SINGAPORE: Senior Parliamentary Secretary Tan Wu Meng has criticised Workers’ Party secretary-general Pritam Singh for comments made in Parliament earlier this month about "citizens who are loving critics".
In an opinion piece on the People’s Action Party website on Friday (Jun 19), Dr Tan - a Member of Parliament (MP) for Jurong GRC - referred to a speech given by Mr Singh on Jun 5 during the debate on the Fortitude Budget, and said the opposition leader had spoken "in support" of playwright Alfian Sa'at.
In his speech on Jun 5, Mr Singh - a MP for Aljunied GRC - said: "We should count ourselves fortunate that we have citizens who are the loving critics amongst us, some of whom have been questioned in this very House in this term of Government.
"Members would recall one citizen's poems were nitpicked with a view to cast wholly negative aspersions on his character, even though that individual was not present in the House to defend himself."
Dr Tan, who is the Senior Parliamentary Secretary for Foreign Affairs and Trade and Industry, said on Friday: "He (Mr Singh) gave an example, without naming names, but it is clear that he was referring to Alfian Sa’at."
Last year, a module at Yale-NUS College that was to be taught by Mr Alfian, titled Dialogue and Dissent in Singapore, was cancelled. A report by Yale University said there were concerns about the proposed module, including its academic rigour, legal risk to students due to a "simulated" protest, and the political balance of the syllabus.
When asked in Parliament why the module was cancelled, Education Minister Ong Ye Kung quoted the playwright's 1998 poem Singapore You Are Not My Country, including lines such as “Singapore, I assert you are not a country at all".
Mr Ong said Mr Alfian "continues this attitude consistently in his activism".
Ambassador-at-large Professor Tommy Koh had used the term "loving critics" in an opinion piece in The Straits Times in October last year, where he said intellectuals, artists and writers who are critical of the Government or hold dissenting views should not be blacklisted.
"What Singapore needs is not sycophants but loving critics and critical lovers," he wrote.
“We should not demonise Alfian Sa’at. He is one of our most talented playwrights. I regard him as a loving critic of Singapore. He is not anti-Singapore," added Professor Koh in a Facebook post.
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In his opinion piece on Friday, Dr Tan said: “There are many Singaporeans who criticise Singapore out of patriotism and genuine care, including opposition leaders like Mr Chiam See Tong and Mr Low Thia Khiang. But Alfian Sa’at is no ‘loving critic’.”
Dr Tan added that the playwright had "consistently praised Malaysia to illustrate his disdain for Singapore".
The PAP MP referred to comments made by Mr Alfian in 2018, when Malaysian vessels were anchored in Singapore waters, noting that there were also “serious issues” regarding the use of airspace between the two countries.
“Singaporeans rallied together. Mr Low Thia Kiang spoke in Parliament, as a patriot would,” Dr Tan said.
“And Alfian? He mocked the approach taken by Singapore as 'jingoism' (even as Malaysian government vessels were anchored in our waters) and that it meant to scare its own people of 'barbarians' up north when there are none anymore, and that the Malaysians may in fact be Singapore’s solution,” he said, in reference to a Facebook post made by the playwright.
Mr Alfian had also attacked founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew’s legacy and contributions to Singapore in a Facebook post two days after Mr Lee had died in 2015, Dr Tan noted.
“We know Alfian’s views on Mr Lee Kuan Yew, but is this being a ‘loving critic’ of Singapore?” he said.
Dr Tan also pointed to an interview Mr Alfian had given TODAY in 2012, where he said he “would love to become a Malaysian”.
“This man grew up in Singapore. Singapore gave him his education and he earns a living here. An education and a living that is denied to many minorities in the region," Dr Tan said.
"And he constantly runs down Singapore, and says he would love to become a Malaysian, and that there is nothing wrong in accepting the Bumiputera policies here. And takes Malaysia’s side , when there are tensions between Malaysia and Singapore,” Dr Tan wrote.
In response to queries from CNA, Dr Tan said Mr Alfian had taken the side of Malaysia against Singapore on multiple occasions.
"And so when the Leader of the Opposition endorses Alfian as a 'loving critic', it is important for all of us to understand what Alfian stands for, and to ask if that endorsement was an informed choice," he said.
The Senior Parliamentary Secretary noted that Mr Singh “may not have read all these things that Alfian has said”.
“I suggest he read them carefully, and then tell us if he still thinks Alfian is a “loving critic” of Singapore,” he said.
“If he does, perhaps Mr Singh considers himself a 'loving critic' of Singapore too?”
In a Facebook post, Mr Singh shared a post by PAP linking to the article, and wrote: “A loving critic. A son of Singapore. Not perfect. As imperfect as you and me Dr Tan, maybe more, maybe less.”
Responding on Facebook, Mr Alfian said it was “bad form to attack me as a way of attacking a member of an opposition party”.
He added that his comments on Malaysia over the years have been a response to what he viewed as a form of Singapore nationalism based on a “sense of superiority, that at times went close to contempt and hatred for our neighbouring countries”, adding that he had also written a play that was critical of Malaysian politics.
CNA has contacted Mr Singh for comment.