Eased rules allow conscience vote for ruling party MPs

PUBLISHED : Friday, 22 March, 2002, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 22 March, 2002, 12:00am

The ruling People's Action Party (PAP) has eased the rules on how its members of Parliament can debate and vote in a bid to promote more vigorous discussion on national issues.

The changes, which come ahead of the opening of the year's parliamentary session on Monday, are relatively minor and will not raise the risk of the Government losing control of the legislative agenda.

Wong Kan Seng, the party's second assistant secretary-general, said its MPs would be allowed a free vote on bills governing matters of conscience.

Mr Wong also said individual MPs would be allowed to ask permission from party whips to speak and vote against other measures if they objected to them.

'The free vote is given to them [MPs] when they make a request and the whip will consider [it],' said Mr Wong, who is also Minister for Home Affairs. 'In the past, it was always, 'No you can't even request it'.'

No party dissent would, however, be permitted on matters affecting the budget, the constitution, national security and bills of no-confidence, he said, according to press reports yesterday.

The PAP has dominated Singapore's political landscape since the late 1950s.

It has formed every government since independence in 1965, frequently winning every elected seat in the House.

At last November's general election it secured 82 of 84 elected seats, taking 75 per cent of the votes cast.

Commentators say that the party's overwhelming dominance has made parliamentary sessions dull, with bills frequently being passed with little or no debate.

Over the years, PAP parliamentarians have almost without exception toed the party line, voting as directed by the whips. 'It is a bold step. It's good for parliamentary debates,' PAP MP Tan Cheng Bock was quoted as saying.

'It allows the MPs who feel strongly about an issue to vote against it.'

The initiative, which was described by the pro-government Straits Times as 'radical', represents a watered-down version of changes first floated by Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong last year.

Mr Goh had described a so-called People's Action Forum comprising 20 party MPs who would be freed from the whip to challenge the executive more vigorously. He even talked of forming a shadow cabinet from the ruling party's own ranks.

These plans were not followed through as they did not gain the approval of party MPs, Mr Wong said, according to press reports.

The party will also ensure that the Parliament's 10 backbench committees will have greater access to ministers to help them scrutinise government policy more effectively.

The move to free up party procedures comes as Singapore's leaders appear keen to embrace a slightly wider spectrum of political views in the city-state.

In 2000, Mr Goh permitted the establishment of Speakers' Corner, where strict laws that govern speeches in public are relaxed.

The park site, which attracted much interest in its first six months, is now usually deserted.