The 12th session of Parliament started on May 16 with the President’s speech outlining the policies the PAP government will implement to achieve a more socially inclusive society. Fortunately, in the House of somnolence that followed over the next two weeks, two speakers distinguished themselves in content.
The first was Opposition leader Low Thia Khiang who devoted his entire speech to a calm analysis of Singapore politics in what was perhaps the most polite criticism President Tony Tan is likely to get in the House. Low commented on Tan’s remark which warned against populist politics. “It is crucial to maintain constructive politics that puts our nation and our people first,“
Said Low: “To me, what is important is the outcome of the political process. Here, what the President has described as the desired outcome of constructive politics is moving ahead as one united people. We must all remember constructive politics does not happen by the order of the government, nor does it happen through a national conversation or public consultation.”
Some PAP MPs had nothing to add to the discussion but used Low’s “political values” argument as a nail with which to hammer his Workers’ Party. Low’s speech was received with a chorus of criticism from PAP members who accused him of focusing on one point in the President’s address (clearly it was one the PAP-dominated House had tut-tutted all along until Low stood up and analysed it – to their discomfort).
Cautioned Low: “Politicians must be aware of what political culture we are building through (PAP’s) style of political engagement as well as…actions.” He spoke of the current bullying political culture. “If the people support a governing party that uses governmental resources, including civil servants, to serve its partisan goals, we are condoning the abuse of political power as an acceptable culture.
“If you support a political party conducting its political engagement with a habit of playing racial politics and mud-slinging and launching personal attacks on its political opponents, you are building a thuggish political culture. If you support a political party with the habit of fixing its opponents, you are breeding a political culture of fear.”
The House would do well to listen when he said: “(The younger generation) expects better standards befitting a first-world Singapore, not only in terms of hardware, like physical infrastructure and efficient services, but also software, like quality of life, as well as in politics and government responses.”
Three days later, outgoing Nominated MP Janice Koh told the House:“The Government should unlearn its instincts of wanting to draw more OB markers, and learn new ones that emphasise dialogue and engagement.”
It should grow the space for public debate and facilitate a civic discourse, which will strengthen Singapore’s social cohesion in the long term.
Koh probably had in mind the Arts Engage paper which had drawn support in its opposition to the Media Development Authority’s proposal to introduce in July a two-tier self-classification category for performance licences, except for anything touching on race, religion or politics.
She said this would be a break from its tendency during Singapore’s first 50 years as a nation “to discourage the discussion of sensitive issues”.
During this time, the Government’s strategy was to avoid conflict by “keeping the polar groups away from each other, or keeping the government’s critics from poking their noses into the policy arena”, she said.
But avoiding sensitive topics or steering clear of out of bound markers does not mean we’ve moved any closer to understanding an issue, or each other’s differences, argued Koh, an arts practitioner.
“In fact, censoring or restricting films, plays or online sites that seek to examine a complex issue in our society simply because some might find the framing of the issue objectionable is tantamount to cutting off the space for constructive civic discourse to take place,” she said.
This would have a “chilling effect far beyond the immediate circumstances of the case”. Instead, “we need critical lovers and loving critics” for Singapore to thrive, she argued.
This is why the Government will have to practise and impart new skills to facilitate a civic discourse that strengthens our social cohesion in the long term.
In her impassioned speech on what Singapore needs for open debate, Koh also said that Singapore needs to learn that there are no clear right or wrong answers to complex issues, and that debates cannot always be definitively “settled”.
Students should also be taught in schools to hone their faculties for empathy and critical thinking, she added, to better equip them for debates.
“If we get it right, we will be a diverse, plural society where mutual respect is built around a Singaporean identity that is strongly felt, but at ease with itself,” she said.
Both Low and Koh’s valid points rise above the blather that was churned out in Parliament, but the points will probably be developed, not in the House or by policy makers or backbenchers, but in the public domain.