SINGAPORE - In a charged debate on Wednesday (Sept 2), Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong crossed swords with Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh on the issue of encouraging Singaporeans to vote for the opposition, with the assurance that the People's Action Party would still form the government of the day.
Any political party that does so is a "free rider" and this tactic will eventually result in the system failing, PM Lee said.
Stressing that elections are about voting for who will run the government, he added that the country's political system can only work if people vote "sincerely, honestly, in accordance with what they really want".
But the Workers' Party (WP) chief countered that the residents of Aljunied, Hougang, and Sengkang GRCs - where his party emerged victorious in the recent general election - are "not free riders" and that MPs in these areas work hard to prove their worth.
Their exchange followed a speech by PM Lee in which he detailed why it is crucial for Singapore to get its politics right.
In it, he related how a middle-aged woman approached Senior Minister Teo Chee Hean during the election campaign. The woman had asked Mr Teo if it was true that voting for the opposition would just mean "two persons working for you instead of one", as the PAP's plans for the area would still get carried out, he said.
Responding to this anecdote, Mr Singh said there is another perspective, citing how he has been asked why the elected opposition MP does not feature in the area's community club.
Voters who say that they want the PAP in government but also want an opposition in Parliament are giving voice to what many Singaporeans feel, Mr Singh said.
His duty, and that of his fellow MPs, is to be responsible about their roles, he added.
"It's not easy; we come under pressure too from our own supporters. But as the Prime Minister rightly said, I think we owe our loyalty to something larger. And we will do our best by Singaporeans. And if we're not good enough, we deserve to be voted out. And that's how the system should work."
PM Lee replied that the Non-Constituency MP (NCMP) scheme guarantees that there will be opposition MPs in Parliament to hold the PAP to account.
If people believe that the PAP government is doing the wrong thing, they should be voted out, he said. But if Singaporeans vote "tactically", one day they will get a result they did not intend.
"I think that's a wrong thing to teach people to do. You go to the elections, you vote for the person whom you have trust in, who will run your system, who will run your government," Mr Lee said, criticising these "free rider" tactics.
"And our system is designed so that if you do that, it will be stable. If you don't do that... you're courting trouble."
He added that he understands why Mr Singh has chosen to play up the message that voters can safely vote for his party, given that the PAP will still form the government. "But I put it to you that that is not the right thing to do morally, and is not the right thing to do for Singapore."
Responding, Mr Singh said the WP MPs have had their "growing pains", but they have tried their best in the circumstances they were in, and would not be in Parliament today if they were bungling things up.
Residents voted for the WP because they know that having elected opposition MPs is ultimately good for Singapore, he said.
"It's not just the NCMP version of the opposition - with full respect to everyone who's an NCMP in this Parliament and those that came before. It's when you have elected opposition MPs that the government listens harder, and that means something to people. That's my view."
Taking on the Prime Minister's suggestion that his tactics were dishonest, Mr Singh said: "The bigger moral imperative that I have, and it's a huge burden... was whether the people who are standing as candidates could follow through."
This was the heaviest decision he had to make, as the "biggest pain" would be to choose someone who turns out not to be committed.
He added: "I'm not desperate for power, Prime Minister, but we've got to get good people if we want to bring this country forward... At this point in our growth, I think, we have to grow our roots as a loyal opposition."
This is the first time that the Government has recognised the office of the Leader of the Opposition, he noted. "We have many, many more miles to go, but we're not chasing a destination. We intend to do right by Singapore."
PM Lee acknowledged Mr Singh's emotional declaration in his response, but stood by his earlier point.
"I appreciate Mr Pritam's explanations. I in no way undervalue his motivations, his passion, his desire to do right by Singapore, his wish to have a higher quality opposition built up in Singapore. I understand that," he said.
"I think it's good for Singapore that you have honest people in the opposition, people who believe in what they're trying to do, people who will stand up and fight for their ideals and, from time to time, disagree very strongly with the government."
But if all voters take the attitude that they can vote for the opposition because another person will vote for the PAP, Singapore will end up with a government it does not want, PM Lee said.
"Therefore, something is wrong when you say, I really want one government but I will vote for another one... I think it is necessary that people understand this, and understand what is at stake when you elect a government of Singapore. Elections are not just about the town council, they're also about electing the government for the country, and that's necessary for people to bear firmly in mind."
Joining the fray, Progress Singapore Party NCMP Leong Mun Wai said voters can see there is a "comfortable margin" because the PAP still has the vast majority of the seats in Parliament. "Singaporean voters are really, really very smart. They know how to control the process," he added.
There is no question that Singapore wants a PAP government now, but the electorate will not sit by if the government's performance does not improve, he said.
Moving to the topic of jobs and the country's social safety net, Mr Leong added that Singaporeans do not want a revolution but a "rebalancing".
PM Lee gave him a brief response, saying he had already addressed Mr Leong's first question extensively. "He doesn't add anything new to it. In fact, he reinforced the problem exactly. Mr Pritam Singh is not the only one making this argument, and if everyone makes this argument, everyone is going to be in trouble."
He added that Mr Leong's other question could be discussed in Parliament another day, but did not pertain to the focus of his speech. " I'm talking here about which way Singapore politics is going, what the risks are going in this direction, what we must do in order to make it turn out right."