SINGAPORE - Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Workers' Party chief Low Thia Khiang traded verbal blows yesterday over the opposition party's approach to politics, which Mr Lee described as "breathtakingly cynical".
The feisty 15-minute sparring began when Mr Low jumped up from his seat to rebut Mr Lee's speech on the President's Address.
Among other things, Mr Lee had said that it was "striking" that the WP leader's response to the Address had nothing on the substance of the Government's programme, "no critiques, no suggestions, no alternatives, nothing".
Clarifying, Mr Low said he had focused on the topic of constructive politics but that the other WP MPs would talk on other subjects.
He also took issue with Mr Lee's criticism that the WP had flip-flopped on the foreign worker policy.
On Monday, when he was accused of flip-flopping on foreign workers - asking for more of them to be allowed in 2012 then calling for a freeze in last year's Population White Paper debate - Mr Low denied it was the case. He called on the other side to file a motion to fully debate the issue.
Yesterday, Mr Lee did not let the matter rest, countering that Mr Low's denial was "simply false" as the Hansard would prove it. And, he added, the call for a motion was worth considering.
He said: "The WP did flip- flop."
Mr Low: "I don't think we have flip-flopped. I have explained in this House some misunderstandings of the speeches I have made. And in any case I also noted that when the PAP has to make a policy U-turn, they called it policy shift. I don't know whether that is a shift or is a flip-flop."
Mr Lee responded: "When we make a shift, we acknowledge the shift. When the Workers' Party changes position, they pretend they haven't. That is the difference."
The Prime Minister went on to say that while it was up to Mr Low to organise his party as he wished, as the leader, he should have a stand on the big issues: "Is the Government doing right, is it doing wrong, do you agree with the Government, do you have a better view or do you abstain or do you abstain from abstaining?"
Mr Low's response: The Government had solved some problems but it is still work in progress for other problems.
As the House listened rapt to the sparring, Mr Lee said: "I'm very grateful for the extremely reasonable explanation from the member. I hope he takes an equally reasonable approach when he comes to election rallies because the Workers' Party approach has been to be extremely reasonable, indeed low-profile in Parliament, but come election time, to turn into tigers and heroes."
Volleying back, Mr Low said that the WP had no intention of hiding itself in Parliament but had been behaving as a responsible and rational opposition.
He thanked the PM for the praise, adding: "I'm sure the PAP can equally be tigers or lions."
Mr Lee shot back: "It's an eloquent explanation for why the Workers' Party has been inarticulate about many things."
In a serious Parliament, he added, the Government would present its policies and the opposition would offer its alternatives. Even though the WP may not have alternatives on every issue, it has a responsibility to state its direction and to "explain to Singaporeans what you stand for".
Mr Lee said: "And what you stand for cannot be what the PAP is doing and a little better. That means you have no stand. Whatever the PAP's standing, ask them to do better. That's easy, I can do that too. But where do you stand?
"Where are we totally wrong? Where do you think this is a completely different way to do things better? Where do you think in principle we do not want Singapore to be like this?
"These are big issues which deserve to be debated and not elided over and avoided in the House. And that is what a First World Parliament should be about." Mr Low said that the WP had stated its position on important issues, such as the Population White Paper.
"So we state our position on important issues and we didn't oppose for things that we think are doing right. Is that not enough?"
Zeroing in on the point on the White Paper, Mr Lee said it would be useful to discuss the specifics of the WP's position.
Said Mr Lee: "During the debate, the position taken by the Workers' Party is that enough is enough, zero growth. We have continued to grow, I have not heard the Workers' Party demand zero growth today. Do you still demand that or do you now think that we should allow SMEs to survive in Singapore?"
Mr Low replied that the WP's position was that the foreign worker growth was untenable and to keep the population in check: "One way of doing it, of course, is to freeze the foreign workers' growth in number."
The WP's calculation was that, within the zero growth, there could be adjustments made within the different sectors.
He added: "We understand perfectly the possibility and the trade-off, that is our position at that point in time. We had not objected subsequently or grilled the Government for why we are not doing it because that's our view that it should have zero population growth, but the Government decided otherwise, there's a way of doing it, we have said our piece but we have to respect the decision of the Government to move on but our message has got across..."
Said Mr Lee: "Madam Speaker, after all this complicated explanation, I don't know whether Mr Low Thia Khiang still stands by what he said in Parliament in the White Paper debate last year because, if he really does after all the explanation, he should say, we have too many foreign workers now, send home 70,000, then we will know where he stands.
"But after telling me that you can massage this and some people can do less and others can do, and will need more, that's easy to say. Who's going to do the massaging? Of course the Government. And that is the mark of a substandard opposition."
Mr Low replied: "Madam Speaker, I disagree. This is not the mark of a substandard opposition; this is the mark of a responsible opposition - not to jam up the Government, allowing the Government after giving our view, debating it, allowing the Government to move forward. So it is a mark of responsible government and a mark of First World Parliament."
Mr Lee said: "Madam Speaker, we have to call a spade a spade. If you have changed the position and your previous position was wrong, say so. If you hold by your position, have the guts to reaffirm it and take the consequences.
"But 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."
This article was first published on May 29, 2014.
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