Low Thia Khiang tries to counter PM's speech but WP no longer has its previous political heft
The opposition leader's speech had nice flourishes, to be sure, about the Government's "narrow, technocratic view of politics" and the dangers of "focusing on the PAP navel" in place of chasing ideals.
Mr Low Thia Khiang (Aljunied GRC) made a brave attempt to counter Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's tour de force of a speech on Wednesday, in which he set out the reasons for planned changes to Singapore's Constitution and political system.
And there is no doubt the Workers' Party (WP) chief was closely listened to by the front and backbench yesterday.
Not only did he attack what he saw as the Government's narrow view of good politics, which he said merely produces good policy and avoids gridlock, but he also offered a counter-definition: "The outcome of good politics is the fostering of a political system that is able to withstand shock and turbulence, including the unexpected collapse or slow corruption of the ruling party, to ensure the continuity of the nation."
He warned that excessive fear of political gridlock would "lead to a society depending on only one political party, waiting for it to rot to the point of no return, before any alternative party can be formed to take its place".
Alternative parties, he added, are the insurance against any collapse or failure of the ruling party, and there is value in giving such parties the chance to develop.
There was nothing wrong with Mr Low's speech really, except that in this Parliament, his party no longer commands the political heft that it did in the last one, due to its weaker showing at last year's polls as compared with 2011.
It is hardly surprising then that yesterday's speech packed far less of a punch than the one Mr Low delivered on constructive politics in May 2014.
That, too, was in response to the President's Address, when Parliament returned after a mid-term prorogue or pause, and Mr Low came out with guns blazing to criticise the PAP for preferring compliant to constructive politics.
Nineteen months and one general election later, it is now the PAP that is on the offensive, and the WP has little choice but to react to the ruling party's advances.
At the heart of the WP's dilemma is a political innovation that no one saw coming - the Prime Minister's decision to change the Constitution to raise the minimum number of Non-Constituency MPs (NCMPs) in the House from the current nine to 12, and to grant them the same voting rights as elected MPs.
NCMP seats go to opposition candidates who fail to get elected but win the highest share of votes among losers in a general election.
On Wednesday night, responding off-the-cuff to reporters' questions on PM Lee's announcement, Mr Low compared NCMPs to "duckweed" that float on a pond's surface and lack roots, unlike elected MPs, who have a constituency, run a town council, hold Meet-the-People Sessions and "can sink roots" in the wards they represent.
Yesterday, two PAP backbencher MPs sought to poke holes in Mr Low's simile.
Ms Rahayu Mahzam (Jurong GRC) expressed surprise that NCMPs were being compared to duckweed as "nothing stops the NCMPs from going to the ground to do house visits, organise sessions to gather ground concerns".
Referring to newly appointed NCMP Leon Perera of the WP, she said: "I recall Mr Perera mentioning that he does grassroots work at East Coast and Aljunied."
Mr Edwin Tong (Marine Parade GRC) issued a more substantive rebuttal, saying: "I think Mr Low misses the point. The privilege to run a town council and manage a constituency is one that can only be bestowed by the electorate of that constituency.
"It is a mandate from the people. And if, in elections, the electorate does not choose the WP to run its town council, perhaps because the electorate feels they are incapable of doing so, that choice has to be respected.
"The NCMP scheme does not, in any way, take away the ability or opportunity of any candidate to contest freely for the privilege to run a constituency or a town council. If you win your seat, then you run the town council. You grow your roots.
"But if you don't, then the NCMP scheme still gives an opposition candidate a second chance... a seat in Parliament - with all the parliamentary privileges of an elected MP."
Despite these PAP protestations to the contrary, Mr Low was spot on when he said on Wednesday night - speaking from his gut and not from a text before a Meet-the-People Session in his ward - that the NCMP role "does not give any political party muscle because you don't have the competitive advantage on the ground".
He also acknowledged that there was a real danger that opposition parties would become satisfied with second-best, and end up "competing for NCMP (seats) instead of trying to get elected" outright.
Therein lies the Government's cunning in moving to strengthen the NCMP scheme, in a bid to better manage the pace of political change which it knows is, in the long term, moving towards greater pluralism.
For now, Mr Low finds himself in the unenviable position of having to point out the pitfalls of the NCMP scheme, even as he prepares to move today a motion asking Parliament to give a third NCMP seat to sociology professor Daniel Goh - a rising star in the WP ranks - after Ms Lee Li Lian, the losing WP candidate for Punggol East, turned it down.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 29, 2016, with the headline 'WP chief's bid to tackle govt offensive'. Print Edition | Subscribe
We have been experiencing some problems with subscriber log-ins and apologise for the inconvenience caused. Until we resolve the issues, subscribers need not log in to access ST Digital articles. But a log-in is still required for our PDFs.