NCMP seat debate exposes fundamental split in the House over best politics for Singapore
Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat asked a question that went to the heart of yesterday's debate, and indeed to all that the Government and Parliament do.
That question is short and comprises just two words: What for? It relates to what keeps ministers and MPs in politics, what drives political and policy change, what it is all for in the end.
But before answering that question, Mr Heng expressed his confidence in Singapore's ability to remake itself for the future. His speech was a much-needed shot of confidence at the end of a five-day debate in which MPs had aired their concerns about jobs, security, rising religiosity and other uncertainties.
As befits the minister chairing the Committee on the Future Economy, Mr Heng spoke about how this nation has managed to catch successive waves of change in the global economy and can do so again to create value for the world. This time, it must become the world's innovation lab, a place where good ideas can be realised.
The three things Singapore has going for it are, first, that it has always done so out of necessity; second, its long years of investment in research and development, knowledge creation and connecting to the world; and third, its people who though they may not realise it have a habit of innovation.
How Singapore makes its living must change to fit changing circumstances, but what does not change is the "what for", which is evergreen whether in 1965, 2015 or 2065. Mr Lee Kuan Yew was always clear about what all of it was for, Mr Heng said, recalling the lessons he learnt in his time as principal private secretary to Singapore's founding prime minister.
The "what for" is to build a Singapore where every Singaporean can fulfil his or her dreams. That is a Singapore where "our people are fully aware of, but are not one bit afraid of, our challenges", where they can reach high no matter what their background and hold their heads high no matter where in the world they go, and where they need not fear, do not give up and never leave anyone behind.
His articulation of a national purpose that all Singaporeans can get behind set the stage for the heated debate that was to follow, during which People's Action Party MPs locked horns with their counterparts from the opposition Workers' Party over the Non-Constituency MP scheme.
The specific question they fought over was a WP motion asking Parliament to allow the party to fill the NCMP seat vacated by Ms Lee Li Lian. But the deeper issue was one of motivation.
The WP accused the PAP of using the NCMP scheme to perpetuate what Mr Leon Perera described as the ruling party's "hyper majority" in Parliament. Mr Perera, who himself is a newly sworn-in NCMP, said PAP MPs painted the scheme as a gesture of magnanimity on the part of the ruling party. But in his view, the NCMP scheme benefits the PAP in a way that does not serve Singapore well, for it sends the message to Singaporeans that they do not have to vote for any party except the PAP, stalls evolution of a genuine democracy and snuffs out passion for political balance.
He posed this question to the House: "What will happen to Singapore if we are dependent on just one party overwhelmingly and that one party fails and there is no other party in our political landscape that can step in to remedy that gap?"
The PAP's counter took as its starting point not the future but the present, with Mr Charles Chong (Punggol East) and Ms Lee Bee Wah (Nee Soon GRC) criticising the WP for making light of both the spirit and the letter of the NCMP scheme as spelt out in the Parliamentary Elections Act. If political parties were allowed to willy-nilly transfer an NCMP seat from one of their candidates to another candidate from a different constituency, then what was there to stop an elected MP from doing the same, they asked.
Minister Chan Chun Sing said WP members had been less than honest in their stand on the NCMP scheme, declaring their objection to it on principle and attacking it as a tool to perpetuate PAP rule, yet using the scheme to the hilt for political advantage. To date, several WP members have taken up NCMP seats, including WP chairman Sylvia Lim, and Mr Chan said he was quite sure none of them had done it as a favour to the PAP.
He took issue with the reason Ms Lee had given for vacating her NCMP seat, which she had qualified for by virtue of being the best-performing loser in the last general election when she stood in Punggol East, especially her desire to make way for better people in the WP who should be showcased.
Yesterday, Mr Chan said: "Let me categorically say... that we want to see the third NCMP seat filled.What troubles us is the manoeuvring behind. Ms Lee Li Lian was the person who qualified. Mr Daniel Goh is the person the WP supports to take up the seat. So clearly there are advantages to the NCMP seat."
The NCMP scheme , he said, should not be turned into a revolving door to showcase political talent for party objectives. MPs, he added, " are here to answer a higher calling, to serve Singapore and Singaporeans".
Yesterday's exchange, which ended with the PAP supporting an amended motion that will allow Dr Daniel Goh to take up Ms Lee's vacated NCMP seat, exposed a fundamental divide in the House over the best politics for Singapore, going forward.
The PAP has always maintained that good politics lies at the heart of Singapore's success and, as long as they are able, PAP leaders will continue to shape the political system in ways that will ensure the strong and effective government that they consider vital to Singapore's continued survival and success. As the party that helped Singapore thrive in its first 50 years as an independent nation, it is hardly surprising the PAP equates the nation's longevity with its own.
Alternative parties like the WP, that disagree with this view of good politics, have little choice but to play by the PAP's rules, for now.
Still, politicians from all sides would do well to heed Mr Lee Kuan Yew's parting words to Parliament: Keep politics clean, keep it honest.
This article was first published on January 30, 2016.
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