Comment: PM Lee's candour, Pritam Singh's emotion & other takeaways from 5-day debate

Parry and riposte.

Sulaiman Daud | September 13, 2020, 05:18 PM

The recent sitting in Parliament was meant for the Members of Parliament (MPs) to debate the motion of thanks to the President for her Address.

It saw 31 new MPs making their maiden speeches over the five-day debate (Oct. 31 - Sep.4).

But a major speech by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong set the scene for a blockbuster encounter with Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh.

It was the first such encounter since Singh's appointment to the position of Leader, and the first opportunity for debate since the general election where Singh's Workers' Party arguably did much better than expected.

1. PM Lee treads old ground

PM Lee's speech encompassed many issues -- the government's handling of Covid-19 and keeping the number of fatalities low, strengthening social safety nets, and reviewing foreign worker policies to ensure fairness for Singaporeans.

But it also contained some jabs at the Workers' Party (WP) and their recent campaign. Whether it was a chance to air some grievances, or a check on their popularity, PM Lee mentioned long-standing points of contention:

  • Saying that WP has an "inheritor's attitude" with regards to the reserves.
  • WP explicitly campaigned on a platform to form a strong opposition, not the next government.
  • The Opposition must go beyond raising concerns with government policies, and coming up with alternatives of their own.

On the second point, PM Lee said, "How long can Singaporeans vote for the opposition in some constituencies, in the expectation that somehow, somewhere else, their fellow Singaporeans will ensure the PAP is returned to power?"

Perhaps it's a feature of Singapore politics that we are surprised when a politician does something political outside the general election. But maybe this is the "new normal" going forward, as politics has changed along with everything else in Singapore.

2. Pritam Singh aired long-standing issues

But if PM Lee went over old ground, Singh did the same.

When responding to PM Lee's anecdote of a voter who was encouraged to vote for the opposition because the PAP would form the government, Singh said that was "one side of the coin", and shared his own experiences.

This involved people asking him why new citizens are met by the PAP candidate in Community Centres, and not an elected MP who happened to be from the opposition.

He also said a pro-establishment Facebook group attacked him for restarting Meet the People Sessions at the void deck, and accused him of trying to engender sympathy.

3. Pritam Singh's show of emotion

It had been an emotional few days in the House, with Manpower Minister Josephine Teo tearing up as she shared stories of Singaporeans who needed support for the government, and PM Lee himself choking up as he exhorted Singaporeans not to fear and to bounce back from the crisis.

But Singh himself sounded emotional during his reply to some points of PM Lee's speech. Responding to PM Lee's point about the reserves, he sounded audibly frustrated when he said the WP's stance is to vary the rate of growth of the reserves, not to raid them, and added:

"So the argument cannot be that when the opposition tries to put that proposal forward somehow we are engaging in some sort of chicanery to to steal what previous generations have toiled and perspired over to bring us here."

Singh also sounded more forceful when he said that he was not "hungry for power", and explained that he joined the opposition cause as he believed in a Parliamentary democracy and he believed Singaporeans wanted an opposition in Parliament.

"It's not going to happen with people just hoping someone else does it," he said.

4. PM Lee was less restrained when mentioning foreign leaders

Political observers would have noticed something different about PM Lee's speech when he started referring to leaders in other countries by name.

PM Lee tends to be circumspect, but he first showed a hint of levity in his speech when he talked about visiting an unnamed country in Eastern Europe, but then revealed that his hosts spoke Russian, much to the amusement of Parliament.

There were other such remarks in his speech. When making a point about how the Westminster system of government, which Singapore inherited, tends to involve some manner of political theatre, he mentioned UK's Jeremy Corbyn, David Cameron, Theresa May, Boris Johnson and Sir Keir Starmer by name, as well as Australia's Scott Morrison.

When talking about political partisanship and polarisation, PM Lee remarked that even a public health issue like wearing a mask during a pandemic has become politicised in the U.S., naming the Democrats and the Republicans.

And when discussing "revolving-door governments", during his clarifications with Singh, he mentioned outgoing Japan Prime Minister Shinzo Abe by name, outright saying that before Abe's second term, the country did not do well when it had constantly changing Cabinets.

This may seem like a minor thing, but given PM Lee's caution and restraint in most of his public speeches, it was a change to hear him explicitly naming politicians in other countries.

5. Keep an eye on the House

Previously, Leader of the House Indranee Rajah outlined Singh's new privileges, which includes doubling his speaking time from 20 to 40 minutes, the equivalent of political office holders, and a general right of first reply to policies, bills and motions.

Singh's exchange with PM Lee, with all the clarifications, lasted about 30 minutes and was a point of discussion among the public, given the cut-and-thrust of the debate and the issues raised.

Moving forward, while PM Lee has a point that fiery debates don't necessarily make for good politics, deepened engagement with the public and heightened interest in the highest forum in the land can only be a good thing for Singapore politics and citizens.

With the welcome announcement that the government is considering live-streaming Parliamentary debates, this may not be the last free and frank exchange of ideas to which the public can look forward.

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Top image from PM Lee and Pritam Singh's Facebook pages.