PM Lee questions WP's stand on the big issues
He criticises party's approach to politics in exchange with Low
By Charissa Yong, The Straits Times, 29 May 2014
PRIME Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Workers' Party chief Low Thia Khiang traded verbal blows yesterday over the opposition party's approach to politics, which Mr Lee described as "breathtakingly cynical".
The feisty 15-minute sparring began when Mr Low jumped up from his seat to rebut Mr Lee's speech on the President's Address.
Among other things, Mr Lee had said that it was "striking" that the WP leader's response to the Address had nothing on the substance of the Government's programme, "no critiques, no suggestions, no alternatives, nothing".
Clarifying, Mr Low said he had focused on the topic of constructive politics but that the other WP MPs would talk on other subjects.
He also took issue with Mr Lee's criticism that the WP had flip-flopped on the foreign worker policy.
On Monday, when he was accused of flip-flopping on foreign workers - asking for more of them to be allowed in 2012 then calling for a freeze in last year's Population White Paper debate - Mr Low denied it was the case. He called on the other side to file a motion to fully debate the issue.
Yesterday, Mr Lee did not let the matter rest, countering that Mr Low's denial was "simply false" as the Hansard would prove it. And, he added, the call for a motion was worth considering.
He said: "The WP did flip- flop."
Mr Low: "I don't think we have flip-flopped. I have explained in this House some misunderstandings of the speeches I have made. And in any case I also noted that when the PAP has to make a policy U-turn, they called it policy shift. I don't know whether that is a shift or is a flip-flop."
Mr Lee responded: "When we make a shift, we acknowledge the shift. When the Workers' Party changes position, they pretend they haven't. That is the difference."
The Prime Minister went on to say that while it was up to Mr Low to organise his party as he wished, as the leader, he should have a stand on the big issues: "Is the Government doing right, is it doing wrong, do you agree with the Government, do you have a better view or do you abstain or do you abstain from abstaining?"
Mr Low's response: The Government had solved some problems but it is still work in progress for other problems.
As the House listened rapt to the sparring, Mr Lee said: "I'm very grateful for the extremely reasonable explanation from the member. I hope he takes an equally reasonable approach when he comes to election rallies because the Workers' Party approach has been to be extremely reasonable, indeed low-profile in Parliament, but come election time, to turn into tigers and heroes."
Volleying back, Mr Low said that the WP had no intention of hiding itself in Parliament but had been behaving as a responsible and rational opposition.
He thanked the PM for the praise, adding: "I'm sure the PAP can equally be tigers or lions."
Mr Lee shot back: "It's an eloquent explanation for why the Workers' Party has been inarticulate about many things."
In a serious Parliament, he added, the Government would present its policies and the opposition would offer its alternatives. Even though the WP may not have alternatives on every issue, it has a responsibility to state its direction and to "explain to Singaporeans what you stand for".
Mr Lee said: "And what you stand for cannot be what the PAP is doing and a little better. That means you have no stand. Whatever the PAP's standing, ask them to do better. That's easy, I can do that too. But where do you stand?
"Where are we totally wrong? Where do you think this is a completely different way to do things better? Where do you think in principle we do not want Singapore to be like this?
"These are big issues which deserve to be debated and not elided over and avoided in the House. And that is what a First World Parliament should be about."
Mr Low said that the WP had stated its position on important issues, such as the Population White Paper.
"So we state our position on important issues and we didn't oppose for things that we think are doing right. Is that not enough?"
Zeroing in on the point on the White Paper, Mr Lee said it would be useful to discuss the specifics of the WP's position.
Said Mr Lee: "During the debate, the position taken by the Workers' Party is that enough is enough, zero growth. We have continued to grow, I have not heard the Workers' Party demand zero growth today. Do you still demand that or do you now think that we should allow SMEs to survive in Singapore?"
Mr Low replied that the WP's position was that the foreign worker growth was untenable and to keep the population in check: "One way of doing it, of course, is to freeze the foreign workers' growth in number."
The WP's calculation was that, within the zero growth, there could be adjustments made within the different sectors.
He added: "We understand perfectly the possibility and the trade-off, that is our position at that point in time. We had not objected subsequently or grilled the Government for why we are not doing it because that's our view that it should have zero population growth, but the Government decided otherwise, there's a way of doing it, we have said our piece but we have to respect the decision of the Government to move on but our message has got across..."
Said Mr Lee: "Madam Speaker, after all this complicated explanation, I don't know whether Mr Low Thia Khiang still stands by what he said in Parliament in the White Paper debate last year because, if he really does after all the explanation, he should say, we have too many foreign workers now, send home 70,000, then we will know where he stands.
"But after telling me that you can massage this and some people can do less and others can do, and will need more, that's easy to say. Who's going to do the massaging? Of course the Government. And that is the mark of a substandard opposition."
Mr Low replied: "Madam Speaker, I disagree. This is not the mark of a substandard opposition; this is the mark of a responsible opposition - not to jam up the Government, allowing the Government after giving our view, debating it, allowing the Government to move forward. So it is a mark of responsible government and a mark of First World Parliament."
Mr Lee said: "Madam Speaker, we have to call a spade a spade. If you have changed the position and your previous position was wrong, say so. If you hold by your position, have the guts to reaffirm it and take the consequences.
"But to weasel away, play with words, avoid the issue and then claim to be responsible, that is what we fear can drive Singapore's politics into the same place where many other countries have gone."
AVOIDING THE ISSUE
If you have changed the position and your previous position was wrong, say so.
If you hold by your position, have the guts to reaffirm it and take the consequences. But to weasel away, play with words, avoid the issue and then claim to be responsible, that is what we fear can drive Singapore's politics into the same place where many other countries have gone.
- PM Lee, on the Workers' Party
Heated debate between PM Lee and WP’s Low in parliament
The Prime Minister takes aim at the Workers' Party's performance in parliament
TODAY, 28 May 2014
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and the Workers’ Party (WP) chief Low Thia Khiang engaged in a heated debate in Parliament today (May 28), tackling issues such as whether the WP flip-flopped on issues, constructive politics as well as the WP’s performance in parliament. Here is the dialogue between Mr Lee and Mr Low:
Mr Low: Mdm, I wish to clarify a few points. First of all, the reason why I decided to focus my speech on constructive politics: Because I thought that was an important issue that we should look at. As what I say in my speech, Singapore is becoming more diversified, there will be different views, and moving forward, how the Government will deal and accommodate different views and different perspectives of Singapore. It’s important for us to move forward together as one united people.
The other MPs from the WP will be talking about different issues; they will cover ranging from social issues, social safety net to foreign workers, national security. They will cover the full range of areas. Thereby we split our jobs. I will focus on constructive politics. I thought it was an important issue and of course, it’s important to also understand what is the perspective of the PAP, in terms of constructive politics.
And from what the PM has said, it seems to me that it is more constructive debated on the terms of the PAP, rather than constructive politics in terms of the society that is moving forward and I had affirmed my endorsement of what the president has said, that we should look at the outcome of constructive politics, that is, that we should be able to move forward together despite the differences.
Next, talking about the WP flip-flopping on foreign workers issue. I say again, I don’t think we have flip-flopped. I have explained, in this House, of some misunderstanding of the speeches (that have been) made. In any case, I also noted that when the PAP has to make a policy U-turn, they call it policy shift. I don’t know whether that is a shift or it’s a flip-flop.
Mr Lee: Mdm speaker, I think the record will speak for itself, when we make a shift we acknowledge a shift. When the WP changes position they pretend they haven’t – that is the difference.
As for delegating responsibility for different parts of the Budget speech to different MPs, that’s entirely within Mr Low Thia Khiang’s prerogative. It’s not for me to suggest how he should conduct his affairs in the WP.
But as a leader, you do have a responsibility to state where does the party stand on the big issues. Somebody can look after healthcare, somebody can take care of transport, somebody can spend all his time marking Minister Heng Swee Keat on education, but where you stand on what the Government is doing? Is the Government doing right, is it doing wrong, do you agree with the Government, do you have a better view, or do you abstain or do you abstain from abstaining?
Mr Low: I think our position is quite clear on many of these issues. If the Prime Minister wanted my view on what the Government has been doing and whether he has done well. I’d say, well you’ve solved some of the problems – what the PM has mentioned – and the WP MPs also acknowledged this in their speech but also pointed out there are things that are still work in progress and the Government will have to focus on and to make it better and to improve. That is (the) position. I don’t see the need for me to totally sum up. I think the MP should be able to do in their own view, and to give their view and their assessment and at the same time, wherever possible offer certain views and alternative suggestions to improve the policies.
Mr Lee: Mdm Speaker, I’m very grateful for the extremely reasonable explanation from the member. I hope he takes an equally reasonable approach when it comes to election rallies because the WP approach has been to be extremely reasonable – indeed low profile – in Parliament but come election time to turn into tigers and heroes.
Mr Low: Mdm Speaker, I thank the PM for praising the WP’s ability to fight in the elections. We have no intention to hide ourselves in parliament. We seek the mandate from people to come to parliament to check against the Government. We have done it honestly and sincerely, we have not turned this place into a theatre. That shows we are responsible and we will behave continuously as a rational and responsible party and if members would – I believe members will agree, that the WP has been rational. We have not come here with some wild polices or wild suggestions. We debate the policies, we came up with some suggestions but these are not bankrupting the Government coffer or suggesting to use the reserves.
Elections — I think we are also rational. We don’t accuse the PAP of something we cannot substantiate or I know we’d get sued. I think we’re fair. Elections are elections and I thank the PM for noting that we can fight an election, I’m sure the PAP can too. You are the Government, you have been the governing party for 50 years and you’ve got (much more) talented people than the WP. How can you say we are tiger and we are something else in Parliament? I’m sure the PAP equally can be tiger or lions.
Mr Lee: It’s an eloquent explanation for why the WP has been inarticulate, about many things. In a serious parliament, the Government presents its policies. The Opposition presents its alternatives. The WP may not have alternatives on every issue; it may not have a full range of all the complexities of designing an HDB scheme or MediShield scheme. You do have a responsibility to say which direction are we going. And that direction has to be set clearly – not to explain to the PAP, but to explain to Singaporeans what you stand for.
And what you stand for cannot be what the PAP is doing, and a little bit better. That means you have no stand. Where-ever the PAP is standing, ask them to do better. That’s easy, I can do that too. But where do you stand? Where are we totally wrong? Where do you think this is a completely different way to do things better? Where do you think, in principle, we do not want Singapore to be like this. These are big issues which deserve to be debated and not be lidded over and avoided in the house. And that is what a first world parliament should be about.
Mr Low: Mdm speaker, again I’d like to say the PM is reasonable to say that the WP may not be able to come up with all the alternative policies. That’s true. But to say that the WP has no position on major issues, that’s not true. I think we did state our position in parliament. We debated major policies vigorously. We don’t oppose all the policies but where we think that there is a need for us to oppose and it concerns the future of Singapore, like the Population White Paper, we did so. So we state our position on important issues and we didn’t oppose for things that we think are doing right. Is that not enough?
Mr Lee: I think it is useful to bring it down to something very specific. Let’s come back to the Population White Paper. During the debate, the position taken by the WP is that enough is enough, zero growth. We have continued to grow; I have not heard the WP demand zero growth today. Do you still demand that or do you now think that we should allow SMEs to survive in Singapore?
Mr Low: We had made a calculation at that point in time while debating the Population White Paper and that if you continue to allow the foreign workers to grow it will be untenable in the future population growth and thereby we decided that we need to keep the population number in check and one way of doing it, of course, is to freeze the foreign workers’ growth in numbers.
Our calculation was that probably within the existing number of foreign workers, you can still move (them) around in some sectors that don’t need so much of FWs thereby you can still get by with the zero foreign workers’ growth.
We understand perfectly the possibility and the trade-off. That is our position at that point in time. We have not objected subsequently, or grilled the Government, for why are (they) not doing it because that is our view, that it should have zero (foreign worker) growth, but the Government decided otherwise that’s their way of doing it. We have said our piece but we have to respect the decision of the Government to move on. But our message has got across. We cannot sustain continuously the kind of population growth plan the Government is planning and I’m glad to hear today that PM is saying that the Government is taking a very serious view the about tightening and watching the growth of population.
Mr Lee: Mdm speaker, after all this complicated explanation, I don’t know whether Mr Low Thia Khiang still stands by what was said in Parliament in the White Paper debate last year. Because if he really does, after all the explanation, he should say, we have too many foreign workers now, send home 70,000. Then we will know where he stands. But after telling me you can massage this and some people can do (with) less and others will need more – that’s easy to say, who’s going to do the massaging? Of course, the Government. And that, is the mark of a sub-standard Opposition.
Mr Low: Mdm speaker, I disagree. This is not the mark of a sub-standard Opposition. This is the mark of a responsible Opposition not to jam up the Government; allowing the Government - after giving our view, debating it – allowing the Government to move forward, not to jam up the Government. It is a mark of a responsible Government and a mark of first world Parliament.
Mr Lee: Mdm speaker. We have to call a spade a spade. If we have changed position and your previous position was wrong, say so. If you hold by your position, have your guts to reaffirm it and take the consequences. But to weasel away, play with words, avoid the issue and then claim to be responsible, that is what we fear can drive Singapore’s politics into the same place where many other countries have gone.
Exchange raises questions on role of opposition
By Robin Chan, The Straits Times, 29 May 2014
YESTERDAY'S rare verbal sparring between the two leaders of the elected parties in Parliament was fascinating to watch.
Indeed, the other members of the House sat silent, enthralled as the action unfolded for 15 minutes.
But the exchange also raised important questions for both parties, and for voters about the role of the opposition in an environment of constructive politics.
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, in outlining in detail what is needed to have constructive politics, accused the Workers' Party (WP) of not meeting expectations of what an opposition should be.
In strongly worded criticisms of the first opposition party to win a GRC, PM Lee said in no uncertain terms that the WP is a substandard party, with no alternative policies, and no clear stand.
He said that while the WP may not have all the resources at hand to design specific schemes, it does "have a responsibility to say which direction are we going and that direction has to be set clearly".
It has to explain to Singaporeans what the party stands for, and that cannot simply be what the People's Action Party (PAP) is doing "and a little better".
"That means you have no stand. Whatever the PAP's standing, ask them to do better. That's easy, I can do that too," he said.
What the opposition should be doing in a First World Parliament, he said, using the WP's own slogan in the 2011 General Election against it, is stating clearly in principle "what are the big issues which deserve to be debated and not elided over and avoided in the House".
The issue of constructive politics, and what it is, has been a hot topic of debate over the last three days.
It began with President Tony Tan Keng Yam's call in his May 16 address for constructive politics that puts the interests of the nation and people first, and where after vigorous debates, opposing parties move on together.
But WP secretary-general Low Thia Khiang turned it around, criticising the PAP Government for not creating the environment for constructive politics. He also called for changes to inculcate the right political values, have a more conducive political culture and strengthen trust in public institutions.
That drew a slew of rebuttals from PAP MPs, including Senior Minister of State for Law and Education Indranee Rajah on Monday, Dr Janil Puthucheary (Pasir Ris- Punggol GRC) on Tuesday, and Mr Hri Kumar Nair (Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC) yesterday.
They accused the WP of playing "sound-bite politics", of having questionable integrity in handling town council issues and of lacking alternative views.
Mr Nair said: "No plan or policy is ever perfect or benefits everyone in the same way - and so it does not take any particular genius to think of criticisms. And proposing alternatives means giving details. Making meaningless motherhood statements is not an alternative 3M framework."
While the PAP has made its stand on the WP clear, and the WP has countered its claims, what is less clear is whether the demands the PAP has made of the WP are ones that resonate with voters.
When Mr Lee remarked that "the Workers' Party approach has been to be... low profile in Parliament but come election time, to turn into tigers and heroes", Mr Low offered his mock appreciation.
"I'm sure the PAP can too. You are the Government and you have been the governing party for 50 years and you've got much more... talented people than the Workers' Party," he said.
Indeed, this is a point that matters in the question of what the opposition should be.
Where some may agree with the PAP that the WP has on the whole been a disappointing opposition in Parliament, others may see a small party that is still growing, still finding its way, and which needs to be given time.
While some may want a battle of equals, others see a heavyweight boxer trying to pummel a welterweight.
There are 80 PAP MPs in the House compared to nine for the WP (seven elected MPs and two Non-Constituency MPs).
The WP has also maintained that it is far from ready to form an alternative government.
So it would seem the WP cannot yet match the PAP in terms of depth and breadth in policymaking, and perhaps also in vision.
But eventually, the WP, to be a truly credible opposition in Parliament, must be held to the high standards of politics that Mr Lee spelt out.
For now, voters may well be willing to lower the bar for the WP, in their desire for checks and balances against a long-dominant ruling party.
And so while Mr Lee landed several punches yesterday, Mr Low was able to dodge and parry, and did not get knocked out.
The question the WP has to contend with going forward, is how long more it has before voters too start to demand more of it.
Speech by PM Lee, in the Debate on the President's Address