SINGAPORE — The gloves are well and truly off, with Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean yesterday firing the opening salvo ahead of an impending General Election.
In a media interview, Mr Teo, who is also the first assistant secretary-general of the People’s Action Party (PAP), slammed the Workers’ Party (WP) for its handling of the financial lapses at its Aljunied-Hougang-Punggol East Town Council (AHPETC), and criticised WP chief Low Thia Khiang for shedding “crocodile tears” over the stepping down of Transport Minister Lui Tuck Yew.
Mr Teo also took a jibe at WP chairman Sylvia Lim who on Wednesday posted on Instagram a picture of herself eating at Fengshan Hawker Centre with the caption, “The taste of Fengshan — heavenly!”, and the hashtag #reasonstowin. Yesterday, Ms Lim posted a blank picture with the caption, “how to avoid speculation”, along with the hashtag #electionseason.
Mr Teo said: “What’s going to happen? You’re going to swallow up Fengshan for what purpose? To serve the residents of Fengshan? Or is Fengshan delicious because you want to add it into the pot to help the town council with the deficit?”
He was also critical of WP’s muted performance in Parliament, after the opposition party gained an unprecedented number of seats following its victory in the 2011 GE in Aljunied GRC. The WP Members of Parliament were silent on many issues, he pointed out.
WP’s win in the GRC not only resulted in the Government losing two ministers — Mr George Yeo and Mrs Lim Hwee Hua — it also meant that potential MPs such as Mr Ong Ye Kung, who is standing in the coming GE in Sembawang GRC this time, were also set back in their political career.
[That may all be well and true, but the framing of the problem betrays (or perhaps suggests) a disconnect with the people. Or political naiveté. Or plain dumb failure to communicate.
Referring to Mr Ong, who has been touted to be of ministerial calibre, Mr Teo said: “We lost someone who could have played a more significant role in the last five years. We hope he comes in this time and will be elected. But he has five years less experience that he otherwise would have had.”
WP’s win in Aljunied GRC resulted in Singapore losing a brilliant and able Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mr George Yeo. Because Singapore lost him, we lost his experience, his intellect, and his unique perspective and interpretation of world affairs and how it pertains to Singapore and Singapore's interest. His loss to Singapore is immeasurable. It also meant in this case, that another Minister has had to take on the Foreign Affairs portfolio in addition to the Law portfolio. Minister Shanmugam is immensely suited to the Law portfolio but now he has had to divide his attention between two very important ministries. It would have been so much easier to have the talents and resources of George Yeo available to Singapore. The loss of the GRC also meant that Mr Ong Ye Kung, who can contribute as a minister to Singapore, was lost to us for the last 4 years. We have persuaded him to stand again, and with the support of the people, we can tap on his talents and abilities. But I can't help but wonder if he had been serving Singapore for the last 5 years, what more could have been achieved? What significant contributions could he and the two Ministers we lost at GE2011 have made in the last 4 years?
What WP is offering Singapore and Singaporeans are ideals that are disconnected from reality and practical needs. Ideals are important. Without ideals we risk becoming uncivilised. But not all ideals are equal. Ideals and principles like meritocracy, integrity, incorruptibility, and pragmatism are critical to the proper function of a country like Singapore.
The ideals and idealism backed by WP are not those that PAP believes are critical and may in fact be dangerous or crippling to Singapore - witness the loss of a talent like George Yeo, and the opportunity cost of delaying the possible contributions of someone like Ong Ye Kung. BUT, this is what democracy and politics are all about: the contest of ideas and idealism. There may be some way of objectively determining whether PAP or WP is correct. If so, we have not found it. Or if we found it, we have not been able to convince everyone that it is an objective measure.
So we are left with politics and elections - if you think that WP ideals and idealism is more important, vote for WP. If you believe that the values and principles PAP has always backed - meritocracy, incorruptibility, integrity, and a clear-headed approach to solving problems, then vote PAP.
The correct answer is "yes". The plan is so transparent, lying about it is just insulting the intelligence of voters. Moreover, you claim integrity as one of PAP's values. Integrity includes being honest. So the honest answer is "yes". And you can add on to it as necessary.
"Yes. We need capable and competent people who can take on a minister's portfolio. But that is just one criteria. The primary role of an MP is to represent the constituents. There are many competent people who we have declined to field because they may not (in our assessment) be able to connect with their constituents and represent their interests. But when we find the rare person who has both heart and mind, we try to persuade them to first stand as a candidate for MP, and if they are elected, to be Minister. Ong Ye Kung is, we feel, one such candidate. But it is the up to the judgement of the voters of Sembawang to decide if Ong Ye Kung is fit to be their MP. We believe he is eminently suited and able to represent the people of Sembawang, but in a democracy, all we can do is to present our best candidate and listen to the people, let the people decide.For the PAP team deployed to contest Aljunied GRC this time — the line-up has yet to be revealed — its immediate focus for the residents of Aljunied GRC would be to “sort out the mess in the town council issue ... before the hole gets bigger”, said Mr Teo.
[On this I do not have a strong view about it, but I would recommend a humbler stance. Instead of "we want to sort out the mess and fix it before the hole gets bigger", a more modest approach may be warranted. This statement smells arrogant. But I guess, perhaps it depends on the context and tone and the pitch. With the right tone, it could sell. Let's just say, the idea of Teo Chee Hean with a humble tone strikes me as unimaginable.]
Mr Teo noted that before the 2011 GE, the Hougang Single-Member Constituency (SMC), a WP stronghold, had been already been running a deficit in its town council funds. On the other hand, Aljunied GRC and Punggol East SMC, which were under the PAP, had healthy surpluses.
“Now the whole town council is in deficit. How did the large surplus turn into deficit? Where did the money go? There needs to be a certain transparency and accounting and a very fundamental setting right of the town council,” said Mr Teo.
On whether PAP could lose votes for attacking the WP during the election, Mr Teo said: “It’s not something that we like to bring up, but I think it’s something which is important to bring up.”
He added that if the same thing were to occur in a government agency, the PAP would not shy away from dealing with the issue.
Last month, a report from the Auditor-General’s Office (AGO) flagged lapses in several public agencies in its latest annual audit of the public sector. The AGO highlighted as areas of concern related-party transactions, the administration of grants, tendering and management of revenue contracts and management of contract variations.
Mr Teo said: “I’d like to emphasise that there’s a very basic difference between lapses in specific processes that take place in any organisation — you have one procurement that did not follow all the rules and processes, or you have another person who did not do all the things that he was supposed to do or another process — but I do not recall an agency which has received the kind of verdict that (AHPETC) received from their own external auditor as well as the Auditor-General.”
In February, the AGO concluded in its audit on AHPETC that unless the weaknesses in the accounting practices are addressed, there can be no assurance that the town council’s financial statements are accurate and reliable, and that public funds are properly spent, accounted for and managed.
Mr Teo said: “It’s not one specific transaction where you didn’t follow the rules … but a blanket assessment that the financial accounts cannot be relied upon at all. That’s quite serious.”
[Again, the problem with the AHPETC issue is that there is no smoking gun. Otherwise, the government would have taken legal/criminal action. The PAP MUST show that they are subject to and respect the law. Again, is it impossible to simply state your case without trying to work up public sentiment for PAP (psst! It's not working!)?
We believe that there is incompetence, if not impropriety in the running of AHPETC. However, the courts have ruled that we cannot proceed as we had intended. We respect the judgment of the court and will not pursue the matter in the courts. It leaves me simply to point out that there was a healthy surplus in Aljunied's finances when it was run by PAP. There is now a deficit, and various issues highlighted by the AGO as well as the independent auditors. But our hands are tied.The rest of the tirade below is really unnecessary.]
Mr Teo stressed that an elected MP has to play a dual role of running the town council well and contributing to national issues.
“Some people come alive during an election. Some people campaign very well because it’s easier to get people riled up and unhappy. Even I know how to do that,” he said.
He added: “During the time of an election, you can have a party that comes up and makes all kinds of speeches and claims, and it works people up, inflames emotions and therefore influences the way people vote. But when you get elected into Parliament, these fierce issues that they talk about during the election —they’re silent.”
Addressing the voters, Mr Teo said: “Make sure that you vote for the candidate (and) the party whom you really want to place your future in the hands of, and be sure they’re the ones whom you really want to manage your money in your town.”
On Wednesday, Mr Low told reporters at his Meet-the-People session that he was disappointed and could not understand why Mr Lui had chosen to leave politics at this point in time. Mr Teo said: “It’s very in character for Mr Low to squeeze the most political mileage out of anything. The reasons that Tuck Yew decided to step down are known to everyone. Frankly, I think it’s crocodile tears.”