A mockery of Parliament

The public's interest is not served when ministers do not respect Parliament.

Last updated on August 21st, 2009 at 09:59 am

Leong Sze Hian / Andrew Loh

Minister fails to realise the consequences of his remarks and actions in Parliament

In 2005, then-Minister for Education, Mr Tharman Shanmugaratnam, was the guest of honour at a youth and media conference. The key theme was censorship. “Ask not what you can or cannot do, but do something to make a difference instead,” Mr Tharman urged the youths then.

Four years later, Mr Tharman, now Finance Minister, had a golden opportunity to do just that – to make a difference.

On 18 August, Mr Tharman was repeatedly questioned in Parliament on Mr Charles Goodyear’s resignation from Temasek Holdings. In spite of a 25-minute grilling by Members of Parliament, according to the Straits Times, the Finance Minister flatly refused to divulge the “strategic reasons” which was offered by Temasek as the reason for Mr Goodyear’s departure.

The parliamentary sitting was, to my mind, a case of irony.

We had new Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP), Viswa Sadasivan, saying, “Accountability requires the government to go beyond lip-service in addressing the call for greater democracy, civil liberties and choices”.  He was calling for the House to “[reaffirm] its commitment to the nation building tenets as enshrined in the National Pledge when debating national policies, especially economic policies”.

If the Finance Minister’s refusal to answer MPs’ questions on Goodyear’s resignation is not a travesty of the values espoused in the Pledge, and of the standing and authority of Parliament, I don’t know what is! Mr Tharman has given new meaning to the phrase “lip service” – his lips moved but only to insult Singaporeans, not to mention the parliamentarians in the chamber as well.

If the Government chooses not to be accountable to questions in Parliament, citing the reason that it does not serve any strategic purpose, then I say with great sadness as a Singaporean, that Parliament is a sham, and our parliamentarians should be ashamed, that this charade of non-accountability, non-transparency, continues even after 44 years of nationhood.

I was aghast at the Finance Minister’s remarks, that whilst he agreed that it was “a matter of public interest”, he chose not to answer the questions anyway. If there ever was a blatant disregard for the public’s interest, this was it.

And as a minister in the service of the people, and as a guardian of the people’s interests, Mr Tharman’s refusal to answer the question is totally and utterly unacceptable.

Is he saying that what’s in the Government’s interest (to not tell) is more important than the public’s interest?

A Government which puts its own interest above that of the people is not the people’s Government.

Has every Singaporean student’s daily recitation of our national pledge “gone down the drain”?

Did we not, just a few days ago, boast about how significant it was for the entire nation to recite the pledge at 8.22pm on National Day – as we put our clenched fists to our hearts and spoke the words which represented what we hold dear? Words such as “a democratic society”, “based on justice and equality”?

The Prime Minister keeps telling Singaporeans to be united.  But, how can we be united, when Parliament is not accountable to the people?

Why elect and appoint MPs to represent the people when the Government can choose at its whim and fancy not to answer questions and keep important answers to issues secret?

The secrecy surrounding Mr Goodyear’s resignation is not the only example. There are the issues of Temasek’s investment failures and losses, the reinstatement of Ms Ho Ching as CEO after having resigned, the GIC’s huge losses too, the Mas Selamat escape fiasco, and so on. No government official has been brought to account for all these.

In the past, at least the Government tried to give all kinds of reasons and excuses, as to why it was not good for the nation, to disclose the information asked for.

This time round, the Government did not even attempt to give any reason at all for not answering!

Maybe it has finally run out of excuses.

In any other democratic country, what happed in Singapore’s Parliament on Tuesday is unthinkable – there would have been a national uproar! MPs would resign! NGOs would protest!

As someone who once urged youths to not be afraid, and to “do something to make a difference”, Mr Tharman certainly did not live up to his own words. For, as Finance Minister, he had the opportunity to make a substantial difference to the discourse over how the two sovereign wealth funds operated – and to lift the veil of secrecy which shrouds Temasek Holdings and the GIC.

“One does not develop a conviction and commitment to a society without first questioning and pushing the boundaries,” Mr Tharman said in 2005.

Sadly, in 2009, that very “conviction and commitment” to society of which he spoke was absent from the man himself.

Does Mr Tharman think that keeping his lips tight would help enhance Temasek’s – and Singapore’s - international reputation for transparency and accountability? Does Mr Tharman think that shrouding Temasek in secrecy helps in its recruitment drive or builds confidence in Temasek? As Finance Minister, does Mr Tharman think that his silence helps in S’pore’s ambition to be a financial hub?

And beyond the damage to Temasek and Singapore’s international reputation, Mr Tharman’s refusal to provide answers in Parliament has, to our minds, a more serious consequence – it undermines the public’s faith and trust in the authority and integrity of the House. For if the House is a place where accountability can be dismissed or avoided by mere semantics, it means the people’s voice and power, in our democratic society, has little meaning - and Parliament nothing more than an empty shell, a theatre for superficial debates.

Perhaps these are the public interest and strategic reasons which Mr Tharman should have considered before he so callously dismissed MPs’ questions.

Mr Tharman’s pathetic defence for non-disclosure is a mockery of Parliament.

Indeed, our parliamentarians should all hang their heads in shame.

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