Singapore ’s President Halimah Yacob on Monday opened a younger, more diverse parliament with the most number of opposition members in five decades, as the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) pledged to listen to criticism and be open to “new ways of doing things” in the wake of the July 10 election .
Delivering remarks prepared by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong ’s administration, the president said the government in its next five-year term would address public anxiety over issues ranging from Singapore’s post-pandemic recovery to resurgent concerns about its foreign workforce.
On prickly issues such as race relations, Halimah urged all sides to break out of “online echo chambers” and “make genuine attempts to bridge the gap with those who think differently from us”.
“Given the magnitude of the challenges and uncertainties, we must expect to encounter more differences in views and interests among Singaporeans,” she told the 95 lawmakers listening.
The president’s speech, which will be followed by a debate on its key points next week, was delivered in unprecedented fashion as some MPs had to listen from a separate venue to ensure adherence to safe distancing measures.
Said Halimah: “We must learn to handle these differences constructively. On some issues, we can agree to disagree. But on issues core to Singapore’s survival and future, we must do our best to find common ground and build a broad consensus.”
Local political analysts said they welcomed the signals the PAP was sending about engaging with criticism in good faith. They stressed, however, that much still depends on how the city state’s 12 opposition MPs are treated in parliament.
In the July polls, the opposition Workers’ Party held on comfortably to the six seats it already had, while at the same time staging a stunning upset in the four-seat ward of Sengkang , where it ousted three PAP office holders including the country’s powerful labour movement chief.
Two more opposition politicians from the Progress Singapore Party (PSP) will also sit in the legislature as part of the Non-Constituency Member of Parliament (NCMP) scheme, which is meant to ensure that there are at least 12 alternative voices in the house.
The current crop of MPs is younger overall than in the last parliament – with an average age of 48.3, down from 49.6 – while the 28 women members of the legislature, including NCMP Hazel Poa, make it the most gender-diverse since 1965.
“What remains to be seen is whether the PAP treats the WP MPs and PSP NCMPs as the elected representatives of Singaporeans and reflections of minority positions they rightly are, or if the focus is instead on ‘fixing’ them,” Chong Ja Ian, an associate professor at the National University of Singapore (NUS), told This Week in Asia .
Bilveer Singh, also from the NUS, said with the absolute number of opposition MPs rising from nine in the previous parliament to 12, “the difference is not so fundamental”.
“I think the noise level will definitely increase, but remember, 10 from WP, two from PSP, even though they’ve the same voting rights, don’t forget the PAP on the other hand has 83,” Singh said.
Another aspect of the new parliament being keenly eyed is the role Workers’ Party chief Pritam Singh will play as the country’s first ever official Leader of the Opposition .
In the aftermath of the polls, Prime Minister Lee said the government had decided to take the unprecedented step of recognising an official opposition leader, so that the Workers’ Party could formulate alternative solutions instead of just criticising official policy.
In her speech, the president said the new post reflected the increased opposition presence.
“The opposition too has its part to play. In parliament, besides raising questions and criticisms, the opposition should also propose policy alternatives to be scrutinised and debated,” she said.
The PAP’s expectation, however, is that Singh and the other opposition MPs will close ranks when it comes to national interest issues where cross-aisle unity is crucial – as the president mentioned in the remarks prepared for her.
“And when the situation demands, both the government and opposition should set aside differences and work together to secure the safety and future of our nation,” Halimah said.
The president’s remarks on anxieties over competition for PMET (professionals, managers, executives and technicians) jobs from foreign work pass holders meanwhile reflected the growing resonance of such concerns among Singaporeans.
Included in the country’s 2.33 million resident workforce are about 194,000 people who have employment passes for high-skilled jobs and another 200,000 who are employed in mid-skilled jobs.
Last week, the central bank chief Ravi Menon responded directly to a hard-hitting letter in The Straits Times over the influx of foreigners in “upper middle to senior management” positions in the financial sector.
In his response to the letter writer, retired banker Raymond Koh Bock Swi, Menon wrote that keeping a strong Singaporean core in the financial sector was a top priority for the Monetary Authority of Singapore.
The bank chief’s comments followed a separate commotion online surrounding the powerful state investor Temasek Holdings .
After a flood of online comments about the make-up of its senior staff, Temasek – led by Prime Minister Lee’s wife Ho Ching – released a sharply worded statement describing the comments as part of a “divisive, racist campaign”.
Pointing out that it would be “foolish” not to tap into the global talent pool, Temasek said 60 per cent of its employees were Singaporeans. Of the 40 per cent from overseas, most of its personnel were from China, the United States , India , Britain and Malaysia , it said.
In her speech, Halimah acknowledged that concerns about the city state’s foreign workforce was a “major source of anxiety, especially among mid-career Singaporeans”. Stressing that the concerns would be addressed, the president also added that the city should not “turn inwards, away from the world”.
On race relations, which unexpectedly emerged as one of the foremost discussion points during the election campaign, Halimah acknowledged that younger Singaporeans wanted to discuss the issue more candidly and openly.
“But the conversation needs to be conducted with restraint and mutual respect, because race, language and religion will always be visceral subjects,” she said.
Lee Yi Shyan, a PAP MP from 2006 until his retirement before the July polls, said he hoped all MPs understood which issues should be given precedence in the national debate.
“For our parliament to be effective, I think the MPs have to have a good grasp of the fundamental and survival issues of Singapore: national security, economic development and it operating in choppy waters of geopolitics,” said Lee, who is now executive adviser in the chairman’s office of real estate developer and operator OUE Limited.
“Once we realise that we are an accidental nation, and that the world does not owe us a living, we can then go on to debate serious and different policy options and programmes, for the betterment of our people and the future of this island state.”
Chong, the NUS professor, said his wish list for Singapore’s 14th parliament included “more representation of minority positions, more commitment to equality, non-discrimination, and transparency, especially in legislation”.
He said: “Live-streaming of parliamentary sittings with a searchable video archive and more rigorous committee work and careful scrutiny of bills before passage would be good. However, I fear all that remains a bridge too far for this parliament.”
This article was first published in South China Morning Post.