Top of the news on Channel 5: Mediacorp, the national broadcaster, showed Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s first big public statement — all 3 minutes and 40 seconds of it on Monday evening.
If you are away for an overseas vacation or under a rock since last Wednesday and wonder what this apology is about, here are five takeaways for you.
1. This is only PM Lee’s second public apology.
PM Lee’s first public apology was during the General Election 2011.
During the first People’s Action Party (PAP) lunchtime rally at Boat Quay, PM Lee apologised twice on how government’s initiatives — manpower policies, public transport policies, for instance — have resulted in “side effects”.
In other words, PM’s first apology in six years.
2. Importantly, PM has sucked the oxygen out of this constant to-and froing between Lee Hsien Yang and Lee Wei Ling and him.
By setting a date, July 3, to make the ministerial statement in Parliament two weeks from now, PM Lee has allowed time for calmer heads and cooler minds to prevail.
Importantly, there is now a reply if the media continues to probe for further information.
Every time the media poses a question on 38 Oxley Road, the political officer-holders can now use “July 3” as the reply.
3. Lifting the Party Whip is pretty significant
What is the Whip? The Whips “ensure that there are always sufficient party members in the Chamber to support the party’s position and that MPs vote according to the party’s line”.
The present Government Whip is Minister Chan Chun Sing and he is assisted by two Deputy Government Whips, Senior Minister of State Sim Ann and Minister of State Sam Tan.
Occasionally, the whip may be lifted to allow MPs to vote according to their conscience.
But the Whip was last lifted quite some time ago.
In 2002, it was lifted during a debate on a review of junior college and upper secondary education. It was also lifted in 2009 during the debate on changes to the Human Organ Transplant Act.
The lifting of whip is significant because the party whip was not lifted even for a contentious casino/ integrated resort debate in 2005.
4. It may be a make-or-break moment for Workers’ Party (WP)
WP has disappointed many during last year’s debate on the recommendations on the Constitutional Commission to the Elected Presidency (EP).
Their alternative proposal for an elected Senate and a possible referendum was clinically dissected and taken apart by Home Affairs and Law Minister K Shanmugam.
WP has however gained back ground with some sharp questioning by its parliamentarians regarding the water price hikes during this year’s Committee of Supply debate.
Will WP rise to the occasion?
They may do well to send Lee Hsien Yang a Facebook message.
5. #parliamentaryprivilege vs #leefamilyprivilege
Despite the many allegations that have been publicly levelled against PM Lee by Lee Hsien Yang and Lee Wei Ling, no lawsuit has been announced by PM Lee against his siblings.
Instead, PM Lee has chosen to take the issue to a platform that is beyond his siblings’ reach and participation — Parliament.
This move is significant as a masterstroke in not just avoiding the ugliness of having to go to court that risks washing more dirty linen in public, but for the very reason that Parliament is the premier platform for debating public issues in Singapore.
Several maxims of Singapore politics are the inclusion of Singaporeans over the exclusion of foreigners on issues related to domestic politics and the primacy of elected officials over other institutions.
In fact, the late Lee Kuan Yew once made this remark to the General Assembly of the International Press Institute at Helsinki in 1971
“[F]reedom of the press, freedom of the news media, must be subordinated to the overriding needs of the integrity of Singapore, and to the primacy of purpose of an elected government.”
Over the past week, the government — PM Lee, Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean, Minister K Shanmugam — had to respond to quite a number of accusations from the Facebook posts of Lee Hsien Yang and Lee Wee Ling.
These ministers’ reactions towards the accusations are, perhaps, also an indication of the support that PM Lee has from his team in the lead up to the Ministerial statement in Parliament on July 3.
Nonetheless, with the Party Whip lifted, it remains to be seen if other MPs are as supportive of PM on this matter.
While the Lee family may be a special bunch of citizens — after all, President’s Scholars are the select few in Singapore — our government leaders will need more than 24 hours a day if they have to reply to every baseless accusation made by private citizens.
As LHY and LWL said in their first Facebook post last week, they “are private citizens with no political ambitions”.
Maybe it is time for them to reconsider their non-political ambitions.
And, as always, keep up with the Lees here:
Top photo: Screenshot from PM Lee’s video