Better contest of ideas vital as 13th Parliament opens

Opening of Singapore’s 13th Parliament. Photo from the The Straits Times

With the 13th Parliament about to begin, there are three things that could be done differently.

First, there should a better contest of ideas and less finger-pointing. The decorum maintained in our Parliament remains the envy of other legislative bodies around the world, but members sometimes get caught up debating issues not necessarily under the purview of Parliament.

For example, I believe the hawker centre cleaning and Aljunied-Hougang-Punggol East Town Council issues were given too much airtime. Minister Vivian Balakrishnan withdrawing his parliamentary privilege when accusing the Workers’ Party of lying made good headlines, but the bickering was a distraction from Singapore’s bigger and fundamental problems.

Second, the political parties should lift their respective whips when debating important and controversial issues, such as the Population White Paper in 2013. Veteran People’s Action Party (PAP) Member of Parliament (MP) Inderjit Singh made a hard-hitting speech against the paper, but did not vote on the amended motion three days later, which prompted questions. Strong party discipline discourages MPs from crossing the floor — in the case of PAP MPs, they may also be deterred from criticising Cabinet ministers, their fellow party members. Some issues worthy of more free and frank debate include whether to repeal Section 377A and whether to establish an ombudsman, among others.

Finally, I hope to see more women in the Cabinet. The appointment of Mdm Halimah Yacob as Speaker and more recently Ms Grace Fu as Full Minister and Leader of the House are noteworthy, but we lag behind other governments. We do not have to look far for talent — Senior Minister of State for Law and Finance Indranee Rajah is more than qualified to join the Cabinet.

This article first appeared in the TODAY newspaper in Singapore on 15 January 2016. A link to the original article can be found below: