From The Gallery

Power and politics in the House

Opening of the first session of the Thirteenth Parliament, on Jan 15, 2016 at the Parliament House.
Opening of the first session of the Thirteenth Parliament, on Jan 15, 2016 at the Parliament House.ST PHOTO: LIM SIN THAI

I watch Parliament less for the details of what each MP says, and more to get a feel of the timbre of a debate and even the tenor of an entire House.

This is in part because I've covered many debates as a journalist since 1991, and tend to have heard it all before - go beyond grades in education, help businesses with rising costs and shortage of manpower, help retrenched middle-aged workers get reskilled for another shot at the workplace - which MPs again raised yesterday .

It is also because I believe that each crop of new MPs represents the voice of a new generation, and each new session of Parliament gives voice to, and shapes, the direction the country should go.

Yesterday, the 13th Parliament sat to debate the President's Address delivered a week ago, when President Tony Tan Keng Yam spoke about the need to adapt the economic and political system.

The 5 1/2 hour session had 17 MPs speaking, including eight first-term MPs. The most impressive was Acting Minister for Education (Higher Education and Skills) Ong Ye Kung.

My first impression of the 13th Parliament is that it will be a Chamber where the true contest will be within the PAP, not between the PAP and the opposition. My second impression is that the power of the people will feature prominently in debate.

He might be a parliamentary novice, but speaks like a seasoned politician - he campaigned and lost the 2011 General Election in Aljunied GRC, and won last yearin Sembawang GRC.

His background in the civil service and unions, his ease in public speaking, coupled with a natural air of authority, will catapult him to the top rungs of the political leadership quickly.

His speech was couched in a catchy package: Singapore needs to grow faster legs, stronger hearts and wiser minds.

But it is also a substantive call for a rethink on the economic policy of relying on foreign investment, and on the civil service penchant for following rules.

All politics is a contest - of ideas, for votes, for power - so you get votes to translate your ideas into action. In the House today are MPs who will form the "nucleus" of the fourth-generation leadership.

The first generation had Mr Lee Kuan Yew, a clear leader who won over a strong-willed group of peers. The second generation chose collegial Mr Goh Chok Tong as their consensual leader. The third generation has Mr Lee Hsien Loong, first among equals, who also had the benefit of family pedigree. The fourth generation competition for leadership will, I reckon, be more intense. It will all be polite and cloaked, but will be no less serious.

So, my first impression of the 13th Parliament is that it will be a Chamber where the true contest will be within the PAP, not between the PAP and the opposition. My second impression is that the power of the people will feature prominently in debate.

Several PAP MPs highlighted challenges - economic, terrorism, social - and stressed that the Government can't tackle them alone. Let alone one with a strong mandate, as new MP Tan Wu Meng (Jurong GRC), said.

Mr Sitoh Yih Pin (Potong Pasir) went further, saying that the Government must not only be deserving of people's trust, it must also trust the people - trust that people support it even when things are imperfect or difficult, and trust "that Singaporeans are discerning and able to accept the good, the bad and the ugly news".

Opposition MP Sylvia Lim (Aljunied GRC), said for Singapore to be exceptional, its people must be empowered. "To truly empower citizens, there must be real power centres outside the Government - in local enterprises, in the private sector, in civil society, in the people sector, so as to effectively check and work with the Government...

"For true collaboration, no partner should be dominant. The Government needs to let go and devolve more power first, so that there is real and meaningful collaborative partnership among equals."

Engagement will feature in the 13th Parliament, as Singapore embarks on a series of SGfuture dialogues to discuss the future. And if the above MPs' rhetoric is anything to go by, there will be much talk about empowering citizens - and, hopefully, beyond talk, policies and action plans.

If I may speak of something as tenuous as the feel of a House, I would say this one already has a settled feel, although it is in only its first month.

The 12th Parliament was a palpably hurting one, reeling from the shock of GE 2011 . The 11th Parliament opened amid great expectations with a crop of 24 new MPs touted as "non-conformist", representing diversity. It was alas a label they found hard to live up to.

This Parliament comes after voters gave the Government a strong mandate in September last year, with a 10 per centage point rise in vote share. PAP MPs in the House are no longer under siege; they can justifiably feel comforted that they won back voters' trust.

And therein lies the greatest risk for this Parliament.

In the world outside the quiet Chamber, the financial markets are roiling. Terrorism strikes closer to home. The Zika virus threatens. To be sure, MPs did stress the need for unity in tackling challenges, and the need for a secure Singapore.

But I would have liked to see, feel and hear, more concerns from the world outside reflected in the House - stories of real-life struggle, jeremiad cries, bolder ideas. I know the year is young, many MPs are new, and the House is just getting into its stride. But I thought a greater sense of urgency about the challenges facing us would have been in order.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 26, 2016, with the headline 'Power and politics in the House'. Print Edition | Subscribe