Comment: Heng Swee Keat & Pritam Singh set new tone for politics in parliament on 1st day of debate

Heng Swee Keat was gracious in his style, while Pritam Singh was transparent in his approach.

Martino Tan | September 02, 2020, 10:26 AM

Monday was the first day of the week-long debate on the President's Address in a new term of Parliament.

Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat and the Leader of the Opposition (LO) Pritam Singh took centre stage because of the length and the substance of their speeches.

Both spoke for about 30 minutes.

The two speeches were given prominence by our main broadsheet The Straits Times. It devoted two full pages and reproduced excerpts of their speeches (Sep. 2).

So what are the things both sides of the political aisle can agree on?

Heng and Singh can agree that:

1) political leaders have to serve the best interests of Singaporeans and Singapore;

2) Singapore and Singaporeans have changed, and

3) Singapore's position as an open/trading nation remain unchanged.

With DPM Heng and Singh viewed as the new generation of political leaders taking over Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Workers' Party chief Low Thia Khiang respectively, the side by side feature somewhat feels more than a coincidence of timing.

In fact, another coincidence is Heng and Singh are in the "class of 2011", with both entering politics and parliament in 2011.

So how did the two younger generation of leaders project their leadership, in terms of political styles and tone?

1. Heng was gracious in thanking veteran politicians, including Low Thia Khiang

Heng started by using history as context.

He returned to his maiden speech in Parliament in 2011, and said that all debates in parliament will always be guided by one question: “How can we best ensure the survival and success of Singapore, and improve the lives of Singaporeans?

And Heng said that this question continues to be as relevant in today's context.

So Heng again asked the same question today, with the additional qualification that Singaporeans are experiencing an unprecedented moment in Singapore's history.

Hence, Heng spoke about how Singapore will have to adapt to change while staying true to the values that helped Singapore progress over the years.

So Heng spoke about how Singapore needs to adapt as an economy, as a society, as a people.

But one change that was noticeable was how Heng sought to thank all long-serving politicians from both sides of the aisle.

Heng paid tribute to former Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong, Ministers Khaw Boon Wan, Lim Hng Kiang and Yaacob Ibrahim, veteran MPs Charles Chong, Lily Neo, Teo Ho Pin, and Cedric Foo, and Low.

Heng spoke about how Goh, as one of the longest serving MPs in the House (nearly 45 years), continued to be a good mentor to him, with his signature mix of humour and wisdom.

He said that Goh has left an indelible mark on many Singaporeans.

After thanking both Khaw and Lim, Heng then devoted a paragraph in his speech for Low.

"Let me also thank Mr Low Thia Khiang, who has served as an opposition Member of Parliament since 1991. He’s a fiery speaker at election rallies, but when it comes to the crunch, when our national interest is at stake, he stands together with the Government.

He has deep convictions about language, culture and heritage, and the long-term success of Singapore. When I last spoke to him, he told me he was very happy playing with his grandchild. I am glad he has recovered from his fall and wish him good health."

He continued to praise Low in his remarks to Singh, saying that he "trust(s) Mr Singh will, like Mr Low, put our national interest first".

This is likely the first time that a PAP Minister and leader has paid tribute to a retiring opposition MP in parliament.

Granted, there are not many outgoing opposition MPs (JB. Jeyaretnam, Chiam See Tong, Ling How Doong, Cheo Chai Chen) in the history of Singapore Parliament.

A veteran opposition MP comes to mind - Chiam, who was previously the longest serving opposition MP after Low.

In the past, Ministers did not express their appreciation publicly towards Chiam's service in parliament.

This is even though they have thanked and praised him on several occasions after he retired.

They included Prime Minister Lee,

and ESM Goh.

2. Singh was transparent in outlining role of the Opposition Leader

Unlike Heng, Singh did not use his own history as context for his speech.

But the issue of transparency was in his thinking back in 2011.

This was when Singh asked for four legislative and governance changes to Singapore in his maiden speech in Parliament, namely:

1. A Freedom of Information Act

2. The public release of official information

3. The office of the Ombudsman

4. Laws protecting whistleblowers

All four suggestions, in some form or another, shifts towards transparency, so that Singaporeans, in Singh's words in 2011, can have" the tools necessary to rely less on the Government for solutions and play their part in active citizenship". 

So how did Singh act when he was given more powers?

As LO, Singh was the first opposition Member of Parliament (MP) to speak in the debate.

Singh started by thanking PM Lee for signalling a change in how politics and the government will be conducted.

As PM Lee noted, the LO "is a new position not provided for in our Constitution".

Hence, the government studied the practices of other Westminster-style parliamentary systems, and adapted them to suit Singapore's own circumstances and needs.

In other words, Singh's style and character will set the tone for the LO in future.

So Singh went with being transparent about WP's approach and the resources of the LO.

First, Singh outlined the approach of how WP, as the main opposition party in parliament, will be organised, focusing on five areas that are critical for Singapore and of huge importance to Singaporeans.

They are:

1. Health, ageing and retirement adequacy

2. Jobs, businesses and the economy

3. Education, Inequality and the Cost of Living

4. Housing, transport and infrastructure

5. National Sustainability

In other words, WP is quite apparent in its approach - it is focusing entirely on domestic issues.

This means that WP is also letting Singaporeans know in advance that it is not ready for government yet, since it is not building up the experience and expertise in scrutinising matters on defence, security, and foreign affairs.

Second, Singh is also upfront in providing the information of the resources that will be available to the LO.

This is because he believes that it "is important for the public to know, in formulating their expectations (of the LO)" (Sounds familiar?)

He provided information on the resources of a LO, which include four legislative assistants, a secretarial assistant, and a secretary.

Graciousness & transparency in politics

The 14th Parliament has 31 newly elected MPs, along with two NCMPs, newly appointed political officeholders or Ministers with new portfolios, as well as a formally designated LO.

With more opposition MPs, the parliament can expect to see more robust debates and sharper exchanges.

The new parliament, in a sombre setting, signals an inflection point for Singapore politics, seen through the eyes of two new generation leaders from the main political parties in Singapore.

In their own unique styles, Heng and Pritam have displayed different qualities for new parliamentarians to emulate.

It is not easy to compare their speeches side by side.

Heng's focus was broader for the country, as he, together with the 4G leaders, have to adopt an approach of governance that must be implemented and executed immediately.

And Heng's graciousness towards his political opponents is a step in the right direction.

Singh, on the other hand, had a more narrow focus, as he sets out how future opposition parties will act.

Therefore, his approach in being transparent about his new office and the WP's approach to parliamentary politics is also a step in the right direction.

It is the nature of politics that leaders will always act on the basis of uncertain facts, exercise their judgements on the basis of today's information by instinct and experience shaped years before in other circumstances.

Many of our leaders on both sides of the aisle have nearly a decade of parliamentary and political experience, so let's hope more positive qualities of such political leadership can emerge under the pressure of the great challenges faced by Singapore post-Covid-19.

Top image via CNA and's Youtube