By Ariffin Sha
Parliament House, the place where the 99 esteemed representatives of the people congregate for robust debate, principled critique and intelligent discourse. A place where honourable members can speak their mind without fear and favour. It's probably the only place in Singapore where there is absolute Freedom of Speech too.
Most of us have not watched a Parliament Sitting live before. The layman's expectation of how Parliamentary Proceedings pan out might be shattered if he watched how Khaw Boon Wan answered, or rather, attempted to answer questions fielded at him with regards to the Columbarium Saga.
In fact, the expressions on some of our Members of Parliament (MP) strongly suggest that they too were caught off guard by what Minister Khaw said.
In attempting to answer these questions, not only did Minister Khaw crack some bad puns and share folk tales, he also was irresponsible as he did not expressly admit to what is clearly a mistake by the Government.
Before we anaylse Mr Khaw's answers, I will first provide some context for those of us who may not be familiar with the Columbarium Saga. In Fernvale, a Chinese Temple was to be built with a Columbarium. The Government intended the Columbarium to be a non-profit one but Eternal Pure Land Pte Ltd. (EPL), which won the tender, intended to profit from the Columbarium. A recent public outcry also led to efforts of reconciliation by MP Lam Pin Min who also organized a dialouge session between the authorities and the future residents. The future residents were not happy on two grounds - The lack of transparency and how a commercial company was awarded the tender. More details of the series of events can be found here.
As to MP Sean Han Tong's question on what lessons the Government can learn from this incident, Mr Khaw explaine that
I think one takeaway for me from this episode is that times have changed and some of our tender procedures have not caught up with time.
For example, for 20-odd years, we would never have thought that a for-profit company would participate in a non-profit making venture like building a Chinese temple. But, of course, in this instance... the motivations are very different.
When a similar supplementary questioned was fielded by MP Lee Li Lian, Mr Khaw broke into an odd analogy. Mrs Lee Li Lian asked Mr Khaw about how the Government could prevent the repeat of such an incident.
To say that Mrs Lee Li Lian was dumbfounded would be an understatement.
Here's a transcript of Mr Khaw's analogy.
... Mr Seng will know a very popular Chinese opera, Butterfly Lovers, or Liang Zhu. It describes the period of old China when girls, unfortunately no matter how talented they were, were not allowed to join schools. So there was this very young, beautiful, talented young lady, Zhu Yingtai, who wanted to study, so she disguised herself as a boy and succeeded in attending the school for three years.
... People just assumed that girls won't turn up, and because they made the assumption, they discovered it only later and (asked) 'why didn't you know'.
So they thought this one looked a bit girlish - but it turned out (she was) a girl.
So it's a similar situation here, that the officers assessing the tender just assumed that it must be a company affiliated to some religious organisation.
To top it off, Mr Khaw also cracked a few bad puns in response to earlier questions where he said that the Government would "seek religious wisdom" and "meditate" on how to resolve the issue.
Anyway, jokes (if that can be considered one) aside, I find Mr Khaw's attempt to sidestep the issue and take responsibility for what is clearly a mistake disheartening. After all, not too long ago, his fellow Cabinet Member had a few wise words on taking responsibility for mistakes.
It is indeed highly questionable how a company with 'Private Limited' in it's name got passed off as a non-commercial company and I'm disappointed by what seems to be an avoidable mistake.
As Mr Baey Yam Keng pointed out in his pertinent supplementary question, "When the agency assessed the bid and the tender, didn't information about the parentage of the bidder, and the fact that it was incorporated only recently in Singapore, arouse some suspicion or checks?"
However, what disappoints me even more was how Mr Khaw did not heed the advice of his colleague and "come clean and say so."
As the elected representative of the people and the Minister for National Development, trying to laugh off the mistakes is irresponsible and disrespectful, especially to the stakeholders, to say the least.
When one takes a step back and watch events unfold in our socio-political sphere, it would be close to impossible not to notice a sense of hypocrisy with regards to the standards the PAP holds to those who oppose it and the standards it holds itself to. They won't ever admit it any-time soon, but they too are politicking as much as, or even more, than those whom they accuse of politicking. This incident is a small but nonetheless potent manifestation of the hypocrisy of the powers that be.
Mr Khaw might think that he can laugh of the question fielded to him, but his actions are anything but a laughing matter to the electorate.