The first inter-party political debate of the 2020 General Election (GE) campaign took place on Wednesday evening, July 1.
The participants were Vivian Balakrishnan from People's Action party (PAP), Jamus Lim from the Workers' Party (WP), Chee Soon Juan from the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP), and Francis Yuen from the Progress Singapore Party (PSP).
Chee is the only representative that is the leader of his political party.
With the debate broadcast live on Channel 5, CNA, and elsewhere, here are some of the highlights of the hour-long debate.
Vivian versus Chee
Chee targeted Vivian in his arguments
During Round 1 of the debate, Chee addressed Vivian directly twice while the others talked about the PAP. He also raised a pointed criticism of the PAP, saying:
"We've got to stop this foolishness of continuing to bring in foreign workers, especially foreign PMETs, when we have more than 100,000 unemployed people in Singapore."
Chee said that both Vivian and him had come from the same school, Anglo-Chinese School, and that they both learned the value of serving others before self.
However in his first question to the opposition, Vivian directed his query towards Yuen, and not Chee.
Vivian also said "there is nothing more demoralising, more corrosive to the soul, than long term unemployment", which brought him to his point about the importance of creating jobs for the population -- a key topic that took up a good portion of the debate.
Chee previously criticised members of Parliament for holding full-time jobs while tending to their constituencies.
Chee brought up Vivian's alleged overspending for Youth Olympic Games
During the second part of the debate, Vivian was invited to ask Chee a question, and he asked, "What is the total bill of all the schemes you are proposing?"
He said that while the SDP had proposed many different schemes, some of their proposals had "very big holes" in term of fiscal deficits.
Chee replied that the proposals for the retrenchment benefit scheme and income for the elderly came to an annual total of S$5 billion. He said that in the last election, the PAP accused the SDP of being a "tax and spend" party, but said that the PAP raised taxes after 2015.
He then raised the issue of Vivian having to revise the budget for the Youth Olympic Games (YOG), and said that he "blew" the budget in 2010.
Vivian accused Chee of perpetuating falsehoods
Chee then challenged Vivian to state categorically whether the PAP wanted to raise the population to 10 million or not, something which Chee said Singaporeans are "deadly worried about".
To that, Vivian responded by saying just on the same day, the Prime Minister's Office has issued a statement "advising people like [Chee] not to indulge in falsehoods".
When Chee tried to interject and say that Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat "came up" with the idea, Vivian shot back, "That's a cheap shot, Dr Chee."
He said that Singapore won't even have 6.9 million, much less a population of 10 million.
"The government doesn't have a target for the population," he said. He repeated that Chee was raising "a false statement", and added "We have said so, and we will say so again."
The government has not proposed or planned for Singapore to increase population to 10 million
It was reported in The Straits Times in 2019 that during a ministerial dialogue at NTU, Heng once cited former master planner Liu Thai Ker in a discussion on Singapore's population density, and pointed out the fact that other cities have less liveable space.
ST then mentioned that Liu once said in 2014 that Singapore should plan for 10 million people for it to remain sustainable in the long term. ST wrote:
"He cited former chief planner Liu Thai Ker, who said in 2014 that Singapore should plan for 10 million people for it to remain sustainable in the long term."
However, Heng himself did not say that Singapore should plan for 10 million people.
The National Population and Talent Division (NPTD) has refuted the claim that the government itself had proposed that Singapore increase its population to 10 million.
In a media statement issued on Wednesday, July 1, it said: "The government has not proposed, planned nor targeted for Singapore to increase its population to 10 million."
Vivian finds some common ground with the opposition
"I agree with you"
Vivian found some common ground with Yuen and Lim during the course of the debate.
Yuen focused on SMEs, and said that they are "in ICU, so to speak." He pointed out that while support will last for a few months, if the consumer demand does not return, the companies will still fold.
Lim mentioned that it was important for SMEs in Singapore to have financing to expand their footprint in the region, while also keeping costs low by keeping commercial and industrial rents low.
Vivian said, "I totally agree with the two of you. SMEs are crucial." He pointed out that the schemes the PAP had implemented in the past few months, like the Jobs Support Scheme, helped SMEs with their cashflow problems.
On social issues, more common ground was found. Yuen called for the government to spend more on necessities like healthcare, to bring it more in line with other OECD country.
Lim also "agreed absolutely" with Yuen that social mobility meant that Singapore had to take care of the elderly, who have helped to build the economy.
Vivian said that the PAP does not believe in "class warfare" or "socking it to the rich", but does believe in lifting the less well-off and vulnerable. He said that he "totally agreed" with the others that he doesn't want to see seniors work unless they wanted to.
However, he disagreed with Yuen and said that Singapore had the best healthcare system in the world, and that how the money is spent mattered more than how much is spent.
PAP could have written WP's manifesto
Saying that the PAP could have written the same manifesto that was written by the WP -- to which Lim replied "We'd like that" -- Vivian said "this is why people have called the WP, PAP-lite or PAP-like".
Vivian opined that the WP has simply used PAP's manifesto as their reference point, and taken a "half-step to the left", adding that this is why the PAP does not have too many fundamental differences with the WP.
In response, Lim said the WP do not necessarily object to policy for the sake of objection.
Ultimately, what the WP wants is "the right policy", he said.
Lim also sought to put daylight between the two parties, saying that they fundamentally differed on where the trade-offs on policies would occur.
He said that PAP tended to side with capital, while the WP favoured a re-balancing of national income more towards the worker.
In his closing speech, Lim said that the PAP does not have a monopoly on the best ideas, and that the WP is not trying to deny the PAP a mandate, but a "blank cheque."
He said that's what the election is truly about, and that more such debates should take place within Parliament, instead of settings like these.
He might have ended up the overall winner by staying above the fray.
Top image via CNA/YouTube