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Straits Times, 2010

PAP pleads for blank cheque

In a time where trust in his party is on the wane, with distrust among Singaporeans perhaps at an all time high, the secretary general of the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) has called on Singaporeans to, effectively, give it a blank cheque, as far as political competition is concerned.

Speaking at his party’s 60th anniversary celebrations, Lee Hsien Loong derided the opposition, particularly the Workers’ Party (WP), which is seen as the leading political opposition party in Singapore.

Mr Lee, who has been the prime minister of Singapore since 2004, slammed the opposition for not having any visions for the country (which is not exactly true), and that its role as a checks and balances will lead Singapore down the rocky road.

According to news reports, Mr Lee said “that for every one more ‘checker’ in parliament there will be one less doer, thinker and leader in the government to serve the nation and the people.”

Adopting the PAP’s frequent use of the slippery slope argument, Mr Lee said:

“Eventually there will be no more PAP to check, there will be no more able team of ministers working and solving problems for Singapore, no progress for Singapore, no future for Singapore, and that will be the last check because that will be check mate for Singapore!”

In brief, if the PAP did not have, effectively, a blank cheque, Singapore would be doomed.

It is not a new message. Or a new (implicit) threat.

Political watchers would know that the PAP is fond of resorting to warnings of apocalypse to get its way.

Vote opposition and rubbish will be piled three storeys high.

Vote opposition and investors will run away.

Vote opposition and the value of your homes will come down.

Vote opposition and you have five years to repent.

Vote opposition and the prime minister will have to spend all his time thinking of ways to “fix” the opposition, and how to buy his supporters’ votes.

The little boy who often cried wolf has not grown up.

Yet, the PAP – and one suspects, Mr Lee especially – knows Singaporeans increasingly feel that checks and balances are important.

In fact, in a recent survey by the Straits Times, this came in second in importance to voters, after the issue of an efficient government.

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So, it would seem that either Mr Lee is dismissing voters’ feelings, or he is trying his utmost best to disabuse such desire for political or parliamentary checks and balances.

Either way, Mr Lee’s speech makes a poor case for it.

The PAP seems to be struggling to address this issue, which is not a new one.

Back in the 2012 by-election in Hougang, PAP Member of Parliament (MP), Denise Phua, had also tried to rubbish the notion of a oppositional watchdog.

Unfortunately, the attempt by Ms Phua, who is currently the Mayor for the Central Singapore Community Development Council, was itself rubbished by the public.

In her rally speech then, Ms Phua said she had “learnt that even without the opposition, citizenry who have higher expectations and demands would have stepped in, to shape and influence government policies and programmes.”

“If you don’t believe this,” she told the sparse crowd, “go and check out the views of ex-NMP Siew Kum Hong, Calvin Cheng, Paulin Straughan, Eugene Tan and even bloggers like Mr Brown, Kin Mun. They do not have allegiance to any specific political party but they together with many Singaporeans who have minds of their own – the people are the real check on the PAP (and even on the Workers’ Party).”

If you then put the remarks of Mr Lee and Ms Phua together, you would end up with this conclusion: the PAP wants no political or parliamentary opposition because it claims that political commentators and bloggers “are the real check on the PAP.”

Yet, at last Sunday’s party conference, Mr Lee also said that the “battle” against its critics “will also go online, where voices and sentiment against the PAP have been louder.”

"Others will try to mislead voters,” he told his audience, “they will lead Singapore into trouble, and those we must counter, expose and defeat."

Indeed, and it seems that the way the PAP does this is to sue bloggers (such as Roy Ngerng), charge them (as has been done to Alex Au), discredit them (through its control of the mainstream media), send in its own anonymous “counter-insurgency units” even as the PAP itself rails against online anonymity, and last but not least, amend legislations to tighten the noose on free speech, as it did last year and is expected to do so again soon.

But all this belies and perhaps betrays the underlying paranoia of a government under siege because of its failures, which have led to a deepening of distrust of its ministers, particularly for their lack of capable leadership, and for their elitist attitudes.

Nonetheless, there are those – it would seem – who would disagree with Mr Lee’s views on the role of the opposition (or government critics).

One of these is Mr Lee’s own deputy, Tharman Shanmugaratnam.

Speaking just a month prior to the hustings of May 2011, Mr Tharman recognised the benefits of a “strong opposition”.

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“Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam, who is also the People's Action Party's (PAP) treasurer, said that strong opposition is good for both PAP and Singapore during a multi-party forum televised on Channel News Asia,” the Straits Times reported him as having said.

His remarks drew approval from the leader of the WP, Low Thia Khiang.

“I think that shows quite a shift in the PAP’s mindset,” Mr Low said, “that they now see that a strong opposition is positive and good for the future of Singapore.”

Has the PAP changed its position as espoused by Mr Tharman?

One cannot be sure.

What is and should be of more concern to Singaporean voters are two factors, when it comes to considering if an opposition is necessary in Parliament.

One, the quality of PAP candidates have diminished, resulting in the party having to accept non-top tier talents. This was revealed by one of its own MP in a Wikileaks document.

The many failures of the Lee Hsien Loong government these past years – the most significant and worrying of which was the lack of foresight in anticipating the slew of problems created by its open-door immigration and foreign labour policies – is another testimony to its lack of depth in leadership.

Second, as Singapore moves forward towards a rapidly ageing and an increased population, there are many serious questions which we need to address.

And one of these is the issue of energy – if we run towards a population of 6.9m, as projected by the Population White Paper, or an even larger one – where are we going to have enough energy sources?

This is why the Lee Hsien Loong government evidently made a u-turn in its position on nuclear power plants for Singapore.

In 2007, Mr Lee unequivocally said that nuclear power was out of the question for Singapore.

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But a mere three years later in 2010, the papers front-paged the news that his government “was preparing for [the] nuclear power option”.

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While one can understand that the government might want to equip itself with the knowledge of such technology, given that our neighbours in Asia are increasingly also looking to nuclear power for their energy needs, the question one has is: should such important questions be left to one man (or a few men and a woman in government) who seemingly can change their minds without much explanation or accountability?

And given the many failures of recent times, which include failures to plan for adequate physical infrastructure, should Singaporeans give the Lee Hsien Loong government the blank cheque it seeks?

While we may be able to buy more buses and build more train tracks to make up the lack of foresight in planning, and to fix broken or leaking ceilings, or even to make grass grow, we may not be able to fix a nuclear leak, or the very serious social problems of an enlarged 7million or a 10 million population.

Checks and balances in Parliament is not, as some such as Ms Phua have misrepresented, a matter of making speeches or writing critiques of the government.

Parliamentary checks and balances mean having the power to demand and compel the government to explain, to detail, to be transparent, to account for, and yes to even stop the government from doing anything which can harm the people of Singapore.

Checks and balances, ultimately, do not come from political commentators, or from bloggers, or online commentors, or even from within the PAP itself.

One of its own MP, Hri Kumar, admitted as much earlier in April.

“Many people come to me and say, oh but the PAP you know you have the Whip, and so all of you must vote the same way. That’s true. That’s the system we inherited, for party discipline. But nonetheless, you still have PAP MPs giving different views in Parliament.” (See here.)

But as explained above, giving different views is not exactly checks and balances.

When it comes to very serious questions and decisions, such as having nuclear power plants sited here on this island, do we trust that a House entirely made up of PAP MPs is what we want, to make that decision?

More importantly, will they make the right decision?