Andrew Loh & Ravi Philemon
"Come election time, they talk a lot of things, which is rubbish… This is a government which chooses its MPs very carefully; test them out before they become ministers. That's why it is working. The present ministers can last ten years..."
That quote is by Minister Mentor (MM) Lee Kuan Yew, as reported by Channelnewsasia here. He was referring to the opposition parties and defending his own People's Action Party (PAP).
On first impression, one is inclined to disagree with the MM. After all, the local media is hardly fair in reporting the issues which the opposition parties bring up during the elections. Indeed, the media here gives overwhelming and comprehensive space to all things PAP during the hustings. And also, despite MM’s boast about the credentials of his PAP MPs and ministers, it is a wonder why none of them is considered good enough to be the next Prime Minister. And as one recalls, it was MM Lee himself who termed the 25 new PAP candidates in the last General Elections “second tier” candidates.
As for the system working, which is presumably what MM Lee was referring to, this is arguable, at best. Singapore has the second biggest income gap in the world, the huge influx of foreigners is an issue we’re still grappling with, housing prices are placing public housing out of reach for many, our birth rate conundrum remains, and we have a problem looking for the next Prime Minister. These are just some of the more serious problems we’re facing.
One would therefore take MM Lee’s words with a pinch of salt. In any case, it is expected that the man who helmed the party for several decades would praise his own party and colleagues. It is politics, after all, and the next elections are not far away.
But on closer inspection, the MM might not be all wrong. If you have attended opposition parties’ election rallies, you would have heard some truly outrageous ideas and suggestions in the speeches by some opposition candidates. One example would be a speech by the chairman of Singapore People’s Party (SPP), Mr Sin Kek Tong. At a rally in Potong Pasir in 2001, he (in)famously called for “free 24-hour parking all over Singapore”, if one remembers his words exactly. He also asked for all trees along the expressways to be “chopped down” because drivers could not see the blocks’ numbers.
It was hardly an impressive speech, especially from a party chairman. You could almost feel the crowd cringe as the words came out of his mouth.
And then there was Mr Wong Hong Toy, a candidate from the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) in the last elections. At a speech at Woodlands Stadium, he spoke in the local dialect, Hokkien. It was an unbearable speech to listen to with all his ranting and nothing else, it seems.
Having said that, it is not only the opposition candidates who “talk a lot of things, which is rubbish”, but the Peoples’ Action Party’s (PAP) candidates too are guilty of being facetious. Blogger Gayle Goh wrote on her blog, i-speak, after listening to PAP candidate, Ms Penny Low, in a Pasir Ris-Punggol Group Representation Constituency (GRC) rally: “She is one scary woman! She kept yelling at the crowd anti-SDA things, trying to rouse them into some sort of fervor. ‘SDA people in their trucks go round and round and round! No direction! Round and round...What can they do for you?!’, etc… I am very scared of her now…I kept imagining her chasing after her kids with her rattan cane.” (Source: Institute of Policy Studies.)
Another blog, Singapore Election Watch, wrote of a PAP candidate who spoke at a rally describing the opposition parties as terrorists; they come and strike every five years and disappear. “In fact they hung their posters in the middle of the night”, the candidate supposedly said.
Of course, these were not reported in the local mainstream media.
Ironically, it was MM Lee himself who “rubbished” the elections in 2006 the most by his unstinting focus on the so-called James Gomez saga. MM Lee led the charge that Mr Gomez had lied about having submitted a particular election form to the Elections Department. Words such as “cheat”, “liar”, and “dishonest” were used by the MM to describe Mr Gomez. It culminated in charges being leveled by MM Lee at the leaders of the Workers’ Party as well, namely Mr Low Thia Khiang and Ms Sylvia Lim.
It wasn’t until the later part of the 9-days’ hustings that the Peoples’ Action Party realized that Singaporeans were tired of the daily diatribe against Mr Gomez by MM Lee and his PAP colleagues. Only then, did the PAP decide to focus on the issues of concern to Singaporeans – but it all came too late and Singaporeans were, quite rightly, upset at the way the elections turned out.
It has been said that the MM’s antics cost the PAP – and the Prime Minister in particular – some votes. In the end, MM Lee’s behavior did not do much damage to the Workers’ Party’s fortunes, apparently. Mr Low Thia Khiang won his Hougang seat with an increased majority, giving him his highest share of the votes since he won Hougang in 1991. The Workers’ party turned out to be the best-performing party among all the opposition parties. But perhaps most satisfying to the party was the Aljunied GRC result. Mr Gomez was part of the WP’s Aljunied team – and it garnered a respectable, some would say impressive, 44 per cent of the votes. Ms Lim eventually became a Non-Constituency MP.
The more important point perhaps is it really doesn’t matter what MM Lee says about the opposition. The 2006 General Elections showed, as it did with the WP, that if a party focuses on the real issues and holds firmly to its integrity, it can achieve respectable results.
Ms Chee Siok Chin, a member of the SDP’s Central Executive Committee (CEC), when asked by The Online Citizen to comment on MM Lee’s latest remarks, said MM Lee resorts to name-calling “so that real issues then take the back-seat”. “SDP”, says Ms Chee, “has been advocating minimum wage, retrenchment benefits and CPF related issues since the 2001 elections.” SDP’s manifesto shows that it has also championed various other issues, including the adoption of a Singaporean first policy, smaller classroom sizes, as well as the doing-away of streaming at the primary 4 level.
Mr Lim Bak Chuan Desmond, the Assistant Secretary-General o f SPP says, “There are three main issues that my team had brought up (in the last elections) – family values, maximizing opportunities for all Singaporeans and the building of a compassionate society.”
Most notable perhaps was the Workers’ Party, which had the most comprehensive election manifesto of all the parties in General Elections 2006. The little booklet titled “You Have A Choice”, which was sold at all the party’s rallies, contained quite a list of ideas and suggestions. The speeches by the candidate too were focused on important issues such as means testing for hospitalisation, the growing income gap, the GRC system and an ageing population.
Certainly, these were no “rubbish” issues, as MM Lee would like us to think.
At the end of the day, the MM can say what he likes. But if he hijacks an entire election for an agenda which to most Singaporeans is of no consequence, Singaporeans will see through it. What should be of concern to Singaporeans is that while the opposition candidates who made those atrocious remarks and speeches during the elections did not win Singaporeans’ support, the PAP candidates who did are, however, now Members of Parliament.