Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat is talking of starting yet another series of national conversations with Singaporeans.
It would be far more meaningful for him as Prime Minister-in-waiting to have debates with opposition leaders during the coming general election.
Televised live debates are a key feature of elections in most countries. But Singapore is not like most countries – we shy away from political debates, just as we shy away from having live Parliamentary broadcasts.
Opposition politicians like Lim Tean have thrown down the gauntlet. Will the People’s Action Party take up the challenge? Or are the 4G leaders like Heng Swee Keat and Chan Chun Sing fearful of falling flat on their face?
Last November in Parliament, DPM Heng struggled to defend a motion on the Workers’ Party MPs’ recusal from town council financial matters. He appeared visibly flustered and called for an abrupt time-out when the WP challenged his motion.
Clips of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong looking exasperated at Heng’s performance circulated online.
Debates at the coming general election would be the perfect opportunity for DPM Heng to redeem himself, to show his mettle to take on the job of Prime Minister, to prove that he can think on his feet and deliver under pressure.
Otherwise, Singaporeans would naturally conclude that DPM Heng and the cabinet ministers are only willing to stay in their comfort zone of reading from prepared speeches. And from time to time, take advantage of their strength in numbers to launch an offensive against the opposition in Parliament.
Like in 2018, when several ministers including DPM Heng badgered the WP’s Sylvia Lim to apologise for suggesting that the government floated “test balloons” on the GST hike.
Sylvia Lim refused to apologise – just as well, because it came to light later that the NTUC did conduct surveys on tax matters with union leaders.
Taking on the opposition in Parliament is well within the comfort zone of Heng and his colleagues. One-on-one debates with political opponents under the glare of the election spotlight is a different kettle of fish.
If Heng eschews any form of debate, he would depart from his predecessors, becoming the first Prime Minister-designate to not undergo the most intense scrutiny.