Speaking in Parliament on Feb 15 on the the report of the Committee of Privileges, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong emphasised that integrity is the linchpin of democracy.
He added that with Singapore heading towards a more contested political landscape, the competence and honesty of the Opposition is no longer an inconsequential matter.
“The question of ‘what are the right values and how should we uphold them?’ becomes of fundamental importance for both the Opposition as well as the governing party,” he said.
In his speech, PM Lee spoke extensively on the report, highlighting the importance of integrity and how it forms the basis of a good, functioning democracy.
Here are some key points.
Clear norms and incorruptible values
To protect the standing of Parliament, clear norms of behaviours among Parliamentarians must be set said PM Lee.
Firstly, one must tell the truth always and do the right thing by Singapore, even when – in fact, especially – it is hard or awkward.
Secondly, if something goes wrong or something wrong has been done, own up and take responsiblity.
“The right norms can only be upheld by people with the right values,” he continued, ” MPs must be people with integrity at their core, who speak and act in an upright manner, always putting duty before self. And country before party. And our highest duty – our ultimate loyalty – cannot be just to our party, but to Singapore.”
PM Lee then spoke of WP cadre member Ms Loh Pei Ying, Mr Pritam Singh’s former assistant, who told the Committee of Privileges (CoP) that to her, beyond anything else, it’s important to be truthful to Singapore.
“I believe every member of this House will agree with her.”
No loosening of standards
While most countries are founded on the basis of high ideals and noble causes, succeeding generations often find it hard to sustain the momentum.
“All too easily – a slip here, a blind eye there, a fudge, a trim – and gradually things go downhill. The texture of politics changes, respect for politicians declines. After a while, the electorate comes to think ‘This is the norm, and you cannot expect better.’ And so as norms get debased, trust is eroded, and the country declines further,” PM Lee explained.
There’s nothing preventing Singapore going down the same road as Singapore is not intrinsically smarter or more virtuous than other countries, he added.
That is why the founding fathers of Singapore took the more robust way, choosing to keep politics contestable – when founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew could have easily changed the constitution and made Singapore a one-party state – and building institutions to enable Singapore to operate and not dependent on a few key people.
Not taking a high-trust society for granted
PM Lee continued that while Singapore may be a high-trust society today, nothing guarantees
that we will always remain one.
He cited the examples of the United States and Britain, where there’s little trust between government and people.
“Three-quarters of Republicans have been made to believe the last presidential election was stolen. How do you run a system, when a large segment of the (US) population is convinced the current government is illegitimate? Every issue is politicised, government becomes gridlocked, the country suffers,” he explained.
Thus, it is important that Singapore maintains its high standards with have leaders who embody the right values.
The PAP has nothing to gain out of this saga
PM Lee then alluded to the statements that WP and Mr Singh put out publicly as trying to confuse the issues and stir up sympathy among Singaporeans, suggesting that the referral to the Public Prosecutor is political persecution.
“What they are really saying is this: Don’t look too carefully at what Mr Singh did. Just remember who he is: He is the Opposition that you voted for; He is the Leader of the Opposition. By virtue of his position, he should not be referred to the Public Prosecutor. Any action against him must by definition be politically motivated,” he said.
PM Lee added that the PAP is not doing this to win votes and would be easier not to have pursue the matter against the three MPs.
However, being the government, PAP will not shy away from doing whatever is necessary to uphold the right norms in Parliament and to imbue Singaporeans and their leaders with the values critical to sustain trust in the political system and success.
The duty of the leader of Singapore
Should some other party win the elections one day, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said it is his duty as leader of the country to make sure Singapore’s political system can operate properly with the high standards of conduct and honesty as the PAP.
“We cannot assume that the PAP will always continue in government. Nor can we assume that the WP, or some other opposition party, or any opposition party, will stay in the opposition. I do not know when, or how, there will be a change of governing party in Singapore one day,” he added.
However, he reminded everyone that his other duty, as Secretary-General of the PAP, is to make sure the Party governs well to the best of its ability and retains the mandate of the people for as many elections as possible.
The role of the office of the Leader of Opposition
Accepting and recognising Singaporeans’ appetite for more political contestation, PM Lee offered to make Mr Singh the Leader of the Opposition, and equip him with resources and support to play his role on election night in 2020, right after the WP won a second GRC.
“That is how a responsible Government can help a credible, responsible Opposition to emerge, and contribute to the maturing of our political system.”
But he reminded the House that the office of the Leader of Opposition has responsibilities, namely setting the tone for the opposition MPs, enforcing standards of conduct in his own party, and above all, maintaining his own integrity and keeping himself beyond reproach.
“The Leader of Opposition does not have a blank cheque,” he said.