Tuesday 27 May 2014

Low Thia Khiang, Indranee Rajah lock horns over "constructive politics"

Parties clash over what 'constructive politics' means
WP chief asks if it is a reference to 'compliant politics'; PAP MPs hit back
By Tham Yuen-C, The Straits Times, 27 May 2014

THE call in last week's Presidential Address 2014 for "constructive politics" elicited an attempt by Workers' Party (WP) chief Low Thia Khiang to define it yesterday, a move that prompted a swift rebuttal from the People's Action Party (PAP) MPs and leaders.

Both sides crossed swords over the meaning of the term, which President Tony Tan Keng Yam has described as politics that puts people and the nation first while eschewing populist politics that could lead to gridlock and weaken Singapore.

Mr Low, who devoted his entire speech to the subject during the debate on the Presidential Address, made the first move, suggesting it was a reference to "compliant politics". He also suggested the PAP was engaging in rhetoric.

It drew a strong rebuttal from Senior Minister of State for Law and Education Indranee Rajah, who questioned if the WP was capable of "constructive politics" which she said is real, not rhetoric, and requires integrity and responsibility.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong also weighed in with a Facebook post last night, stating that the purpose of politics was to make a difference in people's lives and to build a better Singapore.

"It does not happen by the order of the Government. Nor does it happen through a national conversation or public consultation."

It requires inculcating political values in youth, building a political culture that is free from bullying, abuse of power or fear, and establishing institutions that are impartial and hence, trusted by the people, he said.

To this end, the veteran MP called for a review of the National Education syllabus so that young people understood their rights, obligations and values as citizens in a democratic society.

"I believe Singapore will be a more stable and mature democracy if Singaporeans are in possession of democratic values."

He also urged Singaporeans to decide through the ballot box the political culture they want.

"If the people continue to support the government party that uses high-handed tactics against its political opponents, we are endorsing a bullying political culture."

The Government, as a dominant player, has an even more significant role, he noted.

Therefore, if it uses "differentiating measures" to punish those who voted for the opposition, it would breed a culture of divisive politics, said Mr Low.

A political incumbent that uses "all legal means to remain in power" will also build a self-serving political culture, he cautioned.

Turning to the Elected President, Mr Low said it was a "weakness" that could potentially cause the gridlock Dr Tan feared.

He warned the President could exercise his "blocking power" if he disagrees with the Government, affecting its efficiency.

This scenario could be avoided by building institutions of state trusted by the public, he said.

Noting that Dr Tan's exhortation was "unprecedented", Mr Low expressed cynicism over what the Government meant by "constructive politics".

The recent extension of media licensing rules to online news sites smacks of "compliant politics", he charged.

Mr Vikram Nair (Sembawang GRC) noted Mr Low had opened the WP's slate by speaking "almost entirely on one topic".

"It's actually a little bit tragic if the focus is going to be on politics and not on the policies that will help the people," he said.

Ms Indranee, in dismissing that constructive politics was just rhetoric, said: "It is real because what we say and we do in this Parliament makes a difference to Singaporeans."

To achieve constructive politics, political parties would have to put Singaporeans first, and offer practical alternatives that "ultimately result in better lives".

They would also have to act responsibly, by admitting the "trade-offs" of their policies, instead of pandering to public opinion and saying what is popular.

"Something like that is politically opportunistic, not constructive," she said.

It was also not constructive for political parties to flip-flop when convenient, she charged, alluding to the WP.

Citing an example about the WP's stance on the foreign worker issue, she said: "You don't ask for more foreign workers to be allowed in Singapore in 2012, and then in 2013 - after the White Paper (on Population) - say that there should be a complete freeze. And then a few months later, ask for more foreign workers again."

Constructive politics, said Ms Indranee, also requires integrity.

The WP had appointed a firm, which the PAP said belonged to WP supporters, to run the Aljunied-Hougang-Punggol East Town Council after the 2011 polls. It had said it did not have time to call an open tender as the PAP-owned Action Information Management, which was managing the town council before the party took over, had terminated its contract.

Ms Indranee, who also spoke on education and other issues, questioned Mr Low's intentions in focusing on one topic when the President had laid out a string of plans, programmes and policies for the second half of the Government's term.

"Perhaps Mr Low feels that our politics is not working or Mr Low has no constructive alternatives into the challenges that we face, or with the recent woes of his town council, he wishes to create an impression that nothing is wrong and that the Government is out to fix them," she said.

Constructive politics key to realising Singapore’s dreams: PM Lee
Politics purely for the sake of power will lead Singapore to disaster, says the Prime Minister
TODAY, 26 May 2014

Weighing in on the debate on constructive politics, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong today (May 26) said that the “purpose of politics is to make a difference to people’s lives, to build a better Singapore”.

“Constructive politics is key to realising our dreams,” said Mr Lee in a Facebook post after Parliament ended its first day of debate, which saw various Members of Parliament speaking on the topic of constructive politics. Among them, Opposition leader Low Thia Khiang crossed swords with Senior Minister of State (Law and Education) Indranee Rajah over what the term constitutes.

Posting a video showing the exchange between Mr Low and Ms Indranee on his Facebook page, Mr Lee noted: “Politics purely for the sake of power, without any notion of what we want Singapore to become, will lead us to disaster.”

Mr Lee, who will be speaking in Parliament on Wednesday, said he was glad many MPs spoke in support of the President’s Address, and that “many, especially govt MPs, offered ideas to improve or change policies”.

He noted that MPs generally supported the Government’s plans to improve people’s lives, but they had specific suggestions to help different groups of people.

“Some wanted more support for professionals, managers and executives (PMEs). Others suggested improvements to the CPF system to give older Singaporeans peace of mind in their retirement. Several urged more help for the lower-income and disadvantaged groups. We will look into these suggestions carefully,” said Mr Lee.

Exchange between Low and Indranee

WORKERS' Party chief Low Thia Khiang and PAP MP Indranee Rajah sparred over constructive politics. Here is an excerpt:

Mr Low: "In whatever way politics is described and coloured, it's still politics. What is important is the outcome of the political process."

Ms Indranee: Constructive politics is putting Singaporeans at the heart of what we do by, first, offering practical alternatives; second, acknowledging trade-offs and being responsible. (It) means not flip-flopping when convenient.

You don't ask for more foreign workers in 2012, then in 2013, after the White Paper, say there should be a complete freeze; a few months later, ask for more foreign workers again.

Constructive politics must mean upholding the highest standards of integrity. If you take over a town council and give out contracts to your supporters worth millions of dollars without a tender, what kind of political values are those?

It is significant that Mr Low's speech was wholly devoted to the topic of politics and disregarded the rest of the President's speech which outlines the Government's agenda for the future for Singapore and Singaporeans. Perhaps Mr Low feels that our politics is not working or Mr Low has no constructive alternatives to the challenges that we face or, with the recent woes of his town council, he wishes to create an impression that nothing is wrong and the Government is out to fix them.

Mr Low: "It is not that I don't agree to constructive politics. It can be merely rhetoric of the Government. What's important is the outcome... the actual action of the Government.

The award of the contract to the managing agent is through an open tender. You may want to give us more details to prove how the WP lacks integrity. Secondly, (the) Auditor- General is auditing the town council's account.

Is she suggesting the Government has some pre-concluded conclusion? Whether we flip-flop, no. If she wishes to have a full debate, please file a motion.

We are prepared to debate that.

Ms Indranee: "He said constructive politics is rhetorical. It is not. What we say and do in this Parliament makes a difference to Singaporeans, (and) has an impact on the lives of people.

It is in the Hansard - it was quite clear the initial award of the contract was not as a result of an open tender.

Fiery debate puts focus on 'constructive politics'
By Robin Chan, The Straits Times, 27 May 2014

IF THE tone of the first day of Parliament debate is anything to go by, the second half promises to be full of fireworks.

Within an hour into a new Parliament session, Workers' Party (WP) chief Low Thia Khiang took to the lectern with guns blazing and delivered a strongly critical speech of the People's Action Party (PAP) and its notion of what is "constructive politics".

Speaking in English from a drafted text, Mr Low pointed to President Tony Tan Keng Yam's call for upholding constructive politics, and said that while he agreed that constructive politics is what should be aimed for, the WP and the PAP have vastly different understandings of what that actually means.

"We must all remember constructive politics does not happen by the order of the Government. Nor does it happen through a national conversation or public consultation," he said. "To achieve the outcome of constructive politics in a diverse and open society, like those in mature democracies, and to nurture an environment conducive for it requires much effort, and everyone across society has his part to play."

Setting out his view, he said constructive politics involves inculcating democratic political values in young people, building a political culture that is free from bullying, fear and abuse of power, and having institutions that are politically impartial and hence trusted by the people.

Instead of promoting constructive politics, he added, recent moves by the PAP Government to require online news sites to register "could result in a loss of valuable political diversity" if it leads to bloggers having to close down their websites. "This smells of compliant politics and not constructive politics."

The PAP shot back through its lawyer MPs Vikram Nair (Sembawang GRC) and Indranee Rajah (Tanjong Pagar GRC), who is also the Senior Minister of State for Education and Law.

Mr Nair said it was "a little bit tragic if the focus is going to be on politics and not the policies that will help people".

Ms Indranee took up the same theme, noting that Mr Low's speech had focused almost entirely on politics with hardly any mention of the policies outlined in the President's Address.

She went further, and accused the WP of flip-flopping on its policy stands, by asking for more foreign workers to be let in one year and then saying there should be a freeze the next. She also questioned its integrity in town council management to show that the WP itself has not been engaging in constructive politics.

She added that "perhaps Mr Low has no constructive alternatives (for) the challenges that we face... or with the recent woes of his town council, he wishes to create an impression that nothing is wrong and that the Government is out to fix them".

Mr Low jumped up to defend his party, saying it had not flip-flopped, and even raised the ante by challenging Ms Indranee to file a motion to debate the matter.

It was the highlight of a full day of debate on the President's Address which outlined the Government's plans for the rest of its term after a month-long break.

While 19 MPs rose to speak on a variety of issues, offering salient critiques and suggestions of policies related to the Central Provident Fund scheme and retirement needs, and on education and training to improve social mobility, it is likely that Mr Low's speech will be the one most people remember.

He spoke on an issue that appeals to a younger generation who want more space for political debate and more competition.

Mr Low noted: "They expect better standards befitting a First World Singapore not only in terms of hardware like physical infrastructure and efficient services, but also software like quality of life, as well as in politics and government response."

But it is also significant since he was asserting that what might be considered constructive politics is not for the Government alone to determine.

Indeed, this issue was also touched on by other MPs including Minister of State for Trade and Industry Teo Ser Luck, Non-Constituency MP Lina Chiam, and Zaqy Mohamad (Chua Chu Kang GRC).

Mr Zaqy noted a danger of destructive politics, when policies and their intentions are not clearly understood, leaving society vulnerable to the politics of envy and self-interest. Therefore, the Government must work even harder to get its message across.

In his address on May 16, President Tan sought to define constructive politics as politics that puts the nation and people first.

Therefore, it is important to have vigorous debates on the challenges facing the nation, and then "once the debate is settled, we must come together again, to move ahead as one united people".

But some might well ask: Is it for the Government to set the boundaries of the debate, and to decide when that debate should end?

Ms Indranee added another explanation: "At the end of the day, the most important thing is that the way we conduct our politics in Singapore makes a big difference in the lives of people, and it is important therefore that our politics should be constructive and should not be purely opportunistic, not populist."

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong emphasised it in a Facebook post last night, saying that "constructive politics is key to realising our dreams".

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