Shanmugam and Sylvia: the Clash of the Nemesis

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By Augustine Low

Not since the days when Lee Kuan Yew and J. B. Jeyaretnam had frequent fiery clashes have we had two Parliamentarians so intent on having a go at each other.

Sylvia Lim has the knack of getting under the skin of K Shanmugam who does not mince his words and gives no quarter. The Workers’ Party MP and Law and Home Affairs Minister have crossed swords numerous times, the latest being the testy exchange over the impending GST hike timing.

Both are lawyers, both do not suffer fools gladly. Sylvia has the tendency to wade into Shanmugam’s “territory” and he being ever protective and combative, is always up for a battle. The result: they have become each other’s quintessential nemesis or adversary.

Shanmugam is the one with a no holds barred approach, accusing Sylvia of being “hypocritical” and “dishonest” about her questioning of the GST hike timing. Sylvia, typical of such exchanges, stood her ground, but did not resort to name calling: “I can understand why he wants to accuse me of various things because he probably was not happy about past debates, where I had disagreed with some of his legislative changes and in typical fashion he always accuses me of dishonesty, when as far as I’m concerned I acted honestly.”

Following the exchange In Parliament, Shanmugam did what he has done before – take to Facebook to underscore his message: “I have seen her do this several times. Insinuate, never directly accuse, but run when confronted. Insinuate without basis.”

Strong words indeed, but we know better than to expect less from him.

Last year, the two also crossed swords over the presidential term count for the Reserved Presidential Election and before that over various other issues. It looks like we have the making of a long-running adversarial battle as long as Shanmugam and Sylvia remain in Parliament.

There have always been classic conflicts and fights between nemesis – both fictional and in real life. Having a nemesis can be a motivating factor – it keeps each other alert, ready to play ball and up the game.

For a nemesis, Popeye had Bluto, Batman had The Joker, Harry Potter had Voldemort, Steve Jobs had Bill Gates, and our very own Lee Kuan Yew had Mahathir Mohamad and J. B. Jeyaretnam.

Today in Singapore we have K Shanmugam and Sylvia Lim who get under each other’s skin with increasing frequency. Each time they cross swords, temperatures rise in Parliament and the media has ready-made headlines. And we as members of the public either choose to take sides or merely watch from the sidelines.