ARTICLE PUBLISHED IN TODAY (SINGAPORE) ON 26 APRIL 2008
Those who have been following the media coverage of the Prime Minister's statement and his subsequent responses to MPs over the Mas Selamat affair would have come away with the impression that the two representatives of the Workers' Party were doing what Opposition politicians should be doing in Parliament.
To borrow a phrase from Nominated Member of Parliament Gautam Banerjee, the two — Mr Low Thia Khiang and Ms Sylvia Lim — were "stress-testing". In doing so, they did not hold back. They asked difficult questions. They raised sensitive concerns.
Mr Low, in particular, found it hard to reconcile the view that ministers should be paid high salaries pegged to the best of the private sector with the one that, when an honest mistake is made, ministers, unlike the best of the private sector, should not be held as accountable.
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong sought to defend the position by saying that the practice was no different than that in the private sector. He then pointedly asked Mr Low: "Let me ask the member whether he thinks (Home Affairs Minister Wong Kan Seng) ought to resign because of this."
Remarkably, Mr Low chose to respond but with pin-drop silence — leading the Prime Minister to remark: "No answer. So I think that settles the point."
In the constituency of public opinion, that silence of Mr Low has now been replaced by a complaining chorus: "Why, Mr Low? Why?"
After all, there was no parliamentary procedure that stopped Mr Low from answering Mr Lee in a similar point-blank manner.
Mr Low has attempted to position the Workers' Party as a serious and responsible party that provides solutions. Yet, when the crucial time came to provide an alternative solution by putting himself in the shoes of the Prime Minister, Mr Low elected to remain silent.
Would a serious and responsible Opposition have shied away from such a moment, when the perfect opportunity arose to seize the bull by the horns?
Of course, one is also reminded of recent observations made by Mr Lee in an interview with Lianhe Zaobao. Among other things, he said: "Although Low Thia Khiang is very smart, he seldom debates on the core substance of policies. He seems more keen on catching the Government on its shortcomings, so as to embarrass the Government … His attitude is that his responsibility is just to criticise Government policies and not to propose alternatives."
Is this incident representative of what Mr Lee had in mind?
Then again, did Mr Low stay silent because he did not wish to embarrass the Government?
Indeed, various justifications have been forwarded by Mr Low's supporters.
Maybe Mr Low did not want to incur the Government's wrath and end up having to face a defamation suit. This holds no water since Mr Low would be protected by the defence of parliamentary privilege.
Perhaps Mr Low did not understand that Mr Lee was asking him a question, since he does not have as good a grasp of English as the Prime Minister. But how could this be the case when Mr Low had, in English, quite candidly put forward his question to Mr Lee?
A more credible justification appears to be that Mr Low might have thought that Mr Lee was asking a rhetorical question — and thus merited no reply.
Nevertheless, one can argue that Mr Low could have taken the cue from Mr Lee's pregnant pause.
This then begs the question: Assuming Mr Low elected to answer the question, what could he have said?
He could have answered in the affirmative and said: "Yes, as Minister Wong had direct oversight of the Internal Security Department, he should lead by example and he ought to resign."
On the other hand, Mr Low could have opted to reply in the negative: "No, out of respect for the Prime Minister, I am willing to give Minister Wong a chance and trust the Prime Minister's call. Nevertheless, Minister Wong has categorically given his word to Parliament that his team will eventually track Mas Selamat down and arrest him. I am willing to give Minister Wong time. If he fails to deliver, he ought to resign."
If Mr Low could not make up his mind between the affirmative and negative, he could have responded: "Maybe. But I am not the Prime Minister. And, unlike the Prime Minister, I have not read the detailed reports. If the Prime Minister discloses that information fully to me, I will be happy to provide a more definitive answer ."
Alas, when putting oneself in Mr Low's shoes, one is only speculating.
The unfortunate irony of this whole event is that a matter of Executive Accountability has now become an issue of Opposition Accountability.
As an Opposition MP, Mr Low owes Singaporeans an explanation as to why he chose to remain silent in the face of an opportunity to be decisive and to show what a leader can and should do.
Why, Mr Low? Why?
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