In his first speech in Parliament as the official Leader of the Opposition (LO) on Monday (31 August), Workers’ Party MP Pritam Singh emphasised that the alternative camp intends to raise questions and study the government’s policies as well as suggest its own policies despite lacking the same level of resources as the state.
Mr Singh also put forth several recommendations on improvements that can be made to parliamentary proceedings to enable opposition MPs to be more involved in contributing to debates.
Forming more select committees with MPs from both sides
One such suggestion is to form select committees made up of MPs from both sides of the aisle to scrutinise government spending and policies or particular issues.
He noted that such committees form part of the standard political fabric of democracies and that with 10 elected alternative MPs in Parliament now, Singapore could have more of these select committees.
“By forming select committees that meet regularly on the most sensitive and difficult issues for Singapore, Parliament can play a bigger role in leading the conversation and championing the truth,” Mr Singh said, adding that having longer lead times and interim reports for public scrutiny are areas which could be improved.
“To this end, the President in her address alluded to potentially difficult conversations that the Government would need to have with Singaporeans. Parliament in committee, rather than in session like it is today, is an excellent platform to hear and truly listen to the voices of Singaporeans in an open way.”
The opposition to focus on five broad areas
Touching on the role of the opposition in Parliament, Mr Singh highlighted that his appointment as Leader of the Opposition creates expectations, not just for him but for his fellow WP colleagues as well.
He said, “My personal expectation is that my WP colleagues and I will have to work extra hard. We will have to ask ourselves tough questions before critiquing government policy, the chief of which is what would we do if we were in charge.”
He added, however, that having 10 elected and two non-elected alternative party MPs in the House is still far below the one-third representation necessary to prevent the ruling party’s supermajority. On this note, he added that it is also not feasible for the WP to set up a shadow Cabinet, given the few numbers.
As such, Mr Singh said that the opposition will focus on five broad areas which are health, ageing and retirement adequacy; jobs, businesses and the economy; education, inequality and the cost of living; housing, transport and infrastructure; and national sustainability.
Noting that MPs represent the “voice of the people”, it is the duty of both the opposition and the ruling party to raise issues in parliament on behalf of the people.
“The WP intends to raise matters in Parliament that are important to the people of Singapore, that the Government and PAP backbenchers may not. We intend to scrutinise policies to the best of our abilities,” said Mr Singh.
Urge the government to be more forthcoming with data
During his speech, Mr Singh also did not miss the opportunity to highlight that the opposition still faces limitations in its duty to provides checks and balances to the government and to propose alternative policies.
He said each elected MP has the budget to hire a legislative assistant and a secretarial assistant on a part-time basis, while the Leader of the Opposition is granted a budget for three more legislative assistants on top of that.
However, the ruling party has at its disposal a much large pool of manpower, meaning that the opposition will not have the same capacity to propose alternative policies.
“By contrast, it is useful to remember that a sitting Government has at its disposal the resources of a Singapore Public Service of 146,000 full-time officers. Of these, 85,000 are members of the civil service. The Leader of the Opposition’s office will not have the breadth and depth of the party in Government in coming up with alternative policies,” said Mr Singh.
Even so, Mr Singh provided assurances that his party will continue to champion for “meaningful alternatives for deliberation and debate” and will work to improve on the quality of any alternatives suggested.
In order to do so, Mr Singh also urged the government to release to parliament and make public more and better data to enable the Opposition to craft better alternative policies and make more focused inquiries to various government agencies.
“As far as information is concerned, the Opposition’s output will depend very much on whether we can get the input we asked for,” Mr Singh said.
He added, “On its part, the Government should consider how it can put out more information without being asked, particularly information and indicators benchmarked against other countries.”
Acknowledging that certain data may be sensitive and could be misused to “rile” the public, Mr Singh said that the government will have to find a way around this.
“I strongly believe Parliament is an important safety valve and potential moderator of the extreme conversations found offline and online on immigration and population issues.”
The example he gave was of the hiring of migrant workers, which is a regular hot-button issue that has been in the news recently after the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) announced that 47 companies have been placed on the Fair Consideration Framework watchlist for hiring a disproportionate number of migrant workers over locals.
He said, “The problem is that we simply do not know enough. And the vacuum has given space for a more toxic conversation to ferment.
“One way for us in Parliament and for the public to know, is for MOM to publish the names of recalcitrant employers. We can then understand the operating paradigm of such businesses and how they intend to make the transition to fair hiring practices,” he continued.