The WP’s Refusal to Answer

On the evening of 12 July, the Workers’ Party (WP) received a public rebuke from no less than the Prime Minister, who had nothing but harsh words calling the WP to account. (See: http://www.pmo.gov.sg/content/pmosite/mediacentre/pressreleases/2013/July/statement-from-the-prime-minister-s-office-on-aljunied-hougang-p.html)

In this post, I take issue with WP’s evasiveness on the matter and I refer to their 201-word press release dated 13 July 2013. (See: http://wp.sg/2013/07/our-mps-consciences-are-clear/)

I state for the record that I have listened closely to the proceedings of the Parliamentary Sitting on 9 July and I have accordingly transcribed the exchange between Mr. Low Thia Khiang and Dr. Vivian Balakrishnan. You can ascertain the accuracy and veracity of my transcription for yourself here.

In Parliament, Mr. Low said that he would pursue the matter and find out more. He added that he was unaware of what Mr. Tai said and/or did with regard to the hawker centre cleaning. Additionally, Mr. Low called the ATL quotation “a puzzle”. I reproduce his words here:

I’ve not spoken to Mr. Tai, this is the first time I’ve read all these things but I gather that’s how it came about, you know, because of the ‘spring cleaning’….The next issue about the ATL quotation – it is a puzzle, and, umm, umm, I’m trying to find out who actually ask them to quote (sic). Obviously, people ask them to quote and then otherwise they won’t quote (sic). But there’s nothing to do with the Town Council. The Town Council has not asked them quote either.”

However, and to my shock, Mr. Low said on 10 July before commencing his Meet-the-People Session (MPS) that he would not be “going for any investigation”.

My question is this: Why the immediate turnabout?

On 9 July, Mr. Low said that he would investigate. On 10 July, he said he would not do so.

Here today, gone tomorrow.

Here today, gone tomorrow.

Why?

There was no acceptable answer given. Why is the WP denying the allegations despite the evidence and the exhortation by the Prime Minister to conduct an inquiry?

But the WP did not stop there. What is worse is that it grossly and shamelessly pushed the burden of judgment to the public. The statement released by the WP on 13 July said that it would let “the public make its own judgment on the matter.”

Not only has the WP refrained from clearing the air on the integrity, honour and reputation of its MPs, it has shirked all responsibility of holding itself accountable. This is grossly unacceptable. How dare you? Is this how you account to the people who believed and voted in you? It is repulsively arrogant of you to simply say, oh, let the public decide for themselves.

As of 14 July, it is clear to me that the WP has no interest in defending its reputation and is unwilling to clear the air in the interests of public accountability. As the Prime Minister’s Press Secretary Ms. Chang Li Lin has put it, “Mr Low’s latest non-statement addresses none of these serious charges, which therefore stand unrebutted.”

In all honesty, not only do I not understand why the WP would flip-flop in a span of two days, I do not comprehend why the WP would leave such harsh and serious allegations unanswered. It simply does not make any sense! The logical thing for any person to do would be to stand up and refute these charges with relentless vigour. In politics, credibility is paramount. Credibility is not a cheap commodity to be auctioned away to the public.

The WP said to let the public decide. Well, I’m deciding right now and it is clear to me that you need to come clean.

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Transcript: Low Thia Khiang vs. Vivian Balakrishnan (9 July 2013)

Transcript of the Exchange between Mr. Low Thia Khiang and Minister Vivian Balakrishnan in Parliament on 9 July 2013

Reference for the transcript has been taken from:

Transcription begins at 29:30.

Mr. Low Thia Khiang: Thank you, Madam. Madam, I do agree with Ms. Lim. Umm, from my understanding, the Town Council is well aware of the obligation to clean the high area of the market.

And what I gather from the whole episode is arising from a misunderstanding between “annual cleaning” and “spring cleaning”. In the past in Hougang, we don’t require the market to close for annual cleaning and we fulfil our obligation to clean the market once a year. Everything – high scaffolding and all that.

Umm, and thereby I can understand the perspective of email, whatever the meeting, because you are talking about “spring cleaning”. “Spring cleaning” is conducted quarterly, four time a year (sic). “Annual cleaning”, cleaning the – clean the high-rise area of the market, once a year. So, if the Town Council is obligated to clean also the high-rise area in the “spring cleaning”, then the question is: how many times do you have to clean?

I’ve not spoken to Mr. Tai, this is the first time I’ve read all these things but I gather that’s how it came about, you know, because of the “spring cleaning”.

The next issue about the ATL quotation – it is a puzzle, and, umm, umm, I’m trying to find out who actually ask them to quote (sic). Obviously, people ask them to quote and then otherwise they won’t quote (sic). But there’s nothing to do with the Town Council. The Town Council has not asked them quote either.

What happened? I mean, I don’t know. But, I’m very certain the quotation has nothing to do with the cost of the cleaning the high area of the market (sic). It is not. This is my understanding of the whole issue.

Okay, umm…Because of that difference in terms of arrangement of the cleaning of the high market (sic) or the market high-rise area, and thereby there was this problem of the “spring cleaning” – the market close for five days, umm, but not necessarily that we’re going to clean. In fact the Town Council has come up with a schedule.

But I thought it would be good if you get the “annual cleaning” together with the “spring cleaning”, and thereby you save all the problem of after the “annual cleaning”, after the “spring cleaning” you come back and clean the high-area. And that’s why I went down to speak with them and just get the work together lah! I mean, “spring cleaning”, once a year, or the four “spring cleaning”, or one of them, just do the high-rise cleaning and finish (sic). That’s the position. (end transcription at 32:08)

32:11 Minister Balakrishnan speaks.

Dr. Vivian Balakrishnan: Mr. Low, that’s precisely the point. There are four cleanings a year. One of those four will be a full, comprehensive cleaning including the high areas. This is not something new. This has been going on for ten years.

Even – let me finish – even in 511, your Town Council did it last year. Of course, I think it was a different contractor, but you did it last year. So, you cannot say that your staff are confused or didn’t know, or that Sylvia didn’t supervise, and all this is a misunderstanding. It’s – I’m afraid it’s not, you see.

The evidence is incontrovertible that your Mr. Tai said, “not my problem” anything above 2.5 – it’s clear. And he also said, and not once – you see – on three separate occasions, with witnesses, you want it clean, pay me extra. Now, that is the crux of the whole matter, you see, unless you say Mr. Tai is not your officer, not your authorised one.

But my understanding – and when I checked – I understand that he is an employee of FMSS, your Managing Agent, he is the Property Manager of Aljunied Town Council. So what he says, those words have to be taken seriously. What he says is the position of the Town Council. And you have asked for money, you have denied responsibility. And I’ve tried to show you in my answer. We’re not inventing new rules here you know? It’s been around for ten years! Everyone, including you when you were personally supervising Hougang Town Council, had no problem. We had no problem working with you.

But now – I don’t know if it is a lack of supervision or people somewhere in your organisation someone is trying to cover up, we have this unnecessary distraction. That’s basically what – that’s why I said we can discuss all the minutiae that Sylvia wants to. But the simple crux of this matter is what did Mr Tai say, and what did he fail to do. And to me, that is very clear. And because that is very clear and backed up by evidence, I find the denials, the public denials, by Ms. Sylvia Lim and Mr. Pritam Singh very, very troubling.

You know, let me make this further point. Politics is a contest for power. But you know, the key principle when you have power is don’t take advantage of people under your charge and always be honest and upfront with your people. All of us will make mistakes.

But when a mistake is made, just come clean and say so. But don’t cover up. That’s why I have not let this go. Because it is not about cleanliness of the ceiling, it is about clean politics.

And I appeal to you, because I know you to be an honourable man, I appeal to you, go back, do a thorough investigation of what’s gone on and what’s gone wrong in your Town Council and put it right. Set it right. I have confidence that you will do so, Mr. Low.

Transcription ends 35:38

Of Parliamentary Privilege and the WP’s Deafening Silence

A few readers asked about Parliamentary Privilege and what Minister Balakrishnan’s forfeiture of his own Privilege constituted. This post serves to clarify what the term means and provides an analysis of the latest developments.

Simply put, Parliamentary Privilege means that MPs cannot be sued in Court for what they said in Parliament. The intention of such privilege is to facilitate frank and honest comments in the spirit of good debate. Of course, abusing such immunity would lead to punishments by the Committee of Privileges. More information can be found here: http://www.parliament.gov.sg/publications/p (See “Parliamentary Privilege).

sg parliament

Now, what is the relevance of Parliamentary Privilege to the latest episode between Dr. Balakrishnan and the Workers’ Party (WP)?

It is this: After his statements in Parliament, Minister Balakrishnan informed the media that he would be forfeiting his Parliamentary Privilege. It means that he is willing to face any form of action that will be taken against him, including a lawsuit for defamation by the WP if it comes to that (information from ST and Zaobao, 10 July 2013)

Honestly, it’s a bloody gutsy move.

I now turn to what Mr Low Thia Khiang said earlier this evening (10 July). Mr Low said that no additional inquiry into the matter would be conducted even though the Minister had appealed to him yesterday. The Minister said:

“ I appeal to you, because I know you to be an honourable man, I appeal to you, go back, do a thorough investigation of what’s gone on and what’s gone wrong in your town council and put it right, set it right. I have confidence you will do so, Mr Low.” (author’s emphasis; source: http://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/singapore/integrity-is-key-issue-in/739166.html)

To begin with, it appears that the Minister’s confidence in Mr. Low was misplaced when the latter clearly dismissed the need to conduct any investigation of sorts (see: http://www.singapolitics.sg/news/wps-low-stands-mps-says-vivian%E2%80%99s-attack-not-good-politics)

But wait a minute. What does Mr Low’s decision mean?

It simply means that the WP has a very strong urge to put this episode to a close.

Why?

If one recalls the WP’s determinedly persistent attitude in pursuing the AIM issue a few months ago, one would clearly be puzzled by the reprehensibly feeble and pathetic performance in this hawker centre episode.

Hence, the question is: why is the silence so deafeningly loud?

As they say, silence means consent. And if this were true in this instance, then one would ask: does the WP admit to the charges that the Minister put forward?

Oddly enough, Mr Low sought refuge from further questioning by hiding behind the Prime Minister’s call for Singapore to get its politics right. In my view, Mr Low seems to think that Dr. Balakrishnan’s allegations and the implicit invitation to press charges amounted to taunting and, consequently, bad politics.

No. Bad politics is precisely what the WP did: twisting words spoken by other heavyweight ministers, trying to push the blame back to Dr. Balakrishnan and wanting to escape from the hot seat.

Accountability lies at the very heart of this episode. Through Mr Low’s comments, observers are left to think that the WP was unwilling to rise up to the occasion and prove its innocence. Thus, I am led to conclude that the WP’s behaviour constitutes an abhorrent and intolerable shirking of its responsibility to hold itself accountable to the public.

The Clarion Call to Clean Politics

In this post, I deal with the Bedok hawker centre sagas and an interesting phrase that Dr. Vivian Balakrishnan used in Parliament earlier today – “clean politics”. I explore that in the later part of this ramble.

Pre-ramble

It is a rare sight to see the people’s darling, the Workers’ Party, being thoroughly questioned in Parliament. It is indeed much rarer to see them being interrogated and put on the defensive. Today was one of the rare occasions.

To begin, it is important to point this out: it is one thing for the WP to say that a “misunderstanding” regarding “spring cleaning” and “annual cleaning” arose from an email. It is completely another to ask the hawkers to pay more for services that are the legal responsibilities of the Town Council.

In a nutshell, a whole saga ensued when a Sunday Times article pointed out that the Aljunied-Hougang-Punggol East Town Council did not carry out the scheduled cleaning services that was stipulated by law. I will not even bother going into quoting the Town Councils Act because that is publicly available on the Statutes’ website.

What’s important is this: the hawkers complained that they had to fork out money to pay for services that were the legal responsibility of the TC to provide. Not only did the AHPETC fail to clean the hawker centres at Blk 511 and 538, the hawkers had to lose five days’ worth of income and return from their absence only to find that the cleaning had not been done.

In Parliament, Dr. Balakrishnan pierced the WP’s shining armour and shattered it after repeatedly questioning whether or not did Mr. Tai Vie Shun (the Property Manager of the AHPETC) “demanded extra money from the hawkers for cleaning the high areas of hawker centres” (Source: Dr. Balakrishnan’s Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/Vivian.Balakrishnan.Sg?fref=ts) and when the WP utterly failed to give a coherent response.

Dr. Vivian Balakrishnan

Introduction

Although admirably defiant in the face of pressure, it is futile for the WP to deny the evidence produced in the dossier of email correspondence.

But that is not the main point, as Dr. Balakrishnan said earlier today (and I quote):

All of us will make mistakes. When a mistake is made, just come clean and say so, but don’t cover up. That’s why I have not let this go, because it is not about cleanliness of the ceiling, it is about clean politics …”

Clean politics. How many of us would actually grasp the true meaning of that phrase?

In the Name of Clean Politics

Admittedly, one can argue that as long as you are in politics, you can never be clean. Do I sense an overdose of scepticism? Maybe. But all human societies are directed towards Rousseau’s idea of perfectibility – the notion that we should strive for the ideal.

The case for clean politics has never been stronger today. While the scourge of corruption thrives in other countries, Singapore has done well in keeping that vile malaise away from our fair shores. The public has done its part by placing high expectations of its elected leaders: integrity, honour, incorruptibility, honesty are the bare minimum of what is required.

Naysayers would be quick to jump the gun and accuse Dr. Balakrishnan of defaming the honour of the WP MPs by calling them “untruthful”. But the very fact that he has done so clearly implies that he is willing to stand and testify in a court of law. It’s more than just name-calling: even the Minister’s reputation is at stake. If the WP MPs find that their reputation has been sullied by the Minister’s words, they are more than welcome to file a defamation suit against him.

Clean Politics – The Role of the People

Yes, we all have a role to play in this. Individually, how can we help ensure that politics remains above-board?

For starters, stop all that name-calling online. It’s really destructive, not constructive. I say this to diehard supporters of all parties. Need I remind you of Andrew Loh’s presidential example of name-calling? There is no need to. That is the kind of name-calling that should cease. Why? I think we have forgotten something called “respect”. How can we, the people, be united if we don’t even respect each other?

What it should be.

What it should be.

Honestly, I think the lack of respect might be the root cause of all these tensions that have reared their ugly head in society recently. I don’t care if it is foreigners’ “disrespect” for our curry or our “disrespect” for their wanting to actually provide for their families by coming here to work. Take xenophobia and homophobia for examples – these two irrational fears stem from a fundamental lack of respect of the human person. Disrespect also includes hostile behaviour towards MacDonalds’ service staff just to get a Hello Kitty plush toy (which in my opinion is simply nonsensical).

Rude Post

This is the bottom line: we cannot engage in civil discourse without first being civil ourselves.

Parting Thoughts

For far too long the WP has pranced in Parliament and asked question after question. Those scot-free and cavalier under-dog days are over. Today the WP was given a taste of its own medicine: accountability – the very same platform upon which they pledged to keep the ruling party in check. The Parliamentary proceedings are abundantly clear in showing that the WP was unable to swallow its own pill. Today was a test of accountability for the WP and they failed utterly, completely, and miserably.

Today is also the day I say no to the duplicitous double standards with which some members of the public have used to judge the WP and the PAP. For a long time, the WP has had a free pass for all that it did. Some members of the public and its sympathisers were quick to say, oh, they are a small party, let’s give them a chance when they make a tiny misstep. But when the PAP makes a wrong move, they are even quicker to pounce on the PAP and dish out their harshest criticisms.

Many have asked for an even playing field between the ruling party and the opposition. That time has come. No one should expect the ruling party to enter the boxing ring with its master arm tied to its back and only allowed to parry off the incoming blows from the opposition. The playing field is now equal.

And for those who think that the previous paragraphs contradicted the segment on clean politics – I humbly say that they do not. In fact, respect is when you accord your opponent the same rights and privileges as you give yourself. A level playing field is the place to start.