Tan Chuan-Jin set to be Speaker as role becomes more crucial

As Speaker, Mr Tan Chuan-Jin cannot take part in House debates and will be less involved in shaping national policies.
As Speaker, Mr Tan Chuan-Jin cannot take part in House debates and will be less involved in shaping national policies.

When Parliament sits today, Mr Tan Chuan-Jin, 48, will be nominated as Singapore's 10th Speaker since its legislature was formed.

He will come before Cabinet ministers in the hierarchy of key posts, after the President, Prime Minister, Deputy PMs, and Chief Justice.

But Mr Tan, who has to resign as Minister for Social and Family Development, will be less involved in shaping national policies, and cannot take part in House debates.

Even as he moves up the ranks, some have asked if it is a step down.

Singapore Management University law don Eugene Tan said it is "not surprising if Singaporeans regard the Speaker's role as being more limited than that of a minister, away from the thick of action".

Professor Tan added: "The Speaker has to ensure the proceedings are fair and rules scrupulously observed. He will have to be independent when presiding at parliamentary sittings and conduct them without fear or favour."

But the Speaker has a broader role, one Singapore's leaders have highlighted over the past decades.

 
 
 

During the election of Sir George Oehlers as Speaker in 1960, then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew said his task was "not the simple one of following traditions and precedents". Instead, it involves maintaining the House as "a debating and thinking chamber, and not just a forum for declamations and denunciations".

Mr S. Dhanabalan, who was foreign minister and leader of the House, said in 1985 when re-electing Dr Yeoh Ghim Seng as Speaker that the role is instrumental in upholding the "high prestige and distinction" of Parliament.

He added: "What we do here affects the daily life and fortune of our citizens to an extent that many of our citizens may not realise."

Opposition members have also emphasised the importance of the Speaker's role. In 1964, Barisan Sosialis' Mr Lim Huan Boon told the Legislative Assembly that "it is the Speaker's esteemed duty and responsibility to see that any constructive opinion from the opposition will not be suppressed, to see that parliamentary democracy will not be monopolised by those in power".

Workers' Party (WP) chief and Aljunied GRC MP Low Thia Khiang has, over the years, thanked Speakers for having been fair to him and other opposition MPs.

Associate Professor Bilveer Singh of the National University of Singapore (NUS) said a Speaker represents "the conscience of a nation's Parliament".

"A failure to understand and carry out these duties carefully can have dire consequences not just for the House, but also for national politics if people sense that unjust and unfair play is taking place. Hence, the Speaker's duties are highly critical and very strategic," he added.

Speakerships are also dependent on a country's political context, said political observers.

In Singapore, the role is often perceived as a more passive and procedural one, given that of the current 100 MPs, 82 are from the People's Action Party (PAP), nine are from the WP, and nine are Nominated MPs.

Prof Tan, a former Nominated MP, said Singapore's parliamentary culture has "long been civil and certainly not rumbustious".

NUS political scientist Reuben Wong said a Speaker's role becomes more important with more opposition members. Changes to the Constitution last year ensure the next Parliament will have at least 12 opposition MPs. Professor Wong added that Mr Tan's appointment could indicate that the Speakership could become training ground for future political leaders.

And while only one of Singapore's past Speakers went on to be a minister - Mr E.W. Barker was made Speaker in 1963, then law minister in 1964 - the move from head of legislature to Cabinet is not uncommon in other countries, he noted.

"Based on the precedent set by Mr Barker, the Speaker could become Cabinet minister again in future. It will be a very original turn if this happens," Prof Wong added.

Minister in the Prime Minister's Office and Government Whip Chan Chun Sing said last week that the Speaker's role is likely to "get even more significant" in future: "I expect debates to be more robust in a much more diverse Parliament. We need somebody with the stature, who's open-minded, fair, balanced, who can command respect from all parliamentarians."

Agreeing, Prof Bilveer said the Speaker's role in the coming years deserves watching, "especially if the parliamentary make-up changes, with the PAP's dominance not as overwhelming as it had been in the last 50 years or so". "The role of the Speaker will become immensely critical. If he or she plays it well, national politics will benefit," he added.

One thing is clear: The Speaker has the final say in the chamber.

As Dr Yeoh, who held the post for 19 years from 1970 to 1989, once quipped: "Being the Speaker of the House, I will always have the last word!"

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 11, 2017, with the headline 'Tan Chuan-Jin set to be Speaker as role becomes more crucial'. Print Edition | Subscribe