Saturday 4 February 2012

Workers' Party's halo losing its shine

Its evasiveness on shifts in stance, MP's alleged affair dull its 2011 glory
By Chua Lee Hoong, The Straits Times, 2 Feb 2012

OH, HOW the halo is losing its shine.

Nine months ago, in the eyes of many Singaporeans hungry for political rebalancing, the Workers' Party (WP) could do no wrong.

It had romped home to victory in Aljunied GRC, breaking the ruling party's monopoly on Group Representation Constituencies for the first time since the latter were created in 1988, and toppling two ministers and one senior minister of state in the process.

It had brought into Parliament the first opposition candidate with credentials to rival the best from the People's Action Party (PAP) - Mr Chen Show Mao, top lawyer with an international law firm, former national top student, effectively bilingual, as adept in Tang dynasty history as in corporate law.

Its presence in Parliament included four energetic chaps in their 30s - Mr Pritam Singh, Mr Gerald Giam, Mr Muhamad Faisal Abdul Manap and Mr Yaw Shin Leong - bringing with them the promise of new blood in opposition ranks, ready to ensure that ageing veterans like Mr Low Thia Khiang would have successors at the ready.

When Parliament sat in November, for the first time after the general election, all eyes were on the WP team - and while they could not be said to be spectacular, they did not disappoint either.

The WP MPs made speeches that contained thoughtful points reflecting concerns close to Singaporeans, whether relating to education, business, Chinese language or freedom of information.

But then came the new year, and a new sitting of Parliament, and this time, it seemed as if the WP was in self-destruct mode.

The ministerial pay debate that took place two weeks ago could have been the WP's star turn - an opportunity for it to show that it had a principled approach to the subject, had thought through all options and implications, and had done its homework thoroughly.

Instead, over the three days of debate, which I watched from start to finish, the WP's deficiencies became painfully clear.

'If this is a First World Parliament, I want none of it,' I muttered wearily to a colleague at the end of the three days.

To recap, a 'First World Parliament' was what the WP campaigned on in the May General Election.

Its manifesto proclaimed the WP's aim to 'form the government' in the long term, and among other things, declared that ministerial pay should be benchmarked to that of leaders in developed countries.

Calls for transparency were made five times in the manifesto, on matters ranging from crime information and defence to Central Provident Fund money and immigration statistics.

Yet during the ministerial pay debate - and in the days after - the WP has been unwilling and unable to explain its changing stances on ministerial pay.

It has had three positions in five years - pegging to foreign leaders' pay, pegging to income of the bottom 20 per cent of Singaporeans, and most recently, pegging to the MX9 salary scale in the civil service.

The WP's key leaders, Mr Low and Ms Sylvia Lim, have steadfastly refused to comment on the subject. It has been left to Mr Gerald Giam, the 34-year-old Non-Constituency MP, to front the WP's latest position.

Some say that is because Mr Giam, a one-time civil servant, is the key champion of the new formula. But that begs the question: Why the shift from the earlier positions? There is no logical connect between each of the three positions, unlike the formulation by the Committee to Review Ministerial Salaries which was essentially a widening of an existing base of top earners in Singapore.

That lack of transparency on the issue of ministerial pay extends into a more recent saga involving the WP - the Yaw Shin Leong affair.

The 35-year-old MP for Hougang, widely billed as Mr Low's protege in the run-up to last year's election, is now the subject of screaming tabloid headlines across Singapore for an alleged extramarital affair with another married party member.

Mr Yaw and all WP leaders have declined to comment on the allegations.

There are two distinct issues here - the behaviour of a public figure, a Member of Parliament, and the evasiveness of a party that has the declared aim of forming the government.

Which carries more weight depends on your personal beliefs, but neither should be a trivial matter.

Back during the hustings last year, the WP was embroiled in a much-publicised battle of words with the PAP as to whether it was a 'spare tyre', or 'co-driver', or more.

To disarm voters wary of a freak election result in which a party other than the PAP is returned to power, it proclaimed itself as aiming to be no more than a 'spare tyre', kept in reserve in case of emergency.

It wanted no more than to be a constructive opposition, it said, and to keep the PAP Government on its toes.

Fine words, lofty aims. But once again, there's a disconnect that needs to be explained, for its own manifesto makes clear it wants to be more than a spare tyre.

The third paragraph in the manifesto's introduction says: 'The WP's long-term aim is to form the government. While in opposition, we will promote parliamentary democracy by seeking the people's mandate to be elected Members of Parliament, so that we can call the government to account at the national level.'

The way the WP is going now, it is a long way from being in a position to form the government. Indeed, at the moment, it is the WP itself that needs to be called to account.

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