On February 24th, Leon Perera, a Workers’ Party (WP) member of parliament (MP), stood up in Parliament to make an impassioned plea. “The [ruling] People’s Action Party (PAP) seems to be doubling down on this incorrect assertion, using its tremendous PR and communicative machinery.”
The PAP’s claim, repeated relentlessly for weeks, is that Singapore’s housing shortage would be worse if the government had listened to the WP. Its 2019 housing paper had apparently recommended a reduction in the annual supply of new build-to-order (BTO) public housing flats.
Perera, with a background in consulting, often combines sharp analysis with urgent, precise rhetoric. He is one of the few politicians to have ever left the redoubtable K Shanmugam, minister for law and home affairs, at a loss for words, during the debate on The Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act 2019 (POFMA).
“It says ‘BTO projects should continue’,” Perera said, his right index finger dotting the dry parliamentary air, left to right, as if poking at words. “I repeat, ‘BTO projects should continue’. It doesn’t say ‘BTO projects should continue at a reduced rate’. It doesn’t say ‘BTO projects should stop’. It doesn’t say B-”
Perera was himself then forced to stop, by loud guffawing from across the aisle, as PAP ministers couldn’t help themselves. “You laugh…you laugh.” Gone was the pointed finger; his palms were open, up in the air. The meticulous consultant had just realised he was the court jester. Perera pleaded with them to stop propagating what he called falsehoods.
“Let’s not belabour this any more,” replied Lawrence Wong, the deputy prime minister who’s slated for the top job. He must have felt the glare of the party’s arch-conservatives, watching their young padawan’s every tai chi move, for Wong then repeatedly stumbled. “I think, we will just, might as well, just publish without, what, exactly verbatim whatever the Workers’ Party has said in the working paper in 2019, and in the end Singaporeans will be the judge of the matter.” The PAP’s Facebook page then quoted the WP’s entire passage, including the key phrase, “BTO projects should continue.”
Yet one of the PAP’s grizzled old warriors didn’t get the memo. On February 26th, just two days after Perera’s speech, Teo Chee Hean, senior minister, attended an Edusave awards ceremony in Pasir Ris, the constituency he’s represented since 1997. According to attendees, he brashly repeated this assertion. “In 2019, WP asked govt to reduce new flat supply to avoid oversupply,” screamed one presentation slide. Never mind doubling down, this was tripling down, on home ground. Young school children had to spend their Sunday morning in uniform listening to PAP hymns.
Given Singapore’s spiralling property prices and rents, housing is almost certainly going to be the main issue at the next general elections, due by 2025. The letters “BTO” are regularly emblazoned on the front page of The Straits Times (ST). It’s important that Singaporeans understand every party’s position on the matter. However, this back-and-forth has played out in the newspapers and social media for the better part of February, without any clear conclusion.
Jom has therefore decided to scrutinise both the comments by the PAP and the WP’s 2019 housing paper. In particular, we looked for mentions in other passages that might support the PAP’s contention.
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Image: Collage by Charmaine Poh with illustration by Michelle Tan for Jom and photograph/Canva