Any alternative political party relying on the promise of having the People’s Action Party (PAP) as the government at the end of the day as a means to rope in Singaporeans to vote for them is a “free rider”, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.
Speaking in Parliament on Wednesday (2 September), Mr Lee said that such election strategies will cause the system to fail.
Instead, Singapore’s political system can only be effective if voters make their choice “sincerely, honestly, in accordance with what they really want”, he said, as he stressed that elections are held for people to choose those who will run the government.
Mr Lee’s remarks were robustly countered by Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh, who stressed that the residents of Aljunied, Hougang, and Sengkang GRCs — wards won over by the Workers’ Party (WP) — are not “free riders”.
“We’re not just doing nothing having been voted in. We’re not just letting the other guy, the government of the day, do what we have to do … You’ve got to prove your worth in the Town Council and we’ve had growing pains,” he said.
Mr Singh also addressed Mr Lee’s later anecdote on a middle-aged woman’s conversation with Senior Minister Teo Chee Hean during the election campaigning period.
The woman had reportedly asked Mr Teo on whether voting for the opposition would mean “two persons working for you instead of one” as the PAP’s plans for the constituency would still materialise regardless, according to Mr Lee.
Mr Singh said that on his end, he has been asked by residents on why the elected opposition MP is not made present at the community club in the ward.
“Isn’t that elected MP who is an opposition candidate not part of this larger political firmament? Isn’t that unfair?” he illustrated, among other questions that have surfaced among residents.
The Aljunied Group Representation Constituency (GRC) MP also pointed out claims on how WP is allegedly “trying to engender sympathy from the public” by conducting Meet-the-People sessions at the void deck at public housing blocks.
“People come up to me when I go on the ground and they say, ‘Mr Singh, is it true? Actually, the government says you can build your own offices.’
“Prior to 1991, HDB built offices for everybody, every MP, including opposition MPS. And then they stopped in 1991.
“Why did they stop? Because the argument was that there was a competing need for void deck space,” he said.
Thus, when Singaporeans say that they want the PAP in the government but also an opposition presence in that government, “they are giving voice to the situation many Singaporeans actually feel”, said Mr Singh.
He stressed that he and his opposition colleagues are not only placed under the scrutiny of the government and pro-establishment supporters but also under the “pressure from our own supporters”.
“But as the Prime Minister rightly said, I think we owe our loyalty to something larger, and we will do our best by Singaporeans, and if we’re not good enough, we deserve to be voted out. And that’s how the system should work,” Mr Singh said.
Quoting the late Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s first prime minister, Mr Singh stressed the importance of distinguishing a political party from the government machinery, so that in the event a political party is voted out of office, the system will continue to work.
“We do not have heady dreams of becoming government. I believe in an opposition in a parliamentary democracy. It’s not going to happen with people just hoping someone else does it. Somebody has to put his flag in the sand and say, ‘I’m going to do it’. And that is the duty of myself and my party colleagues to make sure that the people who are on board do their very best.
“This is my commitment to Singaporeans. And this is my commitment to the Prime Minister as well,” stressed Mr Singh.
Mr Lee countered Mr Singh by saying that ministers “are not just presiding”, but are “executive”.
“They are running their Ministries. They are expected to know all about these Ministries … Every in and out of the policy when he comes here to answer in the Committee of Supply or Parliamentary questions,” he said.
Mr Lee’s comments in Parliament on “free riders” were met with backlash from members of the public, particularly those who voted for alternative parties.
One commenter questioned the absurdity of having a “free ride” when even those who vote for parties other than PAP “still pay income tax, GST and every other tax”.
“Those who collect huge salaries in parliament just to sleep, use handphone and never speak up for our concerns are the real free riders,” they added.
One commenter said that by the same logic, residents of Aljunied and Hougang — both fortresses of WP — who voted for the opposition party can similarly brand those who outwardly support opposition parties but end up voting the PAP as “free riders”.
“They love oppo but yet vote for pap during polling day. They decide to let Aljunied and Hougang voters bear the burden of carrying the oppo flags,” they said.
One commenter expressed his disappointment in Mr Lee’s remarks and stressed that voters of alternative parties are all citizens who build the country together.
“Does he have no confidence in Singaporeans to make the right decision? Or he’s lacking it for his party?” they questioned.
One commenter said that branding voters of opposition parties as “free riders” is “an insult to democracy”.
One commenter said that voting for alternative parties such as WP has prompted the ruling party to address pressing issues such as the influx of migrant labour more seriously.
“The foreign labour issue has been festering for donkey years and they were unable to resolve it to a satisfactory conclusion. Not until they lost vote share then they act,” they said.
Multiple commenters pointed out that the real “free riders” in Parliament are junior PAP MPs who ride on the coattails of the anchor ministers in GRCs.
One commenter also highlighted that some first-time MPs even “get appointed as Ministers on their very first term when they don’t even know their job role as an MP”.
Several commenters called for the GRC system to be abolished and to instead only put in place SMCs to prevent the entry of such purported “free riders” into Parliament in the future.
A GRC is a large electoral division, both in terms of population as well as physical area, comprising a group of MPs representing the interests of those residents in the electoral division.
Lee Kuan Yew, as prime minister at the time, suggested in 1982 that as young voters were less aware of the importance of voting in a racially balanced selection of MPs at the time, it was crucial to ensure adequate minority race representation.
The late Mr Lee’s view was then materialised via amendments made to the Constitution of the Republic and the Parliamentary Elections Act, paving the way to the current GRC system, whereby teams of candidates running for election in a GRC must include at least one member from a minority community.
WP in its election manifesto this year called for the abolishment of GRCs.
People’s Voice Party chief Lim Tean, in his critique of the GRC system two years ago, said: “The PAP backbenchers are nothing more than “yes” men, and the system has resulted in a catastrophic decline in the quality of our Parliament where the debates are poor and MPs are mocked for their abysmal attendance.”
In the United Kingdom, under the legislative arm of the Westminster system, backbenchers are MPs who hold office — ministerial posts and the likes — neither in the government nor the opposition and who sit behind the front benches in the House of Commons.
Singapore’s parliamentary system is modelled on the Westminster system.
“That is what you get when you have people who are not qualified to be MPs swept into Parliament on the back of a disreputable system,” he argued.
Last year, Mr Lim called upon Mr Lee to size down GRCs and to increase the number of SMCs.
He wrote: “The PAP continued to ferry large numbers of unworthy candidates into Parliament by hiding them under the coattails of their Ministers in the GRCs … Many non-descript PAP MPs are hidden in those 2 outsized GRCs [Ang Mo Kio and Pasir Ris-Punggol],” he said, stressing that GRCs “should not be larger than 3 men teams”.
“MPs such as Cheng Li Hui of Tampines who proposed an increase in transport fares last year, Zainal Sapari of Pasir Ris-Punggol and Yi Chia Hsing of Chua Chu Kang who both proposed that the payout of monthly CPF annuities start from the age of 70 instead of 65 should all be made to stand in SMCs, so that voters can decide whether their proposals agree with the aspirations of Singaporeans,” he said.
While the number of MPs in a GRC has been reduced from six per GRC, the number of GRCs in the last election increased from 16 to 17 with the creation of the Sengkang GRC, which was won by the WP team led by lawyer He Ting Ru.
The newest GRC is a merger of the former Sengkang West and Punggol East SMCs, and parts of Pasir-Ris Punggol GRC.
Sengkang GRC is now among other four-member GRCs, namely the Chua Chu Kang, Holland-Bukit Timah, Jalan Besar and Marsiling-Yew Tee GRCs.
Six-member GRCs — such as the Ang Mo Kio and Pasir Ris-Punggol GRCs — were reduced to five-member ones, while four-member GRCs — such as the East Coast and West Coast GRCs — were increased to five-member ones.
Other five-member GRCs are the Aljunied, Jurong, Marine Parade, Nee Soon, Sembawang, Tampines and Tanjong Pagar GRCs.
The Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC had its seats in Parliament reduced from five to four.