Pritam Singh v PM Lee Hsien Loong: Opposition ward residents are not 'free riders', says WP chief

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Workers' Party chief Pritam Singh speaking in Parliament on 2 September 2020. (PHOTOS: Parliament screengrabs)
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Workers' Party chief Pritam Singh speaking in Parliament on 2 September 2020. (PHOTOS: Parliament screengrabs)

SINGAPORE — Worker’s Party chief Pritam Singh took exception to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s description of opposition voters as “free riders”, as the Leader of the Opposition and the PM crossed swords in the new Parliament for the first time.

Speaking in Parliament on Wednesday (2 September) in lieu of his annual National Day Rally speech, Lee was critical of the mindset that it is safe to vote for the opposition as the People’s Action Party (PAP) will form the government anyway – a strategy deployed by several opposition parties in the recent General Election.

The PM cited a middle-aged voter who had asked Senior Minister Teo Chee Hean during the July election campaign, “Mr Teo, is it true? My friends tell me it’s ok to vote for the opposition. Because the government will still be in charge...and the PAP will work even harder for you. You get everything they promised, and two persons working for you instead of one.”

After his speech, Lee told the House, “So if you think that government is doing the wrong all means, vote the government out, put a new government in, change the government, change the policy. But if you say, vote against the government because somebody else will look after getting the PAP government, you just become a free rider.”

In response, Singh said, “I don't think the residents of Aljunied, Hougang for 30 years now, and even Sengkang, as a result of the last election, would appreciate being called free riders. They're not free riders.”

The WP chief added, “We’re not just letting the other guy, the government of the day, do something. We've got to do what we have to do. We've got to run the town council, which is why Mr Lee Kuan Yew conceived of the town councils in the first place. Because if you want to move forward in the system as an opposition Member of Parliament, you've got to prove your worth in the town council.

“And we've had growing pains, I'm not going to deny that. But if we were bungling things up, I wouldn't be here today. My team wouldn't be here today.”

Lee then clarified that he had been using the economists’ definition of a free rider, which refers to a situation whereby people use or overuse a shared resource without paying their fair share for it or not at all. “But if you say, vote for for me, somebody else will vote for the PAP, and therefore the PAP will be the government, that, the economists will call a free rider. It means that you're taking advantage of somebody else who's doing their duty of electing a government for the nation.”

The Prime Minister added, “And you're not doing your part, expressing your true views and preference, as a voter whom you want to be the next government. And if everybody takes that attitude, then you're going to end up with a government which you don't want.”

‘I’m not desperate for power, Prime Minister’

Alluding to the residents of Aljunied, Hougang and Sengkang - all wards held by the WP - Singh said, “The residents, the voters of these constituencies, put their faith in us. Because they know an opposition in Parliament is ultimately good for Singapore.”

The 43-year-old spoke of his “huge burden” as WP chief: ensuring that the party picks the right candidates who can follow through if elected. “I'm not desperate for power, Prime Minister. But we've got to get good people, if we want to bring this country forward...We have many, many more miles to go. But we're not chasing a destination. We intend to do right by Singapore.”

Acknowledging “his motivations, his passion, his desire to do right by Singapore”, Lee asked, “So supposing that the PSP (Progress Singapore Party) had been as persuasive as Mr Pritam Singh, and SDP (Singapore Democratic Party) had been as persuasive as Mr Pritam Singh, and more voters had taken such an attitude, where would Singapore be? Is that the right outcome for Singapore?”

He added, “Elections are not just about the town council, they're also about electing the government for the country. And that's necessary for people to bear firmly in mind.”

Earlier, Lee was also critical of Singh’s assertion that if there is a change of government, a new party will be able to run Singapore equally well, thanks to its excellent public service.

Conceding that in such a scenario, the new government would be able to “fly straight and level for some time”, Lee nevertheless charged, “I think that's not being honest. In that case, we can dismiss all the ministers. They can go on leave, we don't need ministers, anybody can be a minister. But you need to run a system which is finely tuned and capable, you need a very capable hand at the top.”

The 68-year-old pointed out that ministers are akin to chief executives who set the direction for their ministries, and must have the information at their fingertips as they answer questions in Committee of Supply or parliamentary debates. “And from time to time, the decisions is not what the staff consensus come up with, because partly there are political factors, but sometimes because the minister must exercise judgment and take responsibility.”

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