In the run-up to the by-election of Punggol East, it is clear, that final fight comes down to the 2 largest parties in Parliament: The People’s Action Party (PAP) and The Worker’s Party (WP). The Worker’s Party Chairman Sylvia Lim stated very early that this by-election was going to be a report-card on the PAP. Some political observers have commented that this is even more so than in Hougang, a Worker’s Party stronghold that the PAP was not expected to win. And although the WP’s party candidate Lee Li Lian has recently admitted that the by-election would also be a barometer of the WP’s record, it seems that more questions are still being asked about the PAP rather than the WP.
This is natural. Being the incumbent, the PAP has much to prove after a water-shed election that saw an entire GRC falling for the first time to the opposition. It is also natural and obvious that this election, like all elections, would be a barometer of a ruling party’s record. However, as even the leader of the WP Low Thia Kiang has admitted, time needs to be given to PAP to see whether it can solve the problems of Singaporeans, and to see the effects of its policy changes. Thus, contrary to the battle-cry of the opposition, I believe that this by-election is not so much a report-card on the PAP, but rather on the WP.
When one draws up a report card for a political party, nothing does better as a guide than their own campaign promises. The most striking thing about the WP’s campaign in GE 2011 was not so much the specific PAP policies it opposed, nor the alternatives in its manifesto, but its overarching rhetoric of a “First World Parliament”. It is also arguable that it was this promise, and its alluring pitch of a ‘co-driver’ elected to ‘slap’ the ruling party when it veers off-course, the seductive promise of check-and-balance, and the ideological insistence that an opposition in Singapore was necessary, that toppled George Yeo’s team in Aljunied. It was on the altar of higher ideals that George Yeo, Lim Hwee Hua et al was sacrificed, and it is on this altar that the WP must stand to be judged: Has it delivered on its promise working towards of a First World Parliament? Has it been the effective check-and-balance it promised the voters it would be? Has the co-driver performed?
The strangest thing that struck me during the GE campaign of 2011 was the WP’s strident rhetoric that electing it to Parliament would foster more debate, and thus help Singapore progress towards a ‘First World Parliament’. What was strange and extremely disturbing to me was that for a Party that values debate so highly (arguably a defining characteristic of ‘First World’ parliaments), in the 21 months that I served as Nominated Member of Parliament, the WP was curiously passive on the debating front. One has to understand that in Parliament, asking parliamentary questions is de riguer and does little to contribute to ‘debate’. Debate is best served when there is a prolonged back-and-forth by various speakers with full speeches, but a simple parliamentary question merely warrants a reply from the Government, with a few, extremely limited follow-up questions allowed. Any parliamentarian who has a burning issue to debate must surely know that the best and only way to force such a debate is to file a full motion, which compels the whole of parliament to put aside all other business and really debate the issue, concluding with a vote by all present Parliamentarians.
In the 21 months that I was NMP the WP filed precisely ZERO motions. They did not even file any adjournment motions that would have given them a chance to speak at length, rather than just ask a question. In the first 21 months since GE 2011, the Workers Party has filed merely one adjournment motion (by NCMP Yee Jenn Jong), and another by Sylvia Lim just to withdraw it again. In contrast, my former parliamentary colleague Viswa Sadasivan filed a full motion during his very first parliamentary sitting, which not only made Cabinet Ministers rise to rebut him, but even caused then Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew to speak in Parliament for the first time in years, and in the process teaching a nation the meaning of the word `hifalutin’.
The question then to ask of the WP is then this: For a party that campaigned on the promise of more debate as part of their march towards a ‘First World Parliament’, whither the debate? Surely if you have an alternate vision for Singapore, a vision burning to be articulated in full, asking questions would not suffice? Surely if even a Nominated Member of Parliament can force the whole of government, including its most senior statesman, to focus their attention on a ‘hifalutin’ issue and engage in robust debate, then a party with 6 elected members of Parliament, 2 NCMPs , and an alternate vision for Singapore can do so much more?
The oft-heard refrain that because the WP has no chance of winning a debate there is no point in starting one, is a massive cop-out. The House in any Westminster Parliament is not only a legislative chamber, but also a debating chamber. Not being able to win a debate, does not mean an issue is not worth debating, especially if one is a politician elected on a promise of more debate.
This is not about politicking as Low Thia Kiang has recently said. This is not about being an irrational or unreasonable opposition. This is about keeping one’s election promise – if one sells the electorate a vision, and if they elected one on this vision, then one had better live up to it.
What is politicking is to keep selling this vision again and again with empty rhetoric, whilst failing to deliver on it. What is politicking is the WP only talking about its alternative policies at election rallies when they already have eight parliamentarians to debate these in the House, and one only needs TWO to file a motion.
When Gerald Giam argued for an alternative health care system at the WP’s Punggol East rally, it was for a worthy cause. But the right forum is NOT at a by-election rally, but in the august House he has been a member of for nearly two years. One cannot just go up to stage at a political rally and state that we should adopt a system closer to the UK’s National Health Service, a system that the UK is struggling to keep afloat, and just leave it at that.. An issue as fundamental as health care reform cannot be only used as campaigning ammunition. That would be politicking; debating it in Parliament is surely not.
Other matters such as the nationalization of public transport should not lay hidden in the WP manifesto, especially when they are high on Singaporeans’ concerns. Even if it is an untenable idea, the government could be compelled to justify why the current system is better and why a fundamental change is unnecessary. Issues of fundamental changes, changes the WP has proposed in its manifesto, require a full and robust debate in the House, and not only brought up at election time. The PAP surely does not need the Opposition to tell it to ‘tweak’ its system; it has been tweaking it happily by itself for most of 4 decades, without the need of a co-driver.
The Worker’s Party thus has far bigger questions to answer than the PAP. When the Prime Minister asked where its policy alternatives were, the answer is obvious: they lay hidden in the depths of its Manifesto. The more crucial question is why a party which campaigned forcefully for more debate and a ‘First World Parliament’ has allowed these alternative policies to remain there, rather than forcing a fundamental rethink from the government by requiring them to stoutly defend its policies in the House.
At the end of the day, the Worker’s Party did not promise to run Singapore’s town councils better. The Worker’s Party did not even promise to solve bread-and-butter issues that Singaporeans face . Instead, the Worker’s Party promised that it would be a check-and-balance, that it would be a co-driver, and that more debate would lead Singapore to a ‘First World Parliament’. It is this, this that the voters of Punggol East, and perhaps Singaporeans at large, must ultimately judge them. If it hasn’t even delivered the one thing it promised, then the question voters need to ask is not the one WP is asking them - whether Singapore needs another PAP MP. Rather, the right question would be the exact opposite: whether Singapore needs another Worker’s Party MP, or indeed any at all.