Character is at the heart of politics, and raising questions about an election candidate's character cannot be said to be gutter politics, Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam said yesterday.
He added that contrary to what some commentators have claimed, he never agreed with the view that the People's Action Party (PAP) was engaging in "gutter" tactics against Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) chief Chee Soon Juan when it raised questions about his character during the Bukit Batok by-election last year.
"That is not what I said, and not what I believe... I stand by what the PAP and my colleagues said. The PAP was not engaging in gutter politics," he wrote in a Facebook post .
Mr Tharman was clarifying comments he made last week at a dialogue with students, which have been taken by some as a criticism of his party colleagues.
During the dialogue at Nanyang Technological University's Majulah Lecture, he was asked if he approved of the election tactics of his PAP colleagues by a member of the audience, who called it "gutter politics".
In particular, the student brought up the Bukit Batok by-election.
FOR THE RECORD
I did not entertain the assertion about the PAP engaging in gutter politics in Bukit Batok. It is an assertion that is recycled from time to time, and has been the SDP's position. But having seen social media commentaries claiming that I had agreed with the assertion, I am making my views clear.
DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER THARMAN SHANMUGARATNAM
During campaigning, the PAP had contrasted Dr Chee's character with that of PAP candidate Murali Pillai, and criticised Dr Chee for saying that he was proud of his past - despite lingering questions raised by the PAP about some of his actions.
The SDP accused the PAP of gutter politics for doing so, and argued that questions of character should not be raised during elections.
Mr Murali won the election with 61 per cent of votes, against Dr Chee's 39 per cent.
Responding to the student, Mr Tharman had said that Singapore has become more open over the years, though there were "pushbacks" at times.
He also said: "I don't agree with every tactic by every one of my colleagues. But I have to say that if there is something that defines the PAP, it is its insistence on character, honesty and being true to Singaporeans."
Yesterday, he said his comments had been misconstrued by some to mean he agreed with the accusation about gutter politics.
Refuting it, he said: "I did not entertain the assertion about the PAP engaging in gutter politics in Bukit Batok. It is an assertion that is recycled from time to time, and has been the SDP's position. But having seen social media commentaries claiming that I had agreed with the assertion, I am making my views clear."
He added that character was an important measure of a candidate, and by looking at a politician's actions over time, voters can judge his motivations and integrity, and decide whether they can trust him.
"If Singaporeans ever come to ignore the track record and integrity of politicians, in the PAP or any other parties, it is Singapore that will end up in the gutter. That has been the story of many nations."
Mr Tharman also acknowledged that, more generally, there were occasional differences of views on issues within the Government and within the PAP.
He said: "Of course there are, and that is healthy. But once any course of action is decided, there is no question that we take collective responsibility for it in the leadership."