Debate on the President’s Address: 4 things you need to know

SINGAPORE – The debate on the President’s Address, the first debate of the 14th Parliament, will begin on Monday (Aug 31), a week after the speech was delivered by President Halimah Yacob at the opening of Parliament.

Here are four things you need to know about the debate and how it will differ from previous years.

WHAT IS THE PRESIDENT’S ADDRESS ABOUT?

The President’s Address is a major speech marking a new session of Parliament, which in this case also heralds the start of another five years of People’s Action Party (PAP) rule.

Though it is delivered by the President, it is typically crafted by the government of the day to set out its broad plans for the priorities, policies and programmes for the new term.

Such a speech has marked each new parliamentary session since independence. This means the President can be expected to deliver an address every two to three years when Parliament reopens following a general election and after its usual mid-term recess.

This tradition is a legacy of the Westminster system of government, said Speaker of Parliament Tan Chuan-Jin in a blog post on Aug 22.

It is the equivalent of the Queen or King’s Speech that marks the opening of Britain’s Parliament.

Similar speeches were delivered by the Yang di-Pertuan Negara (head of state) and the Governor of Singapore to Singapore’s 1st Parliament and its predecessor, the Legislative Assembly, before the office of the President was established.

Following the President’s Address, the various ministries unveil more details of their respective plans in public statements known as Addenda to the President’s Address.

The week-long debate on the Address begins in earnest about a week later.

WHY IS THE DEBATE SIGNIFICANT?

Officially, the debate is on a Motion of Thanks to the President for her speech. In practice, it is an opportunity for MPs to scrutinise and discuss the Government’s plans.

Following a general election, it is also the first opportunity for newly elected MPs to make an impression in their maiden speeches, which can become defining moments in their political careers.

There are 30 first-time MPs this year, including 24 PAP MPs, four Workers’ Party (WP) MPs and two Progress Singapore Party Non-Constituency MPs (NCMP).

WP’s Mr Gerald Giam, who was an NCMP from 2011 to 2015, is returning to the House as an elected MP for Aljunied GRC.

The debate is also likely to set the tone for future sittings, depending on the issues that attract the most attention from MPs.

In the last such debate in late 2018, following the opening of the second session of the 13th Parliament, inequality was a key theme.

Social cohesion and social mobility were highlighted as key tasks for the PAP’s fourth generation (4G) leaders to tackle, through policies ranging from education to housing and hiring practices.

That discussion is likely to continue in the new term of Parliament, with President Halimah noting in her latest Address that Singapore’s model of meritocracy must evolve alongside the nation’s development.

WHAT WILL THE DEBATE FOCUS ON?

The debate on the President’s Address will undoubtedly focus largely on jobs and the economic impact of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.

President Halimah began her speech by noting that the new term of government is starting under the shadow of Covid-19.

Singapore need to adjust its Covid-19 strategies and plans along the way while Singaporeans need to stay vigilant to prevent a new wave of infections, she said.

The President also said jobs will remain the top priority for the next few years and the Government will continue to look out for the interests of lower-wage and mature workers.

MPs on both sides of the aisle have also indicated they intend to speak on jobs and social safety nets during the debate.

Other major topics that will be discussed include efforts to revive Singapore’s embattled global air traffic hub and bolster sustainability measures in the face of climate change, even as the nation recovers from the pandemic.

WHAT’S NEW THIS TIME AROUND?

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has said that he will deliver a major speech during this year’s debate, after deciding not to give his traditional National Day Rally (NDR) speech.

He had announced last month that there will not be an NDR this year owing to Covid-19.

The annual NDR is generally considered the most important political speech of the year as the Prime Minister typically makes important announcements and outlines key issues facing the Government. It has been delivered every year since 1966.

For the first time, Singapore will also have an officially designated Leader of the Opposition and he is WP chief Pritam Singh.

Leader of the House Indranee Rajah will make a ministerial statement on the duties and privileges of the Leader of the Opposition before the debate on the President’s Address begins.

In a joint statement last month, the Speaker and Leader of the House said Mr Singh will lead the opposition in presenting alternative views in parliamentary debates on policies, Bills and motions. He will also lead and organise the scrutiny of government positions and actions in Parliament.

The opposition is also expected to propose its own policy alternatives to be scrutinised and debated, beyond raising questions and criticisms of the Government’s policies, Madam Halimah said in her Address.

It remains to be seen if the 12 opposition MPs and NCMPs will offer alternative proposals in the first debate of the new term of government and what form they will take.

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