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MPs debate the meaning of "constructive politics" in Parliament

Senior Minister of State for Education and Law Indranee Rajah challenges assertion from Workers' Party chief Low Thia Khiang that "constructive politics" is a rhetorical term.

SINGAPORE: The call for constructive politics in President Tony Tan Keng Yam's address to Parliament was debated by several MPs today.

Workers' Party chief Low Thia Khiang first raised the issue, saying no matter how politics is described, what is important is the outcome of the political process.

He said constructive politics does not happen "by the order of the government", nor through a national conversation or public consultation.

Rather, political values and culture, along with impartial institutions trusted by people are what he said are needed to achieve desired outcomes.

Said Mr Low: "If the people continue to support a government party that uses high-handed tactics against its political opponents, we are endorsing a bullying political culture.

"If the people support a governing party that uses governmental resources, including civil servants, to serve its partisan goals, we are condoning the abuse of political power as an acceptable culture," he continued.

"Similarly, if you support a political party which believes in overthrowing the government by taking mass political action against the government regardless of the laws and proper channels to change things, you are building a culture of lawlessness.

"If you support a political party conducting its political engagement with a habit of playing racial politics and mud-slinging and launching personal attacks on its political opponents, you are building a thug political culture. If you support a political party with the habit of fixing its opponents, you are breeding a political culture of fear," he said.

However, members of the ruling People's Action Party (PAP) disagreed with Mr Low that a heavier emphasis on constructive politics was not needed.

MP for Sembawang GRC, Vikram Nair said: "It was quite interesting that Mr Low opened the Workers' Party's slate speaking almost entirely on one topic - constructive politics. And I think it's actually a little bit tragic if the focus is going to be on politics and not on the policies that will help the people."

MP for East Coast GRC Jessica Tan agreed: "It's timely that President Tan reminded us of constructive politics and I take it to mean 'Singaporeans first'. And here, I think it's important for us to point out that when a policy is good, regardless of party, we should say it's good, so that we can continue that. But when a policy is not landing so well, we need to listen to the ground."

"Constructive politics means not flip-flopping"

Arguably the biggest clash was between Mr Low and Senior Minister of State for Education and Law Indranee Rajah.

Ms Indranee said the political process should result in better lives. And this means offering practical alternatives, acknowledging trade-offs and being responsible.

"Constructive politics also means not flip-flopping when convenient. So for example, you don't ask for more foreign workers to be allowed in Singapore in 2012, and then in 2013, after the White Paper, say that there should be a complete freeze. And then a few months later, ask for more foreign workers again. Because there are real trade-offs, and people's livelihoods and jobs are at stake," she said.

"And above all, constructive politics must mean upholding the highest standards of integrity. It means that if you take over a Town Council worth hundreds of millions of dollars and then give out contracts to your own supporters worth millions of dollars without a tender, what kind of political values are those?"

Said Ms Indranee: "When asked straightforward questions, for example, whether you pay your supporters, who are also your managing agent a salary, in addition to their charging fees as a managing agent, and then decline to answer, what kind of political culture do you build? How does that engender trust?" 

"The President laid out an entire agenda. It is significant that Mr Low's speech was wholly devoted to the topic of politics and disregarded entirely, the rest of the President's speech, which outlines the Government's agenda for the future for Singapore and Singaporeans and how to make life better for Singapore and Singaporeans. There are various ways to interpret this disregarding of the entire agenda.

"Perhaps Mr Low feels that our policies are not working, or Mr Low has no constructive alternatives to the challenges that we face, or perhaps none which he thinks are constructive," she concluded.

In response, Mr Low said: "It is not that I don't agree to constructive politics. What I was saying is that constructive politics is only a term that is used. It can be just merely rhetoric of the Government. What is important is the outcome of political process.

"What the President wanted to see, the desired outcome, is that whatever differences we have, we can move forward as one united people. So it can be whatever politics that can describe them. What is important to me is what is the actual action that the Government. Action speaks louder than words.

Mr Low said he thinks it would be "useless" for the PAP to "keep on harping on" the Aljunied-Hougang-Punggol East Town Council matter.

"Let me first explain that the award of the contract to the managing agent is through an open tender. It (went) through an open tender, it is not something that we signed under the table. So I think if you're talking integrity, perhaps you might want to give us more detail to prove that how is it that the Workers' Party lacks integrity in awarding a contract.

"Secondly, if (Ms Indranee) is referring to counting issue, the Auditor-General is currently auditing the Town Council account. Is she suggesting and, or, before the Auditor comes to a conclusion that the Government already has some pre-concluded conclusion of what happened?" he asked. 

He also refuted her statement on whether the Workers' Party flip-flops.

"If she wishes to have a full debate on that, please file a motion. We are prepared to debate that."

"Politics is real"

Ms Indranee objected to Mr Low's statement that "constructive politics" is a rhetorical term.

"It is not. Politics is real. It is real because it impacts on the lives of people. It is real because what we say and we do in this Parliament makes a difference to Singaporeans. It is real because you stand for something, and what you say must mean something. It is real because whatever you do has an outcome and an impact on the lives of people."

Ms Indranee ended by addressing Mr Low's claim that the awarding of contracts through the Workers' Party was done through an open tender.

"I'm not sure if Mr Low was actually present in Parliament when that point was extensively debated, but it is in the newspapers. It is on record. It is in the Hansard. But it was quite clear that the initial award of the contract was not as a result of an open tender. And that I think was stated and agreed to by their Chairman. They had given an explanation for that subsequently but essentially, the first award was not pursuant to a tender."

Ms Indranee said there was no need to go at length on the issue: "At the end of the day, the most important thing is that the way we conduct our politics in Singapore has, or makes a big difference, in the lives of people and it is important therefore, that our politics should be constructive and should not be purely opportunistic or populist."

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