Parliament showdown a clear sign that PAP won't hang back

Last month's dispute over the cleaning of hawker centre ceilings in the WP-run Aljunied GRC went up a notch in Parliament on Tuesday.

What was surprising was the strength of Environment and Water Resources Minister Vivian Balakrishnan's accusations and his supporting documents. If public discussion of the issue had waned, his speech thrust it firmly under the spotlight again.

The initial questions by PAP MP Lee Bee Wah had to do about who should bear the cost of cleaning hawker centres. But the minister was prepared to give a full account of the events in the Bedok North hawker centres when she asked for it.

He clearly had a key message to drive home even when WP MP Sylvia Lim tried to, so he charged, "beat around the bush".

In quick succession, he alleged that the WP-run town council had "prevaricated and made untrue statements", declared he had meeting minutes and a list of witnesses to prove his claims, and that e-mails between the interested parties would be made available for public viewing.

Upping the ante, he accused Ms Lim and WP MP Pritam Singh of making public denials that were "false and untruthful". He also charged Ms Lim: "I put to you that you have been untruthful."

He also called on WP chief Low Thia Khiang to investigate and insisted that the issue is "clean politics", that is, coming clean when a mistake is made.

It was clear the minister wanted to press his point that integrity was at stake: He told the press later that he would waive parliamentary privileges, effectively challenging Ms Lim and Mr Singh to sue him for his allegations.

This tough approach follows from another episode in May when National Development Minister Khaw Boon went for the jugular too.

Click on thumbnail to view (Photos: ST)

His debate with Ms Lim was over the sale of software by PAP town councils, where she accused the ruling party of tripping up incoming opposition MPs to the detriment of residents.

Mr Khaw chided her for being "self-righteous" and "arrogant", and for behaving "as if you are the only patriot in this House".

Post-debate, his ministry locked horns with WP's town council over the right way to calculate managing agent rates, with his ministry seeing it fit to end one of its official statements with: "Where is the missing $1 million?"

It would appear that the ruling party is upping its political ante by calling WP MPs to account and raising questions about their credibility, allegations which they, including Ms Lim, have strenuously denied as false.

After nearly two years of a softly-softly approach, the PAP is clearer that it won't hang back and allow festering issues to just glide by, with the opposition always enjoying the goodwill of being the underdog.

A political calculation for the ruling party taking such a tougher stance is to shape voters' perceptions of the opposition, a slow tilling of the ground even if the next general election is possibly three years away.

In March this year, political concerns were flagged in a speech to public sector leaders at the 25th Administrative Service Dinner and Promotion Ceremony.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong called for close cooperation between the political leadership and the civil service: "The political leadership has to set the direction, develop the narrative, manage the politics, and carry the ground. For this to work, policies and programmes have to deliver not only practical results but also political dividends."

This emphasis on getting the politics right must be seen in tandem with another priority Mr Lee laid out a week ago: Singapore's comparative advantage is in political parties working to solve the country's problems and not battling each other.

He told a forum at the DBS Insights Asia Conference that he would advise whoever governs Singapore to "try very hard to keep the politics clean and straight", "constructive" and "where you're solving problems and not just slogging it out, fighting with one another".

Having political parties set out their positions more clearly is good in so far as it gives clarity on what each one stands for and hopes to advance.

The cut-and-thrust that comes with this could shed more light on the issues, to voters' benefit.

But if the debate is reduced to merely scoring political points, it will be nothing more than a distracting exercise.

Singapore's MPs have so far resisted going the way of livelier and rowdier debates in the British House of Commons or the Australian Parliament, where MPs trade barbs or interrupt each other, and shouts of "order, order" from the chair are common.

Ultimately, public esteem for the Parliament and the individuals making such comments, are at stake.

Where does one draw the line? MPs will have to decide how far they will go, and the public will judge.

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