Singapore Media Watch

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Media Watch: A more open house - TODAY

Lift the Whip more often and let MPs speak from the heart

Wayne Soon

A healthy democracy not only hinges on an active citizenry or a competent and responsive Cabinet, but also on the diversity of voices in Parliament.

In the months after the convening of the 10th Parliament in 2001, Singaporeans saw a livelier Parliament than usual with the then Prime Minister, Mr Goh Chok Tong, promising more opportunities to lift the party Whip on parliamentary Bills and motions, so as to foster more open debates.

This was to dispel the notion of People's Action Party (PAP) MPs as compliant and uncritical party followers, as well as to strengthen the belief that open and constructive debate can improve the formulation and implementation of public policy.

Mr Goh's announcement sent a strong signal that MPs — especially new ones — could speak up freely to question public policies. Backbenchers and junior Ministers, such as Ms Irene Ng, Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, Dr Amy Khor, Mr Heng Chee How and Mr Tan Soo Khoon among many others, took up the challenge, raising numerous issues and proposing policy alternatives.

Topics tackled ranged from National Service and education reforms, to the tweaking of the Central Provident Fund and the Nominated MP (NMP) scheme. Some of these new, active MPs took advantage of the more open House by sharpening their thinking and rhetorical skills in the debate on policies; a number went on to become ministers and respected backbenchers in their own right.

All things being equal, the knowledge that the Whip will be lifted fosters vibrant debates, even if some feel the conclusion is a foregone one.

Lifting the Whip more frequently would allow the new MPs and ministers to be tested on their ability to forge consensus in the making of public policies. It would aid ministers to be more persuasive in rallying their fellow MPs and, by extension, the public, by sharpening the rationalising of unpopular policies. (Read more...)

Our Review

Based on the author's optimism of the ability of PAP backbenchers to provide meaningful debate on public policies and the many examples he has raised, an outsider may be forgiven for believing that an alternative voice from an oppositioin party is not necessary in Singapore.

After all, what role can 2 miserable opposition MPs in Parliament play when there are so many new, independent and most importantly, critical PAP MPs who are willing to jump into the baptism of fire in politics and speak out openly against their Party?

This article has effectively negate the importance and need of having a strong opposition party in Singapore to provide check and balance and at the same time vindicated the flaws inherent in our Parliament where there are only 2 opposition voices compared to 82 PAP MPs.

Undue emphasis was placed instead on frivolous matters like the lifting of the Party Whip to allow members to "foster debate, even though the conclusion is a foregone one". Isn't parliamentary debate a means to reach a broad consensus on critical national issues concerning the lives of ordinary Singaporeans?

If the government has already decided on a course of action pertaining to a policy, why should a Parliament be convened to "discuss" it at all? Shouldn't the debate taken place among the MPs before putting it to the vote in order to reach a decision?

Party Whip: a whip of necessity or convenience?

In 2oo1, then Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong promised to lift the party whip more often to foster active debate in Singapore. Undoubtedly, this was an astute political move to neutralized critics who bemoan the let of policy discussion in Parliament and to assauge partially the wishes of Singaporeans to have more alternative voices in Parliament to pre-empt the PAP from having a "one-way ticket" in drafting and passing of bills.

Mr Goh outlined his "vision" clearly in a Straits Times interview: "I would want to form an alternative policies group in Parliament, comprising 20 PAP MPs. These 20 PAP MPs will be free to vote in accordance with what they think of a particular policy. In other words, the whip for them will be lifted."

However, an astounding reverse was made 2 years later following a strong rebuttal by PM Goh to PAP backbencher Amy Khor's use of the word "betrayal" in decrying the government's refusal to restore the CPF cuts:

"If you sing Jailhouse Rock with your electric guitar when others are playing Beethoven, you are out of order. The whip must be used on you."

Ultimately, there are no strict guidelines governing the use of the party whip and it is entirely dependent on the Prime Minister's discretion. The party whip will be used on important matters where the party's stance overrides all individuals' concernes and misgivings such as the recent decision to allow casinos to be set up in Singapore while it can be lifted for minor issues to be debated so as to "dispel the notion that PAP MPs are compliant and uncritical followers."

Which comes first: the party or constituents?

MPs represent the residents of their constituency. They are expected and required to safeguard their interests and speaking out for them in the Parliament. They are the voice of the common people whose views are seldom sought out or considered in the formulation and implementation of public policies affecting their daily lives.

When there is a conflict in interestbetween the party's stance and the people's wishes, which side will the PAP MP stand on? PAP MPs are required to vote strictly according to the Party's line and not to their own personal preferences. In the end, in spite of the "diversity" of voices present, there can only be one view, one choice and one decision.

With an overwhelming majority in Parliament, there is no check on the ruling party's executive power. Needless to say, PAP MPs who are bound by their party protocol will abide by their party and therefore however "fierce" and "passionate" their intra-party debates may be, it is merely a facade with no real substance or impact.


Before Parliament convened today, we already have a taste of what to expect from our new PAP MPs. In interviews conducted by the mainstream media on various days, they have given us a hint on what they are likely to say in Parliament.

Ms Denise Phua wants more help from the government for mentally challenged children, Dr Lim Wee Kiat will highlight the "ungraciousness" of Singaporeans and Mr Sam Tan hopes the government will pay more attention to the poor and needy.

All these are important communal local issues that Singaporeans are concerned with, but of more interest are national issues such as the government's handling of the foreign media during the IMF/WB meetings in September and the Temasek-Shin corp saga. Will any of the new PAP MPs bring these sensitive topics up for discussion?

Diversity of voices doesn't mean alternative voices

Is it a misunderstanding that the first sentence in the article on "diversity of voices" has led ironically to the discussion being focused on its replacement by "alternative intra-party voices"?

Diversity of voices can never be the real alternative voices Singaporeans yearn for if there is only one political party calling the shots in Parliament.

Alternative voices that truly foster vibrant debate in policy-making can only be provided by a multitude of political parties, each representing the interests of their electorate.

The PAP is only interested in paying lip-service to the people in order to score political points, as illustrated by SM Goh's words:

"To us, alternative voice doesn't mean alternative voice in Parliament. Therefore alternative voices can be heard and will be heard outside of Parliament. We must do it outside of Parliament, inside of Parliament is only one, two voices at the most."

With only one or two "alternative" voices allowed in Parliament, it is more economical and time-saving not to have any Parliamentary debates altogether.


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