From the gallery: When the House became one

When new laws are introduced, or proposals made to change policies, these deserve thorough airing, scrutiny and debate in Parliament.

Then there are also issues which are less about the cut and thrust of debate, and more about legislators coming together because there is common cause and for which a unified solution is needed.

A national public health concern is one such instance.

And yesterday was one such occasion in Parliament, when two ministerial statements were made on the Zika outbreak in Singapore.

With Zika having the potential to be endemic islandwide, and already of particular concern to pregnant women, it would have been easy for MPs - whether from the ruling party or opposition - to engage in political posturing, or to pander to and stoke unfounded fears when discussing it in the House.

Much is still unclear about the potential effects of Zika and the exact nature of the local strain. So it is commendable that all eight MPs who asked questions on Zika refrained from fuelling uncertainty, fear-mongering, and adding to the concerns that some individuals still have.

After all, when the news of local Zika transmission broke late last month, allegations of a government cover-up about what was known and when started to make the rounds online.

Much is still unclear about the potential effects of Zika and the exact nature of the local strain.

So it is commendable that all eight MPs who asked questions on Zika refrained from fuelling uncertainty, fear-mongering, and adding to the concerns that some individuals still have.

That is not to say that the MPs gave the office-holders - Health Minister Gan Kim Yong and Environment and Water Resources Minister Masagos Zulkifli - an easy time.

Ten questions on Zika had been filed ahead of yesterday's sitting, five for each ministry. This was in addition to two Zika-related questions for the Ministry of Trade and Industry on the impact on tourism and the economy, which were answered separately.

After Mr Gan and Mr Masagos delivered their statements, which also addressed the queries filed earlier, Ms Foo Mee Har (West Coast GRC) got the ball rolling with more questions.

She asked if the Government would consider additional measures: for instance, a new regulatory regime to require all construction contractors to get independent pest controllers to inspect their sites.

Mr Masagos replied that Singapore "should not go overboard" while also pointing out that most breeding spots are found in homes, not construction sites - a response Ms Foo accepted.

Questions from two Workers' Party Non-Constituency MPs were similarly focused on practical, factual issues.

Associate Professor Daniel Goh asked about the 36 construction workers found to have had Zika during the Health Ministry's back-testing of past cases. Did they visit a clinic, and if so, why did the clinic not detect Zika?

He also wanted to know about processes to ensure that contractors report multiple cases of illness, and whether the location of construction sites - not just their size - should be taken into consideration.

Mr Dennis Tan asked about the timeframe for the National Environment Agency's field study involving male Aedes mosquitoes bearing the Wolbachia bacteria. When such mosquitoes mate with female ones, the bacteria will cause the females to produce eggs that do not hatch.

These were practical questions devoid of political point-scoring.

Of course MPs, and arguably those in the opposition in particular, have a role in holding the Government to account, scrutinising policies, and raising questions when there is a need to.

But it would be dangerous if voters and MPs themselves take this to mean that they, and the process, must always be combative and confrontational.

Fortunately, as yesterday's session showed, MPs were not influenced by populist sentiments and focused instead on tackling the Zika issue together.

So, too, did MPs come together on another matter: Parliament's tribute to the late former president S R Nathan at the start of yesterday's sitting.

A total of nine MPs spoke, many of whom shared recollections that were personal.

Ms Sylvia Lim (Aljunied GRC) spoke about how her father, as one of the first batch of army officers, got to know Mr Nathan when he was at the then Ministry of Interior and Defence.

She also recalled how Mr Nathan made an effort to seek her out after she first entered Parliament as an NCMP in 2006.

Mr Murali Pillai (Bukit Batok), the newest member of the House, having been elected in May this year, recounted how Mr Nathan asked to meet him two months ago, even as the former president was in hospital. Over two hours, Mr Nathan spoke to him about issues facing the nation.

Even during his last days, Mr Nathan was always thinking about Singapore.

Mr Pritam Singh (Aljunied GRC) recalled how Mr Nathan noticed him and his wife at a football game, and invited them to sit with him. And one point he made to Mr Singh was: "You must always look after the interest of Singaporeans and Singapore."

It was fitting that a man so praised for his ability to unite people and his concern for everyone, regardless of station, brought MPs together yesterday.

 

When, in the coming months, Parliament debates the White Paper on changes to the elected presidency, there is no doubt that sparks will fly.

But as yesterday's session demonstrated, depending on the issue at hand, a session that is relatively free of the cut and thrust of debate is something also worth appreciating.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 14, 2016, with the headline 'When the House became one'. Print Edition | Subscribe