Checks and balances in Singapore's parliament

Ms Sylvia Lim, Workers' Party chairman.

Ms Sylvia Lim of the WP and Mr Hri Kumar Nair of the PAP face off on the issue of checks and balances in the political system. In the Straits Times survey of 500 Singaporeans aged 21 and above, 35 per cent said checks and balances was a very important factor in their choice of MP, higher than for other factors like candidate's attributes and national policies.

Question: What do you make of the findings that checks and balances were selected as the most important issue by most respondents?

Ms Sylvia Lim, MP for Aljunied GRC, Chairman of the Workers' Party:

I am quite encouraged by the findings that voters do value checks and balances, and accountability; that is very heartening.

It has been interpreted to mean that Singaporeans do find that at the system level, the institutions have to function with some sort of balance, regardless of whether the policies are good or bad in that sense.

So I am comforted by it because I think it shows that voters do value choices and they do value plurality in the political scene.

One thing which I have observed, much more since the last elections: The public seems now to be quite convinced that they will probably get better service from the government if the government does not take them for granted.

That is a very strong sense that I feel from the people; particularly to me as well, and I think that they also assess some of the policy reviews that the government is doing since the last elections and they feel that probably it is actually being motivated by the results of the elections.

Mr Hri Kumar Nair, MP for Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC:

I can understand why a good number will feel that checks and balances is important. Because conceptually, you would want an opposing voice.

Conceptually, if you have one party saying the same thing, it doesn't sound healthy and you want different voices because through discussing different points, will give you a better result, a better outcome, conceptually.

The question is, what is check and balance? And who gives better checks and balances? And that is where reality and concepts may not be quite the same.

I am sure Sylvia may not agree with this, the proof is really in the pudding. And if you attend parliament, you will see that it is not as you'd understand in concept.

The PAP has one idea, and the opposition has another idea, which is a different idea. Doesn't work like that in real life. So you have the ministers coming out with a certain policy, then you have PAP MPs who will disagree, who will say, this can be improved, that can be improved, maybe we can do it differently. Checks and balances can also be done by members of the same party.

Many people come to me and say, the PAP has the whip, and all of you must vote the same way. That's true, that is the system we inherited for party discipline. But nonetheless, you still have PAP MPs giving different views in Parliament.

How many times have you heard the WP MPs give a different view from the WP? Zero. So if you think our whip is thick, theirs (WP) is thicker, and theirs is obviously more painful.

Ms Sylvia Lim, MP for Aljunied GRC, Chairman of the Workers' Party:

Now, we value Parliament as very important, and the power to vote is also very important. So therefore, for example, on certain government agenda, we feel is not good for the people, we have actually voted against it as a party united, no doubt and even provided alternative solutions or suggestions on how the government could have handled it differently. The Population whitepaper is a good example.

Now, Hri correctly mentioned that at the moment, we seldom contradict each other, because first of all, we are a small party in opposition. If you recall, after the Punggol by-elections, only seven MPs out of 87.

And you just imagine if one or two us start to say things which do not toe the party line. And i think the PAP will be singing the opposite song, they will be saying, see you are disunited, how can you run the government. That will be what will happen.

I think our role, is that people need to see that the system is healthy. I don't think many people will be comfortable with the fact that you have a whole house of MPs from one party, no matter how much they talk and things like that. People are not comfortable with that, because in the end, you know that the party whip comes in.

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