S'pore's economy is Starship Enterprise, not sinking Titanic: 5 highlights from Parliament

Tanjong Pagar GRC MP Alvin Tan speaking in Parliament on Sept 2, 2020. PHOTO: GOV.SG

The debate on the President's Address crossed its mid-week hump on Wednesday (Sept 2), with 16 MPs delivering speeches, including Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. Here are some of the more exciting moments from the 6½-hour sitting.

1. Singapore as Starship Enterprise, not the Titanic

First-time MP Alvin Tan (Tanjong Pagar GRC), who is also Minister of State for Trade and Industry, and Culture, Community and Youth, showed his geek stripes as a Trekkie in his response to a comment made on Tuesday by Mr Leon Perera (Aljunied GRC) of the Workers' Party (WP).

Mr Perera had referenced the Titanic, a British luxury passenger liner that famously sank in 1912 despite being touted as an unsinkable ship, to warn against complacency when assessing Singapore's economy. He made the point that Singapore needs social safety nets like the Titanic needed lifeboats.

Mr Tan, however, felt it was a mischaracterisation to compare Singapore to the ill-fated ship, as the nation, in its 55 years, had never faced a problem from which it did not bounce back stronger.

"I would like to suggest that we are the Starship Enterprise, always exploring new frontiers and making friends with people from many different places," he said, referencing the iconic spacecraft from the science-fiction series Star Trek and its crew's mission, which is to "boldly go where no one has gone before".

Mr Tan also gave a shout-out to his fellow Trekkie, Dr Tan See Leng (Marine Parade GRC), who had also inserted a Star Trek reference in his maiden speech on Monday.

He said that as Dr Tan had mentioned, "we will live long and prosper".

2. Parliamentary debates without prepared speeches?

Bukit Batok SMC MP Murali Pillai suggested, among other things, an IT system to track the attendance and activity of MPs in Parliament. PHOTO: GOV.SG

With prepared speeches being the norm at parliamentary sittings, one MP stood up to offer a new normal for Parliament in future - one with far fewer such speeches.

Mr Murali Pillai (Bukit Batok) suggested that instead of MPs reading out their speeches at debates on new Bills, they could lodge them in Parliament, which means they are taken as read and made public ahead of time.

"Time in this House should be spent on genuine debate and points of clarification or disagreement," he said.

"We will be able to avoid repetition of points that wastes valuable time. The minister should feel free to berate members who try to debate without having read the minister's policy speeches."

Mr Murali also suggested, among other things, an IT system to track the attendance and activity of MPs in Parliament, which would make it easier for people to hold them to account.

3. Staying the course in a race with no road map

Sembawang GRC MP Poh Li San cautioned against adopting quick-fix solutions, like importing too much foreign manpower. PHOTO: GOV.SG

New MP Poh Li San (Sembawang GRC) had made her love for running marathons known in previous interviews. On Wednesday, it made its inevitable appearance in her maiden speech where she compared the Covid-19 pandemic to a race that is full of twists and turns, and which has no road map.

"What good will come from Covid-19 is dependent on how Singapore runs as a team in this marathon," she said.

"To run this race, we must be able to respond to the challenges and be able to adapt and transform. We must nurture strong and new runners and let them start racing when they are still young."

Her passion popped up again when she spoke of the need to ensure balance in deploying foreign labour.

She cautioned against adopting quick-fix solutions, like importing too much foreign manpower, that could do more harm than good, which she compared to a marathoner taking steroids for a temporary performance boost.

4. PM Lee Hsieng Loong's speech

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Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's wide-ranging speech held the attention of the House for 90 minutes.

The topics he covered include Covid-19 and its aftermath, as well as the current tension between locals and foreigners in the Singapore workforce.

But what perhaps stood out most was the way he described the style of governance of Singapore's founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew.

He noted the late Mr Lee's "direct, no nonsense" style.

"You read the old speeches - the directness, the force of the language makes you sit back and say, 'God!' Could we say that today in a different way? The truths are the same, the presentation has to change with the zeitgeist."

As he went into the final stretch, PM Lee struck a note of hope amid the country's worst crisis since independence.

His voice wavering with emotion, he told Singaporeans: "Do not doubt. Do not fear. Jewel will shine again. Changi will thrive again. SIA will be a great way to fly once more. Our economy will prosper anew.

"Our children and our grandchildren will continue marching forward to build a fair, ever more just and equal society."

5. Exchange between PM Lee and Mr Pritam Singh

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Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong asserted that Singapore will come back stronger from the Covid-19 crisis. He also debated with Pritam Singh on the nature of the Opposition in Singapore politics.

Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh wasted little time in stepping up to the podium to respond to several points in PM Lee's speech, including his criticism of the opposition's argument that voters can support opposition candidates without fear of inadvertently voting the PAP government out.

Mr Singh said the issue was an old one that had come up before in previous elections.

He added that voters who say they want the PAP in power but also want an opposition are giving voice to a sentiment held by many Singaporeans.

"My duty, and the duty of my colleagues, is to be responsible about our roles. It's not easy, we come under pressure too from our own supporters.

"But as the Prime Minister rightly said, I think we owe our loyalty to something larger, and we will do our best by Singaporeans."

PM Lee replied that a voter who votes against the Government while expecting someone else to run the Government is a "free rider" and the system will fail if voters do not vote sincerely.

Mr Singh replied that he did not think voters in Aljunied, Hougang and Sengkang who supported the WP would appreciate being called free riders.

"We're not just doing nothing having been voted in. We're not just letting the other guy, the government of the day, do something. We've got to do what we have to do.

"We've got to run the town council... because if you want to move forward in this system as an opposition MP, you've got to prove your worth in the town council."

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