REVIVING THE OLD PARLIAMENT’S SPIRIT
A woman walked into the room ahead of us, looked for the place marked “Lee Kuan Yew” and sat herself down in his seat.
We sat down across from her and waited expectantly. The last time we’d visited, the walls had echoed with the authoritative voices of government ministers and parliamentarians.
This time, we heard a 45-minute monologue penned by a former political prisoner, protesting the debilitating dominance of the state.
The just-reopened Old Parliament House has arts venues, a restaurant, a shop, exhibition spaces – and ironies around every corner.
We were in its debating chamber two weekends ago to watch Kuo Pao Kun’s play, No Parking on Odd Days, performed by Lim Kay Tong. The red leather seats once occupied by the country’s first Cabinet are marked by small brass plaques, allowing visitors to soak in a performance from the very spots where Mr Lee Kuan Yew, Dr Goh Keng Swee or others of that generation of leaders used to sit.
Within those walls, the People’s Action Party had stoutly defended its policies against the intrepid Dr Lee Siew Choh, Mr J. B. Jeyaretnam and other opposition members – when there was an opposition, that is. The PAP enjoyed a total monopoly in the House from 1966 to 1981, one-third of the life of the chamber.
It is probably no coincidence that that was also the period when PAP rule was at its most bare-knuckled. The late Kuo Pao Kun was a victim of those inglorious years. Two of his plays were banned, and he spent the years 1976 to 1980 in detention without trial, for allegedly engaging in communist activities.
He was one of those Singaporeans who paid the price for an absolute form of majority rule that gave no allowance to minority opinions.
How poetic then to hear his words ringing through the very chamber where, once, Singaporeans’ elected representatives tacitly acquiesced to his silencing.
On the surface, No Parking on Odd Days is a little play about one man’s tragicomic encounters with the traffic police over various parking violations. Along the way, however, it makes a larger point about the individual’s powerlessness against the state.
Drawing from the cross-talk tradition in Chinese performance, Kuo conjures up a series of debates between the hapless hero and the states’ functionaries. Each time, the man is convinced he has a strong case; each time, his attempt to reason with the authorities comes to nought.
IF YOU believe that Singapore is going through a “remaking” process, then Old Parliament House could be its Ground Zero – a place that retains a sense of history and dignity, yet is animated by a new creative and critical spirit.
Taken over by the National Arts Council and renamed Art House at the Old Parliament, this aesthetically pleasing building adds character to an increasingly interesting civic district. More importantly, a building once occupied by the highest institution in the land now welcomes a more eclectic range of participants.
But the building epitomises the remaking process not only in its strengths, but also in its limitations.
Singapore’s makeover has left the fundamental level of politics virtually untouched. Thus, while the arts and entertainment scene has bloomed, the city’s political and intellectual development remains stunted. Opportunities are expanding for commercial enterprise, but political and social entrepreneurship continues to be constrained by a system of concentrated power.
Thus, we may be becoming a place where the consumer is king, while the citizen remains a pawn. Which is fine if one equates civilisation with leisure, entertainment, and endless acquisition; less comforting if one defines home by one’s right to debate and decide its destiny.
Nowhere is this lopsided evolution of a remade Singapore more apparent than at the Old Parliament. Although the place has the potential to serve as a shrine to citizenship and our democratic heritage, that opportunity has been overlooked.
The Art House is not completely oblivious to its political past. There is an exhibition devoted to the history of the building and its connections to Singapore’s progress towards statehood. But it is hard to avoid the impression that this was not treated very seriously – especially after scrutinising a facsimile of the historic 1819 letter permitting the British to do business on the island. The letter is in Jawi, so it took us some time to figure out why it looked odd: it was placed upside down.
It would be unkind to read too much into this. Put it down to the inevitable pre-opening rush and confusion that any new establishment goes through.
More disappointing is the take on history that the visitor will come away with. Although the building is the historic home of the legislative branch of the state, it is mainly the executive branch that is commemorated on those plaques and exhibits.
This may seem a trivial point, especially in a country where Cabinet dominates Parliament, as political scientists dating back to Professor Chan Heng Chee in the 1970s have noted. But precisely because of that, we should not pass up the opportunity to remind ourselves about the role of the legislature, where the people’s elected representatives debated and voted on national issues.
Doing justice to that history would require honouring the role played by the opposition, not just the front bench. And before hardcore PAP supporters bristle at what may seem to them like a sacrilegious idea, a reminder is in order: the first leader of the opposition to take his place within this chamber was one Mr Lee Kuan Yew, who spent the first few years of the chamber’s life attacking the administrations of chief ministers David Marshall and Lim Yew Hock.
Those first assemblymen established the precious precedent of resolving disputes through open debate instead of violence. Mr Lee, at the Assembly’s first sitting in 1956, appealed to the government not to adopt the authoritarian machinery and methods of the colonial administration. A democratic society is one that “allows for the free play of ideas”, he noted, adding: “In the name of all the gods… give that free play a chance to work.”
In theory, if not always in practice, that is the spirit of the site that is today the Art House. In keeping with that spirit, why not gazette the debating chamber as a “free-speech venue”: allow individuals and organisations to book the room for lunchtime talks and forums, without having to obtain a public entertainment licence.
Some may say that the Speakers’ Corner already provides a permit-free venue, and that it’s been a flop. That’s like asking all symphony orchestras and operas to go to Jalan Besar Stadium, and when neither performers nor audiences show up, concluding that Singapore doesn’t need a proper concert hall because there’s no market for it.
Speakers’ Corner, with its traffic noise, heat, dust, no seats and no mics, was always going to fail. The five-star ambience of the Old Parliament may be a different story.
In the 1950s and 1960s, Singaporeans sought and received the democratic right to vote their own into this House. Today, it could be used to improve the quality of that democracy, awaken interest in public debate, and connect citizens to their home.
NOTE: The Straits Times and Today both declined to publish this piece.