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Blow-by-Blow: The Verbal Joust Between Lee and Low

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Worker’s Party Chief squared off in parliament over constructive politics in Singapore. Here’s the transcript of the heated 15-minute verbal joust.


Mr Low: Mdm, I wish to clarify a few points. First of all, the reason why I decided to focus my speech on constructive politics: Because I thought that was an important issue that we should look at. As what I say in my speech, Singapore is becoming more diversified, there will be different views, and moving forward, how the Government will deal and accommodate different views and different perspectives of Singapore. It’s important for us to move forward together as one united people.


The other MPs from the WP will be talking about different issues; they will cover ranging from social issues, social safety net to foreign workers, national security. They will cover the full range of areas. Thereby we split our jobs. I will focus on constructive politics. I thought it was an important issue and of course, it’s important to also understand what is the perspective of the PAP, in terms of constructive politics.


And from what the PM has said, it seems to me that it is more constructive debated on the terms of the PAP, rather than constructive politics in terms of the society that is moving forward and I had affirmed my endorsement of what the president has said, that we should look at the outcome of constructive politics, that is, that we should be able to move forward together despite the differences.


Next, talking about the WP flip-flopping on foreign workers issue. I say again, I don’t think we have flip-flopped. I have explained, in this House, of some misunderstanding of the speeches (that have been) made. In any case, I also noted that when the PAP has to make a policy U-turn, they call it policy shift. I don’t know whether that is a shift or it’s a flip-flop.



Mr Lee: Mdm speaker, I think the record will speak for itself, when we make a shift we acknowledge a shift. When the WP changes position they pretend they haven’t – that is the difference.


As for delegating responsibility for different parts of the Budget speech to different MPs, that’s entirely within Mr Low Thia Khiang’s prerogative. It’s not for me to suggest how he should conduct his affairs in the WP.


But as a leader, you do have a responsibility to state where does the party stand on the big issues. Somebody can look after healthcare, somebody can take care of transport, somebody can spend all his time marking Minister Heng Swee Keat on education, but where you stand on what the Government is doing? Is the Government doing right, is it doing wrong, do you agree with the Government, do you have a better view, or do you abstain or do you abstain from abstaining?


Mr Low: I think our position is quite clear on many of these issues. If the Prime Minister wanted my view on what the Government has been doing and whether he has done well. I’d say, well you’ve solved some of the problems – what the PM has mentioned – and the WP MPs also acknowledged this in their speech but also pointed out there are things that are still work in progress and the Government will have to focus on and to make it better and to improve. That is (the) position. I don’t see the need for me to totally sum up. I think the MP should be able to do in their own view, and to give their view and their assessment and at the same time, wherever possible offer certain views and alternative suggestions to improve the policies.


Mr Lee: Mdm Speaker, I’m very grateful for the extremely reasonable explanation from the member. I hope he takes an equally reasonable approach when it comes to election rallies because the WP approach has been to be extremely reasonable – indeed low profile – in Parliament but come election time to turn into tigers and heroes.


Mr Low: Mdm Speaker, I thank the PM for praising the WP’s ability to fight in the elections. We have no intention to hide ourselves in parliament. We seek the mandate from people to come to parliament to check against the Government. We have done it honestly and sincerely, we have not turned this place into a theatre. That shows we are responsible and we will behave continuously as a rational and responsible party and if members would – I believe members will agree, that the WP has been rational.


We have not come here with some wild polices or wild suggestions. We debate the policies, we came up with some suggestions but these are not bankrupting the Government coffer or suggesting to use the reserves.


Elections — I think we are also rational. We don’t accuse the PAP of something we cannot substantiate or I know we’d get sued. I think we’re fair. Elections are elections and I thank the PM for noting that we can fight an election, I’m sure the PAP can too. You are the Government, you have been the governing party for 50 years and you’ve got (much more) talented people than the WP. How can you say we are tiger and we are something else in Parliament? I’m sure the PAP equally can be tiger or lions.


Mr Lee: It’s an eloquent explanation for why the WP has been inarticulate, about many things. In a serious parliament, the Government presents its policies. The Opposition presents its alternatives. The WP may not have alternatives on every issue; it may not have a full range of all the complexities of designing an HDB scheme or MediShield scheme. You do have a responsibility to say which direction are we going. And that direction has to be set clearly – not to explain to the PAP, but to explain to Singaporeans what you stand for.

And what you stand for cannot be what the PAP is doing, and a little bit better. That means you have no stand. Where-ever the PAP is standing, ask them to do better. That’s easy, I can do that too. But where do you stand? Where are we totally wrong? Where do you think this is a completely different way to do things better? Where do you think, in principle, we do not want Singapore to be like this. These are big issues which deserve to be debated and not be lidded over and avoided in the house. And that is what a first world parliament should be about.


Mr Low: Mdm speaker, again I’d like to say the PM is reasonable to say that the WP may not be able to come up with all the alternative policies. That’s true. But to say that the WP has no position on major issues, that’s not true. I think we did state our position in parliament. We debated major policies vigorously. We don’t oppose all the policies but where we think that there is a need for us to oppose and it concerns the future of Singapore, like the Population White Paper, we did so. So we state our position on important issues and we didn’t oppose for things that we think are doing right. Is that not enough?


Mr Lee: I think it is useful to bring it down to something very specific. Let’s come back to the Population White Paper. During the debate, the position taken by the WP is that enough is enough, zero growth. We have continued to grow; I have not heard the WP demand zero growth today. Do you still demand that or do you now think that we should allow SMEs to survive in Singapore?

Mr Low: We had made a calculation at that point in time while debating the Population White Paper and that if you continue to allow the foreign workers to grow it will be untenable in the future population growth and thereby we decided that we need to keep the population number in check and one way of doing it, of course, is to freeze the foreign workers’ growth in numbers.


Our calculation was that probably within the existing number of foreign workers, you can still move (them) around in some sectors that don’t need so much of FWs thereby you can still get by with the zero foreign workers’ growth.


We understand perfectly the possibility and the trade-off. That is our position at that point in time. We have not objected subsequently, or grilled the Government, for why are (they) not doing it because that is our view, that it should have zero (foreign worker) growth, but the Government decided otherwise that’s their way of doing it. We have said our piece but we have to respect the decision of the Government to move on. But our message has got across.


We cannot sustain continuously the kind of population growth plan the Government is planning and I’m glad to hear today that PM is saying that the Government is taking a very serious view the about tightening and watching the growth of population.


Mr Lee: Mdm speaker, after all this complicated explanation, I don’t know whether Mr Low Thia Khiang still stands by what was said in Parliament in the White Paper debate last year. Because if he really does, after all the explanation, he should say, we have too many foreign workers now, send home 70,000. Then we will know where he stands. But after telling me you can massage this and some people can do (with) less and others will need more – that’s easy to say, who’s going to do the massaging? Of course, the Government. And that, is the mark of a sub-standard Opposition.


Mr Low: Mdm speaker, I disagree. This is not the mark of a sub-standard Opposition. This is the mark of a responsible Opposition not to jam up the Government; allowing the Government – after giving our view, debating it – allowing the Government to move forward, not to jam up the Government. It is a mark of a responsible Government and a mark of first world Parliament.


Mr Lee: Mdm speaker. We have to call a spade a spade. If we have changed position and your previous position was wrong, say so. If you hold by your position, have your guts to reaffirm it and take the consequences. But to weasel away, play with words, avoid the issue and then claim to be responsible, that is what we fear can drive Singapore’s politics into the same place where many other countries have gone.


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