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PM Lee, Pritam Singh spar over ‘free rider’ opposition voters, use of reserves and what happens if PAP is voted out

SINGAPORE — Rising to speak after Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s hour-long speech on Wednesday (Sept 2), Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh sought to clarify statements in the address that had referred to the Workers’ Party (WP).

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong (left) and Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh speaking in Parliament on Sept 2, 2020.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong (left) and Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh speaking in Parliament on Sept 2, 2020.

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  • A lengthy parliamentary exchange on governance and politics erupted between party chiefs Mr Singh and PM Lee
  • The two men debated WP’s position on the use of reserves
  • PM Lee questioned the WP’s election platform of telling voters they will not form the government
  • Mr Singh refuted PM Lee’s remarks that those who voted tactically against the PAP were free riders


SINGAPORE — Rising to speak after Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s hour-long speech on Wednesday (Sept 2), Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh sought to clarify statements in the address that had referred to the Workers’ Party (WP).

What followed was a robust 40-minute exchange on day three of the parliamentary debate on the President’s Address between the chiefs of the People’s Action Party (PAP) and the WP on governance and politics.

Broadcast live on television and the internet, the exchange covered the WP’s position on the use of reserves, the role of public servants in a government takeover, and voters who had voted tactically against the PAP, whom PM Lee called “free riders”.

It veered into issues arising from the recent General Election in July, with PM Lee cautioning Mr Singh on the “moral danger” of campaigning on the platform that the WP would not be able to form the government.

This prompted a response from a visibly emotional Mr Singh, explaining that his fundamental motivation for becoming an opposition politician was not about clinching power. Mr Singh joined the WP in 2010.

There were also revelations: In highlighting the critical role of PAP ministers during Covid-19, PM Lee revealed that civil servants had not recommended the circuit breaker but rather it was the Cabinet who made the judgement call to go with it.

PM Lee and Mr Singh also sparred over the hypothetical situation of whether the nation might collapse if a different government unexpectedly took charge after the polls. Mr Singh, quoting founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, said that the system of public servants was designed to keep the country going in such a scenario.

TODAY picked out excerpts on three key topics covered in the exchange.


In PM Lee’s speech, he had called into question the WP’s queries about the size of the past reserves, arguing that the WP was interested in tapping the painstakingly built reserves to fund policies.

Mr Singh said: “(On) the framing of suggestions that the Opposition puts forward about the use of reserves, I think it's important when we talk about the reserves, we're not talking about raiding them. It's about slowing the growth slope of the reserves, so the principal is not touched.

“There is nothing unusual about this, because the PAP does it, too. How so? In 2016, this House, including members of WP, agreed to include (state investment firm) Temasek Holdings into the NIRC (net investment returns contribution) formula. Does that not reduce the growth of the reserves? It does.

“So the argument cannot be that when the Opposition tries to put that proposal forward, somehow we are engaging in some sort of chicanery to steal what previous generations have toiled and perspired over to bring us here.”

PM Lee responded: “On reserves, I'm not arguing on the technicalities of percentages, drawdowns and NIRC and so on. I'm going on a basic principle that our mindset should be: 'What is the rainy day fund, what are my daily expenses and whether I meet my needs'.

“We do draw from the rainy day fund a certain stream of income to spend. We thought this over carefully and we debated this in the House. We agreed upon a rule, which we felt was a fair distribution between the present and future generation.... We made that decision knowing that there would be ups and downs, knowing that one day we would be short of money, knowing that we should stick to this for quite a long time, and not revisit this as soon as we need money.

“Mr Singh says (they) are not talking about bringing the reserves down… But as you know, in financial investments, there's no certainty about reserves going up. It can come down for any number of reasons, we may have to draw on them, like we did this year.

“I suggest that our fundamental mindset should be: We pay our way forward. And not depend on another little bit from the reserves (and then a little bit more). Each time, (you’re) not really compromising the principal, (you’re) just getting a little bit more pregnant. I suggest that is not the way we should think as a generation, we should be thinking for the future, for the next generation.”


Quoting a passage from a book recounting the PAP’s history, Men in White, Mr Singh referred to Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s 2004 remarks that Singapore will not collapse because of how Singapore’s government, parliament, its civil service, the police and armed forces were built.

Mr Singh said: “When my colleagues and I joined the opposition cause, we didn't have heady dreams of becoming Government. It’s certainly not me. Why did I do this? I believe in an opposition in a parliamentary democracy. It's not going to happen with people just hoping someone else does it.

“Somebody has to put his flag in the sand and say, I'm going to do it. And then it's the duty of myself, my party colleagues to make sure that the people who are on board do their very best. This is my commitment to Singaporeans and this is my commitment to the Prime Minister as well.”

PM Lee replied: “Indeed, we have designed it to the best of our ability so that if the PAP is out of Government, it shall not collapse straightaway. But let me just ask you whether you really believe that if the PAP hands over to a new opposition party, the system can work the way it has been working? Yes, you can keep it flying, there's an autopilot and you can fly straight and level for some time.

“You need to run a system which is finely tuned and capable, you need a capable hand at the top… That’s how we have done Covid-19. That’s how the ministerial task force has operated — long discussions, all views heard, and finally the ministers must decide. And from time to time, the decision is not what the staff consensus comes up with because partly there may be political factors, but sometimes because the minister must exercise judgement and take responsibility.

“The staff did not recommend the circuit breaker. We had discussed it in the Cabinet. There were many pros and cons. I said, better think about this carefully, don't make it a seat-of-the-pants decision. The Cabinet decided. It is a big decision, S$5 billion of supplementary Budget. Civil servants, unelected, can carry this? A new government coming in can know how to do this, and have that feel and the trust, the confidence of Singaporeans, officials, investors and everybody else watching us? Anybody can make it happen? I think that’s not in this world.”


Mr Singh had sought to clarify an anecdote in PM Lee’s speech, which described a female voter who had said to Senior Minister Teo Chee Hean during the elections that she had been told by friends to vote for the Opposition because the PAP would surely remain in charge.

Mr Singh said this reflects the fact that many Singaporeans want an opposition in the House, highlighting that WP also hears feedback from residents who believe that the Opposition is treated unfairly by the ruling party.

PM Lee responded: “There will be Opposition in this House to hold the party to account, to hold the Government to account. So if you think that the Government is doing the wrong thing… by all means vote the Government out, put a new government in, change the government, change the policy. But if you vote against the Government, because somebody else will look into getting the PAP into government, you just become a free rider.

“Then I think the system must fail because the system can only work if people vote sincerely, honestly, in accordance with what they really want, and to produce the result which matches their true intentions, and if they vote tactically, the consequences must be one day, they will get the result but which they did not intend. And I think that is a wrong thing to teach people to do.

“You go to the elections, you vote for the person whom you have trusted, who will run your system, who will run your government and our system is designed so that if you do that, it will be stable. If we do not do that, I think you are courting trouble. I can understand why Mr Singh as Leader of the Opposition is not in a position yet to challenge the Government and would like to make this argument that ‘the PAP will be there, do not worry, you can safely vote for me. I am not going to be the next PM’. But I put it to you that that is not the right thing to do morally, and is not the right thing to do for Singapore.”

Mr Singh said: “I don’t think the residents in Aljunied, in Hougang for 30 years now, and even Sengkang, as a result of the last election, will appreciate being called free riders. They are not free riders. We are not just doing nothing, and let the other guy, the government of the day, do something. We’ve got to run the town council… we’ve had growing pains and I think no one can deny that. But if we were bungling things up, I wouldn’t be here today, my team wouldn’t be here today. We've tried our best in the circumstances that we are in, the Sengkang team is not going to have an easy first term, it's always going to be tough.

“But the voters of these constituencies put their faith in us. Because they know an opposition in Parliament is ultimately good for Singapore… It's when you have elected opposition MPs that the Government listens harder. And that means something to people. That's my view.

“The bigger moral imperative that I have… and I felt this burden before the last elections, was whether the people who are standing as candidates could follow through.

“Do I want to contest all the seats, or more seats, or slowly grow — a lot of it on the quality of people that come in are attracted by the Workers’ Party and our platform. If Singaporeans are attracted to it, then sure, there's a prospect of growth but it's not growth for growth's sake. I’m not desperate for power, Prime Minister.”

PM Lee responded: “I appreciate Mr Singh’s explanations. I in no way undervalue his motivations, his passion, his desire to do right by Singapore, his wish to have a high quality Opposition built up in Singapore. I understand that. I think it is good for Singapore that you have honest people in the Opposition, people who believe in what they are trying to do — people who will stand up and fight for their ideals and, from time to time, disagree very strongly with the Government. I think that is entirely reasonable.

“But what I would say, however, is if you stand and you tell people to vote for me, I will be a better MP than the other one, than the PAP MP, I think that is entirely reasonable. But if you say, vote for me, because somebody else will vote for the PAP and therefore the PAP will be the Government, that is what the economists will call a free rider. It means that you are taking advantage of somebody else who is doing their duty of electing a government for the nation.

“You are 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 are going to end up with a government which you do not want.”

Related topics

Lee Hsien Loong Pritam Singh Parliament national reserves

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