Straits Times: A House enthralled

PARLIAMENT

Arguments and barbs fly in by-election debate; an attempted hijacking of motion and failure of equipment also add spice

BY JEREMY AU YONG


WP chairman Sylvia Lim caught many off-guard by suggesting an amendment of the motion – which would turn it into a call to abolish GRCs.

NOMINATED MPs Thio Li-ann and Loo Choon Yong thought they were taking aim at by-election laws.

Little did they know that Non-Constituency MP Sylvia Lim would step into their spotlight to take a potshot at group representation constituencies (GRCs).

The debate yesterday over a motion on refining by-election laws might have lasted over four hours, but this was one parliamentary sitting that nobody would have described as dull.

Apart from the attempted hijacking of the motion by the Workers’ Party (WP) chairman, the session also saw MPs trading barbs, equipment malfunctioning and one MP saying he had changed his mind about supporting the call to fine-tune the laws.

It all started routinely enough.

At 3pm, the end of the question-and-answer session, Professor Thio stood to present the motion on by-elections that she and Dr Loo had filed.

She had been given one hour, and proceeded to make the most of her time with a speech that ran to 18 pages. She argued her points forcefully, elaborating and illustrating in parts with details from personal experiences.

At one point, when speaking about laws that protect minorities, she recounted her time as a doctoral student in Cambridge in England: “I spent many wearying hours huddled over dusty legal tomes with a comforting chocolate croissant and instant Nescafe coffee mix, studying how minorities were protected, from the Middle Ages to our Modern Age.”

It was not the last time that a chocolate croissant would be invoked in a parliamentary speech.

But the drama really began when Ms Lim stood up to speak. She sprang two surprises:

First, that the WP would not support the motion because it entrenches the GRC system – a concept the party has never accepted.

The second, the bigger surprise, was that she wanted to amend the motion.

What it amounted to, in fact, was a complete re-writing of it, as Ms Lim deleted almost the entire motion and replaced it with a call to abolish GRCs.

The move caught many off-guard. But like any good TV drama, Parliament took a 20-minute break, creating suspense before the ending could be revealed.

And when it came, the ending was something of a damp squib.

At the resumption of the session, Leader of the House Mah Bow Tan pointed out that Ms Lim’s proposed amendments were not relevant to the original motion that had been filed.

Parliament Speaker Abdullah Tarmugi agreed, struck out the amendments and suggested that Ms Lim file a separate motion later to debate the GRC issue.

Opposition MP and WP secretary-general Low Thia Khiang (Hougang), who spoke later, disagreed that Ms Lim’s amendment was irrelevant.

He said that the problem with having by-elections in a GRC was rooted in the problem of the GRC itself: “Members who speak on the motion speak at length about the original intent of the GRC. This is great evidence of its relevance (to the debate on by-elections).”

To push his point further, he focused most of his speech on the ills of the GRC system – only to be told twice by Deputy Speaker Matthias Yao to confine himself to the issue at hand, which was on by-elections.

Mr Gautam Banerjee, the only Nominated MP who opposed the motion yesterday, originally intended to support it.

But he changed his mind after listening to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s speech.

Mr Banerjee said: “Having heard the Prime Minister, I am satisfied that we do not need to change at this time our electoral system.”

Another MP who opposed the motion was Mr Hri Kumar Nair (Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC). And he couldn’t resist taking a swipe at Prof Thio in his speech.

Citing her comparison of a GRC that is short of MPs to the Beatles without Paul McCartney and John Lennon, he said: “We are not dealing with the Beatles or the Bangles. Not even Earth, Wind and Fire.”

He also responded to her chocolate croissant remark: “Singaporeans know the difference between substance and form. They are less concerned with dusty books and chocolate croissants.”

Prof Thio responded with some harsh words for him, accusing him of misrepresenting one of her points: “We were not suggesting the blind transposition of foreign models. I think Mr Nair said that, I think that was a cheap political shot…”

There was still time for a few more surprises near the end. Prof Thio did not know the procedure for calling a division in the vote and ended up asking for it three times.

A division is when MPs record their stands electronically instead of just voicing it with an “aye” or a “no”.

During the vote-taking, Mr Sin Boon Ann (Tampines GRC) and Nominated MP Kalyani Mehta complained their machines weren’t working and registered their votes verbally. He voted “no” and she voted “yes”.

jeremyau@sph.com.sg

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