On the White Paper speech, on voting and PM’s change in position
Q: The speech you delivered in Parliament, the point about preservation of national identity as well as the fact that our infrastructure are unable to cope, all are actually along the lines of what you have previously said. But this time in the White Paper debate, WP MPs as opposition MPs were already opposing it. As a PAP MP you came out and said what you had to say, what was the thought process behind your decision?
A: I think actually I have been sensing the great difficulties caused by the population surge. Actually if you look a bit further back, I’ve been talking about this for many years, I started talking about the “growth at all costs” strategy, I think about 5 or 6 years ago, where I noticed that the government was pursuing very aggressive growth and really in their mindset was, we worry about the problems as they come along, so that became growth at all costs, as opposed to understanding what problems might happen and therefore I better manage my growth. So I was actually opposed to the “growth at all costs” strategy, simply because people will get left behind, and companies will suffer, and this kind of thing will also mean economy costs will go up, so it was not sustainable growth. So every parliament speech I normally talk about this, including in COS when I talk about it. So I actually saw the problems on the ground, whether companies or individuals, and I keep a very close touch with people. All sorts of people, from my residents, whether they are low-income or middle-income, professionals, businessmen, so I keep very close touch, and also my grassroots leaders. So from there I know the sense of difficulty that people are facing and I just felt that I had to deliver this in the strongest way possible this time.
Q: Unlike some of the MPs who stated in their speech that they are in support of the amended motion, you didn’t. And I think everyone wondered, did you intentionally leave Parliament during voting? What was the reason?
A: I think the important thing is that in Parliament, the stance that we take in our speeches are more important, and that delivers the message to the government, and I’ve been doing this now for 16 years, and I know that things will over time be taken up by government and changed. And this time round, the first time I’ve seen in 16 years, the government immediately took in the things. So PM moved away from the 6.9 million immediately, and then promised to look at integration, and identity and all these things before accelerating and moving again. So I think it’s effective, you know.
Then the process of voting, everyone knows, the whips on both sides were not lifted. PM agreed to come down on a figure significantly lower then 6.9 million, which probably is closer to what Workers’ Party has proposed, and also wanted to vote on a lot of things, on bonding and Singaporean core and so on, which was what the Workers’ Party say. So why didn’t they vote in support of this also? Because PM shifted position, you see. I know WP has explained their position. So I think with the whips not lifted, I think it was clear how everyone has to vote.
But, I think for me, over the years, I have made speeches like these and it’s all very sincere, from the heart, from the ground, to deliver the message. And the fact that the message is coming from insiders in the party is actually more important. Because opposition, as we have seen, Workers’ Party in the last one and a half years, have actually just continued to inject politics into the whole parliamentary debate, so I think so far they have taken the opportunity all the time. So I think PM’s shifting of position was a result of his own insiders making that kind of speeches and telling him..
On policy-making and disappointment about the lack of change
Q: You said that it is important that within the party, there is opposition from the insiders. For this Population White Paper, was the idea floated among the MPs even prior to the debate? I mean, that has been something you have been pushing for as well. We could see that some MPs were taken aback. What was the situation then?
A: I was not privy to the discussion of the White Paper, and a number of MPs, colleagues I spoke with also did not know. So the only time that they were briefed on the content of the White Paper was after the White Paper was released. It was released on a Tuesday morning. I was not in Singapore actually, so I did not attend the briefing. So some of them may have been consulted, but most of them I spoke with did not know. So all of them got caught off-guard with the 6.9 figure. Many of them I think.
Q: Do you think that was unusual? Since the White Paper was something important? You would think that before you passed the bill, or before the bill was debated in Parliament, that PAP MPs at least, should be in the know?
A: Well, you see there are certain things that ministers may feel that are very sensitive, that should not get out too early. Maybe certain things should actually be discussed earlier, because it just improves the quality of the policy, when you have more people participating. But one and a half years ago, at the Party Conference, I made a speech about this actually. And this is precisely what I meant. Inject more political judgment in the policy making, which means that get involved with more people in touch with the ground, what impact the policies is going to have on the people, before you finalise your policy. So what would have been ideal for this White Paper, is that you bring it to Parliament, and discuss the different scenarios and then go back and solidify and come back to present the final paper. So I think this is what we could have done internally, a discussion among all the MPs, even the opposition can be involved in informal discussions, or in Parliament, but don’t finalise it. I think that would be an ideal scenario, where all of us would have injected some judgment into what the impact on the people would be. I think that would have been good. And I think if we could have done it that way, and also spend a bit more time discussing, rather than rushing it through after it was released, then I think we could have understood better, communicated better, gained ownership and buy-in by more people. As we all know, the content of the paper had very good things, like infrastructure, transport, improving lives etc. but I think this could have been what we could have discussed more, rather than population. But I cannot blame that the discussion bent that way, because it was called a Population White Paper, so obviously everyone thought that this was about population. Had it been a Government Strategic Paper for the next 17 years, it would have a different story. But it was a Population White Paper, and the population figure, obviously all of us, including the PAP MPs found that it should have been discussed before we chose that number.
Q: Do you have the feeling that it’s hard to get the party to change? I mean people have been expecting a big change in the way it’s done, but there seems to be still a drag.
A: If you ask me, I’m personally disappointed that the change has not happened since 2011. In fact, after GE 2011, with us losing Aljunied GRC and losing so many ministers, I considered that as an important wake-up call for us, you know. And that’s the reason why I delivered that message. It’s a strong message, delivered to party insiders, so because I understood that we are drifting and we needed to bring it back, have policies that are more suited to what the people want, social impact and so on. So since then, I would say, coming up to this White Paper, I am disappointed that the change did not happen.
Q: Were you hopeful from 2011 till now?
A: I was hopeful. Well, I think the Our Singapore Conversation (OSC) was an example of engaging, so I had raised my caution, better get our expectations right, don’t over-promise and under deliver. I think that was a good move. We got a fresh group of people doing it. So I was hopeful that this would happen. But then the way the White Paper got delivered, it was not what I expected.
This should have been properly consulted. In fact, ideally, this could have been a post-OSC paper. In the meantime, there were urgent things that needed to be done, we just focus on transportation, housing, integration and identity. Just focus on those, then come back after the feedback, inject some of these questions into the conversation. That would be an example of the consultation process that I was hoping to see.
Q: How did you decide that you had to make this speech?
A: I was overseas attending a meeting. Of course I got a sense of the White Paper online. Together with me, there were also a number of Singaporeans who were also travelling. So I read it and I was shocked to see the 6.9 and especially because ( it argued for) continued growth of population without addressing the current concerns of Singaporeans. So I thought this was something that was out-of-touch from what was happening, and what Singaporeans were feeling. I could not understand why it was decided that way. And also I spoke with the Singaporeans who were with me, and they were all basically up in arms, because everyone you speak with, whether he is a resident who stays in my HDB estate, or private estate, or any top civil servant you speak with, everyone is just upset about how crowded Singapore has been, and how costs have gone up…….I felt that why are we doing this? And we thought that the people that came up with the White Paper were not in touch with reality. And I knew how Singaporeans felt, not just from the White Paper, also from before. Even my own mother tells me, when I go for walks in the morning, I look at so many unfamiliar faces. It’s so crowded nowadays. From comfort to discomfort, which is no good. Because we must continuously improve lives, not make it worse. Generally I think that’s how people are seeing that. So I felt that I had to speak up against this.
Q: As a backbencher in Parliament for so many years, why do you think it’s important to send out a political message, especially in times like this?
A: I think this time it is important that we deliver an important political message. Both for the frontbench and also for the people. We are elected to represent our people and I take that seriously. For me, being an MP is National Service duty to me, it’s not a career. For all of my 16 years, for all policies I do not agree, I’ve spoken up openly about it, and even aggresively if I have to.
Q: People are asking, why is the government not listening? Have they been out of touch?
A: I think it is the process that is the issue. Because ministers are also MPs. They should be in touch with the ground. But the policies are not bottom-up instruments. They are top-down. Second thing is, majority of the policy formulations are done by civil servants, who are very good at what they do, but they don’t understand the impact on the ground. So I think the process is where it lies.
That is the reason why I suggested in the party conference that, don’t bring completed policies to parliament. Bring the ideas, and then maybe go back and get more involvement. I mean we can always form committees from time to time, work on improving. We kind of have always expedited things to Parliament, bills are already done, no changes are made. But, in many countries, you know, committees are formed regularly. So we give up a bit of efficiency but we come up with stronger bills. Although there is some public consultation that goes on for some of the bills, technical bills normally there is a lot of public consulting, but I think things like these are not enough. So I think the process, if it can be changed, involvement earlier on and policy formulation, that I think will help a lot in the process.
On the erosion of trust and confidence
Q: Ministers have been saying that we have to be honest with the people, this is reality. But the people are not accepting it. Do you agree with what has been stated, that it is necessary to be honest with the people or that we don’t have to come up with this 6.5-6.9 million range?
A: I think we have to be honest with the people, because the day your integrity is lost then you won’t be trusted anymore. So I think we have to be honest with the people. Some argue that you just hide the 6.9million figure, I think that’s a wrong approach also. But at the same time, I think, the good arguments got lost because people have lost a bit of trust and confidence in the government as a result of the problems that were created over the last few years. Which I also said in my speech, we need time to rebuild the trust and confidence before we start talking about this kind of difficult things we want to do. And trust and confidence is rebuilt not by saying: Please Trust Me, but has to be rebuilt by changing people’s lives. So I would say that many Singaporeans are feeling that their lives got worse in the last 5-6 years. So the real answer is to make everyone, change things, so that they feel that their lives have improved and they feel that yes, government is actually capable of improving my life.
When you lose the trust and confidence of people, even the best policies that is good for them will not be accepted. When you have the full trust and confidence of people, the toughest of things get accepted very quickly, as in the past. Therefore, moving forward, with a change in the political dynamics, the population is more discerning and more educated, I think we really have to rebuild that trust, even at the expense of slowing down a bit of that economic development. I’m not talking about slowing down for 30 years, you know. I’m talking about slowing down for 3-4 years and fix those things.
On the White Paper Speech and on voting
Q: After you delivered the speech, were there any feedback from the PAP MPs?
A: When Parliament was adjourned and all of us stood up, both PM and DPM gave me an applause (demonstrates). I think they may have been doing that because I rebutted some of the Workers’ Party’s policies. But I did not do that for political reason, well I did not agree with their zero growth approach. So I got the applause. I was shocked, whether the applause was for the speech I made or for the rebuttals I made.
Then I had many MPs who came up to me and said we agreed with what you said. Then which shocked me most, which also kind of got me a bit scared, was the range of and the extent of response I got through emails, facebook and even man on the speech. When I walk on the street and someone thank me. I’m still getting it today. And the group that surprised me the most were the very young, 19- 20- 21- year olds, very young, who never took interest. They started writing to me, they thanked me, they say you really spoke about how we felt. What scared me, it showed that the unhappiness was coming not just from those who were typically just angry with the PAP, but from many rational people who formed the whole cross-section of Singapore.
Q: Some might say, since the party whip was not lifted, it would be wise to present a united party front. But people would think, hey you did not vote for it, is the PAP disunited? What do you have to say about that?
A: To be fair to every party, not just to PAP, we got elected on the party ticket. So we are subjected to party discipline and party rules. Workers Party the same, Low Thia Kiang did not lift his whip. He could have lifted his whip, he also did not. Our whip also was not lifted. So I think basically that’s what politics is all about. So it’s there and I did not come in as an independent. I came in on the PAP ticket, so I have to abide by the rules. And so, therefore all the PAP MPs had to vote, and understandably they had to.
Question is, can we be more liberal in lifting the whip? So I would have personally liked that the whip be lifted in this instance, because it is talking about the long term implications and impact on Singaporeans. Then maybe a few more MPs could have joined the debate. Some did not speak also, but for whatever reason we do not know. They may not have accepted and didn’t want to speak, because they have to vote for it. I don’t know. So I am saying that if we had done it, I would think that generally the party would have carried through the paper anyway. And it would have been a different thing.
On opposing from within:
Q: What is it like to oppose from within? Is it more effective?
A: I think everyone has a role to play. The opposition can point out whatever they want. For the party, it is useful to have internal opinion leaders who may differ from what the government’s main position is, especially at the political level, so we continue to remain relevant, and reflect the aspirations of the people. If the opposition can reflect their aspirations, we also can. And for us(the party) to reflect (the aspirations of the people), (it is important) that we have trusted insiders who are doing it, and we believe in them, and you know this is what you need to do to affect future policy changes. I think it’s a useful role to play.
It’s a difficult role to play though. I don’t think you will be popular if you do that within the party. But I think if your conscience is clear, you are doing it for the right reasons, then it’s ok. Why am I doing it from (within) the PAP? Because I believe in the PAP principles, that’s why I joined the party. In 1985, I joined the party, immediately after I graduated from university. Those days when you were a student, you cannot join any party. So after I graduated, I joined PAP and I also was a grassroots leader. So I subscribe to the party’s principles, what they have done, what they can do. That’s why I remain confident to make changes from within.
Q: You said that it is a difficult role to play because you might be unpopular. Have you faced any backlash before, previously and now?
A: No I think some of the MPs have faced this backlash. I personally have not been scolded. I have been ticked off from time to time on a few things, but nothing major. Nothing that demoralises or make me slow down. But some MPs I know in the past, they are no longer in Parliament, had to apologise sometimes. So that is demoralising. But I’ve never ever been personal with anyone. I’ve always focused on policies and I don’t just criticise, I come up with suggestions. It’s constructive criticisism. Over the years, maybe the track record is important. The fact that I’m sincere about what I say .
On the opposition MPs
Q: With more opposition MPs in parliament, what is the difference in the quality and dynamics of the debate?
A: Now with the opposition, a lot more politics injected in parliament. The Workers Party, in the past when only Low Thia Khiang and Sylvia Lim were in parliament, they were a lot more constructive, more focused on constructive criticism. Now with more people, a lot of politics in what they speak on. I would say that some of them are still in the election rally mode. So in that sense, trying to put down the other side. With this kind of approach, it also has invoked reactions on the PAP side to try to rebutt, very aggressively also. Sometimes it maybe overdone on both sides.
Q: Is that good or bad?
A: I think it’s good to have debate. But I think we must remain constructive, because we spend so much time trying to score political points, we may not actually be working on the solutions. Most of them still remain in their election rally mode to score political points. Even in this White Paper, they have some broad numbers, but frankly (in terms of) any unique suggestions on how to get greater labour participation rate, productivity improvement, no new suggestions given. I’ve looked at their latest paper. It’s very easy to do this one now, because I just extract what is not popular in PAP’s White Paper. So on hindsight, it is an easy paper to do actually. Anything unique that ministers or PAP have not talked about, no. Slow down, we also talked about recalibrating the growth rate, but some of the things are very destructive, such as zero growth in (foreign) labour.
On voting for the amended motion
Q: When you were deciding to vote for, against, or to stay away, was there a struggle? Or have you decided right after speech?
A: When the (white) paper came out, and after I made the speech, I struggled with it, that was way before PM gave his speech only at the end. When PM came back and reverse things, it became a lot easier for everyone. The motion got amended, PM decided to change, and I’ve been with him for a long time, I trust him. I’ll put it this way, once he gets the problem, he’ll fix it. So he must get to know what the real problem is. So it was a struggle for a few days, how could I support a 6.9 million number which I myself don’t believe in?
Q: Sorry, but the question will then again be, why not vote for the motion?
A: You can just put it as I was away. I was happy when PM put the number away. Big relief. I didn’t push more, because I know he is working on it.