Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam has asked Workers' Party chief Pritam Singh to clarify his position with regard to Alfian Sa'at, as a follow-up to a matter that was raised two days ago by Jurong GRC MP Tan Wu Meng in an article targeting Singapore's oft-referenced playwright.
"Mr Singh has put up something which seems to suggest that everyone is not, no one is perfect, which means he seems to accept that Alfian's posts do mean what Dr Tan said," Shanmugam said.
"But he doesn't make clear what his position is, whether he knew what Alfian has said."
Shanmugam's comments were made after a Sunday morning walkabout on June 21, during an interview with the media at Block 418 Yishun Avenue 11 in Nee Soon GRC.
Shanmugam: Tan Wu Meng entitled to raise the question
The minister highlighted that there were two aspects to Alfian's views.
Shanmugam first characterised Alfian's views to be pro-Malaysia as being recognisable.
Shanmugam noted that Pritam's post "seems to accept that Alfian's posts do mean what Dr Tan said, but he doesn't make clear what his position is".
Pritam's reaction to Tan's remarks was kept to a short response on his Facebook page:
"A loving critic. A son of Singapore. Not perfect. As imperfect as you and me Dr Tan, maybe more, maybe less".
Shanmugam's questioning of Pritam's stance stemmed from a remark the opposition MP made during his recent Fortitude Budget speech on June 5.
Pritam had said then:
In my view Mr Speaker, we should count ourselves fortunate that we have citizens who are the loving critics amongst us, some of whom have been questioned in this very House in this term of government. Members would recall one citizen’s poems were nit-picked with a view to cast wholly negative aspersions on his character, even though that individual was not present in the House to defend himself.
However, the use of the term "loving critic" did not originate from Pritam.
Tommy Koh, Singapore's ambassador-at-large, had said it in a Facebook post on Oct. 8 in defence of Alfian, who had his poetry read out in Parliament and critiqued without the author's response.
"We should not demonise Alfian Sa’at. He is one of our most talented playwrights. I regard him as a loving critic of Singapore. He is not anti- Singapore."
Shanmugam also said in his interview that he wanted to hear Pritam's take on the matter as Singaporeans should not take another country's side.
He said that WP's former secretary-general Low Thia Khiang's stance on such issues was clear.
Shanmugam also asked if Pritam is aware of Alfian's numerous posts about Malaysia over the years, or if he has just come to know of them.
This was what Shanmugam said during his media interview in full:
Dr Tan Wu Meng's post was a very serious post, was a very thoughtful post.
I think the point may be missed quite easily.
He put out what Mr Alfian Sa’at had said and he didn't make anything up.
He just put out the various posts by Mr Alfian Sa’at.
In summary, one can say that Mr Alfian Sa’at's position is that he would like for Singapore to merge with Malaysia and he thinks that the Chinese are being wrong in not wanting a merger.
He dislikes Mr Lee Kuan Yew intensely and loves Dr Mahathir and he takes Malaysia's side and Malaysian government vessels are in Singapore's waters and in a very tense standoff on territorial issues, as well as air issues, he takes Malaysia's side and says that Singaporeans are egoistic, and various other things.
You know, this is a free country, and he is entitled to his views and most Singaporeans know him for what he is. That doesn't call for any comment.
Mr Sa’at is irrelevant in this issue to that extent, but when Mr Pritam Singh, as leader of the opposition, stands up in parliament and support Mr Alfian Sa’at, and say he is a loving critic of Singapore, then I think we are entitled to ask, in a healthy democracy, which side do you stand on?
Because, under Mr Low (Thia Khiang), it was very clear, we may disagree on policies within Singapore, as Singaporeans, what is better for Singaporeans.
Workers' Party can take one issue, we might take another issue, we may take different positions but politics stop at the boundary, you never take another country's side against Singapore.
So, Dr Tan Wu Meng's note, is a very serious note, saying this is what Mr Low and the Workers' Party used to be like, does that continue to be the position?
And to give Mr Pritam Singh the benefit of doubt, Dr Tan asked, 'have you read those posts before you said Mr Alfian Sa’at is a loving critic of Singapore and should not be criticised?'
Or perhaps to give you the benefit of doubt, maybe you haven't read them, and after reading them, are you still of the same position?
Mr Singh has put up something which seems to suggest that everyone is not, no one is perfect, which means he seems to accept that Alfian's posts do mean what Dr Tan said.
But he (Pritam) doesn't make clear what his position is, whether he knew what Alfian has said. Now that's one part of it.
It's a very serious issue - what should politics be like.
And all that Dr Tan did, was to set out the posts that Alfian has said, and then ask, 'Did you know about this when you supported him in parliament?'
There was nothing about Mr Pritam Singh's character, there was nothing about attacking Mr Pritam Singh, it was a legitimate question.
But what surprised me, for the vast majority of people who read it and I think they understood, both in Mandarin and in English.
But you have a group, it's almost a Pavlovian response, by a small group of people 'Oh, this is character assassination', 'oh you know this is an attack, bullying tactics'.
You know, everyday, PAP (People's Action Party) MPs and PAP Ministers are attacked, 'Shameless lot, you are this, you are that'.
Personal attacks, which are untrue and unfair, attacking the family, attacking the individuals, gutter politics.
These people who now rise up to complain about Dr Tan Wu Meng, never breathed a word about that.
Oh that's fine, it's a democracy, free speech.
When somebody on the government side raises a question, 'Oh it's gutter politics'.
It's sheer hypocrisy.
And I say it's Pavlovian. PAP says anything or the government say anything, 'oh it must be wrong, it's unfair'.
I think people ought to be more honest, go and look at the post, what did Dr Tan Wu Meng say and then ask themselves, is he entitled to raise this question.
And deal with it, rather than attacking the man. Or rather than trying to do character assassination. Which character has been assassinated in this process?
What did Dr Tan say? He just sets out what Alfian says and he says to Mr Singh, did you know this?
So you get, you know, but it's a group, the usual people, they will come up and they will all foam at the mouth. But that's one group.
There's a separate group of people I accept, middle of the road, honest, reasonable people who either didn't read the post, they just read what other people said about it and got the impression that something wrong has been said, 'oh Dr Tan has attacked'.
I can understand. If you don't read the post, you just read what other people say, you get mistaken.
And there are others legitimately, after reading Dr Tan's post, nevertheless, feel, 'why does he have to say this'.
I can understand that.
There are people who feel react that way.
That's legitimate. In a free society, you are entitled to take that view too.
Alfian issued rebuttal to Tan Wu Meng's post
Alfian on June 20 issued a lengthy rebuttal to Tan's original June 19 article insinuating he is a "pro-Malaysia activist".
Tan's understanding of Alfian's position, the poet wrote, could have stemmed from "misreadings and misrepresentations of my writings".
Pritam will maintain "broadly united front" with PAP when overseas
Pritam previously said that WP MPs will maintain a "broadly united front" with the ruling People's Action Party MPs when representing Singapore overseas.
Pritam's stance on the matter was revealed after he said he had been asked occasionally how it was possible for opposition MPs to work with PAP MPs in a bipartisan manner at events overseas.
The WP's long-standing position, Pritam reiterated, was that opposition MPs also want Singapore to succeed, even if they may disagree with the government's approach, philosophies or policies.
This makes representing Singapore overseas possible, even when both parties sit on different sides in Parliament.