The politics of hope and future vs the politics of the Extreme Right: Parliamentary debate on CECA

20/09/2021

A lengthy and intense Parliamentary debate on Singaporeans’ jobs and livelihoods, which lasted more than 10 hours, took place on Sep. 14, 2021. What does it mean for Singapore politics?

The debate was about two motions, one tabled by Mr Leong Mun Wai of the PSP and the other by Minister Lawrence Wong from the PAP.  It concluded with the whole House, including all the NMPs and opposition MPs (except for Mr Leong and Ms Hazel Poa from PSP), rejecting the motion put forth by the PSP.  The House also agreed with the PAP’s motion – all the PAP MPs and NMPs present voted for it.

The WP voted against our motion only because they wanted to amend it to press the government to disclose more sensitive information.  However, they agreed with the key clause in Minister Wong’s motion, to “[deplore] attempts to spread misinformation about free trade agreements like the Singapore-India Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (CECA), stir up racism and xenophobia, and cause fear and anxiety amongst Singaporeans.”

The outcome of the debate brings hope that openness remains a shared value among Singaporeans.  It affirms the PAP’s conviction that Singapore must stay open and connected to the world to grow and prosper.  At the same time, we recognise the challenges brought about by globalisation and technology to people and enterprises, and we will continue to do our utmost to help workers and companies.  These include measures to manage the population of foreign manpower, ensure fair treatment by employers, and invest in education and upskilling, to create more good jobs for Singaporeans.

The Politics of Extreme Right

Our party devoted much time and energy to address this issue in Parliament because we believe Mr Leong’s political positions are fundamentally flawed.

The concerns of Singaporeans regarding competition from foreigners who are living and working here are genuine and valid, but the way to address these concerns is not what the PSP advocated.

The plain reading of the motion underscores the PSP’s basic protectionist and closed-door approach.  It will undoubtedly bring Singapore’s development into reverse gear, and will unravel both our economic and social progress.  Singapore and Singaporeans will be worse off.

Political leadership and policies have a direct impact on how social attitudes develop and evolve, and the fate of a country.  What starts out as a political position to empathise with people facing challenges, win votes and support from certain segments of the population can take a life of its own, causing a swell in ground sentiments, policy changes, leading to intended and unintended economic and social outcomes.

An example is the rise of extreme right politics.  They started as a response to the disruption and displacement brought about by globalisation.  Increasingly they snow-balled around nationalism and protectionism, and whipped up strong xenophobic and racist sentiments in many parts of the world.

In the UK and Europe, far right parties such as National Rally, AfD and UKIP have shot into prominence.  More recently, the worrying scenes of social division brought about by divisive politics in the USA are still freshly etched in our memories.  Not since the Civil War in 1861 has America been so socially and politically divided, fractured and unhappy.  Right wing politicians exploit the anger, anxiety and frustration of the many working-class Americans and attack the immigration policies of America for being too open.  This is saddening, and also worrying, because it is exactly America’s ability and willingness to welcome and embrace talent from all over the world that adds to her strength and vitality; it is what makes America great.

The Politics of hope and of the future

The PAP believes that for Singapore to succeed and remain successful, we must stay dynamic, optimistic and be open to the world.  This has been our destiny, and also our reason for being, since the founding of modern Singapore as a trading hub in 1819.  Our diversity has been a source of strength for Singapore, and our multi-racial and multi-cultural DNA will put us in a strong position to face the future with confidence.

More importantly, Singapore will be at our best when we are big-hearted, generous and accepting.

This is of course easier said than done.

Staying open to the world does not come without its challenges.  The PAP government understands the concerns, anxieties and frustrations felt by many Singaporeans.  We will do our utmost to help Singaporeans navigate unprecedented disruption and uncertainty brought about by globalisation and technological advancements. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has announced significant new measures during National Day Rally 2021.

The well-being and interests of Singaporeans is, and will always be, our paramount concern and priority.

In closing

The recent debates in Parliament was an important opportunity for us to revisit our founding principles, convictions and values as a party, and indeed as a country.

As for the PSP’s position, even if Mr Leong did not intend for racism and xenophobia to be the main thrusts in his arguments, they will inescapably push Singapore a step closer to becoming a racially divided, us-versus-them, society.  If PSP didn’t have a clear political ideology before, their position in the recent parliamentary debate have crystallised it.

Some political parties choose their political destinies based on values and convictions.  Others stumble into it.

Cover photo credit: Parliament of Singapore Facebook page