The questions raised by Jurong GRC Member of Parliament (MP) Tan Wu Meng in his opinion piece on the People’s Action Party (PAP) website were “politically motivated” and divisive, said Workers’ Party (WP) chief Pritam Singh.
Dr Tan’s article, published on the PAP website last Friday (Jun 19), targeted Mr Singh’s comments on “citizens who are loving critics”, which the latter had recently made in his speech on the Fortitude Budget earlier this month.
The article has since attracted backlash from members of the public.
Dr Tan wrote that in saying that Singapore should feel fortunate to have citizens who are “loving critics”, it was “clear” that Mr Singh was referring to renowned Singaporean playwright Alfian Sa’at even “without naming names”.
“There are many Singaporeans who criticise Singapore out of patriotism and genuine care, including opposition leaders like Mr Chiam See Tong and Mr Low Thia Khiang.
“But Alfian Sa’at is no ‘loving critic’,” said Dr Tan, illustrating his point using several of Mr Alfian’s past Facebook posts.
Dr Tan went on to say that Mr Singh “may not have read all these things that Alfian has said”, and should thus “read them carefully, and then tell us if he still thinks Alfian is a “loving critic” of Singapore”.
“If he does, perhaps Mr Singh considers himself a ‘loving critic’ of Singapore too?” Dr Tan concluded.
Dr Tan told CNA in response to queries on Friday that it is crucial for “all of us to understand what Alfian stands for”, which, in his view, is taking “the side of Malaysia against Singapore on multiple occasions”.
“And so when the Leader of the Opposition endorses Alfian as a ‘loving critic’, it is important for all of us to understand what Alfian stands for, and to ask if that endorsement was an informed choice,” he said.
Responding to Dr Tan’s contentious article in a Facebook post on Sunday night (21 June), Mr Singh said that such questions — which were “cloaked as innocent ones” — serve to split citizens not into “those who are for or against” Singapore, but into those who back or oppose the PAP.
The questions, he added, were also made to “paint WP in a negative light”.
Mr Singh also noted that Dr Tan did not directly oppose, object or question him directly in Parliament regarding the matter “as he is entitled to, being an elected MP holding a political portfolio that specifically includes foreign affairs”.
“PAP leaders, including Mr Shanmugam, routinely ask WP MPs to clarify their positions on the spot, in Parliament. WP MPs routinely do the same to PAP ministers,” the Aljunied GRC MP highlighted.
Mr Singh — in referencing “citizens who are the loving critics amongst us” in his Fortitude Budget speech — highlighted how the COVID-19 pandemic has elevated the voices of young Singaporeans and “small group of Singaporeans who have been lobbying for improvements to foreign worker management policies for years”, which have been met by “naysayers questioning their motives”.
“To that end, the Government’s decision to quickly introduce guidelines for better foreign worker accommodation standards and the promotion of a more respectful culture between Singaporeans and migrant workers has been a very positive development,” he said.
“Nobody expects the Government to willy-nilly change its decision at the first sign of pressure and agree with a critic. Singaporeans do recognize the multitude of perspectives the Government has to take cognizance of, but it is important to recognise that citizens criticize and organise because they care,” said Mr Singh.
He encouraged the Government to consider “opening more avenues like Parliament for citizen engagement” and “greater data-sharing”.
Other institutions such as think-tanks and the mainstream media should also be empowered to allow alternative perspectives a greater voice, he added.
Commenting on his use of the term “loving critic” in Parliament earlier this month, Mr Singh on Sunday noted that veteran diplomat Tommy Koh had “originally coined” the phrase for Mr Alfian “and Singaporeans like him”.
In a Facebook post on 8 October last year regarding the Yale-NUS saga, Prof Koh said that Mr Alfian is “a loving critic of Singapore” and “one of our most talented playwrights”, adding that the latter “is not anti-Singapore”.
“Prof Koh, a Singaporean diplomat of international stature who built his reputation by tactfully protecting Singapore’s foreign interests over many decades, needs no introduction. I found Prof Koh’s use of the term “loving critic” to describe Singaporeans like Mr Alfian Sa’at apt. Why?
“I do not specifically track what our playwrights say about Malaysia. But I have always appreciated the perspective of theatre practitioners in Singapore, regardless of their race or choice of language medium, on subjects considered taboo or sensitive by mainstream standards.
“Such reflections, which are commonly critical and provocative, give rise to a thinking population,” said Mr Singh.
Dr Tan’s “belated but calculated decision to express his views on the PAP website on the eve of imminent general elections”, in Mr Singh’s view, may have been part of the reason behind the backlash received by not only the Senior Parliamentary Secretary, but also by the ruling party itself.
“It is my opinion that Dr Tan’s belated but calculated decision to express his views on the PAP website on the eve of imminent general elections, or the leap in logic of extending Mr Alfian Saat’s artistic expressions to an endorsement by the WP of every controversial view Mr Alfian has made, go some way to explain the vitriol that continues to come the way of not just Dr Tan, but the PAP as well,” said Mr Singh.
“How the PAP chooses to conduct its politics is something for the PAP to decide. The public are equally entitled to respond as they deem fit – within the remit of the law – and at the ballot box,” he added.
Mr Singh’s remark was made after Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam took to Facebook on Sunday to comment on the debacle.
“Dr Tan’s note asks a serious and thoughtful question. He sets out what Mr Alfian Sa’at has said. Mr Alfian Sa’at’s position is that Singaporean Chinese are selfish in not wanting a merger with Malaysia. He deeply dislikes Mr Lee Kuan Yew, dismisses his legacy,” said Mr Shanmugam.
“Mr Alfian Sa’at loves Malaysia and Dr Mahathir, he also likes Malaysia’ Bumiputra policies. When Malaysian government vessels were in Singapore waters during a tense standoff on territorial issues, he took Malaysia’s side and said Singaporeans were being jingoistic,” wrote Mr Shanmugam in the Facebook post.
Alfian Sa’at issues detailed refutation of “pro-Malaysia activist” narrative, draws on his previous criticisms of Mahathir Mohamad and “Bumiputera” policies
Mr Alfian had earlier issued a detailed refutation of the “pro-Malaysia activist” narrative being made against him in a Facebook post on Saturday (20 June).
Among the points made by Mr Alfian include his past criticism in 2014 on how the Bumiputera policy “has been hijacked and corrupted” by “UMNOputras” through “cronyism, nepotism and corruption”.
“Of all the accusations in that post, this one is the most obviously defamatory. I had to comb through all my posts to see what I had written about ‘Bumiputera policies’. And there’s not a single post that mentions endorsement of the policy, nor my wish for it to be implemented in Singapore. If anything, there is awareness of how it has been hijacked and corrupted,” he wrote.
While Malaysia’s Federal Constitution does not explicitly include the word “Bumiputera”, Article 153 provides for the role of the Yang Di-Pertuan Agong — the Head of State — as the protector of the “special position” of Malays and the native people of Sabah and Sarawak.
The constitutional provision relates to what is popularly known as “quotas” or affirmative action for Malays and East Malaysian native people in terms of applying and obtaining scholarships and education, positions in the civil service, and permits or licences for trade or business activities, to name a few.
Article 153, however, does not mention the terms “rights” or “special privileges”. The Article also contains certain restrictions as a means to safeguard the rights of Malaysians who do not fall under the “Bumiputera” category.
Contrary to the assertion that he adulates Malaysia’s former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, who is known for his strongman politics, Mr Alfian highlighted several instances in which he had criticised Dr Mahathir for some of the latter’s publically espoused views.
The playwright noted in 2014 that Dr Mahathir has, for example, made “antisemitic remarks about Jewish global conspiracies” while simultaneously “quietly accepting Western capital investment towards his country’s economic development”.
A year earlier, Mr Alfian rejected the undertones of Malay supremacism in Dr Mahathir’s remark on the Chinese rejecting the ‘Malay hand of friendship’.
“I’m upset to hear that Dr Mahathir stated that the Chinese have rejected the ‘Malay hand of friendship’. Don’t say that people have rejected your ‘hand of friendship’ when you have no idea what friendship even means. Friendship doesn’t mean, ‘we can get along, as long as you accept my superiority’,” wrote Mr Alfian.
Touching on the claim that he had “mocked” Singapore’s approach in last year’s maritime dispute with Malaysia as “jingoism”, Mr Alfian clarified that his comments expressed his “dovish” anxiety over military escalation in the Johor Straits at the time.
“I expect our elected officials to exhaust all diplomatic channels for solutions rather than to rely on ‘jingoism’—extreme nationalism, in the form of aggressive or warlike foreign policy,” he wrote on Saturday.
Mr Alfian quoted what he had written regarding the matter:
“Thinking of that standoff in the Johor Straits, about jingoism, the itch to war by a heavily militarised population…the eternal threat is always that neighbour up north, the construction of a crude nationalism depending on its bogeying…because first you caricature, then you dehumanise, and then…
And what comes to mind are the final lines of C. P. Cavafy’s enduring poem ‘Waiting For The Barbarians’:
Because night has fallen and the barbarians haven’t come.
And some of our men just in from the border say
there are no barbarians any longer.
Now what’s going to happen to us without barbarians?
Those people were a kind of solution.”
“One could easily accuse me of saying that ‘the Malaysians have a better system which Singapore should emulate’. But Cavafy is saying that barbarians are ‘a kind of solution’ to the problem of getting a population to rally together, as nothing unites people more effectively than a common enemy,” said Mr Alfian.