SINGAPORE: Singapore's 14th Parliament opened on Monday (Aug 24) with the election of its Speaker and the swearing in of all 93 Members of Parliament (MP) and two Non-Constituency MPs (NCMPs).
This comes about two months after the 13th Parliament was dissolved on Jun 23 ahead of this year’s General Election.
Speaker Tan Chuan-Jin, who was re-elected to his post on Monday, noted that this Parliament has the largest number of opposition members in recent history, as well as a formally designated Leader of the Opposition.
"These developments reflect a greater desire by Singaporeans to have more choices and voices in Parliament," he said.
"We can and will expect more contestation. This is a natural step forward. It is good for our country and our people, if and only if contestation leads to better outcomes for our people and our nation, for the present and future."
Bur Mr Tan warned that the "wide and easy path towards polarisation and division is easy to embark on, the pathway to short-termism and populism".
"We are all now in a situation where there are no 10-year series answers to fall back on," he said.
"There will be difficult and sometimes unpopular decisions to be made, because there are very real and genuine trade-offs that need to be undertaken. Will we focus on solutioning or will we focus on politicking?"
MPs will determine the possible outcomes, said Mr Tan, as he urged them to work towards a common purpose regardless of their political colours or stand on issues.
"We have been successful as a people and as a nation on many fronts because we have been exceptional and different," he added.
"So my challenge to all of you and to all of us here is that in this House, can we be exceptional, because we are able to transcend our political affiliations, interests and differences?
"So that even as we contest passionately and sometimes vigorously, even as we robustly debate and scrutinise laws, policies and budgets, can we show Singaporeans and the world that we need not be factious and fractious?
"Can we earn their trust and confidence as they look upon us as we carry out our business in this Chamber? It is not beyond us, and I look to all of you, and especially to the Leader of the House and the Leader of the Opposition, to help us realise this."
In his first speech as Leader of the Opposition, Mr Pritam Singh congratulated Mr Tan on his re-election, saying that he hoped the Speaker could continue to explore ways to "demystify the work of Parliament and to better enable Singaporeans to appreciate lawmaking and debate on policy imperatives and trade-offs".
"Parliament's direct and indirect impact on each and every Singaporean and our businesses is massive," he said. "It is only appropriate that we amplify the choices and the reasons behind the decisions made or not made in Parliament more widely.
"In doing so, I hope Singaporeans are in turn driven to understand the issues we debate deeply, but always in the context of a small and multiracial society which has to balance and accommodate many different viewpoints and shifting norms."
Newly appointed Leader of the House Indranee Rajah also congratulated Mr Singh, saying that she looked forward to working with him.
"We welcome sincere and rigorous debate from members on both sides of the House, be it new ideas and policy proposals or the difficult decisions that have to be taken and trade-offs that have to be made," she said.
Ms Indranee said Parliament is not only a place where laws are made, but a place where the "aspirations of a nation (are) articulated and made real".
"This must be a House with a heart that cares, a voice of reason and a place of courage to do what is right," she added.
For the first time, the opening of Parliament was held across two locations - Parliament House and The Arts House - to comply with COVID-19 safe distancing measures. Guests are traditionally invited to observe the proceedings.
The Arts House was chosen due to its proximity to Parliament House and sufficient seating capacity for proceedings with safe distancing measures.
The Parliament bell rang for three minutes before proceedings started at about 5.30pm with the election of Mr Tan, who remains in his role from the previous Parliament. The House applauded his re-election.
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong had announced his intention to nominate Mr Tan for the role again on Thursday. Mr Tan was first elected to the post on Sep 11, 2017, making him the 10th Speaker since the First Legislative Assembly of 1955.
READ: Tan Chuan-Jin to be nominated again as Speaker of Parliament; Indranee Rajah named Leader of the House
In his speech, Mr Tan said MPs take their Oath of Allegiance to allow them to participate in Parliamentary proceedings, as he noted the importance of holding these formalities despite the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
"And we will do so in full accordance to the process, because we need to uphold our role in keeping the Government of the day accountable to citizens," he said.
"But accountability also begins with every member, where we represent the interests of our residents to the best of our abilities. Therefore, we must always keep our ears and eyes close to the ground to understand their concerns.
"I think all of us need to boldly state our positions, put forth your proposals and seek clarity on issues that matter to your residents."
As Speaker of Parliament, Mr Tan will preside over the sittings of the House and enforce the rules prescribed in the Standing Order of Parliament for the conduct of parliamentary business.
In carrying out the duties in the House, the Speaker must remain impartial and fair to all MPs. He also regulates and enforces the rules of debate, decides who has the right to speak and puts questions to the House to debate and vote on.
After Mr Tan was elected, the MPs took their oaths.
The Prime Minister was first up, vowing to preserve, protect and defend Singapore's constitution. He was followed by Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat and Senior Ministers Teo Chee Hean and Tharman Shanmugaratnam.
Ministers, political officeholders and backbenchers came next in batches of up to five people. Some took their oaths in Malay, Chinese and Tamil.
The People’s Action Party had 24 MPs taking their oaths for the first time, while the Workers’ Party – the only opposition party to win constituency seats at the election – had four first-time MPs. Two NCMPs from the Progress Singapore Party also took their oaths for the first time.
Mr Tan reiterated that Parliament was opening in "extraordinary times" that call for extraordinary people and leaders.
"Let our politics drive us forward together and not drive us apart. We are in a raging storm," he said.
"The countries that are agile, adaptive, determined and above all united will be the ones that will ride the waves of recovery."