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Can Tan Chuan-Jin be expected to serve as an unbiased Speaker of Parliament?

On Tuesday (11 Jul), the Speaker of Parliament, Tan Chuan-Jin, apologized on his Facebook page for using the “F” word against the Workers’ Party (WP) Member of Parliament for Seng Kang GRC, Associate Professor Jamus Lim.

Mr Tan was compelled to apologize after a video clip in which he muttered “f**king populist” against Assoc Prof Lim went viral online.

The incident occurred during a Parliamentary debate on 17th April when Assoc Prof Lim expressed support for President Halimah Yacob’s call to enhance Singapore’s social compact.

Additionally, Assoc Prof Lim pointed out that Singapore has yet to establish an “official poverty line,” which he found “both puzzling and exasperating.”

After Assoc Prof Lim’s speech, Mr Tan summoned MP Vikram Nair (PAP-Sembawang) to speak before muttering the words “f**king populist” in reference to Assoc Prof Lim.

On his Facebook page, Mr Tan claimed he did not recall the incident, but he did listen to the recording in the video clip.

“Based on the clip, it appears that I had a reaction to a speech made in the chamber,” admitted Mr Tan, who is also the People’s Action Party MP for Marine Parade GRC and member of the PAP’s Central Executive Committee.

“When I listen to speeches made, like everyone else, I do form views on them. What was said were my private thoughts, which I had muttered to myself and not to anyone else.”

“However, I should not have expressed them aloud or in unparliamentary language, and I apologize for that,” he added. “I have also spoken to the Member, A/P Jamus Lim, to make that apology as well; he has kindly accepted it.”

According to the Oxford Learner’s Dictionary, the word “f**king” is a taboo swear word many people find offensive, used to make an angry statement. defines it as vulgar slang used to express displeasure, anger, or contempt, giving an example, “We’d been waiting an hour, and then this f**king guy just cut straight to the front of the line.”

Therefore, even though Mr Tan had muttered the “F” words to himself and not to anyone else, according to his testimony, it does suggest that Mr Tan holds a biased view against Assoc Prof Lim, an MP of an opposition party.

Duties of the Speaker

As the Speaker of Parliament, Mr Tan has several duties to fulfil. Singapore’s Parliamentary website states that the Speaker presides over the sittings of the House and enforces Parliamentary rules for orderly conduct during parliamentary proceedings.

Elected at the commencement of a new Parliament by MPs, the Speaker may or may not be an MP but must possess the qualifications to stand for election as an MP. Most importantly, the Speaker must remain impartial and fair to all MPs while performing his duties in the House.

“The Speaker regulates and enforces the rules of debate. He decides who has the right to speak and puts the question forward for the House to debate and vote on,” the Parliament website states.

“As the guardian of parliamentary privileges, MPs look to the Speaker for guidance on procedures, and he gives his rulings on any point of order, if necessary.”

When Mr Tan was first appointed as Speaker in 2017, following Mdm Halimah’s decision to vacate her MP appointment to run in the presidential election that year, Minister Grace Fu stated, “The Prime Minister has said that you ‘stood out as the best choice’ as the next Speaker of Parliament.”

Mr Tan left his position as the Minister for Social and Family Development (MSF), a move that many perceived as a demotion for the politician and former military general.

Ms Fu added, “Everyone who has interacted with you can attest to your patience and willingness to listen to both sides of a debate. In the years ahead, the many complex and multi-faceted challenges facing Singapore will require fair, frank, and honest debate. This House can expect a Speaker who will conduct the proceedings with impartiality and enable Members of Parliament to serve their fellow Singaporeans in building a better society.”

On various occasions, Mr Tan has elicited criticism for his actions in his official capacity as the Speaker, especially when he interjects into debates involving opposition MPs or makes speeches from the perspective of the ruling party.

In response to his closing speech for Budget 2019, a netizen wrote, “The Speaker of the House is supposed to be neutral, irrespective of their political background. However, it is with great regret and utmost disappointment that our Speaker of the House chooses to speak with the pronoun ‘we,’ which implies connotation leaning towards the views and opinions of the incumbent ruling party. Such action from the Speaker of the House is uncalled for. He should be named, should apologise to the House and the public, and should change his attitude to maintain neutrality within the House, or vacate his seat for a more capable person for the post.”

Additionally, in September 2021, an incident occurred where Mr Tan compelled Progress Singapore Party’s Non-Consituency Member of Parliament, Mr Leong Mun Wai, to answer a question from Minister K Shanmugam during the debate on foreign trade agreements. At one point, he seemed to become part of the discussion during the debate.

Now that Mr Tan has shown — and admittedly holds — a biased view against Assoc Prof Lim and the policies he supports, it remains uncertain whether Mr Tan can continue to be impartial and fair to all MPs, including Assoc Prof Lim and other opposition MPs while fulfilling his duties as the Speaker of Parliament.

Similarly, now that Assoc Prof Lim is aware that the Speaker holds a biased view against him, it is unclear whether Assoc Prof Lim would feel comfortable seeking guidance from the Speaker in the future.

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