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Singapore’s new parliament kicks off its first sitting since last November’s elections on Monday with many political watchers sceptical of real debates emerging even as the long ruling party eases its grip on members.
The People’s Action Party (PAP) — which has held a hammerlock on power and debate since independence in 1965 — won 82 of 84 seats in parliament in the walkover election.
Weak, splintered opposition parties have held no more than four parliament seats at any one time since independence.
The assembly has been criticised for passing bills with consummate speed and scant debate, but the government has recently indicated it will be more tolerant of critical comment.
“If there is more opposition, there will be more arguments for and against. They are trying to level it by having the PAP MPs themselves do that job,” said Chandra Mohan, president of The Roundtable, a non-partisan political discussion group.
PAP MPs have to toe the party line or abstain from voting when the party whip is enforced, but the PAP said last week it will lift the whip on matters of conscience and also allow MPs to vote against bills on a case-by-case basis if they have prior approval.
The whip, which has been lifted just three times in the last four decades, will remain unchallenged on constitutional and budget bills. Associate Professor Lee Chun Wah from the Nanyang Technological University School of Communication and Information, called the recent easing a “perception game.”
“We’re still living in a very authoritarian political entity and until that is gradually managed, I don’t really see the ruling party softening its approach,” Lee told Reuters.
“For us to graduate to the kind of debate that we see in the American Congress, I think that’s a long, long way to go.”
Schemes to add alternative viewpoints over the years have included Non-Constituency members of parliament (NCMP) — “best losers” roped in from the most recent general election.
There are three NCMP’s allowed in each parliament but the number is reduced for each Opposition candidate elected.
There are also nominated MPs (NMPs), first introduced in 1989, who are picked from the community and serve two year terms. The Constitution allows for up to nine NMPs.
Government Parliamentary Committees, led by MPs, are meant to raise the standard of debate by having MPs specialise in an area.
“More than the procedural changes announced… the real change will have to be a cultural one,” Straits Times newspaper associate news editor Bertha Henson wrote.
“The dilemma for the party is how to retain control while, at the same time, allowing free rein to MPs, but without party fissures appearing in the public eye.”
Singapore, struggling with its worse recession in four decades, has been chanting a mantra of change and picking apart its economy as it retools for the future.
The city-state’s gross domestic product shrank two percent in 2001, after a heady 10 percent expansion in 2000 , but the government expects growth of one to three percent this year.
Prime Minister Goh Cok Tong, in his final five-year term, pledged to pull the country out of recession, restructure the economy and renew its political leadership by 2007.
His cabinet remains dominated by experienced politicians, although several neophytes were introduced after the election.
Economic review committees have been examining all aspects of Singapore for possible restructuring. A report is expected later in the year.
But Nanyang’s Lee says Singapore needs more openness as a whole and not just in parliament.
“What is lacking is that the government should tell us really honestly what are its programmes since it has been re-elected,” he said. “So far it has not been very clear as to what the government intends to do.”