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GE2020: The First & Last PAP TV Debate — 1988 General Elections

By Zat

Background of the debate

The 1988 Singapore General Elections were held on 3 September 1988 with the PAP winning 80 out of the 81 seats and Chiam See Tong winning just one seat under SDP for Potong Pasir. But victories and losses are not what I’m concerned with for this article.

The 1988 elections were momentous because it was the first and last time where ruling party, PAP, represented by then Deputy Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong and BG Lee Hsien Loong, went on television for a live debate with opposition party leaders, Workers’ Party’s JB Jeyaretnam and Singapore Democratic Party’s Chiam See Tong.

At the centre of this debate is the proposal for the Elected President. Prior to this, then Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew, had floated the idea during a walkabout forum at his Tanjong Pagar constituency on 15 April 1984, and then again during his National Day Rally speech that year on 19 August.

The reason PAP gave for having an Elected President was to act as a second key to the access of Singapore’s growing national reserves—the Parliament being the first. Lee Kuan Yew was widely believed to be the perfect candidate for this new seat of power, although that assertion was quickly dispelled the the days leading up to the debate.

It would be the last time PAP engaged in a televised debate and it’s not hard to see why. While they trump over SDP’s Chiam See Tong who frequently stumbles over his words and at time struggle with maintaining a cohesive thought, it was PAP’s exchange with JB Jeyaretnam that left both Goh Chok Tong and Lee Hsien Loong gasping for the last word.

The civil-service pair could not stand up to the scrutiny of JB Jeyaretnam’s law background who kept them firmly on topic and insisted on a direct yes or no answer to his cross-examination.

The PAP, WP, & SDP positions

To summarise the arguments on both sides, PAP wants to pass into law the Elected Presidency without a national referendum. The President would be elected by Singaporeans, but the decision to amend the constitution to include an Elected Presidency lies with the ruling party.

WP questioned is if it was wise for the parliament to surrender its roles and powers to one person while SDP’s position is that an elected president with enormous executive powers will deprive the ppl of Singapore the one-man-one-vote system.

What better timing than today, Nomination Day of the 18th Singapore General Election, to revisit what was, essentially, the last PAP had to defend their policies and views on democracy and parliamentary independence under the critical eye of the opposition on a very public platform.

In case you don’t already realise, this TV debate is precisely what a functioning democracy should look like—a robust debate of critical thinking, and redefining to whom the government should be most accountable: the electorate.


Who will stop you from amending the Constitution further to hand over more executive powers to the President, internal security, finance, defence?

– Chiam See Tong

The PAP’s Opening Statement

Goh Chok Tong: “The Elected President must consent if the government wants to spend reserves which it itself has not accumulated, to make certain key appointments, for example, appointments to members of the Public Service Commission or judges of the Supreme Court. The Elected President will have the custodial powers, custodial powers to say no in these two key areas, and the moral authority to block the elected government again in these two areas.”

The Workers’ Party Opening Statement

JB Jeyaretnam: “The issue is whether the supremacy of parliament, the body of the people as the final check over the government, should be diminished, whether the parliament should surrender its role and its powers to one man over whom there would be no control under these proposals.“

The Singapore Democratic Party’s Opening Statement

Chiam See Tong: “Yes, the real purpose of installing an Elected President which has executive powers ultimately is to deprive the people of Singapore the one-man-one-vote system. The threat to the change to the one-man-one-vote system was made by the Prime Minister in the early morning hours of December 23rd 1984 after the last polling day. We all know the proposal, but our innermost fear is that when the PAP is threatened in 1992, and you have the majority, you have two-thirds majority, who will stop you from amending the Constitution further to hand over more executive powers to the President, internal security, finance, defense?”


If we had wanted to amend the Constitution, why do you think we did not do so before the general election?

– Lee Hsien Loong

CST: We all know the proposal, but our innermost fear is that when the PAP is threatened in 1992, and you have the majority, you have two-thirds majority, who will stop you from amending the Constitution further to hand over more executive powers to the President, internal security, finance, defense?

Because if you have two-thirds in parliament, and when there is a threat to overthrowing you, as stated by the Prime Minister in 1984, then you will amend the Constitution…

LHL: Mr Chiam, if we have wanted to amend the Constitution…

CST: …to give more powers to the President and that will be the end of one-man-one-vote.

LHL: If we had wanted to amend the Constitution, why do you think we did not do so before the general election?


I’m not lording it over them. I’m defending the people’s rights. Parliament stands for the people.

– JB Jeyaretnam

JBJ: You don’t answer my question, Mr Goh. Where does he say that he can be summoned to parliament to answer these questions?

MOD: Well, his reply is he is accountable to the people.

JBJ: Doesn’t that diminish the supremacy of parliament? Does it not?

LHL: Mr Jeyaratnam, you’re dying to lord it over the people, aren’t you?

JBJ: Parliament is the people’s body. I’m not lording it over them. I’m defending the people’s rights. Parliament stands for the people.


To those voters, he (LKY) had this to say, “By all means, reach out. But know the price, this is going to lead to some brinkmanship, not in 1988 maybe, but if we go along this road, it must unravel” meaning PAP government will be unseated.

– Chiam See Tong

CST: Now, the Prime Minister is an experienced man, and he knows that once this swing starts, the momentum will be there and if it goes to the ultimate conclusion, the PAP will lose power.

In fact, that is what he said, “It is necessary to try and put some safeguards into the way in which people use their votes to bargain, to coerce, to push, to jostle, to get what they want without running the risk of losing services of the government because one day, by mistake, they will lose the services of the government.”

He said, “Suppose there had been another 14% shift in votes, the combined opposition would have captured forty seats, and the PAP 39.” Mr Lee then went on to describe the mood of the voters as groping out for something which they thought was better for them.

To those voters, he had this to say, “By all means, reach out. But know the price, this is going to lead to some brinkmanship, not in 1988 maybe, but if we go along this road, it must unravel” meaning PAP government will be unseated.

“Is it going to be 1992?,” The Prime Minister asked, “When the PAP is going to lose at the polls.” There you were, those were the innermost fears of the PM when he expressed those words.


As I’ve pointed out, the President under these proposals cannot be summoned to parliament. He cannot be asked to explain why he has made any decision about the reserves or over the appointments.

– JB Jeyaretnam

JBJ: I’m surprised that I have not been asked what the Workers’ Party’s alternative proposal is, and I will now tell you. A much better safeguard would be to require the government to get the unanimous vote in parliament before it begins to use in parliament, before it begins to use any of the foreign reserves or the assets.

In that way, the government will have to come to parliament, explain its proposals, why it needs the money, and the whole thing will be debated, and if parliament, the government party and the opposition object to this and reject it, then the Prime Minister can advice the President if he thinks that he has to have access to the reserves to dissolve parliament and to call for elections and go to the people.

That seems to me to be a much more effective safeguard of our reserves than to give it to the President. As I’ve pointed out, the President under these proposals cannot be summoned to parliament. He cannot be asked to explain why he has made any decision about the reserves or over the appointments.


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Zat

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