In remarks reminiscent of those he has made in the past, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said the Government would go “extinct” if it helped those who voted against it “first”.
“If we take the view that if you voted against me, I should help you first (as) that shows my largeness of spirit, then I think you will go extinct as a government,” Mr Lee said.
He made the remarks during a dialogue on Thursday hosted by Washington Post columnist, Fareed Zakaria, at a Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) conference titled, “Singapore at 50: What Lies Ahead?”.
Mr Lee was responding to Mr Zakaria’s opinion that Singapore was one of the only developed economies in the world that has not transitioned to a multi-party liberal democracy.
“We are a multi-party liberal democratic system,” Mr Lee said. “The outcome is not what you would like to see, but that is what Singaporean voters have decided.”
A month before the general election of 2011, Mr Lee also made similar remarks about how those who voted against his ruling party, the People’s Action Party (PAP), would be left at the back of the queue for government programmes.
A student at a ministerial forum at the National University of Singapore (NUS) had asked Mr Lee, who was the guest speaker, why residents in opposition-held Hougang were being penalised when it came to upgrading programmes by the Housing and Development Board (HDB).
“The answer is that there has to be a distinction. Because the PAP wards supported the Government and the policies which delivered these good things,” PM Lee told the 1,200 students in the audience.
“Between the people who voted and supported the programme and the government, and the people who didn’t,” he explained, “I think if we went and put yours before the PAP constituencies, it would be an injustice.”
Mr Lee’s remarks then created a huge uproar, with many criticising his government for discriminating against Singaporeans based on who they voted for, and for using taxpayers’ funds to induce or coerce political support.
“I thought that as PM, he was there to represent ALL the people, without favour or preference,” said one commenter online. “He is not the PM of just those he voted for, but for each and every Singapore citizen, including those who did not vote for him or his party… How can the PM say that if you vote for PAP, you get nice chocolate cake and coffee, but if you vote for other party you only get water and biscuit?”
Another person posted: “Upgrading is not delivered solely based on policies. It is driven by money from the reserves. The money comes from the people and not from PAP.”
The PAP saw its vote share slide to its lowest ever at the 2011 elections, which also saw it lose a group representation constituency (GRC) for the first time. The party also subsequently lost two by-elections following that.
The Government has had to tread a tight-rope since then, especially when it came to discriminatory government practices or policies.
This could be seen just three months ago, in April, when the Minister of Social and Family Development, Tan Chuan-Jin, struck a seemingly different tune, and said the Government “will work for the people, regardless of who they vote for.”
“I think one of the things we have always believed in is to try and do the right thing. It is really important for us as a small country and I think we will continue to do that,” he said while on a visit to the opposition constituency of Aljunied.
The theme of inclusiveness has been a recurring one in government ministers’ speeches for the longest time.
In fact, on Tuesday, Mr Lee reiterated his government’s commitment to building such a society which, he said, included being gracious towards each other.
“We really want a society which is cohesive and graciousness is an important part of this,” he said at another dialogue at the Singapore Management University.
“Graciousness meaning we are about each other, we feel for each other, we are not just in a rat-race, but we are in a team together.”
He said that despite competing with each other, we also have to “work together, we feel together.”
“I think graciousness therefore is an important part of this,” he said. “You do not want to be a place where you are rich, you live in one little circle, if you are poor, you are cut out from that circle. We are all Singaporeans together, we all eat at hawker centres from time to time, we all visit the same places, even when we go on holiday, we do not go on such drastically different places for holiday and we meet each other overseas. That is the right sort of society we want to be.”