Pritam Singh vows both scrutiny and support of PAP, cites Hong Kong, South China Sea

Marina Bay Sands.
PHOTO: The Straits Times

Pritam Singh, Singapore’s newly appointed Leader of the Opposition, on Monday sought to temper expectations that his Workers’ Party could immediately go toe to toe with the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) in formulating alternative policies and stressed that it would back the government if it was in the national interest.

In particular, the party – which made historic gains in July’s election – supported efforts to finalise a code of conduct in the South China Sea, said Pritam. In a wide-ranging speech, he also asked the government to seize opportunities amid the downturn including those borne out of Hong Kong’s political crisis.

Speaking in parliament, Singh emphasised that while the Workers’ Party would do its best to scrutinise the government with the added official resources handed to it, it was facing off with a ruling party that had the entire civil service at its disposal.

Pritam Singh of the Workers’ Party.
PHOTO: Reuters

“The Workers’ Party intends to raise matters in parliament that are important to the people of Singapore that the government and PAP backbenchers may not,” Singh said on the first day of a debate on an address by President Halimah Yacob last week. “We intend to scrutinise policies to the best of our abilities.”

Singh’s speech was his first in a major debate following Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s decision to name him the official Leader of the Opposition after the July 10 election.

While Singh had been the de facto unofficial opposition chief before the vote, the Workers’ Party’s unexpected gains – it now has 10 MPs, up from six previously – prompted the government to recognise an official opposition leader for the first time in the country’s history.

With the position, Singh is entitled to a salary of $385,000 (US$283,500) – double that of an MP – as well as additional staff.

Lee, whose PAP has governed for six decades with little patience for dissenting voices, said he hoped the move would enable the opposition to formulate more alternative policies instead of just criticising the ruling party’s proposals.

In his speech, Singh said while he was surprised by the new position, he viewed the appointment “and the motives behind it” positively.

“The prime minister has signalled a change in the narrative and culture of how politics and government is to be conducted … we look forward to a different tone of political engagement,” Singh said.

Singh acknowledged the boost in resources for the opposition following its gains in the election. Along with the pay hike for Singh – part of which he has pledged to his party – the government is also footing the bill for three extra legislative assistants for his office, each of whom will be paid $1,300.

The government will also foot the bill for a full-time administrative assistant.

Compared to the government, which has 85,000 members of the civil service at its disposal, “the leader of the opposition’s office will not have the breadth and depth of the party in government in coming up with alternative policies,” Singh said.

Still, the Workers’ Party will “advance meaningful alternatives for deliberation and debate,” he said.

The party has chosen not to set up a shadow cabinet given its limited number of MPs.

But the 10 MPs will be organised into five groups covering broad bread and butter policy areas.

And amid the coronavirus downturn, Singh urged the government to take advantage of opportunities that were arising out of the crisis.

“For example, the seismic political changes in Hong Kong may prompt some international businesses to move to other jurisdictions. We should aim to welcome those looking to move,” he said.

But at the same time, the government needed to do more to address growing concerns about discriminatory hiring practices, and perceptions that locals were being crowded out of professional, managerial, executive and technician jobs (PMET) jobs, he said.

“The problem is that we simply do not know enough. And the vacuum has given space for a more toxic conversation to ferment,” Singh said. “The government needs to raise its signature in this regard, especially since the issue is such a hot-button one, often generating a lot of heat but very little light.”

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Also in his speech, Singh said the government’s current defence and foreign policies were among a handful of matters that his party believed “must not change in Singapore”.

“These policies are well considered and they place primacy on Singapore’s interest while seeking long term cooperation with other countries and international organisations,” Singh said.

In particular, the opposition chief said his party backed the government’s efforts within the 10-nation Asean bloc, and the ongoing talks to conclude a code of conduct between the grouping and China over the disputed South China Sea.

While not a claimant state in the dispute, the republic has said it hopes for the row to be settled in accordance with international law.

“As a small maritime nation, and separately a trading nation, the sanctity of international agreements and adherence to the rule of law is necessary to discourage arbitrary behaviour by more powerful states,” Singh said.

The opposition chief said the Workers’ Party backed the PAP in various other policies that “have become part of Singapore’s DNA”, including its intolerance for corruption and policies aimed at fostering racial and religious harmony.

The role of foreigners in the workforce, as well as up skilling of local workers, is expected to feature heavily in the ongoing debate – which will stretch until Friday.

Prime Minister Lee is expected to deliver a major speech during the debate.

He earlier opted not to hold his annual National Day Rally – usually held two weeks after the country’s Aug 9 birthday – in light of the pandemic.

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.