End of era of sledge-hammer politics in post-GE 2020 Singapore

PAP: Thank you Singapore for your continued support, and for giving us another opportunity to serve you. (Twitter)

PAP: Thank you Singapore for your continued support, and for giving us another opportunity to serve you. (Twitter)

By Ivan Lim
Former AJA President, Contributor to AsiaN 

SINGAPORE: Is the era of hardball politics coming to an end in Singapore? For decades the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) has been delivering blow after blow, as if with an unabashed sledge hammer, at the microscopic opposition in Parliament. Will the watershed July 10 general election usher in a change in the thrust-and-parry of Singapore-style democracy?

A groundswell of public sentiment in the polls appeared to call for greater fair play but questions are being raised if this would change the all-dominant incumbent’s play book.

Thanks largely to young voters, the Covid-19-timed polls created a pro-opposition wave that won the Workers’ Party (WP) 10 seats, up from six in the 2015 election. The Progress Singapore Party (PSP) secured a high percentage of votes though short of victory but enough to be able to claim two non-constituency MPs’ slots in Parliament.

The PAP’s vote share was 61.24%, down from 69.86% in 2015, but it held on to83 of the 93seats at stake, a supermajority that would allow it to pass bills and make changes it may seek in diverse sectors without much hindrance.

The ruling party’s 8.62 percentage point decline in vote takings came despite a $93 billion bonanza of benefits to steer the workers and businesses through the hardships in the wake of the pandemic.

The shortfall has prompted the incumbent to conduct deep soul-searching and led it to make a fast about-turn in the dismissive way it had dealt with the opposition. Immediately after the heat of the hustings subsided, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong,68, offered the WP secretary general Pritam Singh,44, the title of Official Leader of the Opposition (LO).

This has been hailed as a historic turning-point in Singapore’s political development. It was a big jump from the “unofficial” leader of the opposition title offered to the WP former secretary general Low Thia Khiang, who rejected it as meaningless.

For “unofficial” carried no duties, perks and privileges, including leading in presenting alternative views and scrutinising government policies in parliamentary debates that have been conferred on Mr Pritam Singh. On top of a $385,000 annual allowance, the opposition leader will have a secretary and be able to hire legislative assistants to help him perform his parliamentary roles.

The new offer signalled a change of tack by the PAP, seen not as doing the opposition a favour but rather as long-term tactic of playing for keeps. Apparently, the PAP believes the WP is a moderate party that is prepared to work alongside the government. Recall that former WP chief Low had used the analogy of a co-driver in depicting his role vis-à-vis the PAP.

In the new evolving political culture of more competitive politics, the monolithic PAP, long used to having its way, would much prefer dealing with a party that is not as antagonistic as say the liberal Singapore Democratic Party or the new PSP led by a popular former PAP veteran Dr Tan Cheng Bock,80, who had attacked the PAP as losing its socialist bearings.

The former presidential aspirant’s indictment of the ‘centre-right’ PAP had gained credence from PM Lee’s estranged brother Hsien Yang,62, who said the PAP had strayed from their father the late Lee Kuan Yew’s legacy. The siblings had fallen out over their father’s final will on demolishing the family house or retaining it as a heritage. In his post-election comments, the younger Lee, who is a key PSP member, called for a revamp of the political system, including freeing up the mass media and opening the space for political expression.

In the new political normal, PAP strategists might well be seeking to cement a party not out to supplant it, at least not in the foreseeable future. In extending an olive branch to the WP, PM Lee said during a speech at the swearing-in ceremony on July 27: “I hope our colleagues across the aisle will step up to play their role of a responsible and loyal opposition.”

He also threw a challenge to the WP “to put forward serious policy alternatives to be scrutinised and debated.” At the same time, he was urging his MPs to be ready for robust debates with the Opposition in the House.

“Over time, the public will see the PAP backbenchers are as effective as opposition MPs, if not better,  at holding to account, getting issues fully debated, and influencing policies for the better,” he said in an eight-page letter to new MPs released to the media, detailing PAP lawmakers’ conduct and roles.

Sceptics see in this a potential “trap-door” for the opposition.  The PAP leaders could count on the civil service to help it formulate policies while the WP has limited resources to do so. Its team of 10 would also be facing a phalanx of 83 PAP lawmakers in Parliament. It is a tall order for the WP to be able to best the PA in debate when the dice is clearly stacked against the opposition, a columnist told me.

However, the WP might not play the game according to the PAP’ dictates. Responding to PM Lee, WP chief Pritam Singh described as fundamental the party’s role to act as check and balance on the government. Hence, in the new Parliament the WP will still be crossing swords with the PAP, not so much to score points as to forge better decisions on bills and policies.

Policy-wise, the WP does not “object to policies for the sake of objection” but to arrive at the right policies, a line articulated by its up-and-coming  leader, economist Jamus Lim,44, in a sparkling exchange with PAP’s  Dr Vivian Balakrishnan,59, during the election debate on July 1 that included the PSP and Singapore Democratic Party.

Therein lies a risk too. The WP might lose its sting as an opposition party if it proceeded on the lines of going along with the government, if swayed by the PAP’s arguments. It is pertinent to note that during the TV debate on policies Foreign Minister Balakrishnan had, characterised the WP as “PAP lite” in terms of their policy convergence.

In its election manifesto, the WP has pledged to take up hot-button issues. Specifically, the party challenges the government’s need to raise the Goods and Services tax to 9 percent from 7 per cent and proposes a universal minimum wage system. It also seeks to lower the employees’ provident fund payout date from 65 to 60; allow the use of Medisave funds; and make the Election Department independent of and removed from the purview of the Prime Minister’s Office.

With these contentious policies the stage is thus set for a robust and protracted debates when the 16th Parliament is inaugurated on August 24. It bears watching how PAP leaders will react to Mr Pritam Singh’s opening remarks on government policies in his new capacity as Leader of the Opposition.

In January, when Mr Singh sought a breakdown of the job figures for the different categories of Singaporeans, permanent citizens and foreigner workers set by the government’s Industry Transformation Maps, he got this rather curt retort from the Minister for Trade and Industry Chan Chun Sing: “We can get you the numbers. But …what’s the point behind the enquiry?”

There was no ulterior motive, Mr Singh said later: Having the numbers would enable the WP to examine the issues and problems facing workers in the different industries.

The resonance of WP’s “No blank cheque to the PAP’ rallying cry in GE 2020 has emboldened  the Opposition parties and its new young team is ready  to square off with the formidable PAP counterparts  in a new game of checks and checkmate.

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