SINGAPORE, May 10 — While the quality of parliamentary debates has improved with more opposition Members of Parliament (MPs) now, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said it is uncertain if people’s understanding of issues has gotten better.

Debates are often constructive when it comes to non-contentious or non-political issues, like “nasty” accidents or scams on the Internet, he said.

“The opposition will chip in (their) ideas and sometimes, if you close your ears, close your eyes, it sounds it could have been made by somebody wearing white and white,” said Lee, referring to his People’s Action Party’s (PAP) white uniforms.

“But many other important issues inherently carry some political colour to it. And it is very difficult to take that political colour out and have a debate which is solely focused on improving the policy and making things better or clearing that out.”


Lee was speaking to Singapore media on April 26 about three weeks before he is due to hand over the premiership to Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong on May 15. He also gave a separate interview in Mandarin on April 28.

The quality of debates between the PAP and the opposition was among the many topics he spoke about at the wide-ranging interview held at the Istana. He also fielded questions about the Singapore identity and ways to foster political interest among youth.

Scoring political points


Responding to a question about how the opposition’s increased presence in Parliament has impacted debates, Lee said the quality of debates in the House has improved “if you are watching it as a television debate”.

He added that this was because opposition MPs have prepared their positions and have coordinated amongst themselves.

But has this improved people’s understanding of issues? To this, Lee said the outcome has been “mixed” depending on what the issues are.

For important topics that are inherently political, Lee noted there was a strong incentive for the opposition to “score points against the Government” to gain political mileage during debates.

“If you help the Government to govern better and the Government says, ‘Thank you, I will do it’, and the result is better. Then you are making it harder for yourself to get elected the next time, and you want to get elected, right?

“So, the premium is on showing up what the shortcomings are. Why is it you do not do it the other way; I have a good idea; here is how you can make it cheaper, better, faster,” said Lee.

While such debates may make for good television, it means spending more time coming up with and rebutting arguments, instead of suggesting and implementing policies.

Noting there is a growing rhetoric to have a PAP government but with more opposition to act as a check and balance, Lee warned this would inevitably weaken the Government.

“I think the quality of government will go down, our policies will be less creative. The results will generate fewer benefits for Singaporeans and at some point, the political system will malfunction,” said Lee. “It is a risk.”

Danger of wanting PAP in power but more elected opposition

When asked if there is a “magic number” which would cause the political system to tip over, Lee said there is no such thing, adding that the PAP has “to push very hard against this”.

He said that the opposition contested all seats during the general election in 2020, which was unlike the situation when he first called for the elections as Prime Minister in 2006. Of 84 seats, only 47 were contested then.

Lee then referred to a quick response by Workers’ Party (WP) leader Pritam Singh to an editorial published by The Straits Times last month that claimed the party wanted to form the Government in the next election.

Singh stated that WP sought a third of the parliamentary seats “for a better balanced political system”, but not half of the seats.

Said Lee: “(The opposition) want people to feel it is quite safe. Just move a little bit further along the slope. No harm, nothing will happen.

“Life will carry on, PAP will look after you. We will be even stronger checking the PAP and speaking up for you. Have your cake and eat it twice,” he added.

Speaking to the media in Mandarin on April 28, Lee said that the trend of voters wanting a check and balance weakens the government’s ability to serve Singaporeans.

Beyond having to spend more time dealing with politics, such rhetoric reduces the likelihood of fielding good talent in Parliament, said Lee in Mandarin.

“I think that if the trend (of wanting opposition to be a check and balance) continues, over the long term, or even the not-so-long term, it will certainly affect our political system, our government, or even our policies,” he said.

“This is a completely plausible danger for Singapore, and Singaporeans do not always understand this.”

Speaking about how some voters want a “co-driver” for the Government, Lee said: “If there are talents everywhere, and we have a Team A that is Manchester United, and a Team B that is Liverpool, then this may be a feasible approach.”

“But we only have one team, and it is already very difficult to form one team.”

He added that if voters want to “avoid a traffic accident” it is better to choose a reliable and competent driver.

“If you want to find a second-rate driver and a third-rate assistant, I think this is a dangerous policy and a dangerous strategy,” he said.

Lee then added that the opposition is not an assistant, but a “competitor who wants the driver to fail”.

Future of PAP and Singapore

On how the PAP has evolved over the years, Lee said during the English interview that there are new leaders in the party and that policies are updated regularly.

The way the party uses social media to engage people and encourage them to buy into national policies has also changed.

However, the party’s commitment to Singapore and determination to maintain high standards of integrity and competence has remained unchanged, he said.

“Our intention to keep on providing a high-quality government for Singapore, that must always be there. And Singapore depends on that, because if the PAP did not do that, I think any other political party would be hard put to do the same thing,” he said.

When asked about his thoughts about people questioning PAP’s dominance over the years, Lee denied that the PAP was dominant.

To him, the PAP has the people’s mandate.

“We have the people’s support... the people want us to govern. If you call that dominance, well, we are dominant.

“But if you say we are a government with a strong mandate and a system where many other views are heard and not suppressed, I think that is a more accurate description of where we are,” he said.

Lee was then asked whether he is concerned that support for the PAP could be eroded over time.

In response, Lee noted that the party had performed better than expected in 2015, but “results were not as high” as the PAP hoped in 2020.

Lee said that the party will fight hard to persuade people to vote for them, but warned the vote can go to “the wrong place”.

This could happen if the party lets people down and the opposition becomes a “better alternative”.

Lee said he would be sad for the party should the PAP lose power. However, in such a situation, he said the people should vote “for the better team to take care of the country” — even if it is the opposition.

However, he added that PAP losing the vote could also be for another reason — that the political system has malfunctioned and lost support. In this scenario, nobody else can govern Singapore better, said Lee.

Should that happen, the country will be in real trouble, he said. “That can easily happen.” — TODAY