All photos by Jamie Chan

While the Battle of the East (East Coast, Marine Parade and Fengshan) is about to reach boiling point and has been the main narrative this General Election (GE), a war of words and ideas is brewing at Holland – Bukit Timah GRC.

This intriguing side plot pits the incumbent People’s Action Party (PAP) against the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) for the second time since GE 2011, led by the seemingly rehabilitated Chee Soon Juan – a man who is making up for lost time with fiery speeches and a softer, kinder persona; no longer the firebrand who had several run-ins with the PAP.

Although not one to go down without a fight, anchor minister Vivian Balakrishnan prefers not to dwell on Chee’s makeover.

Instead, he prefers to have a powwow with the SDP on the policy front.

“We are calling them out – will the policies work?” he says, “In fact it’s so clear that it won’t work and their defence of it is so poor.”

Ooh. Seems like someone is in the mood.

The Mothership.sg team speaks exclusively to the minister on Sep 8. at the PAP branch at Bukit Panjang on the campaign, the opposition and his favourite hawker food.

1. How has the Holland – Bukit Timah election campaign been proceeding so far?

The opposition has had zero interest and zero plans on a local level.

As far as I am concerned, this campaign is proceeding according to plan.

I divided this into three phases. The first phase began since the previous election. And it’s what I called the relationship phase. My entire team focused on being on the ground, knocking on doors, listening to people, dealing with details and local problems.

The purpose is the opportunity to build relationships. It means we met you, spend time with you, done something together. You have an opportunity to assess our sincerity, our willingness to work and whether we are effective or not.

Building relationship and building trust, having a track record and a local plan. That needs time. Fortunately for us, that has proceeded quite well. The opposition has had zero interest and zero plans on a local level. So that summarizes phase one.

Mothership: Zero plans on a local level from the opposition?

The SDP is trying to differentiate itself from the Workers’ Party by pretending to have an en-suite of promises. 

As far as I know, nothing. So it’s a zero. If you want to talk about contest in phase one, it’s clearly 1-0.

Then I would say from phase 2 was a kind of an analytic stage once we know who the opposition is.

It was clear to me that there were going to be major problems with the proposals that they are putting up. And that’s why you’ll notice very early in the campaign I held a press conference, then I followed up the next day with a series of robust awkward questions.

They ignored my questions, they tried to lob other distractions, red herrings, and that’s why even for my first rally speech, my team came up quite hard on the policy front. Because we wanted to call them out.

The SDP is trying to differentiate itself from the Workers’ Party by pretending to have an en-suite of promises.

We are calling them out – will the policies work? In fact it’s so clear that it won’t work and their defence of it is so poor.

I’m wondering if they really believe in what they’re putting out, or is it just a stage prop to differentiate themselves from the other opposition parties? Let’s give them the benefit of the doubt that they actually believe in it.

That’s why phase 2 was marked by fairly significant robust engagement on the policy level.

We’re now in our 3rd phase of the campaign. And in the 3rd phase I told my colleagues we’re now focused on the future.

2. For our young readers, can you describe SDP policies in a tweet of 140 characters or less?

Blk 545 PAP Centre, Singapore 2015 PAP Vivian Balakrisnan Interview 8.9.2015. Photo by: Jamie Chan for MothershipSG
Photo by: Jamie Chan for MothershipSG

Big promises. Tax and spend. Heavy burden on the middle class. Bill to be paid by the next generation.

SDP in a tweet: Big promises. Tax and spend. Heavy burden on the middle class. Bill to be paid by the next generation.

I would however qualify that however we do need to have more support for the old, for the vulnerable, for the low income.

The difference between them and what we are doing is not that we lack compassion. What we are trying to build is a system that will lead to long-term sustainable model of a compassionate society.

The fundamental problem with SDP’s model is that they copied the western welfare state, which can be defined simply as universal benefits with high taxes. As DPM Tharman said in his wonderful lecture the other day, universal benefits and high taxes actually always means a heavy burden on the middle class.

There’s another model – it’s called the Singapore model, which is that we still want to look after people who are vulnerable, less well off people who are older and in fact this is even more important now that we are the fastest aging society in the world.

Our model is based on personal family responsibility. Savings which means every generation must save more than it spends. Insurance and targeted subsidies.

Our taxation system as described by DPM Tharman is actually more progressive than many of the western models.

The opposition is being evasive. That’s why they have still not answered the question of how much is the total bill for their universal system. They haven’t answered how much tax- all they have said is that they are going to raise tax on the top 1% by 28%.

This came across in PM’s speech, to believe that you can just get more taxes by going after the rich, by going after companies and going after foreigners is a fallacy. It must mean raising taxes on the middle class. And it’s just that they don’t admit it yet. But there is no system in the world based on their model that doesn’t impose a heavy tax on the middle class. So it’s just that.

The point I’m trying to make it that there has been no lack of effort on my part to have a serious policy debate. I’ve done it, I’ve explained it, I’ve put it in pointed questions they have not engaged.

What have they done instead? First, they started off by saying ‘don’t do any character attacks’.

If you check my speeches, I have not made a single pointed name comment. On any of their candidates. I have not.

But what about on me? They have taken great liberties distorted words, or ascribed I mean the two key issues is Youth Olympic Games (YOG) and the comments on the dangers of dishonest politicians who apparently work for free.

3. Can you clarify with us the issue on the Youth Olympic Games (YOG)?

Blk 545 PAP Centre, Singapore 2015 PAP Vivian Balakrisnan Interview 8.9.2015. Photo by: Jamie Chan for MothershipSG
Photo by: Jamie Chan for MothershipSG

Frankly, I think that’s an old issue and nobody on the street has asked me about it but just for the record so that you’ll understand this was an inaugural event.

We decided to bid in August 2007, we had to submit the bid by November so there was a preliminary estimate. One, two years down the road it became very clear in order to organise an international sporting event at an Olympic event in Singapore (it) was going to cost us more than $300 million. I took that revised budget, went back to cabinet, (the) cabinet approved it and we did not overspend. The expenditure on the YOG was within the approved budget.

I think you can argue about whether or not you should have hosted the YOG – you want to argue that, that’s fair enough. It’s a fair debate. But to accuse me of overspending is patently false.

Anyway I’m not really interested in bringing up old but the point is it’s these throwaway comments like “oh you’re overspending you have no morals.”

If you want to have a debate, you debate about whether or not you want to have an event on that scale and that cost.

But the most egregious personal attack is that two weeks ago I warned of the danger of dishonest politicians getting into parliament and pretending to work for free. The video is available online. Anyone who bothers to go through it will know I’m talking about politicians. But they have distorted it and said “you see, he is denigrating the work of volunteers who work for free”.

If you paint me out as someone who doesn’t appreciate volunteers, that’s malicious, deliberate and false. In fact it borders on dishonesty, because they know. I’ve pointed out the video and the post to them. Paul Tambyah (SDP candidate for Holland-Bukit Timah GRC) pretended to do a slight clarification I think yesterday.

MS: You met him at a walkabout on Sunday.

Anyway I’ve not been distracted. It is clear that SDP is not interested in a serious debate on policy.

I said “Paul, you owe me an apology. This is not what I said, how can you say that?” Then he tried to shift the debate to ministerial salaries and sidestep but the key point is I have never said anything to denigrate the enormous contributions of volunteers.

I warned of the danger of dishonest politicians who apparently work for free on the 27 August 2015 during a REACH forum….

Posted by Vivian Balakrishnan on Saturday, September 5, 2015

Anyway I’ve not been distracted. It is clear that SDP is not interested in a serious debate on policy.

Hence, it’s third phase for me and our voters and Singapore’s future.

4. Some political pundits say that Mr Chee has had a political “makeover”, what do you think?

That’s why we were intrigued and that’s why PM quoted this statement, “reputation is temporary, but character is permanent”. But I don’t intend to wade into that, I think voters can make their own judgment.

5. Dr Chee also mentioned about how he was looking at you when you were in the same school and how he thinks you can speak well because you’re part of the debate team.

This is life. There are responsibilities that we have to discharge so I learnt a long time ago that politics is not a debate, show or entertainment. 

The thought that struck me when he mentioned the word ‘debate’. Politics is not a debate. I’ve been there, done that.

Debator- you can argue both sides of any issue. You entertain. Someone wins, someone loses. But that’s why I started off my speech by saying it’s not a debate, (it’s) not a game.

This is life. There are responsibilities that we have to discharge so I learnt a long time ago that politics is not a debate, show or entertainment. That would be my rejoinder to that.

Similarly my reaction to Paul’s suggestion to DPM Tharman to have a falling out and then lead and run coalition- You see the point I made last night, – I said it’s not our tradition to backstab our mentors but even more important is that it reveals the mentality and the attitude you have to politics.

I made the distinction that in the PAP, particular for people who offer themselves for leadership, it’s not about you. It’s about Singapore and the party. Individuals- that’s not the centre of gravity you see.

My response to all those – I suppose for them it’s almost a debating point. Almost a throwaway point, a cheap shot. But to us it reveals the difference, the fundamental difference. This is not a debate, not a clever speech, not a show. This is about Singapore and Singaporeans and leaders elected to serve. In any case I think those (praising DPM Tharman) were just sweet words.

6. You mentioned that the opposition are like two parties trying to break up a family last night. How would you describe the PAP’s relationship with Singaporeans for the past fifty years?

It’s a long-term relationship. It has ups and downs like all relationships. And there will be mistakes made but the key ingredient in all relationships is trust and commitment.

If things don’t go according to plan, to commit to fixing it. That’s why the PAP isn’t saying we have a perfect set of policies. The world is changing and our challenge is so profound, our policies have to evolve. So we’re not in this game of my policy works and yours doesn’t. The PAP will adjust any policy in order to make it effective. So that’s really how I see it.

7. What are your hours like during the campaign period?

Blk 545 PAP Centre, Singapore 2015 PAP Vivian Balakrisnan Interview 8.9.2015. Photo by: Jamie Chan for MothershipSG
Photo by: Jamie Chan for MothershipSG

During the campaign, my resident said I lost weight, that’s not a bad thing – running around, long hours.

Doing house visits can go on to 10.30pm. Then I will have a conference call with the four candidates – review the day, discuss our plans, discuss our strategies.

And then that’s all the emails that are uncleared (laughs). By the time you are going to fall asleep, it is about two something. For me, it’s probably four to five hours of sleep. Anyway, one more day!

8. Favourite Hawker dish?

I’m embarrassed (laughs). It’s the Koka instant noodle at Block 163, Bukit Panjang. I don’t know why it’s so popular but it’s good, it’s good. Well, you can take two forms – one with lots of chili but during elections I take the normal soup (laughs).

With additional research by Sharmaine Chan.

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