Integrity or Fear. PM Lee, Cabinet prioritise fixing opposition over national agenda

Any doubts as to the level of fear that consumes PM Lee and his ruling People’s Action Party were blown away recently in a week where the full force of the government was directed at attempting to discredit the opposition Workers Party over a series of controversies which are seen by many citizens to be non-issues either manufactured or exaggerated for political gain.

The fear that many assume torments the mind of Lee junior is the ever-increasing probability that his government will suffer a historic reversal in what is expected to be a 2016 general election. The fallout from a significant swing away from the ruling party would likely force many of Lee’s cabinet out of government and also make his own position as PM untenable. Such a shake-up of power in Singapore would be unprecedented in modern times and may well lead to a period of sincere soul-searching on the part of the PAP – soul-searching that may require an admission of and move away from the mistaken politics of the past. The impact of such a process on the reputation and legacy of Lee and the men in white is likely to be damning and it is therefore a fear of losing not just power over Singapore, but the power to protect their own reputations, that consumes many in government today.


In their coordinated and wide-ranging attempt to discredit the opposition WP, Lee and his cabinet colleagues left many observers puzzled by their decision to refer to a series of issues that are perceived variously to be old, irrelevant or resolved. That this political attack appears to have been prioritised at the cabinet level over a busy domestic agenda dominated by a stagnant economy, the fallout from the government’s hazardous haze response and an ongoing dengue epidemic was to many observers surprising, but in fact betrayed the desperate depths that the ruling party is willing to dredge in their oft-stated desire to fix political opponents.

The curtain rose on the drama in parliament’s Monday sitting, with Minister for Environment and Water Resources Vivian Balakrishnan re-opening the debate over the cleaning of various hawker centres around Bedok, in spite of government-owned Channel NewsAsia and others having reported the dispute as “resolved” – citing NEA and Hawker Association sources in the process – over a month previously.

Hawker centre cleaning dispute reported "resolved" in June

Hawker centre cleaning dispute reported “resolved” in June

In case anyone thought the Minister had gone off message in dredging up a closed and petty dispute for political sparring, PM Lee himself removed any doubt – and in the process doubled down on the PAP’s dubious obsession with defamation suits – by stating that the Minister enjoyed the full support of the cabinet and was willing to be sued by his political opponents if they saw themselves as having been defamed by any of his utterings in the house. But how PM Lee could justify his Environment Minister – who should be busy responding to both the ongoing dengue and haze crises – devoting so much time to the politicisation of a resolved issue was a question left unanswered.

Beyond expressing the cabinet level support that Vivian Balakrishnan enjoyed for his partisan attack on the opposition, PM Lee further underscored how desperate his party is to score political points on irrelevant topics by revisiting both Pritam Singh’s alleged plagiarism of a blog posting in parliament and questions around the appointment of FMSS in WP controlled town council operations. The latter is particularly ironic since questions around FMSS were last given a public airing in an attempt to distract from awkward questions being asked in the aftermath of the AIM scandal – the role of FMSS as a political punching bag for the PAP is becoming increasingly obvious yet so far public opinion does not appear to have shifted in response to the PM’s pummeling. Furthermore, that the allegation of plagiarism against Mr Singh is now more than sixteen months old reinforces the perception that the government is clutching at straws in an effort to find issues to beat the opposition with. PM Lee is surely aware of but chooses to ignore the fact that Mr Singh pointed out long ago – and has again re-confirmed – that permission to cite the article in question was indeed sought and given.

PM Lee has spoken recently on the importance of having the “right politics” in Singapore, but in this week’s exchanges his party has revealed the usually unspoken but well recognised truth about politics in Singapore – that the PAP obsesses over the destruction of political opponents, obsesses over defamation suits in lieu of the court of public opinion and that the fear of a reversal in 2016 is forcing the ruling party into taking increasingly desperate measures to protect their power. We have seen this in recent attempts to crack down on critical voices online, and we see it in the ongoing political mudslinging over barely relevent issues that are clearly a desperate attempt to discredit the political opposition.

If PM Lee is as confident in his own rhetoric about good politics as he claims to be, perhaps he should step out of the comfort of his GRC and come to Hougang or some other SMC in 2016 and give the nation a lesson in good governance. If on the other hand he is more concerned with remaining in power for his own benefit rather than the good of the nation, one can expect much mud to be slung, many critics to be silenced and many cabinet ministers to contest GRCs in 2016. Time and the court of public opinion will indeed tell.


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7 responses to “Integrity or Fear. PM Lee, Cabinet prioritise fixing opposition over national agenda

  1. Apparently, the author does not understand the meaning of the below:

    • Yes, 诚信, very good. But is a call for 诚信 from PM Lee credible? After all the dirt his party has engaged in over the years?
      As someone on Facebook wrote. Let a terrorist escape, gotta move on. Clean the ceiling – no it’s integrity and the whole cabinet is suddenly involved. Credible? Or a hypocrite?

  2. tuffy

    Your comment – ‘a significant swing away from the ruling party would likely force many of Lee’s cabinet out of government and also make his own position as PM untenable’

    You assume they care what people think. Authoritarian governments make the rules and enforce them by using instruments of state power that have been made gahmen-friendly – judiciary, media, army, police.

    Why are public gatherings illegal? Why must media renew it’s license every year? Why must you show your passport if you want a pay-as-you-go SIM card?

    The chances of changing the government are small. They will cling on using every tool at their disposal, and the wishes of the electorate are open to interpretation.

    • You make a good point, but what I am referring to is an increasingly likely outcome in the next GE. As Alex Au wrote after the PE by election, the swing against the PAP was significant, and would see numerous ministers out of office. Of course, the by election effect is significant, but realistically it seems that the PAP is getting more unpopular every day. Many ministers could suffer the same fate as George Yeo in 2016. The aftermath of such an event would be extremely unpredictable, but serious soul-searching and a break with the past would be a distinct possibility.

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  4. Mad Wong

    Andy, I think you place too much faith in Singapore’s ‘electoral’ system. This from a recent Yawning Bread article –

    “I think it is clear that the PAP cannot stomach the idea of a new, different Singapore. If we want change, it will need a very hard fight, because the prospect that there will be a new kind of PAP is receding rapidly. The party will use its entire might to prevent change.”

    Re-introducing the climate of fear –

    Unless a government is committed to the values of democracy they can go through the motions and organize pretend elections. Vote counting and electoral boundaries are subject to interference.

    To quote the Yawning Bread article “If we want change, it will need a very hard fight”. In the meantime, Singapore’s reputation will be further eroded, the best citizens will continue to emigrate, and quality of life on the island will continue to deteriorate.

    • Thanks for this, I am a big fan of Alex Au but hadn’t seen that article yet. Perhaps I am getting ahead of myself thinking of possible outcomes in 2016 when the system is so liable to being skewed in favour of the ruling party, but I do sense a strong possibility of a true “watershed” outcome at the next GE. I don’t expect the PAP to go quietly, but if – somehow – there is a significant reversal in 2016 then the outcome I describe is a distinct possibility. Of course, the PAP live in fear of change (as I have written ) so they are likely to fight tooth and nail to avoid it. But I just wonder if they can really succeed without changing themselves? It depends how far they are willing to go to silence online critics and alternative sources of information which is why the MDA stuff is so important. Honestly I don’t know what the future holds.

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