From The Gallery

Engaging concerns of politics in policymaking

After the sound and fury of a by-election campaign, yesterday's parliamentary sitting must have seemed - in the beginning, at least - like a gentle introduction to the life of an MP for Mr Murali Pillai.

The newly minted Bukit Batok MP took his oath of allegiance under the proud gazes of family, friends and party activists in the public gallery.

His fellow People's Action Party (PAP) MPs thumped their armrests in applause as he then took his seat.

Before responding to the first question of the day, Senior Minister of State Josephine Teo welcomed Mr Murali, and spared some time to also offer a belated "Happy Mother's Day" to mothers in the House.

For most of the afternoon, it seemed as though things would continue in that convivial vein. Question time ended without any heated exchanges. The first Bill on amendments to the Income Tax Act was passed. The second, on family-friendly measures, received support from both sides of the House and further lightened the mood.

PAP MP Louis Ng (Nee Soon GRC) and Workers' Party (WP) Non-Constituency MP Daniel Goh cheered the greater focus on the role of fathers, and the extension of more benefits to the children of single unwed mothers.

Dr Goh urged the Government to go further and suggested some possible moves in the name of greater equality. The mood was ultimately one of shared aims and values, as Minister for Social and Family Development Tan Chuan-Jin spoke about the joys of parenting.

Then came the last order of business for the day: an omnibus Bill under the Ministry of Law, making largely technical changes to varied pieces of legislation.

It hardly seemed the sort of Bill to spark acrimony. Yet it did.

During the debate, three MPs - including WP MP Sylvia Lim (Aljunied GRC) - raised various questions and Senior Minister of State for Law Indranee Rajah replied. When it was time for clarifications, Ms Lim rose again.

She repeated an earlier concern about instances where the Government is suing or being sued. A proposed change to the Government Proceedings Act would allow courts to certify that legal costs for "more than two government lawyers" may be payable . This would be above the previous cap of two lawyers.

Ms Lim said this could have an intimidating effect on anyone involved in suits against the Government as they would not know the maximum they could have to pay should they lose.

She and Ms Indranee went back and forth on the issue. Ms Lim argued, in part, about the resources an individual or private entity would have compared to the machinery the Government could muster.

WP chief Low Thia Khiang (Aljunied GRC) also entered the fray, warning of the perception that cost is used to intimidate Singaporeans in legal cases against the Government.

Ms Indranee replied, saying, among other things, that there was no intention for cost to be used "in an oppressive manner".

Eventually, Speaker of Parliament Halimah Yacob ended the impasse, saying: "I don't think there's going to be any further development by continuing with the clarification."

In contrast to the chummy mood earlier that afternoon, this final exchange highlighted an unhappy truth of parliamentary life: What policymakers see as reasonable changes to legislation can give rise to equally legitimate concerns among opposition MPs about the political effects of such changes.

For Ms Indranee, the issue was one of policy. The change brings the rules for lawsuits involving the Government in line with those for other civil suits.

There was also a safeguard: Any decision to award costs lies in the hands of the courts.

But for the WP MPs, the practicalities were not the issue. Their point was that regardless of intentions - and they made no accusations on that front - the change could still dissuade potential litigants.

Ms Lim understood the rationale of aligning rules, but argued that it was not a necessary change.

The Government could be "magnanimous" and avoid being seen as trying to intimidate litigants.

Ms Indranee responded to these points in a calm and even tone.

"I said it before once, I said it before twice and I will now say it again a third time: It is not the intention of the Government to be using the courts to intimidate anyone," she told the House.

Going by the exchange, the reply obviously did not address the WP MPs' point that the move could be perceived as such.

Yesterday's debate was not a disagreement in which one side could be proven right or wrong. But both sides seemed to be simply talking at cross-purposes.

Granted, for a government which has undoubtedly thought through each legislative change - including those buried in omnibus Bills - it must be frustrating to feel that its purely practical motives are being questioned.

Yet where else can the political ramifications of legislation be explored, if not in Parliament itself?

When questions of politics - not just policy - are raised, the Government has no obligation to agree. But it does have to recognise and engage with such concerns, including on the potential unintended effects or misperceptions that others may have about its policies.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 10, 2016, with the headline 'Engaging concerns of politics in policymaking'. Print Edition | Subscribe