Singapore must avoid going down path of polarised politics: PM Lee

Government and opposition must work for good of country, not just partisan interests

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said the Government and the opposition must ensure policy debates are based on principles and fact, guided by shared ideals and goals, including securing Singapore's future.
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said the Government and the opposition must ensure policy debates are based on principles and fact, guided by shared ideals and goals, including securing Singapore's future. PHOTO: GOV.SG

Singapore's success over the years, from building up its economy to tackling the ongoing Covid-19 crisis, has been possible because the country managed to get its politics right, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

And it is up to Singaporeans to ensure it remains so, by being engaged on the issues, sending the right signals through their votes and rewarding parties that delivered for the people.

The ruling People's Action Party, which helped build the country with the people, has a special duty to keep the system working, providing the leadership the country needs and deserves.

"At the most fundamental level, to make our politics work, both the Government and the opposition must share an overriding objective - to work for Singapore, and not just for our party or our supporters," he added yesterday, when he rose to join the debate on the President's Address to the opening of Parliament.

That would make it possible to have policy debates based on principles and fact, guided by shared ideals and goals, including protecting Singapore's security, growing its economy and securing its future.

"If we do that, then there's a basis for us to manage the inherent tensions in our system, and for politics to work out productively," he said, but cautioned that it was not a given that the virtuous circle would continue.

Elsewhere, politics has become increasingly toxic and bitter, issues are politicised and governments paralysed by partisan bickering, leaving countries divided and on a spiral downwards.

"If this happens to Singapore, we will not just cease being an exceptional nation, it will be the end of us. We must not go down this path."

While there is no guarantee that even under a PAP government, Singapore will forever be successful, PM Lee called on Singaporeans to work with and keep faith with the Government, a formula that has served the country well.

In a wide-ranging 90-minute speech broadcast live, he also spoke on Singapore's ongoing battle against Covid-19 and noted that the nation has managed, after eight gruelling months, to stabilise the situation, with one of the world's lowest fatality rates. This had called for a tremendous effort, with Singaporeans working together and giving the Government their trust and support, he said.

The same compact will be crucial as the country navigates a changed world that requires stronger safety nets, the thorny issue of foreign worker policy, and evolving politics given the greater desire for opposition voices in Parliament, he said.

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Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong asserted that Singapore will come back stronger from the Covid-19 crisis. He also debated with Pritam Singh on the nature of the Opposition in Singapore politics.

There was a need for more robust safety nets going forward, he said, citing greater economic uncertainty and the long-term trends of an ageing population and rising healthcare costs.

The Government is not ideologically opposed to any solutions raised, he added. But it is imperative these safety nets are fiscally sustainable and do not create new problems in themselves, like eroding the spirit of self-reliance.

Singapore is also reviewing its foreign worker criteria, given the slack in the job market due to the downturn. Yet it must be careful not to give the wrong impression that it no longer welcomes foreigners, as its success is predicated on being an international hub that serves a global market, he said.

Taking up the hot button issue of foreigners competing with Singaporeans for jobs, which had dominated the first two days of the debate, he said: "The Government will always be on the side of Singaporeans. What is the point of creating jobs for foreigners if it does not benefit Singaporeans?"

He added: "We may be under stress now, but we cannot turn inwards. We will adjust our policies to safeguard Singaporean jobs, but let us show confidence that Singaporeans can hold their own in the world."

A spirited exchange with Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh followed PM Lee's speech, in which he said he had listened carefully to Mr Singh spelling out on Monday how he planned to go about his new role. "I applaud his tone and approach. The government benches will do our part to work with him, to keep Parliament a constructive forum for debate," PM Lee said.

He added that it was good to have an adequate number of opposition MPs in the House, to keep the Government on its toes. But he warned that the opposition's tactic of urging voters to back it, assuming the PAP would still be around to form the government, was flawed.

"At what point does a vote for a strong opposition become a vote for a different government?" he asked.

Responding, Mr Singh said he and his colleagues were sincere in standing for election to ensure an opposition presence, not because he was "desperate for power" or had dreams of forming a government. Likewise, in posing questions such as on the use of the nation's reserves, they were seeking good outcomes for Singapore and not out of a desire of "raiding them", he said.

PM Lee concluded his speech on a rousing note. Covid-19, like so many other challenges that Singapore has faced, would be a "platform for ambition and daring", he said, pledging that the nation would emerge stronger and more united from the crisis, as it had done in the past.

"We are here by dint of will and imagination, in defiance of all the odds. And of all those who said we wouldn't make it, we did.

"Do not doubt. Do not fear. Jewel will shine again. Changi will thrive again. SIA will be a great way to fly once more. Our economy will prosper anew," he said.

Choking up as he concluded, PM Lee said: "Our children and our grandchildren will continue marching forward to build a fairer, evermore just and equal society."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 03, 2020, with the headline Singapore must avoid going down path of polarised politics: PM Lee. Subscribe