SEVEN long months after the General Election in May, the Singapore Parliament will finally be commencing its first session this week. The mainstream media has been trying hard to inject a bit of excitement into the whole affair, with front page articles and special “Insight” reports. But do Singaporeans really care? In a one-party system, do the parliamentary debates and legislative votes really matter?
Parliament is the most important legislative body in the country — the place where the laws of our land are introduced, debated and voted on. In Westminster parliamentary democracies, Parliament is the main platform where citizens’ representatives — the Members of Parliament (MPs) — make known their constituents’ needs and grievances to the Government. MPs also vote on legislation introduced either by the Government (via the Ministers) or other MPs.
In Singapore, the laws are all in place to permit robust debate. But due to the one-party dominance in Parliament, there is little that backbenchers (i.e., the MPs who are not Ministers) can do to affect policies. Parliamentary debates are seen by many Singaporeans as being “for show” — a means to give a semblance of public debate on proposed legislation before it is enacted to law. But at the end of the day when it is time for the vote, PAP MPs have no choice to vote according to the party line, because the Whip is almost never lifted in Singapore. A good example was the casino debate a year-and-a-half ago. Several PAP MPs like Mr Loh Meng See spoke up passionately against having a casino in Singapore, but had no choice to vote for it because the Government refused to allow PAP MPs to vote according to their consciences.
New MP and Parliamentary Secretary (MCYS) Teo Ser Luck recently summed up the PAP’s disdain for robust parliamentary debates. He told TODAY (28 October) that he “feels that many topics do not have to be raised in Parliament, but can be resolved by working with various ministries”. Another MP, Ms Indranee Rajah, also noted in the Straits Times interview (29 October) that MPs have a “unique way” of contributing to the policy-making process [read: they don’t openly challenge the Ministers in Parliament, but do so politely behind the scenes so as not to embarrass them].
When I visited my MP two years ago during his Meet-the-People session to express my opposition to the proposed casino, he defensively told me that “we are not a rubber stamp Parliament”, even though I hadn’t even challenged him on that point.
There is one good reason why all important national issues must be raised and debated in Parliament rather than discussed behind closed doors with ministries. That is the need for transparency. When an issue is debated in Parliament, it is recorded in the Hansard, which is a verbatim transcript of every statement and speech made by Members of the House. The Hansard is, by law, a public record for anyone to access. In contrast, when issues are “resolved” behind closed doors, the public has no way of knowing the full details of the issue being debated. In fact, they may not even be aware that the issue was raised, and so will not be able to weigh in the debate. They are then at the mercy of slick government public communications soundbites which put across only the Government’s viewpoint on the issue.
But we also have to be reasonable to our backbencher PAP MPs. They are, after all, part of the PAP. Their main role is not to challenge the Government, but to support it. Hence, the burden of raising controversial issues and challenging proposed legislation rests solely on the three Opposition MPs (and some say the Nominated MPs). Singaporeans will be watching them closely, particularly Workers’ Party chairman Sylvia Lim, who will be making her debut in Parliament. Ms Lim’s performance over the next 5 years will play a critical part in helping Singaporeans decide by the next election whether there is a compelling reason for having more Opposition MPs in the House.