SINGAPORE - Constructive politics can help Singapore scale new heights but the wrong politics will doom it, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said yesterday as he set out policies to address key concerns about the future, and explained why the right politics was crucial to making them work.
Joining the debate in Parliament on the President's Address, which entered its third day yesterday, Mr Lee said politics is not just about words but that "Singaporeans' lives and Singapore's future are at stake".
He then gave his Government's most detailed definition to date of constructive politics, an issue that has become a running theme in this debate, with Workers' Party (WP) and People's Action Party (PAP) MPs locking horns over it.
Speaking for an hour and 20 minutes, Mr Lee first took the House through the Government's plans to tackle key challenges in housing, transport, manpower, education, health care and retirement security.
He will speak more on improvements to the Central Provident Fund system in August.
Effective policies which improve Singaporeans' lives are the first of five qualities of constructive politics, Mr Lee said. And that also involves making difficult trade-offs but persuading and leading people to get things done.
The other four qualities are: putting forward good leaders, having a robust and open debate, maintaining high standards of integrity and rallying people together around a common cause.
Good politics puts forward capable people of integrity and character, he said. "Institutions are important, yes. But equally critical is the quality of the ministers and the MPs and of those who aspire to be ministers and MPs."
Next is robust and open debate, as opposed to "sound-bite politics". Such debate ensures proposals are scrutinised, and "that we find out what their strengths are, identify the weaknesses and the problems, and come up with the best ideas and solutions".
Politicians must also be subject to scrutiny, but not through anonymous innuendoes or insinuations, especially online, which deter good people from entering politics. Instead, scrutiny should be responsible and open, to keep "incompetent, dishonest or self-serving people from getting into positions of responsibility".
Mr Lee said honesty is an absolute necessity and is what differentiates politics here from that elsewhere.
Lastly, constructive politics should also rally people together around a common cause.
"If we end up with factional politics, each group pushing for single issues... or dividing society in pursuit of political advantage, then our politics would have failed Singapore," Mr Lee said.
Mr Lee also took WP chief Low Thia Khiang to task for saying on Monday "that whatever way 'politics' is described and coloured, it is still politics". Calling it a "breathtakingly cynical view of politics", Mr Lee said politics must be about what one believes in and wants to achieve for Singaporeans.
He also took issue with Mr Low denying that the WP has flip-flopped on foreign workers, saying that Parliament records show that it has done so.
Mr Low immediately rose to rebut Mr Lee at the end of his speech, and for nearly 20 minutes, they traded ripostes, with Mr Lee saying the WP had no clear stand on many issues.
Mr Low defended his party's position, adding that on foreign workers, they have said their piece but respect the decision of the Government to move on.
Mr Lee replied that it is such attempts to "weasel away, play with words, avoid the issue and then claim to be responsible, that is what we fear can drive Singapore's politics into the same place where many other countries have gone".
Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.