SINGAPORE - We are reaching the mid-point of the electoral cycle. For the main political parties, this means moving from post-2011 introspection to pre-2015/6 positioning. Seen in that light, the recent skirmishes between the ruling party and the Workers' Party (WP) are interesting for what they portend for the battle ahead.
The latest dust-up started with hyperlocal dissatisfaction with the WP-run town council's handling of hawker centre cleaning. The PAP spotted the opportunity to grow this seed into weeds of doubts about the opposition party's integrity.
Two WP MPs made "false and untruthful statements" when they insisted no one in their town council had demanded extra payment for the cleaning of high areas at two Bedok hawker centres, charged the Government.
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong himself stepped into the fray, urging WP chief Low Thia Khiang not to leave unresolved the "grave doubts" over the integrity of the two MPs, Ms Sylvia Lim and Mr Pritam Singh.
He spelt out how he would have conducted matters if they had been his own troops. They would be investigated and if they were indeed found to be dishonest, they would have to resign, he said.
During the recent parliamentary exchange on the matter, Mr Low backed his MPs, saying that the confusion was over whether this was the full annual cleaning exercise or quarterly "spring cleaning", which did not include high areas.
He told the House that he would try to find out how the quotation for the cleaning came about. However, the following day, he said he was doing nothing further as he was satisfied with the earlier investigations and explanations.
He also needled the Government for challenging the WP MPs to sue it for defamation if they felt so wronged by the accusations in Parliament. This was not "good politics", Mr Low said, quoting the PM's recent exhortations back at him.
This is not the first time that the WP has turned its back on a scrap. When the Aljunied town council's finances were debated in May, clear evidence was gathered to show that the WP did not go through a tender process when it appointed its managing agents, who happened to have close party ties.
The WP has tacitly admitted that its town council is a political outfit, even as a public furore raged over PAP town councils' use of a party-owned company, AIM, to run its computer systems.
It was also accused by the Government of charging higher rates for its service and conservancy charges. It has denied this, but without giving clear evidence.
The PAP will be hoping that the WP's reluctance to be more forthcoming betrays a slipperiness that will damage its credibility. To the WP's supporters, the tactic of non-engagement is good politics: It is taking the high road and refusing to let the PAP set the agenda.
Mr Low has probably calculated that the reservoir of goodwill his party enjoys as an underdog is deep enough to sustain it through such attacks, even if some of the PAP's accusations are on target. It is still the David fighting the Goliath.
The WP may also be counting on the one-way barrage from the PAP backfiring on the ruling party. As the Government ups the ante and gets more stridently inquisitorial, more and more Singaporeans may be reminded of the People's Action Party's domineering, know-it-all reputation - an image it has been trying to live down.
Of course, there are limits to the WP's strategy. It may work when the question at the core of the debate does not catch fire.
The current case centres on what one town council manager or government official may or may not have said to a group of hawkers - not something that immediately touches a nerve in most Singaporeans. If the issue were something larger, the WP may find Singaporeans much less satisfied with non- answers.
Furthermore, there are only so many times that the WP can get away with it. If Singaporeans detect a pattern, some will conclude that it is indeed less than honest.
Equally, there are risks for the PAP. Some have argued that the Prime Minister lost points by stepping into such a small debate. Yes, an integrity deficit among MPs would be a serious issue, but not everyone agrees that the dispute over hawker centre cleaning qualifies as the damning evidence the PAP presented it as.
The Government's handling of this case, in many ways, was a blast from the past. It is reminiscent of the accusations of dishonesty it made against WP's 2006 Aljunied candidate James Gomez, for example. Even PAP insiders eventually acknowledged that its overly strong reaction backfired.
Thus, such tactics won't win over its critics. But then the PAP has always argued that integrity is a non-negotiable: Upholding this virtue in Singapore politics is more important than short-term electoral advantage.
As evidence, it can point to how it allowed its MP Michael Palmer to vacate his Punggol East seat despite the risk of losing it to the opposition - which is exactly what happened.
That is not to say that its attack on the WP is necessarily unwise as an electoral strategy. After all, as it heads towards the next general election, the PAP's top concern probably isn't voters who are already lost to the opposition. Its eyes would be elsewhere.
First, it needs to secure and galvanise its own base. There have been criticisms from among the party faithful that the PAP has allowed itself to be too much of a punching bag since the last general election. They want to see their leaders come out of the corner swinging, even if not every punch lands a knockout blow.
Second, the PAP needs to keep the WP busy and on the defensive. The WP already has its hands full trying to run a ginormous town council covering seven wards with no slackening of standards, while attempting to make an impact on national policymaking.
Every disruption that the PAP can cause within the WP means less time for Mr Low and comrades to work the ground in neighbouring group representation constituencies and plot their next big push into PAP territory.
Third, as part of this same containment strategy, the PAP needs to plant enough doubt about up-and-coming WP leaders. It knows that Mr Low's cachet with the public is unimpeachable. Its best bet is to create a distinction in people's minds between Brand Low and Brand WP, so that his younger comrades do not benefit too easily from his political capital.
This is why the Cabinet-approved script took pains to say that Mr Low was "honourable", even as it questioned the integrity of his fellow MPs.
After apologetically moving from Hougang to Aljunied to secure the opposition's first GRC, Mr Low cannot very well repeat the gambit to helm the WP's team for, say, East Coast GRC. If it wants to spread the Aljunied karma, it would have to dispatch one or two of its other Aljunied GRC MPs off into battle.
Someone like Mr Singh is gaining in visibility and, by 2015/16, could be seen as ready to lead a new team elsewhere. The PAP will try to nip this trend in the bud.
The PAP may calculate that, to achieve this containment objective, it is prepared to engage in the old-style politics of attrition even if it means being seen as hard-knuckled. If this assessment is correct, we can expect to see more such exchanges in and out of Parliament, possibly more bruising ones, in the run-up to the next general election.
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