Tuesday 19 November 2013

Hri Kumar: WP takes no stands on tough issues

The Straits Times, 18 Nov 2013

PEOPLE'S Action Party MP Hri Kumar Nair has criticised the Workers' Party for sitting on the fence on tough issues, citing what the opposition party's MPs said at a Parliament sitting earlier last week on the banning of a website and a law that allows detention without trial.

He is the second PAP MP to do so in a week. The first was Senior Minister of State Indranee Rajah who took the WP to task for straddling both sides of the fence on the hijab issue. Both did so in comments on Facebook.

On Saturday night, Mr Nair contrasted PAP MP Denise Phua's clear support for blocking the Ashley Madison website, which facilitates extramarital dating, with the question posed by WP MP Pritam Singh at last Monday's Parliament sitting, which he said did not make clear the WP's stand.

He said the blocking of the "obnoxious website" was controversial as it raised questions of free speech and the role of government in regulating morality.

On what he called Mr Singh's "obfuscation", Mr Nair said: "Why not make its position clear? Because the WP knows that either position it takes would put it at odds with one group of Singaporeans or another. So the safest thing to do is to sound like you are saying something without actually saying anything.

"Is this an exception? Actually, it is the rule. On almost every contentious issue, where taking a position risks loss of support, the WP has either sat on the fence or has heavily qualified its position, while giving the impression that it has seriously considered the matter."

Mr Nair also cited WP chairman Sylvia Lim's failure to take a position on the Bill to renew the Criminal Law (Temporary Provisions) Act, which gives the Government power to detain persons without trial. It was only after Second Minister for Home Affairs S. Iswaran pressed her that she said she supported its renewal "with a heavy heart".

On the hijab debate, the WP did not take a position but called for a public dialogue, Mr Nair noted. He said Singapore's political development would stagnate if political parties avoid difficult issues "because there can never be freedom of choice unless people know and understand what their choices really represent".

The political price of taking a stand
On contentious issues that could cost votes, parties tend to tread cautiously
By Leonard Lim, The Straits Times, 30 Nov 2013

IN A year that has already seen heated exchanges between the PAP and Workers' Party (WP) over town councils and hawker centre cleaning, MPs from the ruling party launched an attack on a new flank recently.

Two People's Action Party (PAP) MPs posted strongly worded statements on Facebook a fortnight ago, accusing the WP of not taking a clear stand on "difficult" and divisive issues, such as the debate on whether uniformed public servants should be allowed to wear the tudung to work.

Senior Minister of State for Law and Education Indranee Rajah said the WP straddles both sides of the fence and "merely calls for public dialogue". She pointed to how the smaller National Solidarity Party had at least taken a clear position - it supported the wearing of the Muslim headscarf in all places of work and study.

Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC MP Hri Kumar Nair went further a few days later. He listed several other examples of what he said were the WP sitting on the fence on tough issues, including the ban on pro-adultery website Ashley Madison. "On almost every contentious issue, where taking a position risks loss of support, the WP has either sat on the fence or has heavily qualified its position, while giving the impression that it has seriously considered the matter," he added.

His salvo, along with Ms Indranee's, was almost certainly aimed at swaying swing voters and timed to come one after another for maximum impact.

The WP, on its part, has chosen to stay silent thus far and refused to engage with its PAP critics. That might, in the eyes of some, lend weight to Mr Nair's assertion that the WP's lack of a clear stance is a strategic move to avoid the loss of support from voters of different persuasions, whether on the hijab issue or on Ashley Madison.

But in the eyes of others, that same charge could be levied at the Government too - it has studiously avoided articulating clearly its stand on calls to relax the tudung ban in certain professions.

In their statements on the issue thus far, ministers and PAP MPs have taken pains to show solidarity with the Muslim community.

Yet they also stress the need to maintain social harmony in a multiracial and multi-religious country and, like the WP, call for constructive dialogue.

They say they understand the Muslim community's concerns, but this must be considered carefully against the impact on racial integration. Modifying uniforms of some professions for religious reasons, especially the police and military, may be "very problematic", Minister-in-charge of Muslim Affairs Yaacob Ibrahim adds.

Why is this so? He attempts to explain - police officers or military servicemen cannot "wear or display conspicuous religious symbols on their uniforms or their faces, and Muslim police women officers on duty cannot wear the hijab.

"But when they are out of uniforms, they are free to wear the hijab, as indeed many do going to and from work."

But this still leaves things unclear. Might a relaxation of the ban throw open the door to those from other races and religions to also advocate for modifications to their uniforms?

The ruling that covers Muslim women in the police, military, nursing, and national schools is a delicate one that involves race and religion and, understandably, requires deft handling.

The PAP and WP, Singapore's two biggest political parties, will have calculated that taking a distinct stand, or moving on the issue, would lead to ire and the potential loss of votes either way.

Against this backdrop, the PAP's attempt to dictate the agenda by focusing Singaporeans' minds on the WP's lack of a clear position, coming soon after attacks on the opposition party's MPs' integrity and honesty in the hawker centre cleaning saga, now seeds other kinds of questions in voters' minds.

If the WP cannot be decisive on such issues, can it be counted on to make tougher, possibly vote-losing choices at a time when the country needs strong and clear leadership to help it keep its place in the world?The election of such a political party could cause Singapore to lose its edge and fall behind other countries. That is the possibility PAP MPs want voters to sit up and take note of.

There are still some two years to go to the next general election but the PAP's offensive, the latest in its attempts to be more assertive since the last polls, provides a clue to the ruling party's strategy going forward.

Ms Indranee and Mr Nair's comments mark the first time in recent memory the PAP drew attention to the WP's apparent lack of a clear position on issues. It may indicate a move away from personal attacks - history has shown that these have typically led to the opposition gaining sympathy points - towards a new focus on drawing out the WP's stance on controversial matters.

But the lack of a response from the WP indicates it is wary of playing into the PAP's hands, and resists this bid by the ruling party to set the political agenda.

In its defence, the WP can, for starters, point to how it vehemently opposed the Population White Paper in February. Earlier this month, its Non-Constituency MP Gerald Giam spoke up for citizens' concerns over rising health-care costs and called for lower MediShield co-payments, in an adjournment motion in Parliament.

It may be that in the minds of a significant share of the electorate, such bread-and-butter issues should be the WP's primary concern. To them, the role of an opposition party is to provide checks and balances.

The question is whether there is also a group of swing voters who will be persuaded by Mr Nair's argument, that Singapore's "political development will stagnate if political parties avoid difficult issues" because "there can never be freedom of choice unless people know and understand what their choices really represent".

WP chief Low Thia Khiang has said that the best argument for his party's place in Singapore politics are the policy changes the PAP government has implemented which correspond to items in the WP's last election manifesto, such as increasing the supply of Build-To-Order flats.

Still, the WP's silence in the face of fresh attacks by the PAP cedes political points to the ruling party, which itself has limited room for manoeuvre on sensitive issues like the hijab. It has little choice but to take a balanced approach and strive not to antagonise as it weighs its options, their potential political costs and when best to make the next move.

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