Straits Times: PAP raps WP for ill-timed silence and double-talk

Ng Eng Hen takes on Hougang MP, saying clear stand from opposition is crucial for it to be credible

BY LI XUEYING

THE People’s Action Party (PAP) has criticised the Workers’ Party (WP), saying it failed to make its stand clear on important issues at critical points.

WP secretary-general Low Thia Khiang, it added, is often “quick to criticise, yet offers no serious proposals”.

Taking aim at the WP and the MP for Hougang – in the latest issue of the PAP newsletter Petir – was Dr Ng Eng Hen, who said: “Singaporeans deserve more from Mr Low and the WP than silence at defining moments, or double-talk when pressed to state their stand.”

In an editorial entitled Credible Opposition: Taking A Clear Stand, the PAP’s organising secretary (special duties) said constructive views – even opposing ones – “help produce better government policies and enlighten public debate” on issues.

“But to simply criticise or make opportunistic snipes without offering solutions or, worse, to fudge on national issues instead of taking a clear stand, does little to raise the standard of political debate or the reputation of the Workers’ Party as a responsible opposition”.

Noting that Mr Low vowed at the last election to adopt a “watchdog” role, DrNg asked what Mr Low has achieved, and pointed to two instances.

One was the Parliament debate on the escape of terrorist Mas Selamat Kastari from detention.

Mr Low had said he could not reconcile the fact that, while ministers’ pay was pegged to that of chief executives, the ministers did not adhere to the issue of accountability practised in the private sector.

Yet Mr Low was “totally silent” when Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong asked if he thought Deputy Prime Minister and Home Affairs Minister Wong Kan Seng should quit.

Said Dr Ng: “His statement is baffling. What then was the point of his question to the Prime Minister? Was it just another political ploy?”

Another instance was the WP May Day message asking if Singaporeans “truly benefited” from job creation last year.

PAP MP Seng Han Thong, an NTUC assistant secretary-general, asked at the time if all Hougang Town Council employees were Singaporeans. The WP said they were and added that it did not object to contractors hiring foreigners.

Said Dr Ng: “This is another cop-out. If the WP truly believes that all jobs should be reserved for Singaporeans, why does it not insist that its town-council contractors hire local workers only?”

The Government, in contrast, has “a clear stand”. While foreign workers keep the economy competitive, the Government also does its utmost to raise the skills of Singaporeans, said Dr Ng, who is now Education Minister, but previously held the Manpower portfolio.

Dr Ng said Mr Low, whether in or out of Parliament, shied away from direct debate with the Government on important points.

Political leaders, whether in government or not, “need to have their own ideas, to set a direction for the country and tell Singaporeans how they intend to get there”.

“Perhaps the WP sees no need to play this role as a credible opposition.”

Mr Low is out of town. But WP chairman Sylvia Lim responded yesterday.

She said the party’s policy positions were clearly laid out in its manifesto at the 2006 General Election.

Since then, the WP took on issues such as the goods and services tax hike, ministerial pay, means testing, constitutional amendments and criminal justice.

On Mr Low’s silence in response to PM Lee, she said: “Benchmarking ministerial pay to corporate pay, but without corresponding corporate consequences, brings to the fore the contentious issue of whether ministers should be paid at top corporate rates. Is the comparison of minister to CEO valid?”

She added that the WP is not against foreign workers.

Rather, given that Singaporeans were told they had to be grateful that foreign workers saved their jobs, the WP questioned “how far Singaporeans’ social standing and prospects have been eroded… Does the PAP not know this is a real ground concern?”

xueying@sph.com.sg

Straits Times: 4 schools of opposition politics

Mr Low Thia Khiang succeeded Mr J.B. Jeyaretnam as Workers’ Party chief in 2001. Eight years earlier, Dr Chee Soon Juan took over the Singapore Democratic Party from Mr Chiam See Tong.

No transition was smooth.

In both style and substance, Mr Low and Dr Chee are hardly political heirs to the opposition veterans who once inspired and mentored them.

Instead, Mr Low seems to have taken a leaf out of Mr Chiam’s book, focusing on specific policy issues rather than condemning the system as a whole. In 2006, Mr Low succeeded Mr Chiam as unofficial leader of the opposition in Parliament.

Dr Chee, on the other hand, appears to have more in common with Mr Jeyaretnam. Both are strident in their criticisms against laws that, in their view, “disempower” people and “diminish” the electoral system. Over the years, the four opposition leaders have developed their own distinctive styles of politics. What best describes each approach? How have they succeeded, and where do they fall short?

Zakir Hussain finds out.


SLOW AND STEADY WINS THE RACE


LOW THIA KHIANG, 51

>> 1988 Tiong Bahru GRC 42.2%
>> 1991 Hougang 52.8%
>> 1997 Hougang 58%
>> 2001 Hougang 55%
>> 2006 Hougang 62.7%

>> Nurturing the ground

Mr Low has “focused a great deal on nurturing ties at the local level” even as he presents himself as a check on government, says academic Dr Gillian Koh.

The Hougang MP, who first entered Parliament in 1991, has meals in his constituency market, accepts wedding invitations and attends wakes.

His Hougang Constituency Committee organises celebrations at major festivals, parties for residents, and pulls together aid for needy residents. The focus on local needs saw him up his vote share by close to eight percentage points in the 2006 General Election.

>> Staying low-key

Mr Low has declined most media interviews in his 20 years as opposition MP.

In 1994, when then-senior minister Lee Kuan Yew singled him out as a “good MP” and “the only one worth listening to”, his only comment to the media was to thank Mr Lee, and say: “I think it is not for him to judge. It is for Singaporeans to judge, especially my constituents, whether I am good or worth listening to.”

The flip side of his low-key approach? Detractors say it has not dented the ruling PAP’s dominance.

>> Bread and butter rather than human rights

Since Mr Low took over the Workers’ Party in 2001, the WP has become more focused on bread and butter issues, rather than issues of freedom and democracy. In Parliament, issues he has raised include increases in the goods and services tax, the rising cost of living, and the Mas Selamat escape. He has been careful to get his facts right.

>> Building up the party

Mr Low has attracted more professionals to join the WP, like law lecturer Sylvia Lim.

“Together with Sylvia Lim, he appears to be very slowly but steadily building up a political party that is respected by Singaporeans, avoiding anything that could derail it,” says political blogger Gerald Giam.

Some WP members have left, unhappy with the pace of change and attempts to regulate members’ conduct online. But the party retains a solid team at its core.

>> Watchdog role

Mr Low sees his role as one to scrutinise government policies and Bills, and to reflect the views of the man in the street “in a rational and responsible manner”. As he put it: “I play the role of a watchdog to check whether the Government has delivered its promises or has short-changed the people.”

He is “sharp and quick in pouncing on loose statements from the front bench”, notes PAP MP Charles Chong.


WHAT NEXT?

CAN the mixed record of opposition politics over the past 40 years shed light on its future?

Observers note that where electoral results are concerned, the accommodative approach of Mr Chiam and Mr Low has held up better than the combative politics of Mr Jeyaretnam and Dr Chee.

But the various styles – and their results – are likely to remain for some time yet.

“So long as the Group Representation Constituency system is intact, and the PAP continues to believe Singapore would be better off without an institutionalised parliamentary opposition, realpolitik needs to be appreciated,” said Associate Professor Hussin Mutalib of the National University of Singapore’s political science department.

“Such a system favours opposition politicians and parties that ‘ride’ the mainstream political wave…rather than confront it head on.”

“This is not the ideal, but so long as voters cannot devise an ‘alternative politics’…they will have no other viable choice but to work within the status quo in the foreseeable future,” he said.

MP Charles Chong takes a different view, noting that voters here “appear put off by extremism”.

“Alternative views expressed in moderate and sensible ways seem to have greater appeal to an increasingly sophisticated electorate, compared to extreme positions and silly antics,” he said.

There will always be those against the establishment regardless of what it does, and there will always be those who are pro-establishment.

“The party that can win the broad middle ground will invariably do much better than those who can appeal only to the two extremities,” he added.

All four schools, however, share one common goal: Breaking the PAP monopoly and establishing a multi-party democracy.

Said Dr Russell Heng, associate senior fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies: “All four are people who dare to lose and, somehow, we have never celebrated that.

“They also have a certain doggedness which seems to be a rare thing among opposition figures, which is why the opposition is weak.

“These four have kept at it.”

Straits Times: WP leader now regrets voting for PAP candidate

Yaw Shin Leong says change of heart partly prompted by criticism against him

BY SUE-ANN CHIA


ONLINE STORM: Workers’ Party organising secretary Yaw Shin Leong (above) had voted for Dr Teo Ho Pin in the Bukit Panjang ward.

WORKERS’ Party (WP) leader Yaw Shin Leong, who won praise and criticism alike for disclosing that he had voted for the People’s Action Party (PAP) in the 2006 General Election, now regrets the decision.

The 32-year-old businessman said his change of heart came after “introspection and contemplation” as he prepared to mark eight years of activism with the WP on June 24.

“I have woken up from this matrix-like slumber. Voting for a candidate from the ruling regime based on my shallow personal liking and consideration had contravened the very ideals which I had originally entered opposition politics for,” he said in the latest posting on his blog.

“It also contradicted our efforts in urging voters to value the choice provided by opposition candidates.”

The Bukit Panjang resident said he would not vote for his MP, Dr Teo Ho Pin, at the next election, and urged Singaporeans to “vote in solidarity to deny the PAP”.

Mr Yaw, the WP’s organising secretary, was caught in the eye of an online storm last month after saying that he had voted for Dr Teo over the Singapore Democratic Party’s Mr Ling How Doong.

Dr Teo was the better candidate, he had said, adding: “There is nothing inherently wrong for me to vote for an MP, regardless of his/her partisan background, whom in my opinion is the better man who can better serve the interests of Singapore and my community.”

That disclosure sparked criticism from opposition supporters who attacked him for voting for the “other side”, and for sending conflicting signals.

He was, after all, head of the six-man WP team which stood against a PAP team led by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in Ang Mo Kio GRC.

But others praised him for his political maturity.

Mr Yaw said, when contacted on Wednesday, that his change of heart was also prompted by the criticism he faced.

Friends scolded him for letting them down. And strangers called or told him during his walkabouts that he had disappointed them.

“I realised I had sent a confusing message to supporters,” he told The Straits Times. “Being an opposition member, I must put the need for pluralism as a higher priority than voting for a better municipal MP.”

While party leaders did not rap him, WP chief and Hougang MP Low Thia Khiang did tell Mr Yaw that in voting for the better candidate, he had fallen into “the propaganda trap of the PAP”.

Mr Yaw said in his blog that the main consideration for many who voted for the WP was “the need to have a balanced political system and a voice in Parliament…”

And he accepted criticism that had Ang Mo Kio voters adopted his “better candidate” argument, “my team would not even come close to securing 33.86 per cent of the votes”.

Despite what he said in his blog, Mr Yaw told The Straits Times that he did not want Singaporeans to vote for the opposition at all cost too.

He said: “I encourage Singaporeans to vote with their conscience. If they really feel that the opposition candidates are not deserving, don’t support them.”

Political observer Eugene Tan said Mr Yaw’s latest post showed he had decided to put on the hat of an opposition politician instead of being just a “responsible voter”.

sueann@sph.com.sg