So, how did the Workers’ Party (WP) perform with respect to this during the last two parliamentary debates?
WP and opposition supporters would be more willing to give the party a wider berth than the People’s Action Party (PAP) when it comes to assessing its performance. Despite WP Members of Parliament (MP) falling short on several occasions, supporters dismiss or forgive these on grounds that the MPs are new, or that they had indeed done nothing wrong. Often, supporters would point the finger at what they perceive as similar failings by the PAP. But this, really, is missing the woods for the trees. Two wrongs do not make a right.
Mr Giam himself was caught for failing to understand what the MX9 salary range entailed during the debate on ministerial salaries in January. This was telling – and embarrassing – for the WP, given that its alternative recommendations to ministerial salaries were based fundamentally on this. Also, the party itself failed to explain why it had changed its position on what ministerial salaries should be pegged to. Its position during the debate in January was different from what it had stated in its election manifesto. To date, the party hasn’t offered any clarity on the matter. How WP failed on these two occasions should give the party pause.
In the Budget debate, Mr Giam lamented how the lower income was unable to purchase HDB flats. Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam rebutted his claims and revealed how, with generous subsidies from the Government, one with a salary of even just S$1,000 is able to buy a flat from the HDB. In a rather uncharacteristic manner, the DPM told Mr Giam to “catch up” with policies introduced to help the lower income in housing. Minister for National Development, Mr Khaw Boon Wan, later explained that Mr Tharman was referring to new 2-room HDB flats, and showed how it is indeed possible for a low-income earner to purchase a flat.
Mr Pritam Singh’s verbatim use of a blogger’s blog entry from 2008 – on why Singapore should have an ombudsman - came under scrutiny as well. It prompted Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean to remark that he “was struck by how remarkably similar” Mr Singh’s speech was to the blog post. Mr Singh, who was in Parliament as Mr Teo spoke, gave a strained smile and nodded his head. WP supporters protested that Mr Singh had done nothing wrong, but neutral observers found it disconcerting, at least, that an MP could take from a blog post, almost entirely verbatim, without any attribution to the originator of the words and the idea.
Similarly, Mr Chen Show Mao’s Facebook posting of a note was criticised in some quarters. The note, which was originally written by another person, was in response to Mr Vikram Nair’s criticism of Mr Chen’s parliamentary speech on helping the needy. Mr Chen had posted the note on his Facebook page without any attribution to the original author, leaving some to believe that it was written by Mr Chen himself.
But perhaps the biggest question in Singaporeans’ minds is the WP’s handling of the Yaw Shin Leong incident. Questions have been raised about the truth of Mr Yaw’s alleged affair itself, why the WP dismissed it as just “rumours” when the matter first surfaced, whether the party could have handled the matter better, and the WP’s internal screening process for its candidates and members.
With Mr Yaw’s Hougang seat now officially declared vacant by the Speaker of Parliament, all eyes are on the Prime Minister who has confirmed he will be calling a by-election in Hougang in due course.
While some say that the by-election will be a report card on the PAP’s performance one year after the General Election in May 2011, it will also be an indication of Hougang residents’ support for the WP, which they have given since 1991. The by-election, therefore, is more important than perhaps some may think.
To this writer, however, the results in Hougang will be of more significance to the WP than to the PAP, which is not expected to come out victorious in the contest anyway. Mr Yaw had surpassed Mr Low’s best score of 62% in Hougang, scoring 64% in GE 2011. It is thus an uphill task for the PAP to swing 15% to win the seat. But if the PAP manages to do so and re-captures Hougang, the WP will then have much to ponder on, not least about its ambitions for a "first world parliament".
In the meantime, WP MPs’ performance in the two recent parliamentary sittings leaves much room for improvement, although Mr Yee Jenn Jong [picture, right] deserves positive mention for his calm, rational and incisive speeches and rebuttals to PAP MPs’ questioning on various issues.
Singaporeans, however, are willing to give WP MPs time to hone and sharpen their skills.
As Mr Giam said, it is the substance of the debates which Singaporeans are interested in – and in this area, WP MPs have much to do. Undoubtedly, Mr Low Thia Khiang and Ms Sylvia Lim, the party stalwarts, will take time to assess the matter and advise the new MPs accordingly. The good news for the WP is that time is on its side. The bad news is that time – and the public’s patience - tend to run out rather quickly in politics.
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