In 2011, the Workers’ Party (WP) gained electoral success by branding itself as a moderate opposition party that can provide effective checks and balances to counter PAP’s legislative majority in the House. Nevertheless, in 2014, the debate between Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and WP Secretary-General Low Thia Khiang about what constitutes “constructive politics” exposed the limits of this approach. During the debate, PM Lee said that the WP had a responsibility to articulate a clear stand, state where exactly the government was going wrong and explain how it could do better. Essentially, it was no longer good enough to just ask the PAP to do slightly better. The PM was demanding higher standards from Singapore’s leading opposition party.
Still, I was fairly certain that the WP would not change tack for three reasons.
First, there are political risks to take a stand, advance an alternative proposal and defend it. If the proposal is not well-conceived or feasible, it could easily be taken apart. This is precisely what happened when the WP proposed having an eight-member Senate to absorb the custodial roles of a President during the Elected Presidency debate. Subsequently, the fine details of this proposal was subject to intense scrutiny from PAP MPs. It is reasonable and healthy to have a rigorous debate about the tangible elements of any proposal. Still, from the WP’s perspective, this debate, like others before, was a salutary warning that clearly proposing a radical alternative to the status quo could damage the party’s credibility.
Second, these risks are exacerbated by the WP’s lack of experience and policymaking nous. While experience in the civil service is not a prerequisite for any MP, it can be useful, especially for opposition politicians to have a grasp of the considerations that underpin the design and implementation of policies. Currently, very few members of the WP team have had prior exposure to policymaking. This point was tangentially acknowledged by PM Lee during the “constructive politics” debate in 2014 as well. While he emphasised the need for the WP to take a clear stance on issues, he also added that the “WP…may not have a full range of all the complexities of designing a HDB scheme or Medishield scheme”. It remains to be seen if the party develops policymaking instincts and builds its research capacity to propose alternative ideas in a more rigorous manner.
Third and arguably most importantly, the WP’s electoral success in 2011 was mainly due to the public’s perception that the PAP was unresponsive to the needs of the population. After GE2011, the PAP has shown that it is capable of tackling bread and butter issues in the areas of healthcare, housing and immigration. By narrowing the space for policy divergence, the PAP has astutely outflanked the WP and other opposition parties. As Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam said after GE2015, there was significant overlap between the proposals put forth by the PAP and opposition. Hence, as a voter, what is the incentive to vote for the WP if the PAP can deliver the same with a proven track record to boot?
So, I was keenly following the Budget and Committee of Supply debates over the last fortnight to see how the WP would fare. It was a mixed bag from the WP with some good, some bad and bits that were arguably iffy.
Low’s measured speech about Singapore’s foreign policy was one of the major positives for the WP. PM Lee also complimented him in a Facebook post for a “cogent and balanced” speech that was “firmly based on Singapore’s interests and perspectives”. This bipartisan support for Singapore’s foreign policy position augurs well for the country and the WP. Politics must stop at the water’s edge and the WP has realised that aligning its foreign policy stance to that of the government is of national importance.
Furthermore, the WP would know that as a small, city-state in a less than salubrious regional neighbourhood, Singapore’s foreign policy options are limited. Disagreeing with the government’s position would not only harm Singapore’s international standing but also prove politically costly. Opposition parties have generally paid a high political price and faced harsh criticism when they have attempted to challenge the Government on security issues that could constitute existential threats to Singapore’s sovereignty. For example, in the run-up to GE2015, the Singapore Democratic Party’s proposal to cut defence spending by 40% was firmly rebuked. Furthermore, since most matters related to Singapore’s foreign policy and defence have limited resonance amongst the broader population, it is understandable that the WP does not want to risk the party’s reputation for little electoral gain.
The other bright spot for the WP was NCMP Leon Perera’s thoughtful, well-researched speech on not writing off the West, industry disruption in Southeast Asia and the development of Singapore into an ASEAN innovation hub. He was also demonstrating his growing maturity as a parliamentarian. While making the case for Singapore to accelerate its base of educational institutions and research organisations in the region, Leon Perera quickly declared that he was the CEO of a consulting firm which operates in the Asia-Pacific and global emerging markets.
This might seem like a minute point. However, it was a timely declaration considering what had happened during the Tobacco Bill debate in November last year. When he advocated for the use of e-cigarettes during that debate, Senior Minister of State for Health Chee Hong Tat queried if Leon Perera as the CEO of Spire Group had any commercial interests that he wished to declare especially since Henkel, a key manufacturer of adhesives for cigarettes was a client of his firm. Subsequently, Leon Perera clarified that Henkel was a “very small party client”, reiterated his stance that his firm does not currently “support tobacco companies” and voiced strong objections to “any insinuation that there is any commercial motivation to his comments”. Therefore, it was wise of Leon Perera to make the declaration early and nip the issue in the bud.
The low point for the WP during this Budget debate came when Low called the GST hike announcement a “distraction” that was out of place in an otherwise forward-looking budget. This unnecessarily marred an otherwise balanced speech about Singapore’s foreign policy interests. Since the Budget is a statement of the government’s financial plans for the country, it makes complete sense to not only announce a GST hike but also debate it. According to Low, the GST hike could have been announced at a later date and debated separately. However, it is certain that if the government had delayed this announcement and made it only in 2021, the WP would have criticised the PAP for not giving prior warning to Singaporeans. After all, during the Committee of Supply debates in 2017, Low had stated the importance of the Minister for Finance being upfront with Singaporeans, especially after they were “blindsided by the 30% increase in water prices”.
The WP’s opposition to the GST hike was not unexpected. There was not much choice. Supporting the GST hike was untenable as it would have damaged their reputation amongst Singaporeans who expect the opposition to articulate their sentiments about cost of living issues. Furthermore, from a purely electoral strategy perspective, it is not possible to use the GST hike as a rallying issue in future if the WP voted in support of it. Of course, this opens up the possibility of the PAP criticising the WP for not understanding the long-term challenges that Singapore is facing. Therefore, much depends on how the WP defends its stance.
The WP’s call for the government to explore alternative revenue streams was a positive and important move. How much should we discount present needs for the future? How much is enough for the “rainy day” and have we inadvertently developed a hoarding mentality? What are the trade-offs of raising the Net Investment Returns Contribution (NIRC) cap to 60% or 70%? These were some of the implicit questions that underpinned Pritam Singh’s speech. They are pertinent questions and generated healthy discussions about the guiding principles that undergird the management of the reserves. More importantly, it also offered a chance for Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat to clarify the government’s stance.
While the premise of Pritam Singh’s speech was well-intentioned, his tangible proposals to fund our future expenditures left more questions than answers. His proposal to sell an asset, whether it is a land parcel or lease, to finance future, recurrent expenditures without generating income is not a financially sound idea. Furthermore, land parcels in Singapore are tied to protracted lease periods (I.e. 99-year leases) that will result in the Government not getting back the land for a long time. When questions were asked about this, it was unfortunate that Pritam Singh did not clarify his comments or defend his proposals. As mentioned earlier, this was another reminder of how the WP still finds it difficult to propose rigorous alternatives to the PAP’s policies.
To conclude, the next big parliamentary outing for the WP will be when Parliament reopens in May. President Halimah Yacob will outline the Government’s agenda for the remaining term during her inaugural address. The 4G leadership team will also be playing a key role in drafting the Government’s agenda while the Cabinet reshuffle should give younger Ministers more responsibility.
It is a time of transition for the WP as well. Pritam Singh has been touted as the frontrunner to replace Low as the WP Secretary-General in the party elections to be held on April 8. If he is elected, there might be more pressure on him to take on a more prominent role in debates with the PAP. Succeeding Low as the party’s Secretary-General will not be easy and Pritam Singh needs to carve his own identity. How the WP navigates these changes will determine the extent to which they can remain a credible opposition party in Parliament and beyond.
by Bhargav Sri Ganesh
The writer is a masters student studying Political Economy at the London School of Economics
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