What Happens When the Speaker of Parliament Speaks Out of Turn?
Top image: Tan Chuan Jin / Facebook

Speaker of Parliament Tan Chuan Jin gives the floor to Member of Parliament Mr Vikram Nair. The Parliamentary debate on April 17, 2023, takes a momentary pause as Mr Nair walks to the microphone. 

“Fucking populist.” 

During the pause, Mr Tan mutters those words to himself in response to Opposition Member of Parliament Associate Professor Jamus Lim’s speech.

Assoc Prof Lim had just finished his speech entitled, ‘Hard Living in Singapore’. He detailed the challenges faced by the poor in Singapore, calling for an official poverty line in the country. 

It’s a lengthy, emotive speech. The Speaker of Parliament appears to have not liked it very much—a hot microphone captures Mr Tan’s reaction. 

The remark remains undetected by fellow Members of Parliament. Mr Nair continues his speech. 

Regularly scheduled programming continued for the next three months until someone uncovered the remark to himself among the ruffling of papers and shuffling of feet. It then popped up on Reddit on July 10, 2023.

Bad Optics Again

In a Facebook post this morning, Speaker of Parliament Mr Tan apologised for his “unparliamentary language”. 

“When I listen to speeches made, like everyone, I do form views on them. What was said were my private thoughts which I had muttered to myself and not to anyone,” he writes, sharing that Mr Jamus Lim had accepted his apology. 

Image: Facebook Screengrab

His private comment marks the latest in unsavoury optics for the People’s Action Party. Earlier this month, Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam and Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan fielded questions about leasing black-and-white bungalows along Ridout Road. 

Considering that Speaker of Parliament Mr Tan’s private comment was in response to Assoc Prof Lim’s call to help the poor in Singapore, the optics have only gotten worse.

More strikingly, in the same Parliamentary Sitting on 17 April, Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong called on the opposition to offer “serious alternative ideas”, not deliver populist agenda

According to Assistant Professor Walid J. Abdullah from NTU School of Social Sciences, populism is defined as “a movement which rallies the ordinary [people] against a supposed corrupt elite, pitting the establishment against the commoner who has been left behind.” 

Image: Walid J. Abdullah / Facebook

Nothing about the term suggests that it is inherently bad or good. Now, however, it seems to be a catch-all phrase to discredit alternative ideas without having to do the actual hard work of assessing them.

In Gen Z parlance, the term ‘populist’ would have earned a ‘(derogatory)’ addendum. According to the vibes from PAP, at least.

Assoc Prof Lim’s call for a poverty line might seem like an easy approach to appeal to marginalised groups in the country. However, is it not the same marginalised groups in Singapore that deserve attention?

What might be a “serious alternative idea” for some may be an act of populism to others. To each their own, of course.

Singapore’s approach to policy-making prizes pragmatic approaches, which entails doing what is right even if it is unpopular. Could it be that we’ve been so enamoured with pragmatism that we’re quick to discredit ones that seem popular and right?

Image: Jamus Lim / Facebook

Speaking Out of Turn

This is not the first time Parliament’s microphones have captured off-the-cuff remarks which were meant to be private. 

In a 2021 Parliamentary session, a hot mic captured Minister Balakrishnan’s comments questioning the standard of NCMP Mr Leong Mun Wai’s alma mater. Like Mr Tan, the minister has apologised for his remarks.

The difference here is that it’s a remark (with an F-bomb) from the Speaker of Parliament. It’s especially jarring because Parliament’s Standing Orders detail that the Speaker has a duty to remain fair and impartial to all Members of Parliament. 

In the United Kingdom’s Westminster Parliamentary System, a model the Singapore government has adopted, the Speaker in the House of Commons renounces all political affiliations before taking office. The role is strictly non-partisan. 

Mr Tan has not renounced his political affiliations. He is currently a Member of Parliament for Marine Parade GRC and manages the Kembangan-Chai Chee Division.

In Singapore, the Speaker of Parliament may or may not be an elected Member of Parliament. Should we take a page from the United Kingdom in the interest of non-partisanship?

Even if the private comment hasn’t been shared with others, it certainly does seem partisan. It has the potency to tarnish the confidence Singaporeans have in the spirit of free and rigorous debate in Parliament. 

Context matters. Especially when the public already perceives an unequal playing field between opposing political parties. 

Stones in Glass Houses 

Opposition politicians are currently outnumbered in Parliament. Former Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong once explained that the imbalance was not an issue. 

“Until the 2011 election, there were very few opposition MPs in Parliament. Had the PAP let the people down?” 

“We are our own checks, the integrity of our leaders and our MPs… not this seductive lie of check and balance.”

Sure, as policymakers, they should have the right to their own opinions. But it’s only natural for Singaporeans to expect the incumbent to live up to the same standards they espouse. 

After the incident with Minister Balakrishnan, it’s safe to assume that Parliamentarians were briefed to keep their private, intrusive thoughts to themselves.

Or at least until Parliament replaces their microphones with less sensitive ones. 

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