Seah Chiang Nee
Singapore’s Parliament is meeting for the first time with Lee Kuan Yew no longer in the Cabinet and the mood reflects the historic occasion.
It points to a post-Kuan Yew era that ended recently with the former prime minister’s retirement from both the Cabinet and the People’s Action Party (PAP) leadership.
His son, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, is now de facto his own man.
Psychologically, the departure of the man who has had a hand in almost everything in Singapore for 46 years seems to have jolted people and politics into action.
Although 88-year-old Kuan Yew remains a Member of Parliament, the man who helped to transform this city into one of the wealthiest in the world, is unlikely to play any more major role in future.
Whether by design or coincidence, Kuan Yew left Singapore for visits to Turkey and the United States a day before Parliament began its meeting.
The impact of his absence has been marked. I am happy to note there was none of the bitterness or name-calling that some of my friends had warned me to expect from this session.
Instead, there was a new level of freshness and a higher degree of intelligence.
Several ruling PAP members spoke with candour seldom heard before, touching on some sensitive subjects rarely done in the past without a slap-down from Kuan Yew.
A few called for changes in the country’s elected presidency system and its complex Parliament representatives such as non-constituency or nominated MPs in the wake of the new political environment.
One wanted the quota for foreign workers changed.
However, others, true to past forms, stuck closely to party positions and denying anything is really wrong.
It is apparent that Hsien Loong has signalled to his MPs of his readiness to have more open discussions.
The PAP representatives also took the cue from Hsien Loong when he himself had publicly apologised for government mistakes in the past five years, especially in public housing, transport and healthcare.
In spite of his unprecedented apology, his party lost an unprecedented six seats out of the 87 at stake and its popular votes fell to an all-time low of 60%.
The biggest difference is the largest number of opposition MPs in modern record and their quality showed.
As a result, public interest in the proceedings has gone up for the first time in years.
At the height of Kuan Yew’s strongman rule, many Singaporeans had paid scant attention to Singapore’s Parliament, regarding it merely as performing a rubber-stamp role.
Instead, interest was focused on the Cabinet and Lee in particular as the sole power of change.
With few exceptions, backbenchers were reluctant to counter or challenge the leadership or to present alternative arguments.
The Cabinet made the decision and Parliament’s duty was to approve it, often without real debate. That was the practice that Kuan Yew felt was an effective way of building prosperity.
Too much democracy and contesting arguments, he felt, were bad for economic growth.
Although as a session to discuss the President’s speech, such a meeting has traditionally produced little more than general statements of intent.
“It is usually time for MPs to get some limelight by talking a lot without saying anything meaningful beyond making general promises,” said a reporter covering it. “This time things may be a little different.”
He said many PAP MPs knew that if they didn’t perform well in the public eye, they would be voted out in the next election.
Already public pressures have produced a commitment to build more subsidised flats, more hawker centres to reduce food costs and a cut-down in the car population over three years.
“With better education, the voters are better able to distinguish between general pledges and concrete plans made by politicians,” said one blogger.
The major commitments include the following:
- Construction of 50,000 more public flats in 2011-12, and two more new townships will eventually be built. If needed, HUB could build up to 100,000 within the next five years;
- Foreign ownership of private property will be tightened to about half the present number;
- Ten hawker centres will be built over the next 10 years to meet increasing demand.
While Parliament was meeting, the person in charge of transport was watching trains.
He had a compelling reason to do so; for days, public complaints had been piling up on his desk about frequent breakdowns and jam-packed stations during peak hours.
Since he took over as Transport Minister, Liu Tuck Yew had been travelling on trains and buses to see how the over-crowdedness can be resolved.
In Singapore, political history is being made in many small steps rather than one big leap.
Last week, as Parliament was meeting, some Singaporeans tried without success to organise a Wall Street-type protest in Singapore’s business district against the excesses of capitalism.
About 20 people showed up, an apparent failure. However, one analyst said the Singapore success story was not totally free of the Wall Street feature, which meant more attempts could be expected.
Here, too, we have had incessant rental increases that produced no innovation or opportunity for others, except the landlord.
“We must not allow capitalism to continue strengthen the powers and wealth or a small group to exploit the population and encourage an ever-widening income gap,” one surfer said.
“I just hope that we do not go down the same slope as Wall Street by adopting policies that are inclusive and caring for Singaporeans who have fallen through the cracks,” he added.
This article was first published by The Star on 22 October 2011.