By Teo Soh Lung
“I queued up to attend every session of the legislative assembly debates in 1955 and 1956. Years later, after I was released from detention, I ran into the clerk of parliament of the time, who greeted me and pointed out to his friends, ‘This fellow used to attend all the meetings’. I did not visit parliament again after my detention. The debates in the legislative assembly in those two years were of such a high standard that I had come to expect nothing less. The protagonists were of course the chief minister, David Marshall and the opposition PAP leader, Lee Kuan Yew. While Marshall had a silver-tongued eloquence, Lee’s debating style was sharp and cut through like a knife. Parliament in Singapore has since not come near to having any of the freedom and cut and thrust of 1955 and 1956. I do not feel I have lost out by refusing to attend any of the parliamentary sessions after independence.” … Tan Jing Quee in “The 1963 Operation Coldstore in Singapore, Commemorating 50 years”.
Tan Jing Quee was only 16 when he attended every session of the legislative assembly debates. If he and many others had not been arrested and imprisoned without trial under the ISA in 1963, parliament may not be as tame as it is today. Jing Quee lost to S Rajaratnam by just over 100 votes in the constituency of Kampong Glam. Two weeks later, he was arrested for having the audacity to stand against the PAP and embarrassing an old hand. He was only 24.
Yesterday afternoon (Monday), I was in the public gallery. It was my first visit to parliament since the early 1970s when as a law student, I wanted to know what parliament was all about. I saw groups of students from secondary schools and college walked obediently into the gallery. They were led by their teachers and instructed to bow to the speaker before they sat in rows. I suppose it was part of their Civic or History lesson. They sat for a while and were quietly led out when another group took their seats. I don’t know if they were impressed with what they saw or heard. I certainly was not.
After standing down the Public Order (Additional Measures) Bill which was supposed to have been the second bill to be debated, six bills were read a second time. Some members took objection to a few of the clauses but supported the bills in their entirety when it came to voting. I was puzzled. Why bother to criticise or comment when they fully support the passage of the bills? Everyone read from prepared scripts. I suspect even oral answers were scripted. Yet others spoke in English and then briefly in Malay and Chinese. Was it just to demonstrate that they were fluent in the languages? Doesn’t parliament engage simultaneous interpreters these days?
I confess that I have never attended a parliament that was as active as Jinq Quee described. In the 1970s, there was not a single opposition in the house. The members took it real easy. They slept comfortably in those nice leather chairs in the old parliament. I remember one of them even slept with his legs on the back of the seat in front of him! There was no speaker like Sir George Oehlers to discipline him! Like today’s parliament, there were plenty of vacant seats and the number increased with the passage of time. Even the opposition members disappeared after some time. I suppose it was boring.
The day’s proceeding was graced by former Senior Minister, Mr Lee Kuan Yew who entered the house in his wheelchair escorted by bodyguards who helped him into his seat. Despite his illness, he had taken the trouble to visit the house.
Parliament today is certainly a state of the art institution even if the debates are not as excellent as it should be. Members of the public are seated in a cage. A bullet proof glass panel hangs from the ceiling and separates the gallery from the floor. It is no longer a people’s house. It is they and us! All these are additional to the tight security measures that members of the public are subjected to before entering the building. Bags and mobiles are disallowed. I had to pay 40 cents to put away my bag in a locker. (In the old parliament, it was free. If libraries can allow readers to use lockers for free, why cannot parliament?) Identity cards are exchanged for security passes. And to reach the door of the public gallery, you have to pass through two security checkpoints that will set alarms ringing if you have metal objects. Once inside the gallery, it is no longer free seating. The seats are allocated in the passes. We cannot complain. The seats are comfortable and you have hanging television screens to watch whoever is speaking on the floor. It is truly state of the art.