In his latest rebuttal against Jurong GRC MP Tan Wu Meng’s comments on playwright Alfian Sa’at’s loyalty to Singapore, Workers’ Party (WP) chief Pritam Singh asserted that Dr Tan’s comments seemed innocent but were politically motivated to put the WP in a bad light and divide Singaporeans into those who are for and against the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP).
During his parliamentary speech on the Fortitude Budget on 5 June, Mr Pritam seconded veteran diplomat Tommy Koh’s sentiment that Singapore needs ‘loving critics’ and urged the Government against picking on these loving critics. Mr Pritam illustrated this point by highlighting the Ong Ye Kung-Alfian Sa’at episode.
In Parliament last year, Education Minister Ong Ye Kung had lambasted local playwright Alfian Sa’at and accused him of trying to sow discord in Singapore. Singling out Mr Alfian for his role in a cancelled Yale-NUS module on dialogue and dissent, Mr Ong cherry-picked quotes from a poem Mr Alfian wrote in 1998 and insinuated that the poet hated Singapore and is unpatriotic.
Dr Tommy Koh was among the dozens of influential figures who threw their weight behind Mr Alfian in the aftermath of Mr Ong’s aggressive parliamentary speech. Dr Koh wrote on Facebook, then: “We should not demonise Alfian Sa’at. He is one of our most talented playwrights. I regard him as a loving critic of Singapore. He is not anti-Singapore.”
Backing Dr Koh’s views in Parliament, Mr Pritam urged the Government to give space for contrarion views and perspectives during his recent speech. Referring to the Ong-Alfian episode, he said:
“In my view Mr Speaker, we should count ourselves fortunate that we have citizens who are the loving critics amongst us, some of whom have been questioned in this very House in this term of government. Members would recall one citizen’s poems were nit-picked with a view to cast wholly negative aspersions on his character, even though that individual was not present in the House to defend himself.”
Dr Tan did not rebut Mr Pritam’s comments in Parliament but wrote a statement that painted Mr Alfian as a pro-Malaysia activist nearly two weeks later. Asserting that Mr Alfian is no loving critic, Dr Tan insinuated that Mr Pritam may not be a patriot like opposition veterans Chiam See Tong and Low Thia Khiang since he supports Mr Alfian.
Sharing screenshots of several social media posts Mr Alfian has published over the years, including one in which he criticised the nation’s worship for late PAP leader Lee Kuan Yew, Dr Tan said: “I suggest he read them carefully, and then tell us if he still thinks Alfian is a “loving critic” of Singapore. If he does, perhaps Mr Singh considers himself a “loving critic” of Singapore too?”
Dr Tan’s statement was carried by the PAP website on 19 June, which captioned the statement on social media with the question, “A ‘loving critic’ or pro-Malaysia activist?”
Mr Pritam responded on Facebook and asserted: “A loving critic. A son of Singapore. Not perfect. As imperfect as you and me Dr Tan, maybe more, maybe less.”
The dispute between Mr Pritam and Dr Tan went viral on online discussion forums, with many criticising Dr Tan’s attack against Mr Alfian and his insinuation about Mr Pritam’s loyalties. Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam then voiced his support for Dr Tan and asked why Dr Tan was attacked online by some segments of Singaporeans.
Responding to this question in a Facebook post published on Sunday (21 June), Mr Pritam suggested that this may be due to the timing of Dr Tan’s questions and the nature of the questions, which the opposition leader said seems innocent but is deliberately calculated to paint the WP in a negative light.
Mr Pritam wrote: “It is my opinion that Dr Tan’s belated but calculated decision to express his views on the PAP website on the eve of imminent general elections, or the leap in logic of extending Mr Alfian Saat’s artistic expressions to an endorsement by the WP of every controversial view Mr Alfian has made, go some way to explain the vitriol that continues to come the way of not just Dr Tan, but the PAP as well.
“For these reasons, it is my view that Dr Tan’s questions, cloaked as innocent ones, were politically motivated to divide Singaporeans into those who are for or against – not Singapore – but the PAP, and to paint the WP in negative light.”
Referring to the next General Election, which is expected to be held as early as next month, the WP chief added: “How the PAP chooses to conduct its politics is something for the PAP to decide. The public are equally entitled to respond as they deem fit – within the remit of the law – and at the ballot box.”
Mr Pritam also asked why Dr Tan did not raise his concerns about this matter directly in Parliament. Pointing out that MPs on both sides are routinely asked to clarify their positions on the spot in Parliament, Mr Pritam said:
“As to my Fortitude Budget speech, a part of which is the subject of Dr Tan Wu Meng’s interest, it is noteworthy that Dr Tan did not register his objections and question me directly in Parliament, as he is entitled to, being an elected MP holding a political portfolio that specifically includes foreign affairs.”
As to questions on which side he stands on when it comes to issues between Singapore and Malaysia, Mr Pritam recalled that he had officially criticised Malaysia’s provocative act of allowing one of their vessels to enter Singapore waters in late 2018 and that the WP stood behind Singapore’s response to the situation.
He also recalled Foreign Affairs Minister Vivian Balakrishnan’s endorsement that the WP MPs make his job easier since they are firmly on Singapore’s side. Speaking at a public forum last year, the Minister had said:
“…I’m glad to tell you, at least based on my experience so far, there has been no gap, no party politics has supervened or interfered with our pursuit of foreign policy. This is a blessing..certainly with the current Opposition, they have played their part, and we have taken them into confidence. So it makes my job so much easier.”
Mr Pritam asserted on Facebook: “When it comes to Singapore’s sovereignty, there can be no doubt where the WP has stood and will continue to stand. We stand with Singapore.”
He added that he found Dr Tommy Koh’s “loving critic” term apt to describe Mr Alfian since he believes the reflections of artists in Singapore “give rise to a thinking population” though they may be critical and provocative.
Mr Pritam once again urged against branding Mr Alfian unpatriotic based on a selective reading of his works and assured that the WP would not stand for the conduct of any Singaporean who has consistently established their rejection of Singapore or its constitution. He wrote:
“Singaporeans like Mr Alfian Sa’at, do not deserve to be admonished in Parliament on the basis of a selective reading of their works. However, should any Singaporean consistently establish that he or she rejects Singapore or our Constitution or runs Singapore down with a political agenda overseas, neither I, nor the WP will stand for such conduct.”
Response to TWM article___________________________ I have read the comments of Minister for Law Mr K. Shanmugam with…