Lift the Whip

by singaporearmchaircritic

It’s been a few days into the parliamentary debate over the controversial Population White Paper and we have heard how PAP Members of Parliament (MPs) presented their views, ranging from the strong objection of Inderjit Singh to the near total endorsement of Mah Bow Tan, not to mention the usual scaremongering (businesses fold up, Singaporeans lose jobs, no foreign workers to build flats etc etc) of Amy Khor, Jessica Tan and Khaw Boon Wan.

While we give credit to MPs like Inderjit Singh and Seah Kian Peng who dissented from the party position and were critical of the White Paper, many netizens also rightly pointed out that what matters ultimately is how the MPs vote.

Speaking against such a contentious policy as the Population White Paper and then voting for it seriously undermine a PAP MP’s credibility. How is the MP going to answer to his constituents for negating ground sentiments and voting along his party line instead?

Toe the party line and incur the people’s wrath

Till date, there is no sign that the party Whip will be lifted on the White Paper. With the Punggol East slap still stinging on their faces and the unmistakable fury of Singaporeans toward the White Paper judging from online reactions, many PAP MPs must be in a bind.

They have no choice but to vote for the White Paper though they know that irate Singaporeans may make them pay for it in the next General Election.

So some MPs tried to get around the problem.

On Tuesday 5 February, Holland-Bukit Timah MP  Liang Eng Hwa filed a motion to remove the phrase “population policy” from Teo Chee Hean’s motion asking Parliament to support the White Paper “as the population policy roadmap to address Singapore’s demographic challenge, and (the Land Use Plan) as the land use plan to support Singapore’s future population” (emphasis mine).

You can read about the proposed far lengthier motion and how it is worded here.

By spelling out that the population figures are “projections” and not “targets,” Liang and other MPs supporting the amendments to the motion probably felt they could better explain their decision to vote for the White Paper to their electorate if the amendments were approved.

Whether Singaporeans would buy it is another matter. Our trust in the PAP has already been broken, and I doubt many are sold on the argument that the 6.9 million population is but a “worst case scenario.”

And if the current woes such as overcrowding and the strains on our infrastructure get perceptibly worse in the next few years, you think any PAP MP could excuse himself in GE 2016 by saying “oh but I did not support the population policy, I voted for the White Paper because I thought the figures are just projections”?

Instead of engaging in a play of words that fools no one, why not call for a lifting of the Whip?

About the Whip

The Whip is defined as follows:

A party manager in Parliament who is responsible for organising Members of his party to take part in debates and votes. The Government and the Opposition Whips have the same functions, the most crucial being to round up Members on their respective sides and ensure their support of the party’s stand during a vote or division.

The current PAP party Whip is Gan Kim Yong while Amy Khor and Teo Ho Pin are the deputies. The person who decides when to lift the Whip is the party leader.

The vote in parliament is carried out by a collection of voices, during which MPs verbally express their stance on an issue by declaring “aye” or “no”.

In 2002, the PAP started to give its MPs some leeway in voting “freely” on “matters of conscience” and on a case-by-case basis with prior approval (AFP report). “Lifting of the whip,” therefore, refers to the situation when PAP allows its MPs to vote according to their conscience.

According to Wikipedia,

Conscience votes are usually quite rare (except in certain countries) and are often about issues which are very contentious, or a matter on which the members of any single party differ in their opinions, thus making it difficult for parties to formulate official policies. Usually, a conscience vote will be about religious, moral or ethical issues rather than about administrative or financial ones. Matters such as the prohibition of alcohol, homosexual law reform and the legality of prostitution are often subject to conscience votes.

In Singapore’s context, voting by conscience does not extend to issues pertaining to the budget, the constitution, no confidence motions and national security.

Before 2002, the PAP party Whip has been lifted for merely three times in four decades (source). In 1992, for instance, the Whip was lifted on the issue of the Nominated MP scheme. The only PAP MP who voted against the scheme was Tan Cheng Bock.

PAP MPs were also allowed to vote freely in 2002 for a review of junior college and upper secondary education, and in 2009 on changes to the Human Organ Transplant Act (source).

In 2005, however, MP Tan Soo Khoon’s call to lift the Whip for a free vote on the building of the two casinos was rejected (source).

Before GE 2011, former Minister George Yeo and other MPs urged PAP to allow free voting on policy issues other than issues of conscience, to no avail.