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Vivian Balakrishnan and Pritam Singh: TraceTogether debate shows closing gap between PAP and Opposition MPs

Sense And Nonsense by Tan Bah Bah




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The standard playbook for Parliament used to be different. A battery of government MPs would play around with a couple of lonely Opposition MPs on whatever issue of the day. Now and then an NMP would chip in with some usually forgotten noise. Then, after he’s seen enough and if he’s decided that the government message was not getting through, Lee Kuan Yew would stride ominously to the rostrum in his CYC-tailored jacket, lay down his glasses – and hurl his Mount Sinai tablets, like Moses, at everyone. Whether it was about ministerial salaries, Singapore Airlines or CPF, not many Opposition MPs would deign to battle with him.

In today’s LKY-less Parliament, the atmosphere has changed somewhat. The TraceTogether debate was an example of how things have levelled up or starting to level up between People’s Action Party MPs and Opposition MPs.

The Opposition are no longer that lonely. There are now 10 Opposition MPs, and two NCMPs, nearly all of them more than capable of diving into difficult issues and offering their party’s position on issues, whether or not you agree with it.

Everyone has benefited from the experiences of past Opposition MPs – including the early years Barisan Sosialis group, the Workers’ Party’s David Marshall, JB Jeyaratnam and Low Thia Khiang and Singapore People’s Party’s Chiam See Tong. Progress Singapore Party chief Dr Tan Cheng Bock’s 26-year stint as a PAP MP for Ayer Rajah has also been useful in terms of knowing how to work the ground and how to serve residents – or how to think like the PAP.

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Today’s Opposition comes with a growing wealth of knowledge, history and resources. Pritam Singh and Sylvia Lim are practically veterans, compared to some of the new Ministers or Ministers of State. Pritam’s status as Leader of the Opposition entitles him to more resources which will help him and his party to flourish even further. Just like the PAP once had LKY as a “national resource”, the WP has also always been able to tap on Low Thia Khiang’s outreach and formidable rapport with the non-English educated and heartlanders.

Leon Perera, Gerald Giam and Faisal Manap – Aljunied GRC MPs – are no pushovers either. Manap is into his second term. Perera and Giam were NCMPs before being elected in Aljunied.

And we are talking only about the more experienced WPs. The new Sengkang GRC group (He Ting Ru contested previously in East Coast GRC) are, I believe, even more savvy and in tune with the millennials. For some reason, younger voters see the young team as being more like them. What are the usual issues which appeal to young Singaporeans? Bringing up children, education, social or systemic inequality, better living environment and climate change, problems of being a sandwiched generation, jobs, eligibility for BTO flats and so on.

Whether or not you are concerned about such issues, you must also be able to communicate with the young.

WP webinars, and now increasingly PSP ones, seem to resonate with younger Singaporeans. With all the main parties’ women’s and youth wings all firing and inspired by the current successes, the Opposition cannot but progress even further. There are articulate Opposition people who can clearly hold their own and think on their feet.

This brings us back to what happened in Parliament as it debated TraceTogether a week or so ago. The exchanges tell me that Parliament may no longer be dominated by the PAP, as in the past.

Vivian Balakrishnan may not yet be an ultra heavyweight minister. But he is no lightweight either. Besides being minister in charge of the Smart Nation programme, he is Singapore’s Foreign Minister, not a minor ministerial post. Three previous foreign ministers became Deputy Prime Ministers – S Rajaratnam, S Jayakumar and Wong Kan Seng. He was the PAP front man at the GE2020 televised debate where I thought he did well, at least better than any of the touted 4G PM contenders would have.

For TraceTogether, he had to work overtime to explain why he had overlooked telling Parliament that the data from the tracing device could be used for police investigations. In the end, he had to “take full responsibility for the mistake”.

In retrospect, the WP has been reluctant to go for blood. It supported government efforts to deal with Covid-19 and was more concerned about erosion of public trust which would have complicated the authorities’ whole-of-nation approach.

Lesson from all the hooha: This is 2021. There is real Opposition now in Parliament. Every government leader and MP must do their homework and not get caught with their pants down. There is no Moses coming down to hurl tablets. It is the other way round: be ready for slingshots from the other side.

With this, I wish all Chinese readers Gong Xi Fa Cai! Wear a mask and be safe.

There will be no Sense And Nonsense next Sunday Feb 14. It will resume on Feb 21.


Tan Bah Bah, consulting editor of TheIndependent.Sg, is a former senior leader writer with The Straits Times. He was also managing editor of a local magazine publishing company.






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