Parliament: 5 highlights of Monday's sitting, including DPM Heng's tribute to Goh Chok Tong, Low Thia Khiang

SINGAPORE – The debate on the President’s Address, the first of the 14th Parliament, kicked off on Monday (Aug 31).

Here are some lively moments from the session, which spanned about six hours and saw 19 MPs speak on the main issues facing the Government.

1. PRITAM SINGH’S MAIDEN SPEECH AS LEADER OF THE OPPOSITION

Workers’ Party (WP) chief Pritam Singh, who was appointed Leader of the Opposition after his party won an unprecedented 10 seats in Parliament at the recent general election, used the longer time – 40 minutes – he has been allocated to delve into the opposition’s role in debating policies in Parliament.

In his 33-minute speech, Mr Singh said he and his WP colleagues will have to work extra hard. ” We will have to ask ourselves tough questions before critiquing government policy. The chief of which is, what would we do if we were in charge.”

But, he added, there must be clarity about “what the opposition can and cannot do”.

With 10 MPs in Parliament, the WP falls far short of the resources available to the Government, he said, and it was important for Singaporeans to take this into account when forming their expectations of the opposition.

While the WP will not form a shadow Cabinet owing to a lack of resources, he announced that it will organise itself to scrutinise policies in five areas important to Singaporeans.

The five areas are: health, ageing and retirement adequacy; jobs, businesses and the economy; education, inequality and the cost of living; housing, transport and infrastructure; and national sustainability, a broad area about how to ensure Singapore continues to thrive far into the future for successive generations.

2. DPM HENG SWEE KEAT THANKS RETIRED MPs

Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat carved out time from a wide-ranging speech to pay tribute to MPs who have retired, including former prime minister Goh Chok Tong and former WP chief Low Thia Khiang.

Mr Heng recalled that Mr Goh’s advice to him during the global financial crisis of 2007-2009 left a lasting impression on him, and it continues to guide his work during the pandemic.

He was then managing director of the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS), while Mr Goh was then its chairman. Then, banks around the world were in trouble, and MAS had to make a momentous decision on whether to seek the President’s approval for a $150 billion guarantee on all bank deposits backed up by Singapore’s past reserves, Mr Heng said.


Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat speaking in Parliament on Aug 31, 2020. PHOTO: GOV.SG

“I was glad to have his wise counsel. Mr Goh taught us that we must face difficult decisions head-on. It was a lesson that stayed with me,” added DPM Heng, who thanked his former bosses at the Ministry of Trade and Industry as well, namely former trade and industry minister Lim Hng Kiang and former transport minister Khaw Boon Wan, who was MTI’s permanent when DPM Heng was with the ministry.

He also gave a special mention to Mr Low, who had been an opposition MP since 1991 until this year, when he retired from politics.

“He’s a fiery speaker at election rallies, but when it comes to the crunch, when our national interest is at stake, he stands together with the Government,” said the DPM, adding that Mr Low has deep convictions about language, culture and heritage, and the long-term success of Singapore. “When I last spoke to him, he told me he was very happy playing with his grandchild. I am glad he has recovered from his fall and wish him good health.”

3. DENNIS TAN, MURALI PILLAI DEBATE ELECTION MISDEMEANOURS


Hougang SMC MP Dennis Tan (left) and Bukit Batok SMC MP Murali Pillai in Parliament on Aug 31, 2020. PHOTOS: GOV.SG

The heat of the July general election may have cooled but it seems to have left an imprint on WP’s Mr Dennis Tan (Hougang) and PAP’s Mr Murali Pillai (Bukit Batok).

Both crossed swords over Singapore’s political culture on Monday (Aug 31) as they revisited two incidents that allegedly took place in Mr Tan’s single-member constituency during the polls.

One involved two complaints being made to the Elections Department (ELD) about posters WP had put up that were said to be below the minimum required height, Mr Tan told the House.

A resident subsequently informed him that she had seen PAP representatives pulling his posters below the original height.

On another occasion, the PAP team planted party flags in front of his banners, blocking their contents, Mr Tan said.

But, he added, it would be unwise for the WP to do likewise in constituencies where the PAP are the incumbents, lest a tit-for-tat culture manifests itself and create a divisive political culture.

To this, Mr Murali asked if Mr Tan would accept that the ELD would deal with such complaints in an even-handed way, and questioned the basis of his suggestion that the PAP would use the power of incumbency against opponents in an unfair way.

Mr Tan said he was not suggesting the PAP was using the power of its incumbency to do those things. Rather, the incidents demonstrate “very petty and bad politics” that should not be encouraged, he added.

He also acknowledged that the ELD had been even-handed in handling the complaints.

4. GETTING TO GRIPS WITH PARLIAMENTARY BUSINESS

Parliamentary processes are complicated and can trip up newbies, even old-timers.

Shortly after Second Minister for Manpower Tan See Leng concluded his speech on Monday (Aug 16), WP chief Pritam Singh raised his hand, seeking clarification.

But Speaker of Parliament Tan Chuan-Jin failed to see it. Perhaps, the three hours of speeches from MPs had given him some food for thought? He absent-mindedly called for a 15-minute break.

When the House resumed business, Mr Tan was quick to rectify his error, but not without a touch of humour. “Apologies, I missed your hand. I must have been too hungry just now,” he quipped. Mr Singh shrugged it off: “It’s okay, Mr Speaker, thank you.”

Meanwhile, Dr Tan delivered his maiden speech without a hitch as he peppered it with anecdotes and Chinese idioms to illustrate how businesses will be supported to adapt to new challenges sparked by the Covid-19 crisis.


Second Minister for Manpower Tan See Leng speaking in Parliament on Aug 31, 2020. PHOTO: GOV.SG

But in an exchange with the Leader of the Opposition, he seems to be hungry for more – questions, that is.

After responding to Mr Singh twice, he continued to stayed seated on the front row, unaware that the exchange was over.

Education Minister Lawrence Wong, sitting four seats to his left, came to the rescue. He caught his eye, nodded and indicated he could return to his seat in the second row. Dr Tan hastily stood up, masked himself up and moved back to his seat.

5. WORKING TOWARDS A COMMON GOAL

Speaker Tan Chuan-Jin, WP chief Pritam Singh and Mr Seah Kian Peng (Marine Parade GRC) share a common love for football, although they support different teams in the English Premier League .

Perhaps inevitable, it provided inspiration for Mr Seah when he spoke of how political discourse and debate should take place without leading to polarisation and division.

“Having played football with both of you, I can say that Pritam – you’re the best player among the three of us, by far,” Mr Seah said with a grin, drawing laughter from the House.

When they were in the Singapore Armed Forces, they held different ranks, Mr Seah noted. Mr Tan held the high rank of brigadier-general, while “many ranks below that” were Mr Singh, a major, and Mr Seah, a captain.

Their common experiences and interests despite some differences are a parallel to how MPs of different political stripes can continue to find a common purpose and remain united when discussing issues in the House, Mr Seah pointed out.

“We all have different vocations but in our own ways, we all love our country. And we want to make lives better for all. So too my aspiration for Singapore: our unity must lie in the small things – care for each other, love for the family, fighting for the person next to you.”

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