there are no textbook answers to fall back on.

He said: "There will be difficult and sometimes unpopular decisions to be made because there are very real and genuine trade-offs that need to be undertaken."

Will the focus be on solutions or politicking, he asked. "All of you, all of us, will determine what these possible outcomes would be," he said.

He noted that in this session of Parliament, there are 83 MPs from the ruling PAP, and a record 10 opposition MPs from the Workers' Party - the largest number of elected opposition members in recent history.

There are 31 newly elected MPs, as well as the newly created position of Leader of the Opposition, he added.

All of this reflects a desire by Singaporeans for more voices and choices in Parliament, Mr Tan said.

Urging MPs to fulfil their duties in keeping the Government accountable, Mr Tan said he looked forward to seeing all MPs present for every sitting, unless they were involved in official duties or on urgent leave.

As befitting a highlight of the political calendar, all the MPs came dressed in their formal best.

MPs from both sides of the political aisle, as well the two Non-Constituency MPs from the Progress Singapore Party (PSP), took their oaths from both locations, and the ceremony was live-streamed simultaneously to both venues.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, Mr Heng, and senior ministers Teo Chee Hean and Tharman Shanmugaratnam all took the oath individually, followed by other ministers and ministers of state in groups.

The rest of the MPs took their oaths mostly in groups of four to eight people. NCMPs Hazel Poa and Leong Mun Wai from the PSP were sworn in last.

There was a nod to diversity in the languages used - Ms Rahayu Mahzam (Jurong GRC), Mr Mohd Fahmi Aliman (Marine Parade GRC) and Mr Faisal Manap (Aljunied GRC) were among the five MPs who took the oath in Malay.

Thirteen MPs took the oath in Mandarin, including Minister of State for Education and Manpower Gan Siow Huang (Marymount), Mr Xie Yao Quan (Jurong GRC) and Mr Louis Chua (Sengkang GRC).

Mr Vikram Nair (Sembawang GRC) was the only MP who took the oath in Tamil.

Mr Tan first became Speaker in September 2017, after Madam Halimah Yacob relinquished the post to run for the presidency.

Yesterday, Leader of the House Indranee Rajah (Tanjong Pagar GRC) proposed that Mr Tan be elected Speaker. Seconded by Mr Sitoh Yih Pin (Potong Pasir), Mr Tan was elected unopposed.

MPs from both sides lauded Mr Tan's re-election, and cited his efforts to engage the public on parliamentary proceedings and social media, his fairness and impartiality in managing debates, as well as being compassionate and open-minded.

Mr Heng summed up yesterday's events in his Facebook post, when he said: "We may sit today in two different physical Parliament Houses - the old and the new - but we must always be Members of one House, dedicated to honest and able service to Singapore and Singaporeans."

*********** 4 April 2022 **********

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