The question of where the government begins and where the PAP ends is not an easy one to answer in a political landscape like that of Singapore’s whereby the country’s elected government is dominated by a single party. This quandary presented itself again when Speaker of Parliament and Member of Parliament for Jurong GRC, Madam Halimah Yacob publicly declared support for PAP candidate for Punggol East, Dr Koh Poh Koon.
As quoted in the Singapore Parliament’s website: “In carrying out the duties in the House, the Speaker must remain impartial and fair to all MPs. The Speaker regulates and enforces the rules of debate. She decides who has the right to speak and puts the question for the House to debate on and vote.”
The Speaker of Parliament acts as the head officer of the Parliament of Singapore. Madam Halimah’s role is therefore to preside over Parliament and enforce the rules in the Standing Orders of Parliament to provide for the orderly conduct of parliamentary business without becoming embroiled in parliamentary debates. The Office demands that the Speaker remain impartial.
It is therefore rather surprising to read that Madam Halimah has said, “I’m really confident that once Poh Koon is elected as a Member of Parliament, he will pursue their issues with rigour and great passion – because he’s a man that believes strongly in those issues, whether it’s the elderly, whether it’s the poor, whether it’s families and children. I am certain that he will have the passion to push those issues.”
Is Madam Halimah then suggesting that her preference is to see more debate in issues relating to the elderly, the poor and families? If her role is to decide on who has the right to speak, would her support for these aspects of Koh’s campaign be seen as reluctance to support any of the other three candidates, should they not champion these issues? If any of the other candidates, but Koh, was voted into Parliament by the choice of the people, will the issues that he or she champion still receive fair attention from the Speaker?
Surely her role as Speaker of Parliament should demand neutrality as opposed to publicly professing support for a particular candidate? We can understand that, in the heat of a political battle, her inclination is to support her party colleagues. But Madam Halimah needs to understand that such support should not in any way be misconstrued by the voting public as the Speaker’s preference for one candidate over another.
Granted, the rule on impartiality refers to Madam Halimah’s duties in the House, but she should know that, as a public figure, her official capacity cannot be easily distinguished from her personal self. In any case, the above media report has clearly indicated her position as “Speaker of Parliament”, with no clarification from Madam Halimah that she is speaking in any capacity other than her professional one.
A rookie’s error perhaps. After all, Madam Halimah has been Speaker of Parliament for barely over a week. Given that the PAP has formed the government of Singapore since independence, it is difficult to see the difference between the PAP and the government. But times are changing and such faux pas are becoming less acceptable to a more informed electorate. The PAP is currently the dominant party that forms the government, but it is not, and should not be, equated with the government. In short, the PAP is a political party. It is not the government.
With that difference firmly established, Madam Halimah’s public support for Dr Koh risks contradicting her role as Speaker of Parliament which clearly demands nonpartisanship. Going forward, Madam Halimah might want to be more careful in ensuring that she complies with the requirements of her office.