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Bertha HarianBertha Harian

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The PM is pissed off

I thought I was looking at a refreshed face of a post-GE2020 Government when the Prime Minister started saying that in hindsight, it could have handled the Covid-19 outbreak differently, like take more aggressive steps to secure foreign worker dormitories. 

The G must realise that a bit of mea culpa does wonders for its image. For me at least, it shows a government that is secure about its position to be able to acknowledge that there will be “rough edges’’ around its policies. 

But the old face of the Government or rather, the PAP, returned quite quickly. It scared me. 

Given the focus of the Parliamentary debate the last few days, it’s to be expected that PM Lee would deal with social safety nets and the employment of foreign workers vis-à-vis locals.

The G wouldn’t be “ideologically’’ opposed to suggestions about strengthening the net, but would assess them empirically and practically, he said. I guess this means we will no longer be subjected to lectures about how a “welfare state’’ destroys the fabric of society with examples from the decadent, liberal west. 

In fact, I can already detect some shift, like when Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat said that the G would keep an open mind about options like unemployment insurance, minimum wage and basic universal income. Manpower Minister Josephine Teo even described the Progressive Wage Model as “minimum wage plus’’ on Tuesday. Horrors!

Beyond repeating the Manpower ministry’s control measures for work permit, S pass and employment pass holders, PM Lee said that more foreign firms would be setting up shop here, creating more jobs for the Singapore core. So it’s best that the people do not scare such investors away by turning inward, he said. 

What this shows: Even as Covid-19 has been drying up jobs everywhere, Singapore remains a magnet for investors. This little red dot had a lot of qualities that others admire enough to want to set up their regional or international headquarters here. That’s a value that we must always keep. I would call it the Singapore way: law and order, incorruptibility and a hardworking, literate and numerate people. And in this days of disease, an excellent healthcare system. 

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I think that’s what we have to keep in view – that the current pain could bring us more benefits in future. PM Lee is right to say that we should have more confidence in ourselves as a people and as a nation-state. 

But just when I started to feel warm all over, he segued into politics and power, by first laying into the opposition for its queries about the size of the reserves.

I fail to see how questions about the amount is a reflection of a spendthrift or profligate mindset. I would rather he say that the exact amount is a state secret, like keeping our gunpowder dry, rather than impute motives to those who want answers. Just as we trust the Government with the reserves, so should it realise that we would not willy nilly push for a raid. (By the way, there is still the elected President to go through.) 

Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh took umbrage at PM Lee’s suggestion that the WP was aiming to use the reserves. The WP was looking at whether or how to slow down the growth rate of reserves. 

“There is nothing unusual about this, because the PAP does it, too. How so? In 2016, this House, including members of WP, agreed to include (state investment firm) Temasek Holdings into the NIRC (net investment returns contribution) formula. Does that not reduce the growth of the reserves? It does.

“So the argument cannot be that when the Opposition tries to put that proposal forward, somehow we are engaging in some sort of chicanery to steal what previous generations have toiled and perspired over to bring us here.”

I find the use of the term “mindset’’ troubling, because it shuts down any discussion by imputing agendas to questions and prevents debate from moving beyond first principles. What if someone simply said: “I want to know the amount because I am a citizen who worries about whether there’s any left for the rainy day?’’

I am also troubled with PM Lee’s identification of the PAP model with Singapore past, present and future. It might be the case at the country’s founding because, well, founding fathers everywhere write the country’s constitution, pledge and set up whatever a “new’’ country needs. 

It might be true for the years after, with the PAP’s dominance in Parliament. 

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And while years under the PAP have brought Singapore from Third World to First, it doesn’t mean that people do not have misgivings about the way it went about it. I can tell you that older women didn’t appreciate being pushed into sterilization so as to ensure the children they already have get good school places. 

The late Lee Kuan Yew’s hold on the population can be described as citizens responding to strong leadership after forging a national consensus on the way ahead. But it must also be said that it takes a lot of courage to question the Government or stand for election in those days.

Successive generations of PAP leaders shouldn’t be counting on past laurels to secure strong mandates – nor seek some form of gratitude at the polls for the work of previous governments. The third or fourth or fifth generation must gain the people’s confidence on their own merits, not based on telling the voters to adopt an over-simplified mindset: “You want the PAP as Government or not?’’

What I found surprising was how cutting he was about the Singapore electorate, especially those who voted the opposition while still wanting a PAP Government. They were free-riders and it was morally wrong for the WP to use this tactic to get voters to vote for the Opposition, he said.

He didn’t use the term freak election result, but that was what he was referring to when he asked: “At what point does a vote for a strong opposition become a vote for a different government?’’

“Is it really true that one day if there is a change of government, a new party can run Singapore equally well, because it has such good public service, as Mr Pritam Singh suggested on Monday?’’

I, too, fear a freak election result, one that goes either way, all for Opposition or all for PAP. The days of a one-party state are over and rather than chide voters for voting tactically, it might be more useful to decipher what they, as a collective, were trying to say at the polls, instead of scanning individual minds. 

The last election tells me that while we want the PAP in charge, most do not just vote the opposition for opposition’s sake. Sure, 30 per cent will be hard core opposition supporters but the middle ground of swing voters look closely at the credibility of the opposition candidates. Less credible candidates will always get pretty short shrift by the electorate. It is for political parties to swing this group to its side. The PAP might not have got the “strong mandate’’ it has asked for in terms of popular vote, but it should be a clear enough signal that the PAP should stay as government. 

At the risk of angering the PAP government, I found it strange that the Prime Minister was engaged in partisan politics in Parliament even as he talked about not letting debate descend into the polarization. You can bet that public discussion, both online and offline, will be about his free rider analogy rather than ways to help the country out of the Covid-19.

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Clearly, PM Lee believes that PAP’s dominance must be continued in some way to ensure Singapore lives on. Nothing wrong with that. In fact, some past innovations, backed by a PAP super-majority in Parliament, can be seen as a way to establish the PAP in power. He himself cited the Non-Constituency MP scheme as a valve for people who want checks and balances to let off steam. He did not, however, say that even with voting rights, NCMPs won’t make a jot of difference in a one-party Parliament when it comes to influencing legislation. 

In fact, it’s rather odd to talk about a two-for-one tactic when the PAP itself flogs the line that it was okay to vote the PAP because there will always be 12 NCMPs. 

Did he also consider that people might actually want to cut the PAP dominance down to size because they don’t agree that the PAP is always right? Or that the people think that government is not as good as the New York Philharmonic Orchestra that he referred to? 

I wondered about the anecdote he told about the old lady who wondered about the rightness of voting for the Opposition, and whether this means not being served by the PAP. Is he suggesting  that there must be some penalty for not voting the PAP even though the PAP ultimately formed the Government? Or is he talking about having the PAP’s losing candidate serving alongside the elected MP, one of the opposition’s biggest beef? (Or am I betraying the wrong kind of mindset with these questions?) 

Has he forgotten about the institution of town councils, which was intended to show a political party’s ability to manage an estate? This PAP innovation has been drummed into Singaporean heads: that voting in the opposition will have a direct impact on them, because the elected MPs also run town councils. So, it’s not a free ride. 

If, in some way, it is, that’s because the PAP also serves in the opposition ward under the moniker called grassroots adviser. It is for the PAP (or is it the Government?) to rationalize the grassroot network, and if the machinery of Government, which includes Community Development Councils and Community Centres, should serve the community via appointed advisers or elected representatives. Question: Is it not also  morally wrong to mislead voters in opposition wards about who their elected MP really is? 

In a Facebook post after the speech, he referred again to “mindset”. “During the clarifications, I explained the mindset we should have in elections. Voters are choosing the party they wish to govern Singapore; your vote matters. Vote because you truly support the party, whether PAP or opposition, and not because you want ‘the best of both worlds’. 

“Singaporean voters have spoken, and I respect their choice. The Government will do its part to work with the opposition to keep Parliament a constructive forum for debate.’’ 

I am glad he said that he respected the voter’s choice. Yes, the elections are over. Can the government now get on with the business of governing? 

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An ex-journalist who can't get enough of the news after being in the business for 26 years

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