The Singapolitics Report Card: How did new MPs fare at the debate on the President's Address?

MPs, including 21 fresh faces, were sworn in at the opening of Parliament on Jan 15, 2016.
MPs, including 21 fresh faces, were sworn in at the opening of Parliament on Jan 15, 2016.PHOTO: MINISTRY OF COMMUNICATIONS AND INFORMATION

The President's Address last month wasn't just an opportunity for President Tony Tan Keng Yam to spell out the broad direction for where Singapore is headed.

The week-long debate on his speech, which ended last Friday, also gave 21 fresh faces - 19 elected MPs from the People's Action Party and two Non-Constituency MPs - the chance to showcase how thoughtful or thought-provoking they could be.

Giving a fresh take

On the first day of the debate, two MPs stood out for their bird's-eye view on the challenges facing the country. Acting Minister for Education (Higher Education and Skills) Ong Ye Kung gave a fresh spin to the call to look ahead to the next 50 years by couching his speech in a catchy package and citing evolution to underline the need to stay ahead of the competition. Singapore needs to grow faster legs, stronger hearts and wiser minds, he said.

Mr Ong, an MP for Sembawang GRC, spoke with confidence befitting a core member of the fourth generation of political leaders, as he called for a rethink of economic policy that relies inherently on foreign investment; and for the civil service to be more flexible given its tendency to go by the book.

Acting Minister for Education (Higher Education and Skills) Ong Ye Kung (left) and Jurong GRC MP Tan Wu Meng. PHOTOS: KUA CHEE SIONG, BERITA HARIAN

Meanwhile, Dr Tan Wu Meng (Jurong GRC), a former Cambridge University debater, gave a realistic assessment of the problems Singapore could face, but without resorting to fear-mongering. His speech on the "perfect storm" - a confluence of challenges Singapore could face should there be conflict between the United States and China, terrorism, a weak global economy and a divided society - was a welcome departure from the upbeat, aspirational stuff found in other MPs' speeches.

Championing workers and businesses

Several MPs also made substantive speeches on specific topics.

Given the imminent economic slowdown, it was no wonder that suggestions on how to combat tough economic conditions came fast and furious, especially from business leaders Yee Chia Hsing (Chua Chu Kang GRC), Chong Kee Hiong (Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC) and Henry Kwek (Nee Soon GRC).

Mr Yee urged the Government to review foreign worker levies for small and medium enterprises, as the quantums were set "in better economic times", while Mr Chong wanted retrenched professionals, managers and executives (PMEs) to be made more aware of the National Jobs Bank, run by the Singapore Workforce Development Agency.

Mr Kwek said Singapore urgently needs to build more businesses with "disruptive models" to grow the economy and suggested that the Government remove unnecessary regulations that may trip up businesses based on new business models to achieve this.

Minister of State for National Development, and Trade and Industry Koh Poh Koon (Ang Mo Kio GRC), likened the challenge of restructuring to a battle, one in which businesses needed to find special weapons to help them stay ahead.

"Many say business is like war. Our SMEs are like warriors on the battlefield," he said. "They must train hard, burn off all the fat."

But the solutions did not just come from those heavily involved in the private sector. Mr Chee Hong Tat (Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC), Minister of State for Communications and Information, and Health , urged the civil service and private sector alike to tap on the spirit of innovation, saying: "My worry is that we get trapped in the comfort zones of our current success, and we start to lose our appetite to take risks and question the status quo."

For Labour MP Melvin Yong (Tanjong Pagar GRC), enhancing Singapore's tripartism was another way to strengthen economic security. He also called on tripartism to be taught in schools "so that every Singaporean child would know, appreciate and continue to nurture this key competitive advantage that our tiny red dot has."

Tackling politics and society

NCMPs Dennis Tan and Leon Perera. PHOTO: THE WORKERS' PARTY, ST FILE

Non-Constituency MPs Leon Perera and Dennis Tan from the Workers' Party painted their vision for what politics should look like, as they sought to highlight the potential negative effects of having one party in power for more than 50 years.

Mr Perera argued that greater political diversity was needed for robust debate on policies. Later during the week, he held his ground even as his party was locked in fierce debate with the People's Action Party over the motion to fill the third NCMP seat that had been rejected by the WP's Lee Li Lian, who lost in Punggol East at last September's general election.

On security, Parliamentary Secretary for Home Affairs Amrin Amin (Sembawang GRC) emphasised the importance of a cohesive community in fighting terrorism.

"Brick and mortar can be repaired and rebuilt easily. Fractures in our community cannot be fixed so readily," he said.

Mr Saktiandi Supaat (Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC) made use of his maiden speech in Parliament to highlight the need to increase awareness of SkillsFuture initiatives, to give Malay-Muslim graduates the confidence needed to "stand shoulder to shoulder with other communities at the workplace."

Bold ideas and speeches

MP Desmond Choo with his daughter Sarah. PHOTO: FACEBOOK/DESMOND CHOO

Some MPs also raised bold ideas.

To help them better contribute to and get involved in Singapore, Mr Darryl David (Ang Mo Kio GRC) suggested that new citizens should pass a basic level of English-language proficiency and fulfil mandatory annual community service hours before they are granted citizenship.

Meanwhile, labour MP Desmond Choo (Tampines GRC), whose wife gave birth to their first child four months ago, called for legislation that will give new mothers the right to opt for eight weeks of flexible work arrangement, on top of the 16 weeks of maternity leave they are entitled to.

Other MPs showed they were capable of delivering remarks with the kind of bite that former MPs Tan Soo Khoon and Inderjit Singh had become known for. Despite her limited political experience, Jurong GRC MP Rahayu Mahzam rebuffed Workers' Party chief Low Thia Khiang for his analogy that NCMPs were like "duckweed" floating on a pond without a constituency to stay grounded in.

She reminded the House, and Mr Low especially: "Nothing stops the NCMPs from going to the ground to do house visits, organise sessions to gather ground concerns".

Speaking from the heart

New MPs Joan Pereira (third from left), Cheng Li Hui (second from right) and Sun Xueling (right), along with (from left) MPs Fatimah Lateef,  Grace Fu, Jessica Tan, Amy Khor, Foo Mee Har and Indranee Rajah. PHOTO: FACEBOOK/INDRANEE RAJAH

Many MPs also spoke from the heart. In a speech filled with feel-good anecdotes, Acting Minister for Education (Schools) Ng Chee Meng (Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC) spoke of the need for Singapore to have an inner strength to stay united and be a caring society, while his GRC mate, Ms Sun Xueling, called on Singaporeans to "find the generosity to love and accept another human being and to go past all that divides us."

Three long-time grassroots volunteers, Ms Cheryl Chan (Fengshan), Ms Joan Pereira (Tanjong Pagar GRC) and Ms Cheng Li Hui (Tampines GRC) called for integrated social hubs to help the elderly stay mentally and physically active.

A handful also made concrete personal pledges. As talk, at one point, turned to ways to improve Singapore's low fertility rate, Mr Louis Ng (Nee Soon GRC) promised the House that he and his wife would try for a second child soon.

All in all, this was a promising start, and the class of 2015 looks set to give their more senior colleagues a run for their money.

Some MPs can probably work on their delivery, while others can think about raising bolder suggestions. Let's hope they do not disappoint.