Leader of the House, Minister Indranee Rajah, on an effective Parliament
Transcript of Speech by Leader of the House, Minister Indranee Rajah, on an Effective Parliament at the Parliament Committee of Supply Debate on 6 March 2023.
I thank the nominated Member for his very pertinent speech, which was both thoughtful and incisive. It serves as a timely reminder of the importance of an effective Parliament in service of the nation, and an opportunity to reflect on what being an effective Parliament really means.
Parliament is where the Government is held to account – where issues of national importance are debated and matters of public interest are explained.
It is where our laws are made, and also, where the direction of the country is set, and the future of our people is determined, through the Bills and the motions that the MPs vote on.
Parliament is also the place where our national identity, and the character and soul of our society, is shaped through the values we espouse, words we say, and the decisions we make.
Thus, what we say and do in Parliament has a profound impact on the lives of Singaporeans and the future of Singapore. This is a privilege that must be exercised responsibly, and in the best interest of our people and our country.
We have seen what has happened in other countries, where their Parliaments are gridlocked, hamstrung or so hopelessly at loggerheads that the country cannot move forward. It is their people pay the price. We must avoid going down that path.
So, what makes for an effective Parliament?
Certainly, there must be robust debate, so that policies and recommendations can be scrutinised, and assumptions tested. But the quality and integrity of the debate also matters greatly.
Mr Cheng suggested 4 principles to guide how issues should be brought up and debated. I agree with these, and would add one more. Let me first address the 4 principles he raised.
First, factual accuracy. This is important because decisions are made, and opinions are influenced, based on our deliberations. This is why MPs are expected to be able to substantiate any statements made by them, if challenged. But beyond factual accuracy is the deeper underlying principle of honesty and integrity, because people must be able to trust what we say. Lying in Parliament, or to any committee of Parliament, erodes trust and debilitates our democracy. What is less obvious, but equally dangerous and which we must also guard against, are half-truths, misleading statements and innuendos which suggest false things without actually saying so.
Benefits and Trade-Offs
Second, highlighting benefits and trade-offs. While some things are straightforward, a good deal of the issues confronting Singapore today are manifold and complex. Oversimplifying them does not give our people a true picture. Given our small size and limited resources, there are always trade-offs. Advocating a position, without at the same time highlighting relevant downsides, does our people a disservice. Advancing generous policies, without telling people how they will be paid for or where the money to pay for it ultimately comes from, creates false hopes which will ultimately end in disappointment. Seeking easy options, such as using up the reserves without good justification rather than creating sustainable revenue streams, undercuts our resilience and chips away at fundamental principles of prudence and responsibility.
Third, being constructive. It is par for the course that matters brought before the House should be vigorously debated, questioned and scrutinised. However, at the end of the day, irrespective of our political stripes, we must have the same overriding objective – which is to improve the lives of Singaporeans and help Singapore prosper.
Fourth, avoiding polarisation. We have seen the effect of this in other Parliaments, and the outcomes are not pretty. Perhaps, the most shocking example of this was the US Capitol attack on 6 January 2021. Those were scenes we never expected to see in America, the bastion of democracy. But they happened, and they happened as a result of deep polarisation. We can have different political philosophies. But what we must avoid in our Parliament is the politics of division. There is a difference between reflecting genuine ground concerns, which is our duty, and the deliberate stoking of anger, and creating or intensifying of divides, which is not only wrong, but dangerous. We must always strive to bring people forward in unity, even with diversity.
I would add one more point to Mr Cheng’s 4 principles, which is that we should consistently endeavour to do what is right, and avoid a descent into populism. As Members of Parliament, we not only have to reflect the concerns of the people and give voice to the aspirations of Singaporeans, but also exercise our judgment on issues and speak up for what we believe in, even if it is contrary to the prevailing or most popular view, to persuade our fellow MPs and the public at large as to what is the best solution to a difficult problem, or what is the most important issue before the country. Parliament’s deliberations should shape the public discourse and set the direction for the country. We have to think not only about the here and now, but also for the future. We must think not only for one group, but for all Singaporeans. Singapore is unique and special, and we have come this far because our Parliaments before us did what was right for us. That task is now ours, and we must discharge it to the best of our abilities.
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