Aspirations for the 14th Parliament of Singapore: Youths Speak Up
By Wayde Chan, Editor
The 14th Parliament of Singapore was opened on 24 August 2020, with President Halimah Yacob delivering her opening address to Parliament, consisting of 83 Members of Parliament (MPs) from the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP), 10 MPs from the Workers’ Party (WP), and 2 Non-Constituency MPs (NCMPs) from the Progress Singapore Party (PSP).
The 14th Parliament of Singapore follows a watershed General Election held on 10 July 2020 (GE2020), where the PAP secured 61.23% of the votes, a negative swing of 8.63% from GE2015. Opposition parties also made historical inroads, with the WP winning the newly carved Sengkang Group Representation Constituency (GRC) and the PSP obtaining 2 NCMP seats on their first outing as a new political party.
GE2020 saw a great emphasis on online campaigning in addition to traditional physical campaigning due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The strong online presence of the youth, coupled with their increased political literacy and knowledge of current affairs, urged politicians to pay greater heed to their voices.
In this article, a few students were interviewed within and outside the National University of Singapore (NUS) for their views on three aspects - what the previous Parliament of Singapore did well, what they could have done better, and what they hope the government can achieve in this new term of Parliament.
What the 13th Parliament of Singapore did well
Although the COVID-19 pandemic caught many off guard by necessitating Singapore to adapt quickly to it, the youths interviewed generally agreed that the government has done well in terms of their response to the pandemic on the whole, notwithstanding the limited precautions taken in foreign worker dormitories which led to a large rise in COVID-19 cases during the early phases of the pandemic.
Vijay, a student interviewed by The Convergence, brought up that the government was “swift and decisive in their handling of the matter, quickly imposing restrictive measures and supplying essentials to the people such as masks and hand sanitizers. This allowed us to curb the spread of the virus in the community effectively.”
Chermaine, a Year 3 student from NUS, explained that the government’s measures went beyond just tackling the spread of the virus, but the multiple budgets, social, and financial support measures provided adequate support for vulnerable individuals and their families.
This issue was also further elaborated by a student from the NUS Faculty of Engineering, who wished to remain anonymous. He mentioned that the timely and efficient government response, through measures mentioned by Vijay and Chermaine, resulted in relative stability and speedy recovery of the economy.
The predictability and responsibility of the previous government resulted in Singapore going through a strong phase of political stability at a time where other countries were going through instability and turmoil, such as the United States (US). The US is seeing repeated violent protests and confrontations in various states such as Oregon following the rise in tensions between Pro-Trump supporters and the emerging Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement despite the US being right in the heart of the COVID-19 pandemic[5, 6]. Comparatively, Singapore’s relatively stronger governance and political stability has resulted in her enjoying stability in social and economic sectors as well, as agreed and noted by Ryan Ng, 18.
This stability can be said to be a product of the PAP-dominated governance since Singapore’s independence. The government’s aversion to sudden, reactionary measures have contributed greatly to creating a stable political climate in Singapore. It can perhaps be argued that because the PAP has ruled Parliament with a super-majority for the past five decades, it is able to pass and enact laws swiftly and efficiently without many obstacles.
However, GE2020 has shown a desire amongst the youths for political change, to have more alternative voices in parliament for more constructive debate while serving as checks and balances on the PAP-dominated government. It remains to be seen how greater opposition presence in parliament will impact Singapore’s stability.
What the 13th Parliament of Singapore could have done better
Promoting Political Discourse and Free Speech
The rise of online advocacy and social media have led to Singaporean youths being more involved in the local political scene. This gives rise to a need to promote active yet responsible political discourse in Singapore. Allowing Singaporeans to be more involved in political discussions also relates to the contentious subject of free speech in Singapore.
Policies such as the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA), the Reserved Presidency and the Sedition Act have been interpreted by some as attempts by the government to tighten its control over discourse in the state. This prompted accusations of Singapore being an authoritarian state, a common criticism levelled at the government for their alleged attempts at stifling dissent.
These accusations have stemmed from the early days of Singapore’s independence, when certain political opponents (who the government deemed to be threats to national security) were allegedly imprisoned during Operation Coldstore and Operation Spectrum under the Internal Security Act, which empowers the President to direct the detaining of persons without trial for potentially indefinite periods of time.
The assertions were further reinforced when Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong sued blogger Leong Sze Hian and The Online Citizen (TOC) editor Terry Xu for defamation.[10, 11] While the Prime Minister was entitled to initiate these lawsuits, critics argued that the lawsuits were used to further silence contrasting political views in Singapore.
However, Didi Amzar, a Year 1 Political Science student at the NUS Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (FASS), was quick to defend the necessity of such policies, stating the need for such policies to protect and strengthen the racial and religious harmony in Singapore.
He further commended the government’s responses on racially divisive incidents. He gave the BrownFace-Prettipls saga as an example, where the Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA) issued a stern warning to personnel involved in the NETS E-Pay advertisement which featured local actor Dennis Chew depicted in multiple races through colouring his face, and local Youtuber Pretti Nair and her brother Subhas Nair were each given a 24-month conditional warning for their expletive-laden and racially offensive response video to the NETS E-Pay BrownFace ad.
Transparency, Communication, and Better Politics
Despite efforts by the government to explain to Singaporeans their decisions on controversial moves such as POFMA, the Reserved Presidency, and the Sedition Act, significant opposition can still be seen against these policies. This could be perceived as an indication of the common accusation of the government being out of touch with the ground, and might also explain the swing away from the PAP during GE2020.
Vijay explained that the government could put in more effort to gain understanding and support of Singaporeans before implementing policies, and that more communication should be done to understand ground sentiments. Greater transparency and active communication would have promoted better reception of the government’s policies.
The PAP could have also engaged in better politics, as some may opine. The conduct of certain ministers in Parliament may have inadvertently come across as insensitive towards the Opposition and the common folk[13, 14, 15], and the purported lack of engagement of some PAP MPs in parliament may have cast the PAP in a negative light.
In particular, netizens have pointed out the contrast between the PAP’s handling of the Ivan Lim saga and the WP’s handling in GE2020 when PAP candidates questioned the fielding of Raeesah Khan due to the latter’s controversial statements in the past.
Furthermore, Chermaine brought up the instance where the PAP compared Singapore Democratic Party’s (SDP) Secretary-General Dr. Chee Soon Juan’s comments on fulfilling the SDP’s campaign target of “no 10 million population” to someone beating up their spouse, which was criticized by the Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE) as “regrettable” and “insensitive”.
Aspirations for the 14th Parliament of Singapore
Covid-19 Recovery and an Evolving Workforce
As set out by President Halimah in her opening address to the 14th Parliament of Singapore, the immediate focus on the new government will be to resolve the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic while ensuring that Singaporeans remain in gainful employment and have secure jobs.
Given the recent layoffs in Singapore Airlines and multiple businesses winding up, reducing unemployment has become an even more pertinent issue for the government to address. However, with COVID-19 set to be a persistent problem for the next few months, or even years, the government has indeed been dealt a difficult hand.
The anonymous student interviewed from the NUS Faculty of Engineering suggested for the government to reduce reliance on Multinational Corporations (MNCs) and instead focus on developing local entrepreneurship, especially in key areas such as Biomedical Research and Development (R&D).
This possibly stems from the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, where there was a great reliance on local corporations such as Razer and Temasek Holdings to produce face masks and other biomedical corporations to innovate and automate medical processes to aid Singapore in her recovery from the pandemic. Looking at the long term, a focus on developing local Biomedical R&D can build resilience for future health crises by ensuring a sustainable and sufficient supply of medical infrastructure and resources.
On another note, Didi Amzar suggested that “it is imperative that Singapore no longer prioritises efficiency over equity and welfare alone.” He referenced WP MP Dr. Jamus Lim’s suggestion of a minimum wage policy, which, while controversial, promoted a compassionate and equitable workforce rather than a purely meritocratic one.
Combatting Climate Change and Protecting the Environment
Due to recent efforts worldwide to combat the COVID-19 pandemic, efforts to combat climate change have seemed to have taken a back seat. However, global warming does not stop when COVID-19 appears.
Chermaine mentioned that efforts to combat climate change should not be focussed mainly on the individuals, but the government needs to hold large corporations to account too, for the latter are more contributory to climate change than the former.
Ryan also adopted a bigger picture approach, stating that Singapore can make use of its “unique geopolitical standing” to guide regional bodies like the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) to tackle climate change as a unit.
However, COVID-19 can also bring about opportunities for the environment too. On the surface, the rise in Work-From-Home (WFH) arrangements reduces the carbon footprint of individuals. Unfortunately, this is only a temporary measure at best, for many countries have already started to see their carbon emissions increase rapidly when their economies gradually opened.
Thus, this makes it all the more important for Singapore to avoid the shortcomings of these countries. As our economy reopens, Singapore’s government is in a unique position where it can promote a “greener” workforce through the reduction of fossil fuel reliance.
Although the government’s effort to increase the usage of solar panels is indeed commendable, more can definitely be done, such as including prominent sustainable and environmental voices on the Emerging Stronger Taskforce to ensure that the transition towards a post-COVID future becomes more sustainable.
The government has taken further steps by rebranding the defunct Ministry of the Environment and Water Resources (MEWR) into the new Ministry of Sustainability and the Environment (MSE) with Minister Grace Fu at its helm.
When announcing his cabinet, the Prime Minister explained that the rebranding was to recognise that “sustainability has become an increasingly important part of our national agenda”, highlighting the emphasis on climate change defence and reducing the island’s carbon footprint. This acknowledgement by the government of the climate crisis as one of the major challenges of the upcoming decades is certainly a step in the right direction.
Social Issues: Race, Religion and LGBT
As youths are exposed to more diverse content online, topics such as race, religion, and sexual orientation are no longer viewed as “taboo” topics among the youth demographic. This reinforces the importance of political awareness and discourse, says Ryan.
One constant consideration Parliament will have is balancing pragmatic and practical solutions while strengthening the social fabric of Singapore. For example, Parliament will need to reconsider if existing race-related policies, such as the Ethnic Integration Policies, the CMIO model, and the GRC system still remain relevant in modern society. MPs will also need to consider whether their proposed policies bring about more societal and practical harm than good.
However, to this extent, Didi Amzar remains “hopeful of the potential progress that can be achieved in this field towards becoming a more racially-accepting/blind society”.
Regarding LGBT issues, an interesting article by Yu Sheng Teo, a young adult who founded an LGBT brand made its way around the internet during the GE2020 period. It explains the different stances (or lack thereof) that political parties have on the acceptance of LGBT people and the repeal of section 377A of the penal code, which criminalizes homosexual intercourse between males. This shows that there is indeed a clear interest from the youth for discussions on the rights of LGBT people in Singapore, given the rise of prominence of both Pink Dot and their opponents.
However, taking a clear stance on LGBT issues may be politically challenging for many politicians. LGBT issues still remain very divisive today. The 2018 Institute of Policy Studies’ (IPS) Race, Religion, and Language Survey found a clear distinction between youths and the elderly when it came to acceptance of same-sex marriages and sexual intercourse. Even amongst youths, certain religions are less tolerant of these LGBT rights. Therefore, even with any further debates in Parliament on the issue, all MPs are likely to tread very carefully.
GE2020 was certainly a milestone in Singapore’s politics. With the rising relevance of digital campaigning, the WP achieving a record high number of seats, and WP chief Pritam Singh being formally recognized as the Leader of the Opposition, Singapore’s politics is rapidly changing. The voices of the youth have become even more pertinent as Singapore enters the post-COVID era, and perhaps a new political era too.
Youths should be encouraged to read up, participate actively in political discussions, and speak to their MPs on what they truly believe in for MPs to properly represent them. The age old concept of “OB Markers” or “taboo” topics may now be blurred, if not outdated.
The onus is now also on MPs to listen to the voices of the youth and to represent them in parliament, like for the rest of the Singaporean population. It remains to be seen whether the pertinent issues brought up in this article will be discussed in parliament. If it is not, they may as well be debated at the ballot box in the next General Election.
(Author’s Note: The author would like to thank Vijay, Chermaine, Ryan Ng, Didi Amzar, and the student from the NUS Faculty of Engineering for their time and contributions to the successful publication of this article. He also hopes that upon reading this article, more youths will be inspired to become more politically aware by engaging in political discourse with their peers, educators and families.)
Wayde is a Year 1 freshman studying at the Faculty of Law, and is an Editor for The Convergence this year. As the most junior member of the Editorial Team, he opines that political awareness is the hallmark of an active and informed society, and should be expected of every responsible citizen. He feels that politics encompasses every part of life, and in fact was his source of life during his post-NS pre-Uni period (Read: COVID-19). He is not shy to admit that GE2020 brought a great deal of colour to his otherwise “Circuit Broken” life. Outside of The Convergence and his (mountains of) Law readings, he can either be found listening to sad Chinese songs, watching his favourite football club, Manchester United (GGMU), or failing to cure his unhealthy obsession with Japanese Mayonnaise.