Publication: The Straits Times, p A42&A43 Date: 29 October 2011 Headline: All fired up in the House
in the House
The Parliament that emerged from May's watershed election held its first debate last
week.What has changed?
N UMBERS matter. Any doubt of this would have been put to rest at last week's opening debate of the 12th Parliament, where an in- crease 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 ha- ture of debate, parIiarnentarians even spoke out of turn occasionally, in their eagerness to have their voices heard.
De facto opposition leader Low Thfa Khiang (Aljunied GRC) interrupted Peo- ple's Action Party (PAP) MPs in the midst of their speeches at least thrice, sometimes half in jest.
In another instance that raised eye- b r m , the PAP frontbench made it a- cult for Workers1 Party (WP) Non- Constituency MP (NCMP) Gerald Giam to rebut PAP MF Christopher Do Souza (HolIand-Bukit Timah GRC) on whether the Government was accountable to op- position 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 bois- terous counterparts elsewhere. Shoes and other curious objects - like banan- as, as was the case in Taiwan's legisla- ture 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 ral- lies into the solemn halls of lawmaking.
One exchange saw Law W t e r K. Shanmugam telling WP's Wtan Siugh that "there are no games that need to be playedn, and the latter retorting: "Is the minjster suggesting that I'm lying?"
Might temperatures rise further yet? "It's sW early days," says Mr Hri Ku-
mar Nait (Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC). "We are seeing many more exchang-
es, but that's because there ace more op- position MPs. It's still too early to say if this win translate into any other kind of substantial changean
THE numbers themselves tell a story. The corresponding five-day debate at
the opening of .Parli&ment In 2006 saw just 11 points of clarification or verbal
. . dmnuhes between a PAP MP and an op- position MP.
T'h@ 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 w d t to be seen as embarrassing the ministers,I9 he says. B d PAP backbenchers themselvesin-
sist that they have not given up their time-honoured tradition of criticising gobernment policies in their speeches.
Mr Zahdin Nordin @khan-Toa Pay- oh GRC) hammered away on housing pol- icy 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 indefensi- ble treatment of single mothers.
"PAP MPs were getting their points across in no less feisty fashion than the opposition MPs," says Mr L h g Eng Hwa (Holland-Bukit Timah GRC).
Agreeing with him is Mr Tan Chuan- Jin, who was appointed Minister of State for Manpower and National Develop- ment right &er 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 Hansasd, I realise that they have been raising a number of these issues quite robustly even in the previ- ous Parliament," he says, referring to
the archive of parliament, debate tran- 1 scripts. But intra-party debate was never go-
ing to d c h 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. Law Yen Ling (Chua Chu Kang GRC).
With nine opposition members in the House, each day saw between one and three rise to critique government poli- cies and positions.
These were met with steady waves of rebuttals from the PAP front and back- bench.
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 NCMY Yee Jenn Jong spoke on edu- cation, housing and the p u t of small and medium enterprises, five of- fice-holders from the Government - r senior parliamentary secretary, two m i . - isters of state, a senior minister of state and a Cabinet minister - returned fire from all directions.
When MI Tan pointed out that the Government had been ramping up the supply of fiats, Mr Yee said "it .reflects that the Government has started to lis- ten to the voices of the people after the last general electionn - sparking an up- roar 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 sud- denly stsrted 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 inight have inadvertently given them more air time than their nine seats warranted. Take for example the issue of gross na-
tional happiness index. Ms Sylvia Lirn (Aljunied GRC) spoke about it briefly, but no fewer than seven PAP MPs chose to rebut her.
They included National Development
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Publication: The Straits Times, p A42&43 Date: 29 October 201 1 Headline: All fired up in the House
Minister Khaw Boon Wan, who spoke at length about Bhutan, where the index originated, and why uBhutan is not Shangri-La on earth".
Parliament watchers in the Chamber noticed notes being passed between the PAP frontbench and backbench after op- position MPst speeches, sparking talk that MPs were being told how to respond.
But Mr Zaqy Mohamad (Chua Chu Kang GRC) tells Xndght that most rebut- tals by PAP backbencher$ are not central- ly coordinated: "Whoever has a point to make just makes it on his own accord."
The sharp exchmgeg 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 op- position emerges entirely spotless.
':At times, the debate became a matter of who can get the last word," rues Mr Za- qy. "I would like to see more MPs making substantive arguments rather than simply trging to bt one another to score political points," he adds.
Agreeing, Mr Chan Chun Sine;, Acting Minister for Community Development, Youth and Sports, says the debate remind- ed him of the difference between a politi- cian and a statesman. "The former is fast to claim credit and fast to distance him- self from tough positions. The latter 19 slow to claim credit, firm in beliefs and bears responsiMity for his actions."
Both sides could yet seek a more con- structive form of debate, goiug fonyard
Prime Minister Lee H&n Loong made a speech on the third day, applauded by many as a sincere attempt to forge a con- sensual, cooperative styIe of politics.
He said he looked forward to "joining issub with the opposition" and called m them to g beyond criticisms and to put forward serious alternative proposals.
He also noted that the opposition MPs had declared that they wanted to be 'Ire- sponsible and con&uctiven.
'We'll hold them to their word,e 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, wMe vigor-
ous, remained relatively civil. hdr Liang calls it "constructive on both
sides". Dr Reuben Wong of the National University of Siugapore says the exchaug- es were "gentlemanly, with no overbear- ing put-downs of the opposition by the
like 'my colleagues and I in the Workers' Party will hold the Gwerument accounts- ble' - sparked a response and debate."
He was referring to Mr De Swza, who Also acknowledge that took issue with that statement and ar-
gued that the Government was not ac- countable to the opposition, but to the
what the Government does. Put up serious alternatives to be considered, afgue your case, be scrutmIsed as you scrutinise us. And don't just support popular measures such as
Singh raised the issue of state control over the traditional media. Mr Baey said that if the Government
were to "persist m keeping a tight rein on mainstream media", the latter would lose credibility and people will rely even
more on social media.
First-term MP Foo Mee Ha