From The Gallery

Much heat in the House sheds light on deepening political divide

The Parliament House of Singapore.
The Parliament House of Singapore. PHOTO: ST FILE

In contrast to the exciting Monday parliamentary sitting that primed the country for a coming General Election, yesterday's session looked set to unfold uneventfully.

The front bench responded to MPs' questions on issues like problem gambling and foreign manpower figures and the House passed two uncontroversial Bills.

Then, the last order of the day - the passing of a Bill to change the name of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (Iseas) to the Iseas-Yusof Ishak Institute, in honour of Singapore's first President - unexpectedly erupted into a heated debate between Education Minister Heng Swee Keat and leaders of the Workers' Party.

WP chairman Sylvia Lim said that the opposition party supported the name change, but objected to a clause in the Bill that would streamline the think-tank's board of directors and have the minister, instead of the President and other bodies, appoint these directors.

"Can Iseas maintain its autonomy and independence with all the powers concentrated in the minister with this Bill? More worryingly, is the concentration of powers to appoint the board in the minister a sign of things to come? Are there plans to turn Iseas into a body that simply churns out knowledge for the government bureaucracy?" she asked in unexpectedly dramatic and escalatory fashion.

After all, as Mr Heng noted, Iseas is a statutory board under the Ministry of Education, and all other statutory boards have board appointment power vested in the minister. The Government saw the clause as a procedural change to bring the Iseas-Yusof Ishak Institute in line with current practice.

But as WP chief Low Thia Khiang revealed, the WP suspected a deeper, darker agenda.

He questioned if the Government was "sincere" in honouring Mr Yusof, or if it was "a disguise for controlling Iseas".

Mr Low then said, in a statement that noticeably shocked the front bench: "This one makes me think of how eventually the Nanyang University was closed, (how) the board was subsequently changed and closed."

The emotive 1980 closing of Nanyang University, Singapore's only Mandarin-medium university, was a painful episode that created a fissure between the Government then and segments of the Chinese-speaking community - Mr Low included.

Mr Low is the last Nantah parliamentarian and knows well the lingering lament among the Chinese community that its culture and language have become relatively less significant on the national scene. His invoking of Nantah, when the two institutions of Iseas and Nantah bear no resemblance in either character or circumstance , was pure political theatre.

Mr Heng thought as much, responding that he was "surprised and disappointed"at the reference and emphasising that the Government wants to strengthen Iseas.

But Mr Heng was himself not above political broadsides, peppering his responses to the WP with references to the findings of lapses in compliance and governance at the Aljunied-Hougang-Punggol East Town Council (AHPETC).

Defending the changes, he said that they would make the board more effective, asking pointedly: "Does Ms Lim not agree that we should always look for improvements in everything we do, whether we are running town councils or whether we are running the Government?"

Ultimately, the Bill passed, with the WP's opposition to the offending clause placed on official parliamentary record.

It seemed unclear what had been achieved. If the opposition party was out to score political points - as PAP MPs accused it of - why over such an uncontroversial piece of legislation? Points may have been earned from some quarters, but they were certainly also lost from those who will conclude that the WP voted against a Bill to honour a former president.

What the heated debate showed me was that the last four years of having a sizeable WP presence in the House has marked Parliament indelibly and hardened relations between the two parties.

There is little love lost between the two benches, and the upcoming GE is likely to be acrimonious and bruising.

Watching the broadsides fly, I was reminded of an earlier question in the sitting from MP Irene Ng (Tampines GRC) about the lessons which the current crisis in Greece may have for Singapore.

Her question was about financials, but there are also existential points of reflection for Singapore in what is unfolding in Greece - a small state of 11 million surrounded by bigger powers.

Effectively bankrupt, Greece is essentially being forced by its euro zone partners to undertake austerity reforms that were rejected by its own people in a referendum.

Opinion is sharply divided on how much the country itself is to blame for its predicament.

But as Singapore enters election season, it is perhaps more important than ever to remember that it is not the way of the world to allow small states to determine their own destiny.

Singaporeans' votes will matter in deciding the kind of government and direction they want for themselves, a privilege that cannot be taken, even in this modern world, for granted.

That should be something all sides of the political spectrum can agree on and even in the heat of electoral battle, work towards protecting.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 15, 2015, with the headline 'Much heat in the House sheds light on deepening political divide'. Print Edition | Subscribe