WAR OF WORDS
Over one week at the end of last month, the People’s Action Party launched a war of words against the Workers’ Party. The WP manifesto was attacked for having ‘time bombs’ and ‘poisons’ and ‘dangerous’ ideas. Why did the PAP react that way? And does the debate herald a fiery election campaign? Chua Mui Hoong reports
GRAPHICS: BONG FORTIN
MISS K. Khalid, 29, followed the recent debate between the Workers’ Party (WP) and the People’s Action Party (PAP) with avid interest.
Miss Khalid, who works in the education industry, read the reports of PAP ministers like Dr Ng Eng Hen, Mr Khaw Boon Wan and later Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong slamming the opposition WP for the latter’s manifesto.
She read Dr Ng’s description of the manifesto as containing four “time bombs” which would cause Singapore to detonate if introduced, and Mr Khaw’s characterisation of these as “poisons”.
The four WP proposals that drew PAP fire were: to scrap ethnic integration policies, grassroots organisations and the elected presidency; and to give more subsidies even if it causes Budget deficits.
She followed the rejoinders from WP secretary-general Low Thia Khiang and chairman Sylvia Lim.
She came to her conclusions quietly, but firmly.
Some of the rhetoric used by the PAP has turned her off. “It would be better to just stick to arguments and say why the WP points are dangerous, for instance, and give your supporting reasons and let the voters decide which argument is more sound.”
But on the substance of the policies, she buys the PAP’s argument that, indeed, the four proposals are dangerous.
It is a debate she takes seriously as the issues are important, she says.
Politicking or serious debate?
SHE is not alone in following the debate closely. The PAP’s surprise assault on the WP, for its manifesto released on Jan 14, attracted attention among voters islandwide.
After all, its response is in marked contrast to the silence which greeted the release of the previous WP manifesto in 1994. Then, not one PAP MP responded to it. At that time, it was the Singapore Democratic Party, with three MPs in Parliament, which was seen as the opposition party to watch.
It was only two years later, as the January 1997 General Election neared, that some PAP MPs rebutted some of the ideas there.
What accounts for the fast firepower trained on the WP manifesto this time round?
Some of those interviewed view the debate less as a substantive one on the issues raised, and more as a PAP manoeuvre to seize back the initiative from the WP.
Dr Ho Khai Leong, a fellow at the Institute of South-east Asian Studies, notes: “It is difficult to call this a ‘debate’. The motivation for both sides is to win a political battle rather than to educate the public about policy issues, however controversial they may be.”
Political observer Viswa Sadasivan, who chairs the political development feedback group, says: “I believe the PAP was taken by surprise when the WP came up with a manifesto and gained first mover advantage.”
So the PAP had to respond quickly to set the agenda and frame the debate, he reckons.
Several academics note that it is entirely normal for political parties to engage in highly charged debate on issues as elections near.
Associate Professor Marco Verweij, a political science lecturer at the Singapore Management University, says: “A lively, lengthy, open and respectful debate between adherents to different points of view is usually a healthy, indeed important, democratic process – provided, of course, that good arguments and justifications are offered and exchanged by the parties and people involved.”
As for the PAP itself, it says it simply wants to rebut ideas it considers “dangerous” to Singapore and so picked apart those four proposals among a myriad of others in the WP manifesto.
The PAP position is that removing ethnic integration policies would undermine multiracialism, scrapping grassroots organisations harms social cohesion, scrapping the elected presidency reduces checks on the government, and over-generous subsidies would bankrupt Singapore.
Why pick those four issues?
One line of thought is that these were highlighted because they are fundamental to Singapore society. As teacher Ng Kah Gay, 26, notes of the PAP ministers’ responses: “They are defending hallowed ground, so the angle is necessarily conservative.”
Academic Chua Beng Huat adds another dimension, suggesting that these are four central issues on which there is already some scepticism in some sectors of the population, “and the PAP would like to prevent the scepticism from spreading, if not wipe it out”.
He also argues that the PAP’s decision to zoom in on those four issues is the ruling party’s explicit way of differentiating itself from the WP.
“These are the four issues where the differences between the PAP and the WP are stark and can focus the minds of electorate. For example, you are either for the elected presidency as it is or you are not, or you either believe that a race quota is still necessary or unnecessary… There is good debating potential here.”
Dr Chua may be spot on in arguing that the debate is part of the PAP’s strategy of differentiation.
It is a response to the WP, which is widely viewed as the opposition party most well-organised for the General Election expected to be held this year.
The WP has touted itself as a credible (that is, moderate) alternative to the PAP. In the Singapore context, where voters are still haunted by fears of a “freak” election result voting in an inexperienced opposition into government, any opposition party that positions itself as moderate and reasonable, rather than radically different from the PAP, is more likely to win support.
As PM Lee noted, many of the WP ideas appeared to have been “copied” from the PAP, a charge the WP itself denies.
As opposition parties’ ideas move closer to become like the PAP, the ruling PAP has to devise a strategy of differentiation, to draw a sharper line between what it stands for, and what opposition parties stand for.
The coded message to voters is essentially this: “Opposition parties like the WP may appear benign alternatives to the PAP – but look at the implications of some of their ideas and you will see the danger they pose for Singapore.”
So the PAP is quick to highlight areas of disagreement.
Such a response suggests a shift in PAP tactics: from a tendency to ridicule or dismiss the opposition’s agenda, to a strategy of subjecting opposition ideas to close scrutiny.
It is not for nothing that PM Lee once quipped that if former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew’s favoured weapon against political opponents was a bulldozer, then his was a microscope.
As he said in Mandarin at a constituency event last month: “This is not a light matter, you can’t just anyhow open your mouth and say it, this is a manifesto. He says he wants WP to be an alternative choice. So we must look carefully and analyse what he is saying, what suggestions he gives.”
Open debate on issues welcome
EVEN if there is a partisan dimension to the debate, most of the academics interviewed view the ongoing debate as a healthy one, allowing voters to assess arguments and make up their minds.
Institute of Policy Studies senior research fellow Gillian Koh welcomes the early start which gives parties and people time for “an in-depth and informed discussion”, rather than a late, “sensationalist treatment” of issues.
She hopes to see other interested citizens take the issues seriously: “If the researchers and intellectuals can weigh in with good data to inform the discussion, all the better.”
But some voters are uncomfortable with the tone of the PAP responses.
Says Mr Tow Yun Hsien, 26, who works in a multinational company: “The constant use of the ‘time bomb’ phrase seemed to be a bit more sensational than necessary.”
Like several others, he thinks the tone of the debate, which had PAP ministers repeatedly urging the WP to “reconsider” its manifesto, was not one between equals, but resembled that of a “parent” chiding an errant child.
It is a view the opposition grouping, the Singapore Democratic Alliance (SDA), shares. In a statement signed by Potong Pasir MP Chiam See Tong last month, the SDA described the PAP’s response as “arrogant” and said it was for voters to decide whose arguments they supported.
Singapore Management University political science lecturer Riccardo Pelizzo has a different view: “As far as intensity is concerned, I have the impression that the tones used by the PAP and the WP are much more civilised than the tones that are used elsewhere.”
Style of debate aside, some voters are also quick to note that the WP may have been vocal in suggesting what should be scrapped, but has been silent when asked to lay out alternatives.
Notes Mr Tow: “It is all too easy for the naysayer to call for removal of the existing framework, without offering any realistic alternative.”
Splitting the WP ranks?
JUST what was the PAP trying to achieve with its sudden burst of rhetoric against the WP manifesto?
The responses from three PAP heavyweights took place over one weekend, suggesting they were coordinated by the party leadership. But after a few days, the outburst stopped – perhaps because the PAP realised there was an “overkill” effect, suggest some.
Dr Gillian Koh notes that the last time the PAP government reacted so early to an opposition party’s platform was in 1996, when it tore apart the health-care agenda of Dr Chee Soon Juan and the Singapore Democratic Party at a series of hearings before a select committee. By the time the elections rolled around in January 1997, Dr Chee and his health-care ideas had been discredited.
Some observers speculate that the PAP’s suggestion to the WP to revise its manifesto, and Dr Ng’s suggestion to Miss Sylvia Lim that she was merely “fronting” the party, stems from an attempt to split the WP ranks – unsuccessfully if so, for the WP has responded for now by resolutely closing ranks.
What does the one-week sharp debate portend, if anything, for the coming campaign? Or was it just a one-week blip?
Dr Ho hopes the campaign will focus on policy, not personalities.
Mr Sadasivan for one thinks the fast, furious response to the WP manifesto heralds a fiery campaign.
He notes that it will be PM Lee’s first election as Prime Minister and party secretary-general, and possibly Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew’s last as “emeritus tactician”.
“The stakes are high for the PAP…The PAP, if it still retains its spots, will not stop at just killing the enemy by shredding it. I think the hustings for the next GE is likely to be fierce and exciting.”
But in the end, whatever pundits may say, it is the effect of the debate on voters that will count most. This group will make up their own minds, quietly, on the basis of issues raised.
Like Miss Khalid. She says: “As I am a resident of Aljunied GRC where the WP is expected to contest, this debate is very relevant to me, as it will have an impact on my choice on Polling Day.”
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY KEN KWEK
Weighing in on the debate
WHY THE FAST, FURIOUS RESPONSE?
“The Workers’ Party initiative has effectively stolen the drum roll from the People’s Action Party.
So, in inimitable style, the PAP goes on the warpath to vanquish the enemy armed with its favourite and erstwhile highly effective weapon, the sledgehammer.
The strategic aim, at least the way I see it, is to deliver lethal blows that would not only shred the WP manifesto and render the WP advantage null and void, but also seriously discredit the WP as a party – questioning its commitment to the nation’s and the people’s interest.”
POLITICAL OBSERVER VISWA SADASIVAN
“The overall tone of the debate thus far can be likened to a ‘talking-to’ from a concerned parent to an errant child, rather than an equivocal intellectual debate…and the reaction from the WP, somewhat like that of a stubborn child who refuses to admit any error.”
MR TOW YUN HSIEN, 26, who works in a multinational company
“The language of vulnerability has dominated the way most Singaporeans think of themselves as a nation, and particularly so at a time when the world is talking about terrorism.
The PAP’s use of the term ‘time bombs’ to describe these ideas in the Workers’ Party manifesto is strategic. Political rhetoric during election time is usually shot through with hyperbole and superlatives.”
MR KENNETH PAUL TAN, political science lecturer
INFORMED DEBATE WELCOME
“An informed discussion, where it is clear that parties and people are able to take into account not only their personal and corporate interests and ideological differences but also the broader group or national interests, will serve to indicate that we have a maturing and working democracy we can be proud of.”
DR GILLIAN KOH, senior research fellow at the Institute of Policy Studies
A flurry of attacks and parries
Jan 14: The Workers’ Party announces its manifesto at a media conference.
Jan 21: Dr Ng Eng Hen warns of four “time bombs” in the WP manifesto that would wreck Singapore if implemented. These are the:
>> Proposal to scrap ethnic integration policies such as the group representation constituencies system which requires at least one candidate to be from a minority community, and the ethnic quota for public housing estates.
>> Proposal to scrap grassroots organisations.
>> Proposal to scrap the elected presidency.
>> Proposal for more subsidies, even when there are no Budget surpluses.
On the same day, Mr Khaw Boon Wan criticises the WP for failing to understand how multiracialism works in Singapore.
Jan 22: Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong weighs in, saying the WP ideas are dangerous for Singapore, and calling on the party to contest the elections on these issues. He adds his voice to calls to the WP to reconsider its manifesto.
WP leaders Low Thia Khiang and Sylvia Lim issue statements saying they stick by the party’s manifesto.
Jan 23: Dr Ng asks Miss Lim if she has thought through the party position, or is merely “regurgitating ill-conceived positions and fronting for the party”. He describes the WP response as “disappointing” and asks for a more substantial reply on issues raised.
In an interview with The Straits Times, Mr Low issues a rebuttal of Dr Ng’s arguments and reiterates that the WP stands by its manifesto.
Jan 24: Mr Khaw likens the WP proposals to “poisons”.
Jan 26: The Singapore Democratic Alliance, an opposition grouping, issues a statement supporting the WP and chiding the PAP for “arrogant” behaviour, saying it is for voters to decide whose arguments they support.
Jan 27: In an interview published in The Straits Times, Miss Lim says the manifesto is a joint effort by party leaders and she stands by it.