Singapore opposition leader could be given access to govt data, resources but shadow cabinet can wait, say analysts

Pritam Singh is set to be formally designated as leader of the opposition in Singapore's parliament. — TODAY pic
Pritam Singh is set to be formally designated as leader of the opposition in Singapore's parliament. — TODAY pic

SINGAPORE, July 14 — The People’s Action Party (PAP) may be back in power with a super-majority in parliament, but Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s move to formally appoint Workers’ Party (WP) chief Pritam Singh as the leader of the opposition was in recognition of Singaporeans’ desire for greater opposition presence in the House, political analysts said.

And while Lee has yet to announce details of what the role would entail, except that “appropriate staff support and resources” would be provided to Pritam, the analysts said that Pritam would need to be granted access to government data and information in order to effectively scrutinise policies and offer alternative solutions.

However, it may be too soon to expect the WP to form a shadow cabinet which, along with the leader of the opposition role, is a feature of the Westminster Parliamentary system that Singapore inherited from its British colonial days.

With WP having only 10 elected Members of Parliament (MP) at the moment, the process of forming a shadow cabinet could instead be an incremental process, experts pointed out.

Despite that, with the role of the leader of the opposition soon to be formalised, analysts said that voters would place “higher standards” on the WP to be more than just a form of check-and-balance against the ruling party.

The definition of the terms “leader of the opposition” and “shadow cabinet” can now be found in the glossary section of the pParliament website.

What is leader of the opposition?

The leader of the opposition is a common fixture in countries which inherited the Westminster parliamentary system from the British, such as Australia, New Zealand and Canada.

He, along with his team of opposition members, would form a shadow cabinet, where each member would mirror the position of the individual cabinet ministers.

Assistant Professor Walid Jumblatt Abdullah of Nanyang Technological University’s School of Social Sciences said that in addition to scrutinising the policies of the incumbent government, the leader of the opposition is also effectively serving as the alternative prime minister if a change of government were to take place after an election.

In the United Kingdom, the current Leader of the Opposition is Mr Keir Starmer, the leader of the Labour Party, the main opposition party in the country. The Conservative Party is  in power with Mr Boris Johnson as the prime minister.

In Australia, the leader of the opposition is Anthony Albanese, who is the leader of the opposition Labour Party. He sits opposite the prime minister of Australia, Scott Morrison, who is leader of the governing Conservative Party, in the chambers.

The entitlements and privileges accorded to the leaders of the opposition in these countries differ, with some receiving high salaries almost amounting to the same level as a cabinet minister, such as the leader of the opposition in the UK.

Lee had said in the early hours of Saturday morning at a press conference after the final results of the General Election (GE) were released that Pritam would be formally designated as the leader of the opposition.

Although PAP won 83 out of 93 seats in Parliament, its vote share dropped to 61.24 per cent — a decrease of 8.66 percentage points from GE2015. The WP further secured its position as the main opposition party in Singapore, by claiming one more Group Representation Constituency (GRC) in Sengkang, increasing the number of elected opposition MPs from six to 10.

Two Progress Singapore Party members who contested in West Coast GRC would take up two Non-Constituency MP seats, having won 48.31 of the vote — the highest percentage among all losing candidates.

On Saturday morning, Lee noted that the results showed “a clear desire for a diversity of voices in Parliament.”

Former prime minister Goh Chok Tong, who has retired from politics this election, said in a Facebook post on the same day that officially designating Pritam as leader of the opposition is a “very significant move.”

“Our opposition MPs and NCMPs will now have to go beyond merely serving as a check-and-balance. They can put forward their alternative policies and solutions so that Singaporeans would know the choices available besides the government’s,” Goh said.

What may come with the new role

While Lee has yet to announce details on the actual role of the leader of the opposition, analysts said that the country will probably look to the UK for reference, though Singapore will probably not import the entire institution wholesale.

Walid said he hopes that Pritam will be able to ask the prime minister more questions during parliament, akin to the Prime Minister’s Questions Parliament sessions in the UK.

Law professor Eugene Tan from the Singapore Management University said that Pritam may be the first MP in line to join the debate after a political office-holder has provided his or her response to a parliamentary question.

Tan also said that foreign delegations on official visits may also request to meet Pritam as the leader of the opposition.

On top of having an office in Parliament and staff members assigned to him, Tan said that Pritam may also get extra allowance on top of what he gets as an MP, in line with the practice in the UK.

Analysts also pointed out that since the appointment would likely be financed from public funds, legislations would probably need to be passed and details of how much money is going to be invested in this institution and how the staff members are going to be assigned should be clearly laid out.

More importantly, they pointed out that the leader of the opposition would require access to government data and information to be able to function effectively and better scrutinise the ruling party’s policies.

With his formal appointment, Pritam would be the “first among equals” among opposition MPs and therefore any requests for information he makes to the ministries should be treated differently as that from an ordinary MP, Tan said.

He could even request for briefings by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to find out the state of Singapore’s relationship with Malaysia, for example.

“If he is an ordinary MP, the ministry can choose to decline. Given the formal title, the ministry cannot decline unless it has a very good reason,” Tan said.

Former NCMP Yee Jenn Jong, who is from the WP, said in a Facebook post yesterday that while the move to formalise the Leader of the Opposition is significant, he hopes that data and the intent behind policymaking can be shared more openly with the opposition.

“In my time in parliament, I often had to probe and dig, and use various creative ways to file parliamentary questions because we sometimes get evasive answers,” he added.

Analysts also pointed to how access to data is crucial for more robust and in-depth discussions to take place in Parliament, as many questions filed by parliamentarians now tend to be superficial in nature.

Walid cited as an example the exchange between Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing and Pritam early this year regarding data on distribution of new jobs among Singaporeans and non-citizens as something that need not have taken place.

“If both have the data, they can get to, ‘What’s the right policy?’” he said.

Singapore's maturing democracy

The role of leader of the opposition in Singapore is clearly not as well-defined as yet when compared with those in other countries, and experts are still unsure of whether the formation of a shadow cabinet is even possible.

Walid said that it would be “unfair” to expect Pritam to form a shadow cabinet with only 10 WP MPs in Parliament.

Assoc Prof Tan of SMU said that the formation of the shadow cabinet may be the next step in Singapore’s evolving parliamentary system if the number of opposition MPs continues to grow.

However, unless each WP MP were to “double-hat” and take on two ministerial portfolios, the numbers do not add up.

Still, Adrian Tan of TSMP Law Corporation called the formalising of the leader of the opposition a “historic moment” for Singapore, and that it is a sign of a maturing democracy.

“Bestowing official recognition of the leader of the opposition gives the opposition a sense of permanence in parliament,” he said.

Felix Tan, an associate lecturer in international relations at SIM Global Education, said that above all, institutionalising the position and a shadow cabinet ensures that Singapore would have a team of leaders who are capable of running the government should the PAP lose power one day.

“Lee is preparing the team and himself in the event of such a situation happening,” he said.

Given that opposition parties tend to focus on domestic issues, they would need experience in areas of defence, foreign affairs and international trade should they take over the government one day, Tan explained.

Government Parliamentary Committees (GPC), which were formed under Goh’s premiership to serve as a form of “internal opposition” due to a lack of opposition MPs, may then cease, SMU’s Tan said.

However, Tan of SIM Global Education said that GPCs could serve as a bridge between the government and the shadow cabinet, and Tan of TSMP Law pointed out that such committees exist in other parliaments with a strong opposition as well, such as in Australia.

The setting up of a formal leader of the opposition would ultimately put WP under the microscope as voters would scrutinise their performance and expect more from them, analysts said.

Tan said: “With a formal Leader of the Opposition having appropriate state resources, the Workers' Party will have to respond by raising their game. With the added resources will come an added pressure to provide more detailed proposals and ideas on various issues.” 

Voters would also be able to assess whether WP has what it takes to form an alternative government, an inadvertent effect whether Lee intended it or not, Walid said. — TODAY

Related Articles