Transcript of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's Exchange with Mr Low Thia Khiang at Parliament, 28 May 2014

28 May 2014

Mr Low Thia Khiang (Mr Low): Mdm Speaker, I wish to clarify a few points. First of all the reason why I decided to focus my speech on constructive politics, because I thought that was an important issue that we should look at.

As what I said in my speech, Singapore is becoming more diversified, there will be different views. And moving forward, how the Government would deal with and accommodate different views and different perspectives of Singaporeans is important for us to move forward together as one united people. And the other MPs from the Workers' Party will be talking about different issues, ranging from social issues, social safety net to foreign affairs, national security. They will cover the full range of areas, and thereby we split our job, I will focus on constructive politics.

I thought it was an important issue and of course it is important to also understand what is the perspective of the PAP in terms of constructive politics. And from what the Prime Minister has said, it seems to me that it is more constructive dictated on the terms of the PAP, rather than constructive politics in terms of the society that is moving forward.

And I have affirmed my endorsement to what the President has said - that we should look at the outcome of constructive politics - that is, that we should be able to move forward together despite the differences.

Next, he is talking about the Workers' Party flip-flopping on foreign workers issue. I said again I don't think we have flip-flopped. I have explained in this House (that there is) some misunderstanding of the speeches I have made. And in any case I also noted that when the PAP have to make a policy U-turn, they call it policy shift. I don't know whether that is a shift or is a flip-flop.

PM: Mdm Speaker, I think the record will speak for itself. When we make a shift, we acknowledge the shift. When the Workers' Party changes position, they pretend they haven't. That is the difference.

Now, as for delegating responsibility for different parts of the Budget speech to different MPs, that is entirely within Mr Low Thia Khiang's prerogative. It is not for me to suggest how he should conduct his affairs in the Workers' Party.

But as a leader, you do have a responsibility to state where does the party stand on the big issue. Somebody can look after health care. Somebody can take care of transport. Somebody can spend all his time marking Minister Heng Swee Keat on education. But where do you stand on what the Government is doing, 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: I think the Opposition is quite clear on many of these issues. If the Prime Minister wanted my view on what the Government has been doing and whether he has done well, I will say, well, he has solved some of the problems, what the Prime Minister has mentioned, and the Workers' Party MPs also acknowledged it in their speech but also pointed out there are things that is still work in progress and the Government will have to focus on and to make it better and to improve.

So that is the position and I don't see the need for me to totally sum up. I think the MPs should be able to do (that) in their own view and to give their view and their assessment and at the same time, wherever possible, offer certain views and alternative suggestions to improve the policies.

PM: Mdm Speaker I am 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.

Mr Low: Mdm Speaker I thank the Prime Minister for praising the Workers' Party's ability to fight in the elections. We have no intention to hide ourselves in Parliament. We seek the mandate for people to come to Parliament to check against the Government and we have done it honestly and sincerely, we have not turned this place into a theatre - that shows we are responsible and we will behave continuously as a rational and responsible party and members should.

I believe members will agree that the Workers' Party has been rational. We have not come here with some wild policies or wild suggestions. We debate the policies, we came out with some suggestions but these are not bankrupting the government coffers or suggesting to use the reserves.

Elections - I think we are also rational, we don't accuse the PAP of something that we cannot substantiate or I know we will get sued. So I think we are fair. And elections (are) elections and I thank the Prime Minister for noting that we can fight elections. I am sure the PAP can too. You are the Government and you have been the governing party for 50 years and you have got more, much people, talented people than the Workers' Party! How can you say that we are tigers and we are something else in Parliament? I am sure the PAP can equally be tigers or lions.

PM: It is an eloquent explanation for why the Workers' Party has been inarticulate about many things.

In a serious Parliament, the Government presents its policies, the opposition presents its alternatives. The Workers' Party may not have alternatives on every issue, you may not have a full range of all the complexities of designing an HDB (Housing Development Board) scheme or a MediShield scheme - (but) you do have a responsibility to say which direction are we going and that direction has to be set clearly, not to explain to the PAP but to explain to Singaporeans what you stand for.

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 is standing, ask them to do better. That is 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: Mdm Speaker, again I would like to say the PM is reasonable to say that the WP may not be able to come up with all the alternative policies. That is true. But to say that the WP has no position on major issues, that is not true. I think we did state our position in Parliament. We debated major policies vigorously. We don’t oppose all the policies but where we think that there is a need for us to oppose and it concerns the future of Singapore, like the Population White Paper, we did so. 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?

PM: I think it probably is useful to bring it down to something very specific. Let’s come back to the Population White Paper. During the debate, the position taken by the WP 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: We had made a calculation at that point in time while debating the Population White Paper and that if you continue to allow the foreign workers to grow it will be untenable in the future population growth and thereby we decided that we need to keep the population number in check and one way of doing it, of course, is to freeze the foreign workers’ growth in numbers.

Our calculation was that probably within the existing number of foreign workers, you can still move (them) around in some sectors that don’t need so much of foreign workers   thereby you can still get by with the zero foreign workers’ growth.

We understand perfectly the possibility and the trade-off. That is our position at that point in time. We have not objected subsequently, or grilled the Government, for why are (they) not doing it because that is our view, that it should have zero (foreign worker) growth, but the Government decided otherwise that is their 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. We cannot sustain continuously the kind of population growth plan the Government is planning and I am glad to hear today that Prime Minister is saying that the Government is taking a very serious view on tightening and watching the growth of population.

PM: Mdm Speaker, after all this complicated explanation, I don’t know whether Mr Low Thia Khiang still stands by what was 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 you can massage this and some people can do (with) less and others will need more – that is easy to say, who is going to do the massaging? Of course, the Government. And that, is the mark of a sub-standard Opposition.

Mr Low: Mdm Speaker, I disagree. This is not the mark of a sub-standard 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, not to jam up the Government. It is a mark of a responsible Government and a mark of first world Parliament.

PM: Mdm Speaker. We have to call a spade a spade. If we have changed position and your previous position was wrong, say so. If you hold by your position, have your 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.