Indian-origin Pritam Singh formally takes charge as Singapore’s first Leader of Opposition

PTI, Aug 31, 2020, 5:07 PM IST

Singapore: Pritam Singh, Singapore’s Indian-origin politician scripted history on Monday when the city-state’s Parliament conferred the duties and privileges to him as the country’s first Leader of the Opposition.

Singh’s Workers’ Party won 10 parliamentary seats out of the 93 it contested in the July 10 General Election, making it the biggest opposition presence in Singapore’s parliamentary history.

As the House began proceedings on Monday, one of the first orders of business was a ministerial statement by the Leader of the House Indranee Rajah on formally recognising Singh, 43, as the country’s first Opposition leader.

Addressing Parliament, Singh underlined the need to focus on foreigners and their living conditions. He said how foreign workers are managed and accommodated needs to be improved.

“Their (foreigners) presence gives Singapore a vitality that keeps us economically relevant and also provides jobs and opportunities to our fellow Singaporeans. Many of us count the foreigners in our midst – regardless of race, language or religion – as our friends,” Singh said.

“It is precisely because we need foreigners to help power our economy that we need to pay more attention to the Singapore worker… some of whom feel excluded from (the) opportunities created in their homeland,” Singh said.

Leader of House Indranee, who is also of Indian-origin from the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP), said, “With more opposition MPs reflecting a ‘strong desire among Singaporeans for a greater diversity of views in politics’ as noted by the Prime Minister (Lee Hsien Loong) in his swearing-in speech. It is timely and appropriate that the position of the Leader of the Opposition be more formally recognised.”

The PAP has an absolute majority in the House with 83 elected members. The House passed a motion to double Singh’s speaking time from 20 minutes – which is allotted to backbenchers – to 40 minutes, the duration allotted to officeholders.

Singh took the seat directly opposite Prime Minister Lee in the chamber. This is similar to the practice in other countries that formally recognise the role of the Leader of the Opposition, Indranee pointed out.

Singh called on the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) to publish the names of “recalcitrant” employers who do not give locals a fair chance in hiring and promotion. The MOM had recently placed 47 companies on the Fair Consideration Framework (FCF) watchlist for discriminatory hiring practices.

A wealth management firm on the list was found to have almost three-quarters of its professionals from the same country, he said. In another similar case, a bank was found to have two-thirds of its professionals from a particular country.

“The obvious question is, how did those two companies get to those stages without the MOM taking action?” he asked.

“MOM website states at one point and I quote: ‘MOM does not tolerate unfair hiring practices and employers who do not give locals a fair chance in hiring and promotion will face scrutiny and stiff penalties if found to have unfair hiring practices,” he said.

Following the General Election, Prime Minister Loong had said Singh will be designated the Leader of the Opposition in the 14th Parliament, and that he would be given staff support and resources to perform his duties.

There have been de facto leaders of the Opposition in the past, such as former Singapore People’s Party chief Chiam See Tong. However, this is the first time the position is being recognised officially.

During her address on Monday, Indranee, 57, reiterated that Singh will be given an office in Parliament, staff support and resources, as well as additional allowance.

The Leader of the Opposition will generally be given the right of first response among MPs to ask the lead question to ministers on policies, bills and motions in Parliament.

This will be at the discretion of the Speaker and subject to existing conventions, she said.

As Leader of the Opposition, Singh’s duties include leading and organising the Opposition’s parliamentary business. He may also take on other duties such as attending official state functions and taking part in visits and meetings with members of the Government and the public service.

He will also, from time to time, receive briefings by the government on confidential issues, and the matters to be briefed will be determined by the government, said Indranee.

These duties and privileges are based on the conventions and practices of other Westminster-style parliamentary systems, but reflect adaptations to Singapore’s political and parliamentary context, she added.

“With greater diversity of views, we can expect more robust debate and, in some cases, sharper exchanges. But we should work to ensure that diversity does not lead to polarity, of the country or of the people,” said Indranee.

“Experience elsewhere shows that unity in diversity is not an assured outcome. Our goal should be to harness this diversity of views in a constructive manner so that we can as a Parliament better serve the interests of Singaporeans and Singapore.”

Indranee added that the role of the Leader of the Opposition in Singapore will evolve with the country’s politics.

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