The exchange between the Workers’ Party (WP) secretary general Low Thia Khiang, and the Prime Minister, Lee Hsien Loong, in Parliament yesterday boils down to one thing – how “constructive politics” work in reality.
Following the President’s Address which opened the new term of Parliament, Mr Low chose to devote his speech to the issue of “constructive politics” in response to the Address.
While the debate between the two men is a rare but welcomed moment of spontaneous sword-crossing in the House, it is quite clear that Mr Low was the more rational one, while Mr Lee was trying to finger-point what he perceived as WP failures, even using derisory terms on the WP.
Mr Low, to his credit, did not stoop to Mr Lee’s level.
Nonetheless, what should interest Singaporeans more is the two sides’ differing views of what constitutes “constructive politics’.
To Mr Lee, it basically entails several main things, namely:
– Developing effective policies for Singaporeans.
– Putting forward good people to lead.
– Having a robust and open debate where proposals are scrutinised.
– Maintaining high standards of integrity and honesty.
– Rallying people together around a common cause.
While it would be hard to fault Mr Lee’s laundry list of what constitutes “constructive politics” – which is an easy list of politically correct motherhood statements – it is however rather telling that Mr Lee did not go into great details about how these could be achieved.
For example, he said there should be “a robust and open debate where proposals are scrutinised”.
Where would such a “robust and open debate” take place? Parliament is 92 per cent PAP MPs, the media is controlled and muzzled by the government which is also looking to curtail free expression online, and even the freedom of institutions are curbed.
Another example where Mr Lee does not give details of his idea of “constructive politics” is when he said that there was a need to maintain “high standards of integrity and honesty”.
How does one propose to do this?
Ironically, it is Mr Low who provided Mr Lee with the answer.
One of the three main pillars of “constructive politics’ to Mr Low is the impartiality of public institutions.
“Public trust can be eroded very quickly due to political gaming, as seen in many countries when political infighting unravelled the efforts to build them,” Mr Low said. “Building such institutions is the obligation of any responsible government, and entails whole-of-government efforts to protect these institutions from being perceived as political tools of the government.”
“The key to the success of such institutions is Public Trust, not government trust.
“Therefore, the institution must be seen to behave impartially and to be above politics. Such consistent and predictable behaviour over a long period of time will gain public trust to enable them to play a stabilising role in a political crisis.”
But in order to have people man such institutions and to keep them on the straight and narrow, you would need a political culture where people are informed and empowered, one which for example does not condone the abuse of such institutions by politicians.
“If the people support a governing party that uses governmental resources, including civil servants, to serve its partisan goals, we are condoning the abuse of political power as an acceptable culture,” Mr Low said.
He also said, “If you support a political party with the habit of fixing its opponents, you are breeding a political culture of fear.”
And indeed, these are the very things which have perverted our political culture in Singapore by the PAP government.
For as long as one can remember, those who do not support the PAP or its policies are punished by all kinds of means. From being discriminated against because one has too many children, to being shut out of the gate because one is not a Chinese, to being shoved to the end of the queue because one has voted for the opposition parties, to being made a criminal because of one’s sexual orientation, the PAP has entrenched a political culture of discrimination, racism, and preferential treatment.
It is thus no wonder that Mr Lee has voided addressing Mr Low’s ideas of “constructive politics” altogether in the debate on Wednesday. Instead, Mr Lee chose the low road of trying to score cheap political points by regurgitating old accusations of the WP, much like what his fellow PAP member Indranee Rajah did just a day earlier.
What Mr Lee and Ms Indranee had engaged in were in fact destructive politicking, the very opposite of the “constructive politics” which they say they support.
Mr Low, on the other hand, chose to be rational and patient, answering their accusations with calm explanation.
Mr Low, in fact, showed how “constructive politics” is supposed to be.
Indeed, Mr Lee had no response to Mr Low when the latter said, that the WP seeks “the mandate from people to come to parliament to check against the Government.”
“We have done it honestly and sincerely,” Mr Low said, “we have not turned this place into a theatre. That shows we are responsible and we will behave continuously as a rational and responsible party and if members would – I believe members will agree, that the WP has been rational. We have not come here with some wild polices or wild suggestions. We debate the policies, we came up with some suggestions but these are not bankrupting the Government coffer or suggesting to use the reserves.”
And this brings us to the third issue which Mr Low said constitutes “constructive politics” – political values.
“These can include knowing and respecting the Constitution; understanding how the political system empowers the People to make decisions and to take responsibility for the decision made; and also inculcating values like mutual respect, tolerance and diversity, as well as human dignity,” Mr Low said.
“The youth are the future masters of the country and the political leaders of tomorrow. I believe Singapore will be a more stable and mature democracy if Singaporeans are in possession of democratic values, which will be the DNA enabling us to move ahead as one united people and mitigate against the worry expressed by the President of gridlock and paralysis in the hurly-burly of politics.”
It is ironic that in trying to score political points by trying to revive old accusations against the WP on the Population White Paper – which, incidentally, first took place more than a year ago – Mr Lee is engaging in the very thing which he said he was afraid of – political gridlock.
Mr Low, to his credit, explained it very clearly and simply when Mr Lee, virtually grasping at straws, accused the WP of no longer raising objection to the government’s allowance of foreign workers into the country.
“Government decided otherwise that’s their way of doing it,” Mr Low said. “We have said our piece but we have to respect the decision of the Government to move on.”
This, in fact, was what the government itself had said post-GE 2011 – that while we can have debates and arguments, it is the government which will have to make the decision at the end of the day and we have to move on. Otherwise, there will be gridlock.
Yet, when the WP does exactly that – debate and then allow the government to move on once the government has taken a decision on an issue – the WP is instead accused of not continuously objecting to the issue at every point in time.
It is hard then to see what it is Mr Lee expects – for the opposition to continuously harp on an issue it disagrees with, or to allow the government to function after a decision has been taken.
It is thus quite clear that it is Mr Lee who was mired in the gutter of irrational and destructive politicking, contrary to the very “constructive politics” which he said he and his party subscribes to.
As for Mr Lee’s accusation that the WP had “flip-flopped” on the foreign labour issue, WP actually didn’t.
Instead, it is Mr Lee himself who seems to have flip-flopped on another issue.
And 3 years later:
Voters will decide if Mr Lee’s vision of politics in Singapore is what they want, or if they prefer the more sustainable one envisioned by Mr Low – inculcating political values in our young, encouraging a fair political culture, and having impartial institutions which uphold the values in our National Pledge.
For the longest time, Singapore politics have been stagnant with the all-encompassing PAP in power, ruling and dictating every aspects of our lives, including locking up people under the ISA and locking up Singaporeans’ monies in the CPF.
Perhaps it is time we dreamed a different future from the one of being ruled by petty politics which the PAP has come to be known for.
Mr Low’s speech in full:
Debate on President’s Address 2014
Low Thia Khiang
MP for Aljunied GRC
When Parliament first opened after the General Election in 2011, the President in his address noted that our politics was becoming more diverse and open and the composition of Parliament reflected this. He said this was positive for Singapore and advised that only by getting our politics right and keeping it constructive and responsible would Singapore make progress.
The President, in his address to the same Parliament in May 2014, devoted a section of his speech to “Upholding Constructive Politics”. The President advises that the vigorous debate in this house should continue but we should not allow our differences to pull us apart and we should move ahead as one united people.
Mdm Speaker, Yes, this is what the Workers’Party and I believe. This is the thought behind getting every candidate of the Workers’Party to recite the National Pledge at the end of our final rally in General Election. It is to remind us that despite our differences, we are all Singaporeans. The recitation of National Pledge has now become a tradition of the Workers’Party.
Politics comes in many shapes and forms. One can describe politics by adding different adjectives in front or at the back of the word “politics”. In the President’s address, the phrase “constructive politics”is used, I assume to be contrasted with “destructive politics”. To me, in whatever way “politics” is described and coloured, it is still politics.
To me, what is important is the outcome of the political process. Here, what the President has described as the desired outcome of Constructive Politics is moving ahead as one united people. We must all remember constructive politics does not happen by the order of the government, nor does it happen through a national conversation or public consultation.
To achieve the outcome of constructive politics in a diverse and open society like those in mature democracies and to nurture an environment conducive for it requires much effort, and everyone across society has their part to play. There are three aspects to this: political values, political culture, and impartial institutions trusted by the people.
Inculcation of political values needs to be undertaken in the young who have fresh minds. I suggest we take a hard look at the National Education syllabus in our schools. National Education should enable students to understand their rights and obligations as citizens in a democratic society as well as the values and concepts associated with democracy. These can include knowing and respecting the Constitution; understanding how the political system empowers the People to make decisions and to take responsibility for the decision made; and also inculcating values like mutual respect, tolerance and diversity, as well as human dignity.
The youth are the future masters of the country and the political leaders of tomorrow. I believe Singapore will be a more stable and mature democracy if Singaporeans are in possession of democratic values, which will be the DNA enabling us to move ahead as one united people and mitigate against the worry expressed by the President of gridlock and paralysis in the hurly-burly of politics.
The people should speak and decide via the ballot box what political culture we want as a country, and politicians must be aware of what political culture we are building through our style of political engagement as well as our actions.
If the people continue to support a government party that uses high-handed tactics against its political opponents, we are endorsing a bullying political culture. If the people support a governing party that uses governmental resources, including civil servants, to serve its partisan goals, we are condoning the abuse of political power as an acceptable culture.
Similarly, if you support a political party which believes in overthrowing the government by taking mass political action against the government regardless of the laws and proper channels to change things, you are building a culture of lawlessness. If you support a political party conducting its political engagement with a habit of playing racial politics and mud-slinging and launching personal attacks on its political opponents, you are building a thug political culture. If you support a political party with the habit of fixing its opponents, you are breeding a political culture of fear.
While all politicians play a role in building a political culture through political engagement, the government, is the dominant player of politics in Singapore, and plays a significant role. Using differentiating measures in policies to punish people who voted for the opposition breeds a culture of divisive politics.
It also used to be said that the political incumbent has no obligation to level the playing field, that might is right, and that the political incumbent has the right to use all legal means to remain in power because everyone will do it if they are the incumbent. This is building a self-serving political culture.
Building Institution of Public Trust
There is weakness in every political system, which could potentially result in the political gridlock and paralysis the President is concerned about. One such concern I have is the Elected President system which is unique to Singapore. I am concerned that the efficiency of the government can be paralysed by the President exercising his “blocking power”if the elected President and the government do not see eye to eye.
To avoid gridlock and paralysis, it is critical for us to build institutions of state that the public trusts. There are two examples showing why building institutions that the public trust is important. Nearer to home, we have an Asean member, Thailand, that is in political gridlock today. I believe the political gridlock could have been avoided if the Thai King decided to play an active role to defuse the crisis, as he had done in the past. He is a constitutional monarch with largely ceremonial and symbolic powers, but he embodies the spirit and values of Thai society. Most importantly, his past behaviour of acting in the interest of the nation has been consistent over a long period of time, and has won the respect and trust of the Thai people.
Next, let us look at the United States Presidential Election of 2000 where the “Florida Vote Recount” episode threatened to derail political stability in US with its political system’s history of more than 200 years. US was in political gridlock for weeks until the Supreme Court of US made a ruling declaring George W Bush as the winner. Although the ruling was not without controversy and not all were happy with it, the US was able to move on from the political crisis without damage. This is because the people of the United States trusted their Supreme Court as the final interpreter of Constitution and respected its rulings.
However, building such institutions is not easy. Public trust can be eroded very quickly due to political gaming, as seen in many countries when political infighting unravelled the efforts to build them. Building such institutions is the obligation of any responsible government, and entails whole-of-government efforts to protect these institutions from being perceived as political tools of the government.
The key to the success of such institutions is Public Trust, not government trust. Therefore, the institution must be seen to behave impartially and to be above politics. Such consistent and predictable behaviour over a long period of time will gain public trust to enable them to play a stabilising role in a political crisis.
Strengthening Our Political System
Mdm Speaker, the sub-title “Upholding Constructive Politics”in the President’s speech is glaring to me. It is an expression of a direction of the government’s priority in its work plan to Parliament. This is unprecedented in President’s Address since I entered Parliament in 1991.
I believe some will be cynical of the real meaning of Constructive Politics due to recent government actions. For instance, media convergence regulations extended the individual licensing regime for print newspapers and TV broadcasters to online news sites; this could result in a loss of valuable political diversity when online news commentary sites run by passionate and dedicated volunteers decide to shut down rather than be subjected to onerous licensing requirements. This smells of Compliant Politics and not Constructive Politics.
However, it takes time for the establishment and citizen activists to internalise and put in practice constructive politics and to cultivate the thought as a norm for consideration in the decision making process. I am of the view that bitter and negative experiences of citizens participating in politics, such as being detained without trial and becoming bankrupt, hamper us from moving towards constructive politics. We should also bear in mind that making personal attacks during political engagement does not help us to “come together again”. Instead, the attitude of “live and let live”despite our differences and unhappiness with each other will help us to move ahead as a united people.
As we approach 50 years of nation building, I am happy to note that we have made political progress in strengthening our political system. Our political system today is more competitive and the government is more responsive to the people. This augurs well for the future of Singapore as the geopolitical environment around us is becoming more dynamic, and the younger generations of Singaporeans are becoming citizens of a globalised world with diverse views.
The younger generation of Singaporeans today is better educated and the internet connects us to the world instantly. Hence, the expectations and horizons of Singaporeans today are very different from the older generation; they expect better standards befitting a first-world Singapore not only in terms of hardware like physical infrastructure and efficient services, but also software like quality of life, as well as in politics and government responses.
Therefore, this is a timely realisation of the government to put in efforts to enable a more robust political process, to cultivate political norms and to build an environment for constructive engagement in politics to safeguard the future of Singapore.