Why we need a larger opposition presence in parliament, part 2

After the close of the last SDP rally, a long queue forms , to buy a book by Chee Soon Juan and to have it autographed (at bottom left corner of photo)

After the close of the last SDP rally, a long snaking queue forms , to buy a book by Chee Soon Juan and to have it autographed (at bottom left corner of photo)

From Part 1.

Just before this election campaign began, a friend shared with me some thoughts about the performance of opposition MPs in the last parliament. He wasn’t criticising them, just voicing aloud his relative disappointment that through the last four years there had not been more in-depth debate about the issues.

By chance, this was a point that Lee Hsien Loong tried to make about a week later.

“The opposition frankly has been disappointing, because when you go for election rallies, it’s very easy to make fierce rousing speeches. But when they come to Parliament, none of these issues are raised. Because they know that if in Parliament they raise those issues, face to face, in debate, they’ll be pinned down and the fallacies and insincerities will be exposed,” said Mr Lee.

“So you voted for a tiger in the chamber and you got a mouse in the house. It’s one of these Frankenstein monsters. Every night it turns into a tiger and every day it turns into a mouse.”

— ChannelNews Asia, 1 September 2015, The future of the country is at stake at this General Election: PM Lee Hsien Loong. Link

I don’t intend to get into discussion as to whether this is an accurate characterisation of opposition MPs’ performance or not, though it is worth noting that each one of them spoke up or asked questions at a rate well above that of nearly all PAP members of parliament.

I suspect that key reason that left my friend slightly dissatisfied is that there  were simply not enough of them. To have a debate that is truly substantive requires two conditions:

  • Expertise
  • Data

If there were more opposition MPs, they could divide the issues among them. Then there would be something analogous to the ‘shadow cabinet’ that typify how the lead opposition party organises itself in the UK or Australian parliament.

Having more opposition MPs – and hopefully of a calibre that can face off a rough debate – is of course a matter for the Singapore electorate to produce. In Singapore’s case, I think we need at least 20 opposition MPs (preferably 30) before they can afford to specialise, but I don’t foresee such a result from this election.

Another view of the queue waiting to purchase and have autographed a book by Chee Soon Juan

Another view of the queue waiting to purchase and have autographed a book by Chee Soon Juan

An equally big problem is that debating in the absence of data can be dangerously prone to inaccurate assumptions.

My friend was particularly frustrated by what he saw as the extreme reluctance of ministries to release data. He felt the civil servants ought to engage more with all members of parliament. I am not sure that the problem can be attributed to civil servants alone; I am pretty sure there is a political motive to being parsimonious and selective about data release, and this political motive naturally springs from the minister himself or herself.

The way to cure this is to have a Freedom of Information Act – something I have written about previously (so I won’t rehash it here). In brief, it would mean institutionalising a process by which any citizen can request for data, subject only to a filtering mechanism to check whether the information so requested would be highly damaging to Singapore’s security and diplomatic interests. But it would be naïve to think that having more opposition members of parliament (even 30) will bring us closer to a Freedom of Information Act. Something like this needs a legislative majority.

In the interim, one way around it is to have opposition MPs ask plenty of verbal and written questions at each sitting of parliament. This however is less than satisfactory because the minister may simply give a partial reply. Moreover, a concise question is sometimes a poor way to obtain raw data that needs to be in several tables in order to be useful and open to dissection and analysis.

Most crucially, there is a rule limiting the number of questions an MP can ask in each sitting to five. Parliamentary Standing Orders, section 20(3) says:

(3) A Member may have up to five questions on the Order Paper at any one time and not more than three of these questions shall be for oral answer. A Member requiring an oral answer to his question shall mark it with an asterisk.

With such a tight limit, we’re once again back to this problem: if we want more substantive debate, we first must have more data, and to get data, we need more opposition MPs.

Getting data is not a complete substitute to civil servants engaging with MPs. Within every ministry, all sorts of worthwhile studies are done, and many of these studies produce multiple projections based on varying scenarios or they unearth qualitative insights. Conversations between MPs and civil servants, not parliamentary questions, are the best way for MPs to share and benefit from the same insights and projections. Moreover, the MP can add insights drawn from his or her ground-level interactions which the civil servant can use to refine those studies. This would make for more thorough parliamentary debate and sounder policy-making.

How will we ever get the MPs and civil servants to talk to each other? My friend asked, perhaps rhetorically.

I could think of no ready answer. I’m not sure if this can ever be legislated. “But,” I mused, “maybe this is the kind of problem that will take care of itself one day.”

Consider this: If we had truly competitive politics and an opposition party had a real shot of winning a majority in the following election and forming the government, wouldn’t the civil servant naturally adjust his behaviour? Self-preservation would suggest to him that should the MP ask for a meeting and a sharing of information, the civil servant would more likely accept than decline. After all, this MP could well be his minister and boss after the next election!

There is of course the possibility that the existing government might use the Official Secrets Act liberally and forbid civil servants from sharing anything with MPs. The way I see it, it is civil servants themselves who decide what’s secret and what’s not. Using the OSA liberally in a way to stonewall discussion with MPs may itself be taken as a sign that the civil servant is playing partisan politics. Not a smart way to protect one’s career.

So here again, this is the bottom line. If we want a more substantive debate about alternatives, if we want more informed debate in parliament and sounder policy-making, we just need more opposition MPs. Changing the gross imbalance that exists now is to change the whole tone and dynamics of parliament… for the better.

11 Responses to “Why we need a larger opposition presence in parliament, part 2”


  1. 1 yuenchungkwong 10 September 2015 at 08:59

    what you say is fine in theory, but the practical situation in SG is (1) opposition is unsable: several parties in this election were formed a year or so ago, NSP and RP are both a pale shadow of what they were last time, and even with relatively stable parties like WP and SDP, most of their candidates are new; so what exactly are voters voting for, other than “different from PAP”? (2) MPs are now well paid, such that Tin Pei Ling, Sylvia Lim and Lee Li Lian could afford to quit their previous jobs; further, MPs control the budget of town councils and could exercise much patronage; consequently, once elected, opposition MPs are keen to conserve what they already have (e.g., why didnt Low Thia Kiang and Sylvia Lim move to East Coast and Marine Parade to increase the chance of WP winning there? not worth the risk?) and their performance in parliament and at large reflects this conservatism

    • 2 octopi 11 September 2015 at 15:26

      I don’t really see that as a problem. Consider somebody like Nicole Seah. She’d have won in a SMC fight against Tin Pei Ling in 2011. She’d have served 1 term by now, and we’d judge her again.

      Between 1981 and 2011, we’ve had these opposition MPs: JBJ, Chiam See Tong, Low Thia Khiang, Ling How Doong and Cheo Chai Chen. I’d say except for Cheo and maybe even Ling they were good, they stuck around, they did their best. If the opposition is not elected, they’ll go back to their daily lives because they have to make a living.

      When they’re outside of parliament, in fact, I would prefer that they switch parties a little quicker. They have to evolve, learn, mingle around find out who they like to work with. The problem with the opposition parties is that some of the central execs are staffed by old farts who have status but not competence, and they’re holding back the development of the opposition in Singapore. New faces in the opposition are always good, because it means that people are stepping forward to serve the opposition.

      It is not about accessing the people one by one, but about accessing parliament as a whole, government as a whole when you have 10, 20 people asking questions and airing alternate viewpoints, rather than everybody being a yes man, and closing one eye if and when fishy business takes place.

  2. 3 liz ho 10 September 2015 at 17:31

    Totally agree the presence of weak or laughable oppositions is also the result of the nation governance. While people are laughing at weak oppositions, one might want to take a step back and see this as a consequence of decades of a single ruling party.

  3. 4 jen 10 September 2015 at 23:15

    The civil service is serving PAP rather than the public at large.
    Your proposition is only plausible if the civil service disengages itself from serving the PAP or any ruling party. Lee Kuan Yew would not have stood chance if he did not make the civil service serve the PAP.

    • 5 yawningbread 10 September 2015 at 23:27

      My point is that that there will be members of the civil service who can see the possibility of change of govt ahead, and will start to protect their rice bowl by being nice to opposition MPs.

  4. 6 henry 10 September 2015 at 23:16

    Just an observation.
    Not a single PAP member of parliament has faced obstacles during their journey into parliament… till 2011.

    While the opposition has gone through bankruptcies, media humiliation,defeat, jailed and being accused of many things. Yet they get up and try again… (CSJ, JB.)

    I believe that none of the PAP’s people if faced with similar challenges would have given up. They lived their lives not understanding what its like to be thumbed down again and again. Even the “son of punggol” was pulled out and given a magic carpet ride via Ang Moh Kio GRC.

    The PAP has members who have never experienced the weight of an entire government bearing down on them. That generation is gone.

    • 7 yawningbread 10 September 2015 at 23:25

      Not quite accurate, I think. Desmond Choo lost Hougang several times but fought on.

      • 8 Jake 11 September 2015 at 09:06

        He only stood two times. And these were in the space of two years – FE 2011 and Hougang by-election. Hardly a picture of perseverance.

      • 10 AgaSan 11 September 2015 at 11:45

        yawningbread wrote: “Sitoh Yih Pin?”

        Well, this guy merely had to show up every 4-5 years. An opposition faced the risk of stigma associated with joining the opposition, of losing his or her job, or having to quit one being contesting..and lots more.

        Sitoh had nothing to lose, and everything to gain if he won, which he did in 2011.

        So he cannot be said to be the fighting type who doesn’t give upt…you know, he just had to show up every 5 years or so.

      • 11 henry 11 September 2015 at 12:03

        Yes, you are correct to mention Desmond & Sitoh having faced defeat and trying again. They also have a giant behind them.

        Somehow, that does not equate with the grit, and toughness that opposition candidates experience. The PAP’s experience with fire is teflon coated.


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