27 January 2015

PM Lee's Delusions About Opposition Parties

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong spoke with some journalists recently.

This is what he said about the (current) opposition parties.

Voting for the Best Candidate

"My vision is that when voters go and vote, you vote for the best person who can represent you. Because if you don't vote for the person who can [best] represent you, then the person you vote for may end up representing you and God help you."

Voters are denied the opportunity of voting for the best person to represent them by the People's Action Party Government's continued and expanded use of group representation constituencies, or GRCs. Not every member of a PAP GRC team is necessarily better than, or even preferred by the voters to, every member of an opposition party GRC team. Without GRCs, there would likely have been more opposition MPs — and very competent ones too — representing the voters.

Town Council Test

"You got to look at the quality of the people and you've also got to see how they are able to operate within their own constituencies. That is a small test of their readiness and their competence — I mean, how [they] run the town councils, whether your constituency is well managed or not. That's a reason we put the town councils under the MPs because we wanted to have this test."

Running the town councils is not quite the same as running a country.

Firstly, a country is run by its civil service, under the overall supervision of the political appointment holders. Apart from the usual manpower turnover, the civil service remains largely intact regardless of which party forms the government.

A town council is run by a managing agent under the overall supervision of its elected Members of Parliament and appointed council members. The incumbent managing agent may request, or serve notice, to be released from its contractual obligations following a change of the political party under whose purview the town council falls. The outgoing auditors of a town council may not allow the incoming auditors access to their past audit documentation, and the town council (unlike the Government) cannot do anything about it.

Secondly, the public doesn't have access to what takes place within the public service. The Government's budget is extremely stingy with details on how our money will be, or has been, spent. Occasionally, we get to hear of purchases of expensive bicycles and expensive chairs and tuition for foreign military personnel. Huge cost overruns (e.g., the inaugural Youth Olympics) are explained away. Every year, the Auditor-General faults some ministries or statutory boards for not complying with certain rules and regulations. We still don't know the basis on which HDB flats are priced nor what input cost Temasek Holdings uses to compute its total shareholder returns of 16 per cent per annum over 40 years[2]. After People's Association's auditors qualified its financial reports year after year because its grassroots organisations were neither audited nor consolidated in its accouts, it stopped presenting the full audited accounts on its website and showed financial highlights sans auditors' report instead[3].

Town councils must publish audited financial reports every year and these are closely scrutinised by the Ministry of National Development. We can only imagine how the Government would have responded had an incident similar to any of those cited in the Auditor-General's reports taken place in a town council run by an opposition party. We cannot forget the millions of dollars of town councils' funds that were lost when a couple of PAP-managed town councils invested in Lehman Minibonds and other credit-linked notes in respect of which early redemption was triggered.

Thirdly, a country is an independent, largely self-contained, entity within its borders. The Government passes legislation to enact laws. While a country has international obligations such as those pursuant to UN Security Council resolutions, free trade agreements and other international treaties to which the country is a signatory, the Government is free to run the country without much external interference unless it is an international pariah.

A town council controls, manages, maintains and improves the common property of housing estates of the Housing and Development Board. The exercise of its functions are circumscribed by fire safety, environmental health, power supply, waste disposal and other matters under the purview of government agencies at the national level. These government agencies sometimes impose rules and regulations that may appear unreasonable and contrary to established principles of political neutrality of the public service, especially from the perspective of a town council run by an opposition party.

Checks and Balance

"If you are voting for somebody and you think he is going to be a good check, make sure that that person is up to the standard which you are expecting. The person who … is not competent is not going to be a check on the Government; a person … who can debate, who can intelligently question what is the Government doing, why are you doing this, why are you not doing that — that is what you need when you are talking about checks and balances."

"I think it is reasonable to have a check, but the question is what type of check and the standard of the check. Because you cannot say 'I label myself as the most senior official to check the government'. What ability do you have to check the government? So it should be quality and not quantity — having the best and not the most. It does not matter how many MPs you have. The issue is whether these MPs — the opposition MPs — can perform in Parliament, raise crucial questions, and ask the Government necessary questions so that the Government can explain clearly and clarify. This is the most important. You can do a lot of work if you are a good opposition MP. The PAP was formed in 1954 and took part in the first election in 1955. Only three people were elected to the Legislative Assembly — Lee Kuan Yew, Lim Chin Siong, and Goh Chew Chua. Three of them were sufficient to be a force. So it is about having the best and not the most."

There were 25 elected members in the 32-member Legislative Assembly then. The government of Chief Minister David Marshall consisted of 10 elected members from his Labour Front and three elected members from the Alliance. Three of the four officials in the Council of Ministers sat with the Labour Front (apart from the Governor, these three officials — the Attorney-general, the Chief Secretary and the Finance Secretary — were obliged to sit with the party or coalition forming the government because, together with six elected members, they formed the Council, or cabinet; they could not sit with the opposition nor say they were neutral). The Governor chose two Labour Front members among the four nominated councillors he was allowed to appoint. The opposition had 12 elected members including the three elected members from the PAP.

Not only was the government of David Marshall (and his successor, Lim Yew Hock) not numerically overwhelming, but also the opposition (including the PAP's three members) collectively had a significant numerical presence in the 1955-1959 Legislative Assembly.

Opposition numbers are important too because as the number of MPs increased (there are now 99 MPs) and Parliament wanted to finish its business within the same (or almost the same) time, the time given each MP to speak was shortened; it was reduced from 30 minutes to 20 minutes in 2010.

As for the current opposition MPs, is Mr Lee likely to ever concede that they have served as a useful and effective check on his Government?

In any case, does the Government listen?

In my earlier article[4], I described the bizarre spectacle at the 3 November 2014 sitting of Parliament when Senior Minister of State for Finance and Transport Josephine Teo struggled (but failed) to dissuade Nominated MP Chia Yong Yong — who is not aligned with any political party — from proposing a simple and sensible amendment to the Pioneer Generation Fund Bill. When the amendment was put to the vote, the majority of the MPs (the majority being the PAP MPs) rejected it. Following the defeat of Ms Chia's proposed amendment, Mrs Teo conceded that she agreed with Ms Chia's amendment.

Forming the Next Government
"We have a very unusual situation where there is a clear consensus for the ruling party [to be] the PAP. There is a desire for alternative views but basically Singaporeans want the PAP to govern Singapore and if you ask the opposition parties — whether it is The Workers' Party or SDP — nobody says vote for me, I will form the next government, I will be the prime minister, I will run this place better. Nobody."

At the last general election, only the PAP fielded enough candidates to win the general election outright. If any party needs other parties to help it to form a coalition government, it has have to wait until after the general election so that it knows which non-PAP candidates have won and which have not; it can't form a coalition government with candidates who are not elected. As for SDP, how could its secretary-general, Chee Soon Juan, ask voters to vote for him if he wasn't allowed to contest?

There were only two elected opposition Members in the last Parliament. Despite the groundswell of sentiment against the PAP, the opposition parties believed that it was unrealistic that they could win so many seats to form the new government.

The PAP's use of GRCs, each anchored by a cabinet minister, has until recently deprived voters of the opportunity to be represented by competent opposition MPs because many voters seemed unwilling to force early retirement on a cabinet minister. This in turn has deprived the opposition parties of grooming their MPs. Unless enough opposition MPs gain experience, they may not be adequately prepared to run the country when the PAP fails and voters turn against the PAP (similar to the crushing defeat inflicted on India's then ruling Indian National Congress's in last year's general election). The PAP's continued use of GRCs is detrimental to Singapore's future, notwithstanding its flimsy excuse that GRCs help ensure minority representation in Parliament.

GRCs will be detrimental to the PAP as well, and will haunt the PAP in the future. When the PAP lost Aljunied GRC in the last general election, it lost two cabinet ministers and a minister of state and possible future Speaker of Parliament. As it loses more GRCs to the opposition parties, the PAP will find that increasingly more political appointment holders (e.g., cabinet minister, ministers of state, parliamentary secretaries) will lose their seats or potential political appointment holders will not be elected, making it increasingly difficult for the PAP Government to govern effectively.


1. Mr Lee's words have been reworded so that they make sense in the written form.

2. Transparency and Temasek 19 Jan 2015.

3. Transparency and People's Association 15 Jan 2015.

4. Rejecting Sensible Amendment to Pioneer Generation Fund Bill 3 Dec 2014.

This article was last updated on 27 January 2015 7:30 pm

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