Comment: Pritam Singh's speech sets future template for S'pore's Leader of the Opposition

Making inroads, one incremental change at a time.

Andrew Koay | Tanya Ong | September 01, 2020, 08:21 PM

The debate on the President's Address, the first debate of Singapore's 14th Parliament, is a significant event for political observers.

For starters, it sees the most Opposition parliamentarians in Singapore’s history — 10 from Workers' Party (WP) and two Non-Constituency MPs (NCMPs) from the Progress Singapore Party (PSP).

But more importantly, it also marked the first speech by an official Leader of the Opposition (LO), delivered by WP chief Pritam Singh’s speech on Aug. 31.

Singh's speech was divided into three main portions: things that have changed in Singapore since the last General Election, things that must not change, and suggestions for things that should change.

Why should we care about this speech?

It sets a precedent for and also lays out a template on how the LO in Singapore should lay out his/her plans for a new term of government.

The Opposition: Going beyond check and balance role

On July 11, former Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong commented that designating the formal LO was a “significant move” by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

Now, the opposition will “now have to go beyond merely serving as a check-and-balance”, but also raise “alternative policies and solutions.”

As LO, Singh's duties include leading in presenting alternative views in parliamentary debates on policies, bills and motions, and organising the scrutiny of the Government’s positions and actions in Parliament.

Singh's speech acknowledged the changing role of the Opposition when it comes to policy making and implied how, given his formal designation as LO, Singapore can expect greater involvement from the WP chief in issues concerning Singaporeans.

Mindful to temper expectations & clarify his limitations

Given the increasing burden of expectation that now rests on his shoulders, Singh is careful to also manage the expectations by the government to put forth serious policy alternatives.

As Singaporeans are unfamiliar with the formal role of the Leader, Singh said it needs to be made clear what the Opposition can and cannot do.

Singh referenced the “resistance” that Low Thia Khiang faced, including from members of the PAP, as he sought to build a credible WP, and said their own road ahead will not be easy.

He also drew comparisons between resources offered to opposition MPs and PAP MPs.

Each PAP MPs who are not political office holders are given only one legislative assistant and one secretarial assistant.

But they have the additional resources of the People’s Association (PA), including the staff at community clubs for their grassroots work, Singh explained.

"The LO’s office, the Leader of the Opposition’s office, will not have the breadth and depth of the party in government in coming up with alternative policies," he said.

Speech wide-ranging in scope, includes points of agreement between PAP & WP

Although Singh is careful to manage the expectations, his speech is wide-ranging in its scope, in comparison with previous opposition MPs.

Singh spoke about Singapore's openness as a trading nation, WP supporting the government's position on defence and foreign policy, maintaining Singapore's zero tolerance on corruption and maintaining Singapore's racial and religious harmony.

In other words, Singh did not merely focus on his disagreements with certain government policies, but chose to provide context on what he could agree with the government on.

Singh is probably the first opposition member of parliament to state what he could agree with the government on.

In a precedent-setting move, Singh also gave the commitment that an opposition party with an official leader of opposition appointment owes its loyalty to the President, Singapore and Singaporeans.

On that point, Singh noted that "the Prime Minister also used this term - Loyal Opposition - in the aftermath of the last elections", again a point that both PAP and WP can agree on.

Proposing tweaks instead of fundamental changes in governance: The suggestion of Select Committees

In 2011, in his maiden speech in Parliament, Singh asked for four rather bold legislative and governance changes to Singapore:

1. A Freedom of Information Act

2. The public release of official information

3. The office of the Ombudsman

4. Laws protecting whistleblowers

A Freedom of Information Act, said a 35-year-old Singh, would allow ordinary citizens to pull information from public bodies and would go some way towards fighting fake news.

Next, he called for the government to release and disclose official information at fixed intervals of 30 years. Both these changes would have been seen as seismic shifts regarding how information is dealt with in Singapore.

Additionally, Singh asked for one other fundamental change to Singapore's government — introducing the office of an Ombudsman.

In other countries, such an official is typically charged with investigating the claims of citizens who have a grievance with the government.

Among its other benefits, Singh said that such an office would "go some way to opening new channels of communication between citizen and state".

Perhaps unsurprisingly, none of these suggestions were taken up by the government.

In 2016, he decided to present an even more focused approach towards opening these channels of communications — select committees.

These committees would independently investigate the “key issues of the day” by involving the testimony of witnesses from outside of the government.

Now, in 2020, we see yet another sign of him pushing for specific and incremental tweaks rather than broad fundamental ones.

As the now-official Leader of the Opposition, he once again focused on the idea of implementing select committees and their role in providing information to the public.

Select Committees — such as the Select Committee of Deliberate Online Falsehoods which Singh himself had been part of — had already been implemented by Singapore's 13th parliament after the WP MP spoke on them.

Yet, Singh now sought further establish and expand them, laying out two types of select committees which could be pursued by Parliament.

The first involved more standing select committees involved in scrutinising the spending, policies, and administration of each ministry. These committees should have opposition MPs and NCMPs, unlike Government Parliamentary Committees which only have PAP MPs in them.

The second type of select committee he suggested was ad hoc select committees that investigate specific issues and report back to parliament. While these are already part of Singapore’s parliamentary process — like the Select Committee of Deliberate Online Falsehoods which Pritam himself sat on — the WP Chief recommended that “more of them be empanelled”.

A pragmatic way forward

Apart from focusing on proposing incremental changes, Singh also hopes to take a more targeted approach to questioning government policies.

In this year's speech, he explained that how much the Opposition can do will also depend on the resources given by the government, and the quantity and quality of information that is shared by the government in Parliament.

He also said WP intends to make "targeted inquiries of government departments and public agencies, as such information is essential for crafting alternative policies".

In Singh's mind, empowering citizens with more access to information was so that they could make better-informed decisions.

However, proposing select committees and making "targeted inquiries" stand in contrast to his suggestions in 2011, which called for a broader act to be passed, allowing the public more generic access to information as a whole.

The 2020 speech seems to hint at the party's direction moving forward: an increasingly pragmatic approach when it comes to pushing for changes in Singapore.

Perhaps the party chief senses that this will be the most meaningful way in which the Opposition can navigate the political reality that is Singapore's one-party dominance.

Not through proposing policy revamps that are unlikely to be implemented, but by making inroads, one incremental and effective change at a time.

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Top photo © Lim Wei Xiang for Mothership.