SINGAPORE - With Singapore heading towards a more politically contested landscape, the competence and honesty of the opposition matter, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Tuesday (Feb 15) as he joined in the debate on the Committee of Privileges' report on the Raeesah Khan episode.
He stressed that with Singaporeans' lives and future at stake, everyone participating in the system must be held to the same standards.
"There can be no excuses, no double standards, and no pardoning of inexcusable behaviour, just because the offending party portrays itself as the underdog," he said.
Stressing that "integrity is the linchpin of democracy", PM Lee said the stakes of the debate on the committee's report might have been lower if the opposition were a negligible presence, as they were from 1966 until the 1980s.
Then, the People's Action Party (PAP) was overwhelmingly dominant, the public generally had low expectations of opposition parties and politicians, the tone of the country and its governance were set by the PAP, and the high standards that the PAP imposed on itself, he said.
"But with Singapore heading towards a more contested landscape, the competence and honesty of the opposition is no longer an inconsequential matter. The question of 'what are the right values and how should we uphold them?' becomes of fundamental importance for both the opposition and the governing party," PM Lee said.
"Every election henceforth would be about who wins the mandate to run this country. If the system is working properly, the governing party will be re-elected so long as it remains honest, competent and trusted," he said.
"If the governing party falls short, and Singaporeans come to deem an opposition party more honest and incorruptible, more competent, and more trustworthy, then the governing party should be voted out, and that opposition party should be voted in, to form the next government."
PM Lee said it cannot be assumed that the PAP will always continue in government. Nor can it be assumed that the WP, or some other opposition party, or any other opposition party, will always stay in the opposition.
"I do not know when, or how, there will be a change of governing party in Singapore one day. My job as party leader is to make sure the PAP governs well to the best of its ability, so that it retains the mandate of the people for as many elections as possible," he said.
"But my duty as the leader of the country is also to maximise the chances that whichever party wins future elections, it will uphold and be held to the same high standards of proper conduct and honesty as the PAP, so that our democratic system can continue to operate properly, whichever party is in charge, and would not go down the drain because a small island city-state like Singapore - the only one in the world like this - needs a strong, effective and good government, whoever leads it."
In his 40-minute speech, he described the Raeesah Khan episode as a betrayal of what the WP claimed it stood for.
He noted how Mr Pritam Singh had succeeded Mr Low Thia Khiang as secretary-general of the party.
"Mr Low served for a very long time - 30 years as an MP, 17 years as party leader. He sat opposite me, where Mr Singh now sits. Mr Low was a formidable political opponent, but he was a patriotic Singaporean. He set a different tone for the WP. He said he hoped the WP could help to build a First World Parliament for Singapore. He must be saddened that, instead, this is what his successor has done," PM Lee said.
"Because what has happened is a betrayal of what WP claimed it stood for."
But he also noted that Mr Low's public comments since the committee's report was released indicated Mr Low is confident the party can ride this out.
Said PM Lee: "And it need not be a setback for our democracy either, provided we hold Mr Singh and his colleagues accountable for dishonouring the standards of this House, and also for possibly breaking the law."
In his speech, he stressed how parliamentarians must stand for honesty, and that leaders must steadfastly maintain high standards and the right values.
They must "call out wrongs when wrongs are done, mete out punishment when punishment is due, preserve the sanctity of our institutions, never take the public trust for granted, and never allow lies, half-truths and falsehoods to become the accepted norm in politics".
PM Lee noted that Singaporeans wish to see more political contestation, and said he accepts this, as it is how every parliamentary democracy evolves.
It was this recognition that led him to make Mr Singh the Leader of the Opposition on election night after the 2020 General Election. "That is the way a responsible government can help a credible, responsible opposition to emerge, and contribute to the maturing of our political system," said PM Lee.
But such a leader does not have a blank cheque. PM Lee stressed that the role carries certain responsibilities such as setting the tone for opposition MPs, enforcing standards of conduct in his own party and, above all, maintaining his own integrity and keeping himself beyond reproach.