Debate on the President's Address

31 August 2020

Pritam Singh.jpg
 

Mr Speaker, I rise in support of the Motion, thanking the President for her Address.

My speech will cover a variety of topics, organised into three main areas. First, I will speak about certain things that have changed in Singapore. Second, I will talk about things that must not change. And third, I will suggest some things that should change.

First, let me speak about a few things that have changed in Singapore in the aftermath of the last election. I will speak about the Government's recognition of the office of the Leader of the Opposition, about how Workers' Party Members of Parliament will be organised in Parliament and finally, I will share some thoughts on the presence of our parliamentary colleagues from the Progress Singapore Party.

Immediately after the results of the General Election were known, the Prime Minister announced the position of Leader of the Opposition and that this would come with support and resources. It would be an understatement to say that this announcement came as a surprise to the Workers' Party and to members of the public. My view is to take the appointment of the Leader of the Opposition and the motives behind it positively. The Prime Minister has signalled a change in the narrative and culture of how politics and government is to be conducted, and I thank him for that.

We look forward to a different tone of political engagement and the Workers' Party accepts the changes as another step towards a First World Parliament.


The appointment has created expectations. The Government, the Workers' Party and the people of Singapore all believe that politics in Singapore is changing and in some ways changing rapidly. My personal expectation is that my Workers' Party colleagues and I will have to work extra hard. We will have to ask ourselves tough questions before critiquing Government policy – the chief of which is, what would we do if we were in charge.

Singaporeans in general would be unfamiliar with the concept of an Opposition in Parliament and as an official part of our political system, let alone the office of the Leader of the Opposition. In the past, popular reference to the Opposition was almost always pejorative, usually centred around the points that the Opposition was out of Government, did not have a mandate, could only talk and as such was ultimately irrelevant. There was a lacuna in appreciating the value of a parliamentary Opposition as a part of Singapore's parliamentary democracy.

With the new changes, it needs to be clear what the Opposition can and cannot do.

The appointment of the Leader of the Opposition is an opportunity for citizens and indeed, politicians, to educate ourselves and understand better what exactly it is that the Opposition does and what its purpose is. What does it mean to be a check and balance on the Government and how exactly can the Opposition propose alternative policies?

My assessment is that the public expects the Workers' Party and the Opposition in general to play a constructive role in Singapore politics. It should advance the interests of all Singaporeans, whether they may be in the majority or minority on any particular issue without fear or favour. The office of the Leader of the Opposition goes a long way to institutionalising an Opposition in Parliament and in our political system.

For Opposition parties to make greater headway in Parliament, we have to understand that today's political context necessitates the development of a rational and responsible approach to opposition politics that places not just the Singapore Citizen, but Singapore at its core.

Mr Speaker, my Workers' Party colleagues and I will set our own standards and chart an independent course, just as my predecessor, Mr Low Thia Khiang did in the face of much resistance including from many personalities in the Opposition camp as he sought to build a credible Workers' Party.


The road ahead will not be easy, but anything worthwhile never is. We will do our best by Singapore and Singaporeans.

But how much we can do and how much the political conversation evolves for the better will be driven by three things.

One, by the quantity and the quality of information that is shared by the Government in Parliament, and separately, released to the public more generally. Two, by the resources given by the Government to analyse and use that information for the benefit of the public. And three, by the willingness of the Government to listen to and implement the alternative ideas suggested.

As far as information is concerned, the Opposition's output will depend very much on whether we can get the input we ask for. We intend to make targeted inquiries of Government departments and public agencies as such information is essential for crafting alternative policies. On its part, the Government should consider how it can put out more information without being asked to, particularly information and indicators benchmarked against other countries.

In early 2018, I asked a Parliamentary Question about the number of Permanent Residents (PRs) who remained PRs for more than 10, 15, 20 and 25 years respectively, and the common reasons cited by these individuals for not taking up Singapore Citizenship. The information provided was far narrower, specifically that about 15% of PRs have been PRs for 20 or more years. Sir, the additional details that were not provided are important so the Opposition can consider and put forward alternative approaches to population and immigration policies. The data will also put into stark relief the relevance of referring to someone as a local in our statistical data when it is clear that some PRs do not want to become Singapore Citizens or the state has no plans to extend citizenship to them.

Mr Speaker, I accept that such matters are sensitive and the Government's unwillingness to provide the data in the format or detail requested, may arise not because of an unwillingness to disclose information. Instead, there could be genuine concerns about how information will be used or perhaps misused to rile pockets of the population since the PR policy is closely tied to immigration and jobs. But it is my case, Mr Speaker, that the Government will have to find a new way of dealing with such difficult matters. And I strongly believe Parliament is an important safety valve and a potential moderator of extreme conversations found offline and online on immigration and population issues. To that end, later in my speech, I will suggest some alternative approaches for the Government's consideration.

As for resources, I would like to share my understanding of the resources that will be provided to the Leader of the Opposition. This is important for the public to know in formulating their expectations. Every elected Member of Parliament is given a budget to hire a Legislative Assistant and Secretarial Assistant. The Legislative Assistant is paid an allowance of $1,300 per month and the Secretarial Assistant is paid an allowance of $500 a month. Based on these sums, these positions are of necessity, part-time ones.

I should highlight that these are the same resources depended on by PAP Members of Parliament (MPs) who are not political office-holders. Each PAP backbencher also has only one Legislative Assistant and one Secretarial Assistant, although I should add that they can avail themselves of the additional resources of the People's Association, including the staff at Community Clubs for their grassroots work. 

For completeness, let me say that neither Non-Constituency Members of Parliament (NCMPs) nor Nominated Members of Parliament (NMPs) are given these resources. This would be an opportune time to thank the Legislative Assistants or LAs, both of the PAP and Opposition parties, who have over the years supported Members of Parliament. 

For the office of the Leader of the Opposition, the Government has allocated a budget for three more LAs. Applying the standard allowance for LAs, each of the three additional LAs for the Leader of the Opposition will be paid $1,300 a month. Again, these have to be part-time positions. An administrative assistant has also been made available to the office of the Leader of the Opposition by Parliament.

By contrast, it is useful to remember that a sitting Government has at its disposal the resources of a Singapore Public Service, a very good one – I might add – of 146,000 full-time officers. Of these, 85,000 are members of the Civil Service. 

The Leader of the Opposition's office will not have the breadth and depth of the Party in Government in coming up with alternative policies. Nonetheless, the Workers' Party will continue pursuing alternatives we feel are important for Singapore, an example being the proposal for redundancy insurance for workers as put forth in the last term of Parliament. We will continue to advance meaningful alternatives for deliberation and debate, and will strive to improve on the quality of the alternatives suggested.  

Another change that has happened that led to the appointment of the Leader of the Opposition is that there are more Opposition MPs in Parliament than at any time since the years following our Independence in 1965.

Mr Speaker, Members of Parliament are vox populi – the voice of the people. To raise in Parliament what the people cannot do directly is the duty of the Government ruling party and the Opposition. The Workers' Party intends to raise matters in Parliament that are important to the people of Singapore that the Government and PAP backbenchers may not. We intend to scrutinise policies to the best of our abilities. To that end, let me set out how the Workers' Party's Members of Parliament will be organised. 

With just 10 Members of Parliament – far from the more than one-third necessary to check the PAP's supermajority – it is not feasible for the Workers' Party to set up a shadow Cabinet in the tradition of Westminster parliaments. There are 16 Ministries in Singapore, including the Prime Minister's Office. These 16 Ministries have the resources of 37 political office-holders from Parliamentary Secretary upwards. Of these 37, 20 are full Ministers.

Despite not being able to shadow each Ministry, we intend to organise our MPs to look into five areas that are critical for Singapore and of huge importance to Singaporeans. The five areas are: (a) health, ageing and retirement adequacy; (b) jobs, businesses and the economy; (c) education, inequality and the cost of living; (d) housing, transport and infrastructure; (e) national sustainability – a broad-ranging area that looks at policies and proposals to ensure we leave behind a thriving Singapore that lasts far into the future for successive generations.

The next change that has happened is the first-time presence in Parliament of the Progress Singapore Party. I wish to welcome their two Non-Constituency Members of Parliament (NCMPs), Mr Leong Mun Wai and Ms Hazel Poa. 

What is the relationship of other Opposition parties to the Leader of the Opposition? In other Westminster parliaments, the Leader of the Opposition is not considered a the leader of all Opposition parties in Parliament. This must be so in Singapore as well. The Progress Singapore Party has its own principles and ideology, that are distinct from the Workers' Party. Mr Leong and Ms Poa may propose policies and promote ideas very different from, and even in disagreement to those of the Workers' Party. It is possible that they may support Government policies that we disagree with or vice versa.

However, where our positions match and are in the best interests of Singapore, I look forward to collaborating with the Progress Singapore Party's NCMPs. Taken together, this would make for healthy debate in this House where policies are debated on their merits and principles, rather than in support or opposition to the Government.

Before I leave the subject of the Opposition, I would add that in the United Kingdom, the Leader of the Opposition is sometimes styled as the Leader of Her Majesty's Most Loyal Opposition. The term "Loyal Opposition" was coined in the Nineteenth century to make clear that opposing the Government was not considered disloyalty to the monarch, or to the state. I note the Prime Minister also used this term in the aftermath of the last election.

The Workers' Party has always taken the position that when it is in the Opposition, it owes its loyalty to the President, the Republic of Singapore and the people. We have proven that we do not oppose the Government for the sake of opposing. We back the Government when national interests are at stake. Shortly after COVID struck in January, I said to the House from this very Table: "Workers' Party Members of Parliament agree with the Government when we have to, disagree where we must, in the knowledge that we endeavour for the best outcomes for Singapore and for a unity of purpose when politics must take a back seat, like during the current COVID-19 crisis."

That position made in the context of the debate on the Unity Budget is a convenient point for me to transition to the second area I will speak on. That is, things that must not change in Singapore.

First, Singapore's historical position as a trading nation. Second, the Government's policies and actions on defence and foreign policy. And finally, certain things that are now synonymous with Singapore – multiracialism, the greening of Singapore, the quality of our public libraries and our culture of abhorring corruption.

Sir, Singapore has always been a trading nation and open borders are a fact of our lives. Investors should know that Singapore will never close for business, no matter how many Workers' Party MPs there are in Parliament. We make a living by being relevant to the world and separately as a trustworthy and reliable interlocutor. Our Police and security agencies keep our country safe. Our teachers are excellent educators. Our doctors and nurses staff a healthcare system that provides quality care. These are but some of the reasons why foreign investors put their trust in Singapore. 

Opposition politics and advocacy for Singaporeans cannot ignore Singapore's place in the world and what we offer to the world. We must still look outward, even as we continually search for a lasting modus vivendi which accommodates the domestic pressures of being economically open, and the reality of a Singapore identity that evolves and crystallises as our nation matures.

Singaporeans do feel patriotic, nationalistic and protectionist even. These are forces that are not intrinsically negative, but they have to be empathised with and understood by this House. In turn, Singaporeans should consider Singapore's relevance to the world from a broad perspective. After all, all of us, no matter what our political preferences, want our country to be thriving and successful and with a big heart. 

Moving on to the second thing that must not change. The Workers' Party supports the Government's positions on defence and foreign policy. These must continue as they are. These policies are well-considered and they place primacy on Singapore's interest while seeking long-term mutual cooperation with other countries and international organisations. They also take into account the realism of international politics and the reality of not just a small state, but our peculiar circumstances too.

The Workers' Party backs the Government in involving Singapore in United Nations initiatives, and those of the World Health Organization, the World Bank, UNESCO, the International Labour Organization and other multilateral initiatives. We support the Government's efforts in working with our neighbours to bolster ASEAN. We believe that a successful ASEAN boosts regional security through economic, political and security cooperation. In particular, we support Singapore's efforts to work with ASEAN and other countries to finalise the South China Sea Code of Conduct. As a small maritime nation and separately, a trading nation, the sanctity of international agreements and adherence to the rule of law is necessary to discourage arbitrary behaviour by more powerful states.

Next, we support the Government's work in continuing various things that have become a part of Singapore's DNA. Singapore's position on corruption must not change. Our founding Prime Minister, Mr Lee Kuan Yew was able to lead the achievement of something that many thought impossible at the time – the rooting out of endemic corruption from Singapore society.

We are proud of Singapore's success in doing so and support the Government's continuing work in this area. If anything, Singapore's position on stamping out corruption should be strengthened so that extra-territorial corruption by Singaporeans is discouraged with as much diligence as domestic corruption.

Equally important is Singapore's emphasis on racial and religious harmony. These words are almost a cliche in Singapore, and we should be grateful for that, because in many other countries, it is a source of intractable problems. The Workers' Party strongly believes in Singapore's multiracial, multi-religious and multi-cultural community. It is important that all communities support, respect and accommodate each other. 

Sir, my Workers' Party colleagues and I look at Singapore as a glass half-full or one that can be topped-up. There is much that is right and which should remain the same. But there is also much that can and should change. This brings me to my third area – things that should change in Singapore. It is my conviction that these changes would improve governance and better look after the needs of Singaporeans.

First, to leverage an independent Organ of State, namely Parliament, the Workers' Party proposes the formation of more Select Committees. Some conversations in Singapore can continue to be divisive unless we decisively create a framework for reasoned conversation. Parliament, using the platform of Select Committees, can operate as an important safety valve and an agent of positive conversations that ought to have a direct impact on policies and laws. 

More significantly, in the information ecology of today's world, misinformation and disinformation campaigns are run online and offline, usually in combination, to manipulate content and hijack narratives. This House and the Government need to reframe the public narrative on our more pressing issues.

In many countries today, even the mainstream media cannot moderate the conversation without significant public funding. A recent headline from the magazine Current Affairs put it starkly – the truth is paywalled and the lies are free. An apt description of the dilemma facing the mainstream media in the face of some aspects of social media.

By forming Select Committees that meet regularly on the most sensitive and difficult issues for Singapore, Parliament can play a bigger role in leading the conversation and championing the truth.

There are two possibilities for Select Committees. One possibility is for more Standing Select Committees to be set up to scrutinise the spending, policies and administration of each Ministry. The members of these committees would be drawn from a mix of Members in this House, including PAP backbenchers, elected Opposition MPs and NCMPs.

Such committees are part of the normal political fabric of other democracies. The UK parliament has cross-party Commons Select Committees that check on each government department, also in the areas of spending, policies and administration. Those who follow American politics would also be familiar with the various Senate and House committees that are drawn from both Democrats and Republicans. 

This suggestion is not meant to be a blind copying of the British and American systems, but is made because such committees are an example of parliamentary institutions our democracy can benefit from.

Such Standing Select Committees are not to be confused with Government Parliamentary Committees (GPCs). GPCs are partisan – only PAP Members of Parliament sit on them. GPCs were conceived in 1987 when Mr Chiam See Tong was the only Opposition MP left after the removal of Mr J B Jeyaretnam in 1986. There were no NMPs at the time, nor NCMPs. Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong introduced them as a method of PAP self-checking.

Now, with the presence of 10 elected Opposition Members of Parliament, Standing Select Committees are feasible and indeed desirable for greater accountability. If not for all Ministries, then perhaps for some of them. Of course, certain Ministries such as MINDEF and MHA may require the discussion of classified information. In such cases, cross-party committees could review matters at closed door hearings. 

A second possibility for Select Committees would be the formation of more ad hoc committees. Such committees are already a part of Singapore’s Parliamentary processes, but the Workers' Party recommends that more of them be empanelled. The purpose of ad hoc Select Committees is to investigate a specific issue and report back to Parliament. In time, and given their importance, they can be repurposed into permanent Standing Select Committees. These Select Committees must function as investigators, with no pre-determined agenda, hidden or otherwise. They must go where the evidence, obtained through submissions and witnesses, leads them.

The Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods, of which I was a member in the last term of Parliament, was a good start. But there is scope for further improvement. For example, by giving a longer lead time for submissions to be made; publishing written submissions at least two weeks before the hearings; scheduling hearings over more days; and releasing an interim report for public scrutiny that can prompt more written submissions and additional hearings.

To this end, the President in her Address alluded to potentially difficult conversations that Government would need to have with Singaporeans. Parliament in committee – rather than in session like it is today – is an excellent platform to hear and truly listen to the voices of Singaporeans in an open way.

The next thing we need to change in Singapore is how we manage and accommodate foreigners in our economy. Their presence gives Singapore a vitality that keeps us economically relevant and also provides jobs and opportunities to our fellow Singaporeans. Many of us count the foreigners in our midst, regardless of race, language or religion as our friends. That openness and friendly attitude must continue as a manifestation of the Singapore spirit and the Singapore we leave behind for future generations of Singaporeans.

But it is precisely because we need foreigners to help power our economy that we need to pay more attention to Singapore workers, some of whom feel excluded, some of whom feel excluded from opportunities created in their homeland. In recent weeks, letters in The Straits Times Forum have been published, one by a retired senior Singaporean banker and another by the Managing Director of the Monetary Authority of Singapore or MAS, in reply. These appeared after MOM placed 47 companies on the Fair Consideration Framework watchlist. Of the 47 companies, 30 were financial and professional services institutions. On the MOM’s website, examples are given of one wealth management firm where almost three-quarters of their PMET or professional, manager, executive and technician jobs are held by persons of the same nationality. Another example is given of a bank where almost two-thirds are of the same nationality.

The obvious question is: how did those two companies get to those stages without MOM taking action before this? MOM’s website states at one point and I quote, “MOM does not tolerate unfair hiring practices and employers who do not give locals a fair chance in hiring and promotion will face scrutiny and stiff penalties if found to have unfair hiring practices.” However, for three-quarters and two-thirds of the PMETs of two companies to be non-Singaporeans of the same nationality, Singaporeans may be justified in asking if MOM has tolerated their unfair hiring practices for some time.

To be fair, this is a complex issue. For example, there may be some justification if the bank’s customers are not in Singapore, but are from the same country as the PMETs, and if these customers do not speak any of the languages widely used in Singapore. Some have argued that this is what it takes for Singapore to be a global financial hub.

The problem is that we simply do not know enough. And the vacuum has given space for a more toxic conversation to ferment. We should nip this forthwith and some details earlier this week from MTI about inter-corporate transferees and remarks by the Minister for MTI have been important. To this end, more information, and not less, is certainly most helpful. One way for us in Parliament and for the public to know, is for MOM to publish the names of recalcitrant employers. We can then understand the operating paradigm of such businesses and understand how they intend to make the transition to fair hiring practices.

The Government also needs to raise its signature in this regard, especially since this is such a hot-button issue, one generating a lot of heat but very little light. To assist, a Parliamentary Select Committee can investigate the limitations of the workforce and the needs of the economy on the one hand, and the reality of the Singaporean worker in the face of competition and the constraints faced by employers on the other. 

Beyond this, a far more purposeful way to prevent companies from hiring unfairly would be for Parliament to pass anti-discrimination legislation and impose penalties for discriminatory practices by egregious offenders. This should be considered alongside a more activist approach by the Tripartite Alliance for Fair Employment Practices (TAFEP) in the immediate term. At the moment, the penalty for employers who breach TAFEP’s fair hiring requirements is a debarment of up to two years from hiring or renewing foreign workers, including work pass renewals – and that is for the most serious offenders. There are no criminal penalties for individuals who are responsible for unfair hiring practices. Surely this tempts recalcitrant employers into trying their luck. If they practise unfair hiring, all that happens is that they are stopped from hiring unfairly for two years.

Employers only face criminal prosecution if they make false declarations on fair consideration. And somehow, truthful declarations on fair consideration have allowed two companies to hire up to two-thirds and three-quarters of PMETs of the same nationality. Needless to say, prosecution only for false declarations is simply not enough.

In tandem with a stronger regime of deterrence, there should be an educational credential assessment for all Employment Pass and S Pass applicants, the cost of which should be borne by the applicant. This will ensure that only objectively qualified foreigners may work in Singapore.

Tied closely to the issue of the hiring of foreigners is whether the education system is adequately preparing our citizens for the jobs that are available. The big banks – OCBC, UOB and DBS – all have workforces that are made up of at least 90% Singapore Citizens and Permanent Residents. It is unclear what proportion are Singapore Citizens. Standard Chartered has said that 70% of its local subsidiary’s staff are Singapore Citizens. Are these really high numbers? What are the reasons why these banks cannot be staffed by even more Singaporeans?

The two main justifications given for the hiring of foreigners are first, that they are unable to find Singaporeans with the expertise; and second, that foreigners do jobs that are undesired by Singaporeans. As it is unlikely that well-paying banking jobs are undesired by Singaporeans, the justification of these banks in hiring foreigners must be that they are unable to find enough Singaporeans with the needed expertise. If that is true, then we need to ask where the gaps are in our education and lifelong learning training systems. These gaps must be found and plugged as soon as possible.

Last Friday, MAS responded to The Straits Times queries on the issue of foreign professionals at financial institutions. I agree with MAS that falsehoods on fair hiring are unhelpful and unfair. On the point of the number of Singaporeans at financial institutions, however, MAS did say that there are some functions and some firms where there is scope to increase the proportion of Singaporeans. MAS has also said that it would like to see more Singaporeans move into the senior ranks of the financial sector. MAS added that there is an urgent need to build the local talent pool in technology-related areas to meet increasing demand. 

I was glad to see that MAS made the same points I have made above – that a greater proportion of Singaporeans can be employed at financial institutions and that Singaporeans need to be appropriately educated and trained to take up jobs in the financial sector.  

Mr Speaker, I have spent some time on these matters which are on the lips of many Singaporeans because I believe that in spite of COVID-19 and the changes taking place in the world, opportunities are arising that Singapore can take advantage of. For example, the seismic political changes in Hong Kong may prompt some international businesses to move to other jurisdictions. We should aim to welcome those looking to move. But if we do not move purposefully to consolidate and position the Singaporean PMET in a competitive position vis-a-vis the work pass holder, the Government will not be able to secure support or adequate support for its economic agenda and take advantage of opportunities while maintaining social harmony.

Let me now move away from foreign professionals to discuss local tradesmen. Another thing that we should change in Singapore is raising the value of the work of the Singapore tradesmen. In places like Australia, New Zealand and Germany, tradesmen make good wages that match or even outstrip those of university graduates. 

In Singapore, although our educational institutions train our citizens for such vocations, not enough is done to protect their trades. The way to protect our tradesmen is to regulate who can practice each trade. Medical professionals, accountants, quantity surveyors, insurance practitioners and even real estate sales professionals have to be properly qualified and certified. This enables them to earn a wage that is protected from undercutting by the unqualified. For example, for trades such as air-conditioner servicing and plumbing, anyone can offer such services.

Uplifting our tradesmen will require a paradigm shift in how workers are viewed and trained. If it succeeds, it will raise the self-esteem and incomes of Singaporeans who may not be academically inclined but who have acquired valuable skills that many of us in this House would not be able to fully master. It is my view that such a decisive shift will fundamentally alter our understanding of meritocracy.  

The final point I would like to make on things that should change is on greater help for those who need it most. The Workers' Party believes that the Pioneer and Merdeka generation schemes, for example, are good ones. Indeed, we ourselves proposed policies along these lines, years ago. However, we believe more can be done.

We know that there are trade-offs. Extending more health and other social benefits comes with a cost. Could this result in higher income taxes for many Singaporeans and those who work here, for example? Yes. But the benefits will go beyond mere financial help for those who need it. Will there be a price to pay in terms of higher costs for the end-consumer? This must be expected. Increasingly, there will be a price to pay if we wish to be "One United People" and move beyond the phrase as an aspiration or worse, a platitude. 

Many Scandinavians are content to pay higher taxes because they know this would mean that others in their society will be able to live with greater dignity. For those who earn higher incomes, to pay higher taxes is a point of pride for many of them. The Singaporean identity which sees community as a central pillar of its DNA should imbibe such thinking with those better-off paying more. Let us build a kinder and gentler Singapore.

In conclusion, Sir, those are the three things I wanted to speak on today: first, things that have changed since the General Election; second, things that must not change; and third, things that should change.

As history tells us, change can be for the better or for the worse. Around 50 years ago, some Asian countries were prosperous and thriving. Fast forward to today, as a direct result of bad choices and in spite of the best intentions, things have gone awry there.

However Singapore pivots or evolves in the years to come, I believe a reasoned conversation before choices and decisions are made, or not made, will be critical. These will take time and consume much energy, and we will have to guard against conversations which are hijacked to advance sectional interests that demonise those who have reservations or a different perspective.

The Workers' Party will seek to play a positive role in the national conversation both in and out of Parliament to leave behind a Singapore our children and future generations can be proud of. There is much to do.

I support the Motion in the name of Mr Patrick Tay which gives thanks to the President for her Address delivered on behalf of the Government.