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Singapore

Governing not 'about doing the easy things', responsible opposition can't disappear when it suits them: PM Lee

“It is the Government’s duty to make these hard choices, sensibly but also sensitively,” said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. “And a responsible opposition should be held accountable also for what it proposes and what it opposes.”

06:48 Min
Governing Singapore is “never only about doing the easy things” and it often involves making hard choices, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Sunday (Nov 6). Chloe Choo reports. 

SINGAPORE: Governing Singapore is “never only about doing the easy things” and it often involves making hard choices, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Sunday (Nov 6).

Likewise, a responsible opposition must be accountable for what it proposes and opposes, and “can’t lie low and disappear” when it comes to thorny issues, Mr Lee said in a speech at the People's Action Party’s (PAP) conference.

Be it deciding how to ensure affordable healthcare for an ageing population or which underused services to trim back, the Government has had to “say ‘no’ or ‘not yet’ even to reasonable requests” due to limited resources.

“It is the Government’s duty to make these hard choices, sensibly but also sensitively,” said Mr Lee, who is the ruling party’s secretary-general. “And a responsible opposition should be held accountable also for what it proposes and what it opposes.”

“Their sums must also add up, and when they do not add up, which quite often happens, then it is our job to point this out.”

He noted that the opposition is sometimes “missing in action” when spiky issues emerge such as the decision to repeal Section 377A of the Penal Code.

Mr Lee said the Government had to assess the problem, weigh the arguments and work out what is the right way forward amid strongly-held opposing views within segments of Singapore’s population.

He added that different ministers spent weeks and months meeting the contending groups.

“They listened carefully; they explained patiently; they got all sides to accept that on such an issue, everyone has to give and take ... Now, where is the opposition on Section 377A?

“Are they critiquing the Government’s approach? Do they support or oppose what the Government is doing? Are they offering alternative proposals? None of the above.”

Mr Lee said the opposition is “missing in action” by declining all comment so far.

“They refuse even to say whether they have a party position or if they will lift their whip on MPs when Parliament votes on the amendments … They don’t want to displease anyone, therefore they have gone AWOL (absent without leave),” he added.

He continued to say that governing Singapore is “a serious business” and so is being the opposition, especially if the latter aims to win more seats which “must eventually mean taking over”.

“You can’t lie low and disappear when it suits you and when the opposition does that, it calls into question their fitness for Parliament, let alone to govern.”

But of biggest concern is politicians and parties who “stir up resentment in order to gain political advantage”, said Mr Lee.

“They tear relentlessly at fault lines - residents versus foreigners, citizens versus PRs, even old citizens versus new. Sometimes they veer into racist territory,” he said.

“Singaporeans are not naive, but neither are we immune to rhetoric that manipulates our emotions, especially when times are tough, and people are anxious and under pressure.”

Such “irresponsible actions” by the opposition do nothing to improve Singaporeans’ lives, he said, adding that the PAP “will never give way to such divisive politics”.

“We’ve got to get Singaporeans to recognise such rabble-rousing for what it’s worth and repudiate it, stand with the PAP (and) prevent divisive politics from taking hold here.”

PAP ministers and the Progress Singapore Party’s Non-Constituency MP Leong Mun Wai have sparred over several issues in Parliament, from the country’s free trade agreements to foreign talent policy.

In a parliamentary debate in March about the Ministry of Manpower's plans and policies for Budget 2022, Manpower Minister Tan See Leng urged Mr Leong, to “have a care”.

“Please don't undermine the cohesiveness we have painstakingly built over the years," the minister said.

Mr Lee also said that PAP MPs and branch activists, besides showing voters where the opposition falls short, must work the ground and put across the party's messages.

On the latter, he said that while the ruling party adopts policies and programmes that it believes will benefit Singapore and Singaporeans in the long term, it must also convince Singaporeans why the policies matter to them, and how they match people's needs and aspirations.

“We must do this in person face-to-face … when we interact with residents on the ground. At the same time, we got to do this using all sorts of platforms and channels,” he told more than 3,000 party members gathered at the conference.

“We’ve got to help people understand good things do not happen by themselves. We’ve got to show people why it matters to them, how it affects their lives, why they must support these policies and vote for the PAP to form the Government.

“Then we can win their mandate to see the policies through.”

THE NEED FOR A “STRONG MANDATE”

Mr Lee also said that increasingly, a “good report card or manifesto is not enough” especially for the PAP government.

This is due to a “unique challenge” in Singapore, where there is a growing psychology among many Singaporeans who want the PAP to continue governing Singapore but also want more opposition MPs elected to keep the ruling party on its toes.

“And so they vote for the opposition, fully expecting that enough other voters will vote PAP and return it to power, and that the PAP government will still be able to function as effectively and deliver on all our plans and programs regardless whether it receives strong support or weak support,” he said.

“Unfortunately, we cannot have it both ways. Whether voters give the new government a strong or weak mandate makes a very big difference.”

A strong mandate shows that the Government is “acting with the people’s support”.

“In stable times, this enables the Government to implement measures that may require sacrifice, but will improve people's lives in the longer term.

“And during turbulent periods, the Government will have the confidence and the backing to make the tough calls and steer Singapore safely through the ups and downs,” he said, citing the measures imposed during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We could only implement all these tough measures successfully because there was no doubt that people had full confidence in the PAP government, and because the people trusted the PAP government,” he added.

“So whichever party the voters may choose to form their Government, the voters have to give that party a clear mandate to do its job," said the Prime Minister. “Only then can the Government function properly and do what they wanted to do for them.”

Mr Lee said that “this becomes a little bit harder and the stakes get somewhat higher” with each successive election.

“Because each time the PAP comes back to power (and it) keeps Singapore running smoothly, that sense of danger diminishes a little bit.

“At the same time, the more constituencies are hotly contested, the more seats the opposition wins, the more the general election becomes a decision on which party will form Singapore's next Government,” he said.

Mr Lee said the PAP has delivered on its policies and promises through the decades. While this puts the ruling party on a strong ground in the next election, it is “not enough”.

“We need to convert the people's approval of our performance and support for our policies into strong votes for the PAP, in order to continue standing out as the clear choice for voters,” he said.

“That means we need to do the political work. We must win the political battle.”

Source: CNA/sk

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