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On the fifth and final day of debate in Parliament on the President’s Address, Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong and Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh agreed on one thing: Populism and political opportunism cannot exist in Singapore.
But reaching this conclusion involved a pointed exchange between both sides that saw both parties re-characterised each other's views, which suggested a maturing of parliamentary debate and the hope that a new type of politics is possible in Singapore.
How it all started - on politics, alternative policies & trade-offs
Wong shared his view on how politics should work in Singapore on Monday, April 17, urging the opposition to offer concrete alternative policies, including its trade-offs, and be honest about them with Singaporeans.
While he noted that the opposition and the Workers' Party in particular broadly agree with and support the government’s policy directions, there is one fundamental difference.
Wong said the PAP government will inform Singaporeans plainly how it proposes to raise revenues, and contrasted it with the opposition's revenue alternatives whose "sums do not add up".
He cited the the Goods and Services Tax, GST, in particular, as an example.
How it continued - on political discourse & good governance
This prompted a response from Aljunied GRC MP Leon Perera in his speech on April 18, as he spoke about keeping politics and political discourse fair, vibrant and constructive.
He said the government should focus on explaining why it disagrees with the opposition, rather than chip away at trust in the opposition with labels (i.e. using the term "disingenuous" on the other side).
This also affects the tone of discourse in the wider society, if alternative ideas become demonised or labelled uncharitably, he said.
Minister for Health Ong Ye Kung revisited the debate on politics on Apr. 20, focusing on good governance.
Ong said many MPs, including WP MPs, have raised many ideas in Parliament, noting that the government "welcome(s) them" and "take those ideas in when formulating or reviewing our policies" where appropriate.
However, Ong reiterated Wong's point that there is "a fundamental difference" when it comes to the WP’s ideas for the Budget, especially with regards to the GST system.
This is because an alternate budget without the GST cannot work and is not a viable alternative, Ong said. "You cannot give up a major source of revenue yet want to spend more in so many areas."
This led to Perera clarifying with Ong that while WP opposes the GST hike from 7 to 9 per cent, they did not call for GST to be lowered to 0 per cent since 2018.
Ong concluded and spoke about a ruling party that needs to listen to people, explain things well, including difficult policies, keep itself "clean and honest", think of the long-term and correct mistakes if they commit mistakes and constantly refresh itself.
He also said the opposition needs to take a stand on "sensitive issues", such as the repeal of Section 377A, and take a "principled, consistent approach to policies".
Singh spoke on the final day of the debate on Friday, April 21, disagreeing with the "most unfair charge levelled" at the WP.
Singh explained that if the WP were indeed populist and unrealistic, the government would not be considering variations of its ideas on issues.
These ideas on issues that emanated from the WP included anti-discrimination legislation, minimum wage, and redundancy insurance.
Singh also listed a "non-exhaustive listing of WP's alternative proposals" to "demolish this idea that the WP has not put forward serious alternatives".
Worried about division & polarisation
Wong then responded, and explained that his broader point was that given the evolution of Singapore’s democracy, he was worried about how developed democracies in other countries have become divided and polarised.
And the calling out by both sides is needed whenever either side falls short of honesty and integrity in policymaking.
Wong said should the incumbent fall short, he expects the opposition to call it out.
At the same time, the opposition can expect the same if it proposes ideas and policies that the government feels are populist.
Gist of agreement
Wong concluded with a statement on the conduct of politics in Singapore, which Singh also agreed:
"Both sides of the House, we stand for a democracy that is maturing, a serious government and a serious opposition. We say 'yes' to all that. But we say 'no' to populism and political opportunism ever taking root in this House and in Singapore."
Singh agreed with Wong that calling each other out ought to work both ways and accepted Wong’s concerns about Singapore’s democracy.
"Certainly, the Workers' Party, and I hope the opposition in general, will be mindful going forward and work towards the betterment of Singapore and Singaporeans".
Significance of the agreement
It has been a while since the ruling People's Action Party (PAP) and the main opposition WP can agree on important issues in the heat of a parliamentary exchange.
In the previous parliamentary debates on politics, the 3G leaders led by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, and opposition leaders -- Low Thia Khiang and Singh -- had to agree to disagree.
This development can be seen as significant as it was forged between 4G leader Wong and Pritam, just as the 4G team is going to lead Singapore.
As PM Lee noted in his speech, "the 4G team is in place", and the "4G ministers are increasingly responsible for the safety and well-being of the country".
It is also noteworthy that none of the 3G leaders -- PM Lee, senior ministers Teo Chee Hean, Tharman Shanmugaratnam, and ministers K Shanmugam and Ng Eng Hen -- engaged in this debate about what politics should be in Singapore.
Remaining as one united people
Over the course of the five-day debate of the President's Address, leaders from both aisles were seen contesting one another's views more constructively, and acknowledging the points of consensus and the points of disagreement.
For instance, Wong said "there is a role for the opposition to play in our politics, in our democracy, and a very important role to campaign for your ideas and your proposals to hold the elected government to account and to offer serious alternatives to the government".
Singh, on the other hand, observed that PAP has shifted its position, with Ong acknowledging that WP had brought up many good ideas.
In the exchange between him and Ong, Singh also urged "a lot more Singaporeans" to have a listen to PM Lee's major speech on the geopolitical situation and its impact on Singapore to understand that the future is not going to be smooth.
In the same speech Singh cited, PM Lee also asked everyone to stay united:
"In this new troubled world, it is all the more important for us to close ranks. Divided, we stand no chance. We must do our best to see eye-to-eye on the fundamentals, and try to appreciate each other’s perspectives, even if we cannot always agree".
It appears that the 4G leaders and the main opposition party has taken a step in the positive direction.
They have agreed on the fundamentals and the first principles of politics in Singapore, and that there should be no place for populism and political opportunism in Singapore.
@mothershipsg DPM Wong: “Both sides of the House, we stand for a democracy that is maturing, a serious Government and a serious opposition. We say yes to all that.” #tiktoksg #sgnews ♬ original sound - Mothership.sg
The full back-and-forth can be read here:
Top photos via MCI
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