Parliament as ‘theatre’ does not diminish importance of live telecast

Indulge me as I share some thoughts after watching the speech of Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in parliament and the exchange that followed with Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh

Singapore parliament in session post-2020 elections. Pritam Singh speaking, with PM Lee seated across the isle – Photo: Videograb / CNA
By Sarabjeet Singh | OPINION |

Given the COVID-19 situation, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong did not deliver a National Day Rally (NDR) speech this year. It is the first time that the Singapore annual NDR was not held since the first speech in 1966 by founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew.

Apart from this fact, there are other reasons this was a widely anticipated speech. Typically, the NDR is the platform for the Prime Minister to lay out key issues that the Government is prioritising in the short and long term. Since PM Lee would be speaking in parliament in lieu of the NDR, there was significant interest, within and beyond Singapore, on what he would cover in his speech. Therefore, it came as no surprise that PM’s speech would be telecast live from parliament. What did come as a surprise, to me at least and what I think, is the impact that was made by this live telecast.

Since the watershed General Elections of 2020, there has been a lot of chatter about how parliament in Singapore will be different. This is because of the increase in Opposition representation in parliament and the appointment of a Leader of the Opposition – a first for Singapore. During this live telecast, we finally got a taste of how this different parliament in Singapore will look and feel like. It was a blast!

Indulge me as I share some thoughts after watching PM’s speech in parliament and the exchange that followed with Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh.

Right off the bat this was the best reality TV ever. I am not trivialising the issues discussed. Far from that. Watching the speech and the impassioned exchange that followed showed all of us truly what it takes to lead, govern and care deeply for Singapore. There may be differences on approaches and ideas to take Singapore forward but fundamentally the objective is the same – to do what is in the best interest of Singaporeans.

Imagine if every Singaporean watching this exchange unfold in parliament were to internalise what was demonstrated on how we can go about this. Debate fiercely, be objective and substantiate arguments with facts, and respect one another. PM Lee and Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh modelled the way on how we can exchange ideas, views and opinions on issues that impact all of our lives. This one reason alone compelled me to share my thoughts on this live telecast. Immediately, I thought of how youth in our community would benefit tremendously from watching the exchange on how to engage respectfully and constructively with others who may have very different perspectives or views on issues. If youth today are seeking out role models, they need to look no further than the confidence these two leaders showed as they engaged each other. On a related note, it was amazing to see both PM Lee and Pritam Singh speak directly and not refer to any prepared speeches (just notes they each took down as issues were raised) during the exchange. #mindblown

I think Parliament in Singapore just got more dynamic with a significant opposition presence. This is necessary. I think an opposition can offer alternatives on policies and decisions. With greater resources and information, we can expect the opposition to deliver when it comes to this. The more pertinent question on my mind though is why limit this just to the opposition? Every citizen and Singaporean can contribute by being more informed.

This is why I think it is long due for all parliamentary proceedings in Singapore to be telecast live. I learned so much more, gained insights on different perspectives and appreciated even more deeply the issues raised in parliament during this particular live telecast. Showing live telecasts will not turn parliament into “theatre” (one of the reasons given for not having live telecasts) but increase our knowledge of the stakes, deepen our understanding and sense of ownership over decisions.

I would should also acknowledge at this juncture that indeed parliamentary proceedings can often also be dry to the layman on many if not most days. The information shared can include details and jargon which many may not understand, me included, and we would not follow up to know more about. But this also and precisely brings to bear two important points.

First and foremost, it is about the choice we should be given and have as citizens. Whether we want to find out more based on what we hear or see in a live telecast of parliament can and should be a choice we are able to make on our own. Second, and as I pointed out earlier, if parliamentary exchanges are already inaccessible in terms of the content and substance of what is discussed (issues being complex and, in some instances, very technical), then shouldn’t every effort be made to reduce any other barriers to information and gaining understanding on what is raised? As I see it, the logic is simple. Live telecasts will be one way to reduce barriers, foster greater interest in issues raised in parliament, and garner more ideas and contributions from Singaporeans. This is what the government has been trying to do anyway with the increased frequency of public consultations especially over the past few years.

Even if live telecasts may just become “theatre” for some, surely the benefits outweigh such costs? On second thought, scratch that. Some of the most valuable lessons we can learn come from watching theatre. The emotions and convictions of both PM Lee and Pritam Singh were palpable during this live telecast as they each shared what they believe can best serve Singaporeans. They both showed me how much one can love our country.

PM Lee Spoke of an expectation of sincerity when voters go to the polls. He is not alone in having such expectations. It is one I believe most Singaporeans have of each other too and one which fundamentally rests on trust. We trust that as we vote in our representatives in parliament, we do so in an informed way, with an appreciation and understanding of what is at stake. This is key. Sincerity cannot be expected in a vacuum. In the absence of information, that would be blind loyalty or placing faith. We need information in order to do what is expected of us.

Sarabjeet Singh, an active social worker, is also the president of Young Sikh Association (Singapore), YSA. The views are his own.

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