Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat managed to pass his parliamentary motion 52-9 against Workers’ Party (WP) leaders Low Thia Khiang and Sylvia Lim yesterday (5 Nov), despite multiple accounts that he was flustered and fumbled to defend his motion during the four-hour debate.
DPM Heng, who is expected to succeed Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong after the next election, moved to get Aljunied-Hougang Town Council (AHTC) saga to require Mr Low and Ms Lim to recuse themselves from the town council’s financial matters, in the wake of a High Court judgment that found the MPs liable for damages in the AHTC lawsuit.
Yahoo Singapore noted that the DPM “fumbled” when the WP MPs expected him to clarify the comments he had made in his hour-long speech. When he was being questioned by Ms Lim at one point, DPM Heng reportedly “hesitated in his response and flipped through his folder at length” before moving on.
Former Straits Times heavyweight reporter Bertha Henson had a more in-depth view of Mr Heng’s performance. Revealing that she was in the Parliament gallery during the session, Ms Henson also wrote that Mr Heng “fumbled” and was “flustered” during the course of the debate. She recalled in her blog:
“After he spoke, it seemed like the WP MPs were intent on picking on specific points, asking him for a slew of clarifications. A flustered Mr Heng tried answering the points, before demanding that the party engage on the key issues of transparency, accountability and moral standards.
“But Ms Lim, the most persistent questioner, wasn’t done yet. She spoke from her prepared text and here’s where things took a turn: Mr Heng asked for an adjournment or a recess.”
Ms Henson said that she “found it astonishing that the PAP didn’t seem to have anticipated the WP’s main line of defence: that the House was having the debate before the Nov 11 deadline for appeals against the judgment.”
The WP held that Mr Heng’s motion was premature since the timeframe they have to appeal has not elapsed and since the legal proceedings have yet to conclude. Noting that the WP’s position – that there is still time for it to appeal the judgment and that the MPs intend to do so – seemed to take the PAP and Mr Heng by surprise, Ms Henson recounted:
“Senior Minister of State for Law Edwin Tong had got up for his turn to speak, but Mr Heng beat him to the mic to ask the Speaker for an adjournment.”
After criticising Ms Lim and Hougang MP Png Eng Huat for asking a “series of little questions,” Mr Heng asked for a recess and explained, “Because Ms Sylvia Lim…has made the point that it was improper for me to raise this, and I would like an adjournment for us to consider the matter and respond to you.”
WP chief Pritam Singh objected to the recess since the House had already taken a 20-minute break but Speaker of Parliament Tan Chuan-Jin granted a ten-minute adjournment that Ms Henson said left those in the gallery “twiddling our thumbs as the House emptied out, presumably for the PAP to decide on strategy.”
Ms Henson said that the motion “to me, seemed more like an opportunity to reprise the failings of the WP by quoting liberally from past judgements and auditors’ statements.” Noting that the PAP MPs who spoke repeated the same things over and over again, she opined that the PAP painted the elected Aljunied GRC MPs as such during the debate:
“Sylvia Lim is the bad one. Low Thia Kiang is a decent guy who actually ran Hougang Town Council competently but…Pritam Singh and Png Eng Huat had been duped by the two above-mentioned.
“Faisal Manap, as town council chairman, doesn’t have the gumption to do the right thing, that is, remove the first two from their town council posts or, at least, make sure they don’t have oversight of finances. Chen Show Mao was the only one who was left scot-free. He didn’t speak – nor was he spoken of.”
After four hours of debate, DPM Heng had the opportunity to round out the debate but it does not appear as though he fared too well as he concluded the debate. Calling this section of his speech “a little garbled,” Ms Henson noted that he made mistakes:
“By then, it was way past 7pm. Mr Heng got up to round up the debate. It was a little garbled. He made mistakes such as talking about an “on-going appeal” (not filed yet) and how Ms Lim had admitted that the discussion was not subjudice (she didn’t).
“At one point, he talked about working with the WP to draw up some basic principles for a code of conduct for MPs both inside and outside the House, which led me to wonder if a new motion would be raised. But no. It was still about the need for ethical standards and “clean politics”.
“He also said the Government would now be “forced to express its concerns” to the AHTC independent panel. So is this the next step then?”
Despite fumbling, DPM Heng’s motion was passed 52-9. All nine WP MPs and Non-Constituency MPs rejected the motion while two Nominated MPs, Walter Theseira and Anthea Ong, abstained from voting.