Pre-GE forum offers glimpse of likely issues at poll hustings

Top row: (From left) Democratic Progessive Party's Benjamin Pwee, National Solidarity Party's Steve Chia, People's Action Party's Sim Ann, People's Power Party's Goh Meng Seng and Reform Party's Kenneth Jeyaretnam. Bottom row (from left), Singapore D
Top row: (From left) Democratic Progessive Party's Benjamin Pwee, National Solidarity Party's Steve Chia, People's Action Party's Sim Ann, People's Power Party's Goh Meng Seng and Reform Party's Kenneth Jeyaretnam. Bottom row (from left), Singapore Democratic Alliance's Harminder Pal Singh, Singapore Democratic Party's Paul Tambyah, Singaporeans First's Tan Jee Say, Singapore People's Party's Jeannette Chong-Aruldoss and Workers' Party's Gerald Giam, at the National University of Singapore Society Political Dialogue on the General Election 2015 on Aug 18.ST PHOTOS: MARK CHEONG

A forum which featured all 10 political parties that are set to contest the coming election provided a preview of the issues that will be in play and where the clash of ideas and approaches are likely to take place.

That included an indication of the defence that the Workers' Party (WP) will mount against longstanding criticism from the ruling People's Action Party (PAP) over the management of its town council.

Non-Constituency MP Gerald Giam, representing the WP at the traditional pre-general election forum organised by the National University of Singapore Society, said his party had not short-changed residents when taking care of their neighbourhoods.

"They will tell you that in terms of estate maintenance, cleanliness - the issues that really matter to them - we have done comparably well to any other town council."

The PAP continually harped on lapses in governance by the WP-run Aljunied-Hougang-Punggol East Town Council (AHPETC) even though the opposition party already explained its position in Parliament and in subsequent statements, he said.

The PAP was doing this because it wanted to "insert into people's minds that we're not capable of running a town council" - and he expects the ruling party to revisit the issue again during the hustings.

But the PAP's representative, Minister of State for Education and Communications and Information Sim Ann, countered that the WP had only itself to blame for the repeated attention that the Government is giving to AHPETC because the WP has not fully answered questions about the town council's financial well-being.

"I wish that more answers had been forthcoming from AHPETC. Then I think we would have wasted much less time on the issue and I think the population would be much the wiser," she said at the forum at the Kent Ridge Guild House attended by 450 members .

The exchange got increasingly heated, with Mr Giam suggesting that Ms Sim came to the dialogue prepared to stir up the issue again.

This earned a quick rejoinder from her that Mr Giam did her "an injustice" as it was forum moderator Viswa Sadasivan who asked her to respond on town councils.

That exchange was but one instance in which opposition party representatives took turns to criticise the PAP over its policies and stance on issues. By the end of the three-hour session, it was apparent that many of the issues that dominated the 2011 General Election would resurface at the next one.

Immigration and the notion of a 6.9 million population target, for instance, was raised by several opposition party representatives to applause from the audience.

One audience member asked if the Government would consider forcing companies to hire Singaporeans first.

While the presence of 10 representatives meant few chances for them to delve into policy, each gave a preview of their party's platform at the start.

One common thread among opposition parties was a call for more government accountability on issues, but there was significant variety among them.

The Singaporeans First party focused on immigration, the Reform Party asked questions about financial management, and the Singapore Democratic Party pushed for a more liberal democracy.

Others like the National Solidarity Party and Democratic Progressive Party said they wanted to present new ideas to the Government.

If last night's forum was any indication, the WP will also continue with the "Towards A First World Parliament" slogan it used in 2011.

Mr Giam said the slogan remained relevant and urged voters to elect more opposition MPs in order to achieve that goal.

As for the PAP, Ms Sim said the election centres on the need for strong leadership.

"This GE, just like any other GE, is about the future. It's about who forms the government and who will take Singapore to the next stage," she said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 19, 2015, with the headline 'Pre-GE forum offers glimpse of likely issues at poll hustings'. Print Edition | Subscribe