Air-Conditioned Nation

Essays about Singapore / Cherian George

Month: April 2011



As the Workers’ Party A-team addressed their ecstatic supporters from an upper floor of Deyi Secondary this afternoon, a nondescript sign below them read “LIGHTNING RISK ALERT”. It spoke more eloquently than the lightning-logo flags and placards wielded by hundreds of PAP supporters, of the storm brewing over Aljunied GRC.

You can bet that the ruling party will throw everything in its formidable arsenal at Low Thia Khiang and company. Equally, though, the raucous heckling that greeted every PAP candidate – even when Zainul Abidin Rasheed cheered “Majulah Singapura!” to try to shame WP supporters into gentlemanly conduct  – suggests that the WP isn’t about to be intimidated.

Singapore has had hot GRCs before but Aljunied 2011 shoots off the temperature scale. This isn’t because the Opposition necessarily have a better chance here and now than in Eunos GRC in 1988 (when the PAP scraped through by 1.8 points).

No, this one is special because never before has a contest so perfectly embodied the fundamental, irreconcilable tension in Singapore’s electoral politics.

Set aside the roughly 25 percent of voters at each end of the political spectrum – the partisans who will vote for the PAP and the Opposition irrespective of who’s standing and who’s won the debates. Nationally, it’s the middle 50 percent or so that determines the fate of Parliamentary seats. In the case of Aljunied GRC, we could be looking at a swing vote of around just 10 percent. These are the voters who will decide if the PAP gets a winning 58 percent share or a losing 48 percent share on 7 May.

In the absence of polling data, these figures are of course nothing more than an exercise in gut-feelism. But what’s more significant than the precise size of the swing voter population are the forces that may sway them one way or another.

Swing voters, I think, consider the PAP to be the natural party of government right now, on account of having a larger team of able, experienced and trustworthy administrators and a more detailed plan for Singapore than the Opposition. They may also acknowledge that the PAP includes a handful of truly outstanding individuals, who they’re glad are on the Singapore team (though most Singaporeans would not praise them too loudly, lest the PAP grow up proud and complacent; we are all Amy Chuas that way).

At the same time, swing voters believe it’s sensible to have checks and balances on PAP power, and that an effective Opposition presence in Parliament will improve governance. They’ve also noted that, lately, the best heavyweights in the Opposition ranks are certainly superior to the worst lightweights on the PAP side and probably better than the average PAP candidate. Given a choice, they would pick the former at the expense of the latter – but that choice is usually not available.

In most other contests in this and previous GEs, the choice offered to swing voters made it easier for them to decide one way or another. Those inclined to vote for the Opposition could tell themselves that, well, the PAP guys weren’t particularly likeable, so they deserve to be taken down a notch. Those leaning towards the PAP could silence the Opposition voice in their heads by saying that the Opposition candidates weren’t impressive, even after giving allowance to their underdog status.

Aljunied 2011 removes these excuses. On the one side is a PAP team that’s hard to dislike. A veteran former journalist, Zainul Abidin, who is genuinely popular and is being mentioned as a future Speaker of Parliament. An intriguing new candidate and possible future PM, Ong Ye Kung, who has spent quality time at the NTUC and shows a determination to work for workers. And an anchor minister, George Yeo, who has distinguished himself as one of Singapore’s best ever foreign ministers. In the last GE, Yeo was the first Cabinet Minister to call a halt to the mudslinging against James Gomez, and in these polls he has continued to take the high road, denying snipers the pleasure of accusing him of gutter politics. Today, he called the WP A-team “worthy opponents”.

On the WP side, too, is a team that defies all the stereotypes. Fly-by-night opportunists who are dormant between elections? Low Thia Khiang is known as a hardworking grassroots MP. And his decision to leave his safe seat in Hougang for the fight of his life confirms yet again his steely idealism. Low calibre? In the early 1980s, Lee Kuan Yew likened the Opposition leaders to DC3 propeller planes while the PAP’s were Boeing 707 jets. But in Chen Show Mao, the WP have a Dreamliner whose specifications match any high-flier in the PAP fleet. It’s as if, like diligent children in paternalistic Singapore, Low’s WP has taken note of every criticism the PAP has levelled at the Opposition and has now come back with an answer for everything.

Swing voters in Aljunied GRC must now feel the heat of the critical decision before them. It boils down to this twin conundrum:

Do they prize the goal of a stronger, better Opposition enough to sacrifice a set of outstanding present and potential PAP office holders, whose absence from government would be missed by Singaporeans?

Or do they treasure quality governance sufficiently to reject the worthiest set of Opposition candidates to have ever been offered to the electorate and whose victory would boost democratic politics?

The choice between good government and a strong opposition has been a perennial one. But never before has it been posed as starkly as now, in Aljunied GRC.

From now until 5 May, Singaporeans know which rallies promise the most lightning, thunder and cliff-hanging suspense. But, for swing voters across the island who’d feel internally conflicted by the above conundrum, I wouldn’t be surprised if they came away thinking: Aljunied? Exciting place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to vote there.


* Apologies to those who commented on this blog post while it was hosted on Apple’s Mobile Me servers. Comments were lost when I belatedly transferred the content to a new host after Apple ended its Mobile Me service.

GE2011: RUN-UP


Anyone watching party politics over the last couple of years would have seen the signs: the Singapore Democratic Party was heading for a comeback. Even if it didn’t ace the examination that is the General Elections, it was going to win the prize for most improved performance and mount a serious challenge for the Workers’ Party’s position at the head of the Opposition class.

The writing was on the wall. The SDP’s Facebook wall, that is. Plus its website, publications and videos, and its steady flow of events, together upending the stereotype of Opposition parties as hibernating in between elections. Set aside the question of whether you agree or disagree with the SDP’s mission or its messages. Even if few were listening and fewer were persuaded, the simple fact is that such a level of activity would not have been possible without a critical mass of people, talent and organisational ability.

With the GE less than two weeks ago, the even clearer sign of the SDP’s resurgence is the slate that it has put together. Following its dismal showings in the last three GEs, the SDP appeared unelectable. Chee Soon Juan’s brand of angry idealism may have helped place important issues such as freedom of expression on the agenda, but the electorate’s rebuff was unequivocal. Chee was rubbing middle-of-the-road swing voters the wrong way. They rejected the SDP wherever it stood. After GE 2006, it looked as if any heavyweight opposition wannabe would join the WP and avoid the SDP like the bird flu.

Yet, in the run-up to GE 2011, a surprising number of serious contenders have tied their immediate futures to Chee’s party. Clearly, they’ve seen new promise in the SDP. It’s also possible that they’ve found the WP too lacking in internal democracy. Low Thia Khiang and Sylvia Lim seem cautious to a fault, desperate to avoid any lightning rods that would expose the WP yet again to the explosions that greeted the more confrontational politics of J. B. Jeyaretnam, Francis Seow and Tang Liang Hong.

PAP ready to exploit any differences

The SDP’s new energy will generate interesting dynamics in the coming GE and beyond.

The ruling party will demand to know SDP candidates’ stand on their party leader, who it believes is a destructive force. The PAP will say that Chee has repeatedly broken the law in order to win for himself the attention of foreign human rights groups; that he has run down Singapore in international fora; and that his methods are rejected even by other Opposition leaders. Thus, the PAP will attempt to shake SDP candidates’ allegiance to Chee and divide the party.

The truth is, the SDP will have a tough time addressing this issue. Political novice Tan Jee Say took a swing at it in his introductory press conference, and scored what to Chee must have felt like an own goal. Tan said that Chee and the SDP had “changed”, which was of course tantamount to admitting that the vintage SDP hadn’t been doing things right.

Chee tried to kick the ball out of the net by blaming the media – who else – for the poor impression that Singaporeans had of him. It is one thing to claim that any shortcomings in press coverage played a decisive role in a close fight. That would be quite plausible. However, when you have polled some 15 percentage points behind the leading Opposition party, it strains credibility to claim that you’ve been misrepresented and misunderstood.

It’s also implying that a rather large chunk of Singaporeans are too dumb to see past government propaganda – not a clever tactic when you are asking for their votes. And it doesn’t explain why J. B. Jeyaretnam – who was given a far rougher ride by the PAP and the media – secured much higher support from the electorate than Chee ever has. As difficult as it is for Chee and his supporters to admit, a more realistic appraisal would have to conclude that his methods – from his early hunger strike, to heckling the prime minister, public protests and so on – have simply not connected with Singapore’s middle ground. And just as the customer is always right in business, it’s not good politics to say that so many Singaporeans have got it wrong.

Political cost of SDP’s activist strand

Chee has created a fundamental tension within the SDP that is both the source of its dynamism as well as the dynamite that could blow it up. On the one hand, he inherited a political party with the goal of winning seats in Parliament. On the other hand – perhaps as a result of his electoral failure and then disqualification – he has fashioned the SDP into a protest movement committed to extra-parliamentary struggle. So far, he has been more impactful in the latter mission than in the former.

Since progressive issues are not necessarily populist issues – take gay rights and capital punishment, for example – Chee’s willingness to look beyond votes in picking his battles has helped to broaden Singapore’s political debate. This activist strand, however, has exacted a heavy toll on his party’s ability to achieve its primary Parliamentary goals. His strategy of civil disobedience, in particular, has guaranteed his party front row seats in the government’s firing line. By refusing to work within laws it considers unjust, the SDP has lurched from one crisis to another.

Lately, the SDP has been relatively quiet on this front, so it is not surprising to see Tan Jee Say musing that Chee had changed.

A more illuminating explanation can be found in an in-depth interview with Chee by The Online Citizen in February.

In it, Chee maintains that democratic change would not come through elections alone. “If you read history… elections had to come as a result of change, it’s not a means of change,” he says. There is a role for civil disobedience, he adds – but it is a matter of timing. “You don’t try to do this before and when the elections are coming,” he notes, explaining that the run-up to a GE is instead a time to position the party for the election campaign. After an election, he says, would be the time for activists to pressure the ruling party to play by democratic rules, using such strategies as non-violent protest.

If Chee sticks to this playbook, we can expect to see the protest movement side of the SDP resurface after the polls. This time, though, there is a strong chance of a significant SDP presence in Parliament, as either elected or non-constituency MPs. There will be a Parliamentary SDP, perhaps led by Vincent Wijeysinghe, and the non-parliamentary activists led by its secretary general.

The record shows that Opposition MPs tend to be unwilling to jeopardise their hard-earned seats through reckless actions by their parties. It would not be surprising if SDP’s MPs or NCMPs are afflicted by this same bird-in-the-hand syndrome, and plead with Chee to stop thrashing about in the bush. It’s even less far fetched to predict that the PAP will overlook no opportunity to exploit the slightest schism and drive a wedge through the heart of the party. The PAP will demand to know whether those representing the new credible face of the party sympathise with Chee’s methods.

It wouldn’t be the first time that SDP has been divided by different perspectives on Chee. One of the main disagreements that led party founder Chiam See Tong to quit its top post in a huff was over Chee’s sacking by NUS and his subsequent hunger strike protest. Chiam disagreed with others in the leadership that the party should stand by Chee in his hour of need. Although subsequently characterised as a power-grab by an ungrateful and ambitious Chee, Chiam’s departure actually reflected fundamental differences over party strategy.

Since a one-party-two-systems position wouldn’t fly, the SDP will have two choices. Either its Parliamentary wing must be prepared to defend the actions of its leader and steel itself for the onslaught that will follow. Or, its leader must disavow civil disobedience – to save face, Chee could say that those methods have outlived their purpose and are no longer needed. Whichever tack is taken will shape Opposition politics for the next several years.



The entry of PAP lookalikes into Opposition ranks could be a symptom of atrophy of
non-partisan spaces.

When the PAP wins the 2011 General Elections, the margin could be a stunning success (for example, 86 seats to 1, with 68 percent of the votes) or a slap in the face (let’s say 75-12; with 55 percent). Either way, one agenda item is bound to feature in the PAP’s GE post-mortem. The ruling party would have to review how the Opposition managed to steal into the Establishment and poach so many PAP lookalikes.

In my previous blogs, I noted that this development could be an early sign of the fracturing of Singapore’s monolithic elite, which would amount to a major conundrum for the PAP’s fourth generation leadership. Instead of an undivided Establishment under one roof, overseen by the coterie of men at the apex of the PAP pyramid, an increasing minority will challenge the leaders’ authority.

This is as natural as the tendency among lions and gorillas for would-be alpha males to try to oust the incumbent, or else strike out on their own. It’s about the normalisation of Singapore politics after decades of depoliticisation, and there is little the PAP can do about it.

However, individuals who want to break free from the PAP chain of command can be nudged in one of two directions. They may challenge the leadership through PAP factions or opposition parties; or they can pursue their goals through independent non-partisan institutions within the state and civil society.

That decision is not predestined. Among members of the Establishment, oppositionists are generally not born but made. Ultimately, such individuals just want to make a difference. Whether they choose to do it through the PAP, the opposition, or in-between non-partisan institutions will depend partly on how the PAP manages political space.

Two scenarios

To illustrate this dynamic, imagine a politically engaged member of the Establishment; let’s call him Citizen Kan. Kan has received an elite education and opportunities that are beyond what ordinary Singaporeans can even imagine. He has worked within the public sector or other Establishment institutions. He has seen the system up close and is now convinced it needs to be reformed.

Kan does not believe it can be done within the PAP government because he thinks he’ll lose his autonomy if he’s sucked into heart of the system. He knows the personal cost of challenging the status quo, but he is willing to take the risk because he cares passionately about Singapore.

Now, picture two alternative scenarios facing Kan. In Scenario 1 – call it the “Broad Church” Establishment – there are consistent signals from the government that it welcomes an engaged citizenry and alternative views. While nobody loves to be criticised, the government does a pretty admirable job of showing grace under fire. In this scenario, independent interest groups are empowered to contribute to policy making: they are given access to information and opportunities for meaningful consultation. The bridges between the government and society are progressively widened. Institutions that maintain those bridges – the media, universities, think tanks – are constantly being strengthened and encouraged to exercise independent professional judgment.

In Scenario 2 – the “Narrow Base” Establishment – government rhetoric about an inclusive society does not apply to politics. The prevailing ethos is: if you are not for us you are against us. When non-partisan individuals and groups express independent views too forcefully or too often for the government’s comfort, they are treated as political opponents and marginalised. Unobstructed government is seen as crucial for good governance, so anything that slows executive decision making is labelled as a threat. More and more aspects of government policy are treated as fundamental to the country’s survival; questioning these is seen as tantamount to being anti-Singapore. As for organisations that serve as custodians of the spaces connecting state and society, the government keeps them on the straight and narrow by intervening in their operations and staff decisions, thus stymying their development into independent institutions.

There was a time when Citizen Kan would have felt that the Establishment was heading towards the Broad Church scenario. This was the early 1990s, at the height of the PAP’s “openness and consultation” makeover. The space for non-partisan voices was expanding, through major public feedback exercises to chart national directions, and new institutions such as the Institute of Policy Studies. Kan may have viewed such developments with a certain amount of skepticism. But he was not cynical, so he was prepared to give the government the benefit of the doubt. He did not feel it necessary to defect to the other side. The wider, non-partisan Establishment held enough promise as a space within which to engage national issues.

Times have changed. Today, Kan and people like him are more likely to characterise Singapore as coming closer to the Narrow Base scenario of polarised politics. Cynical about the effectiveness of independent spaces to shape national policy, most disaffected members of the Establishment would simply retreat, opting to privatise their lives. If, however, one remained committed to the idea of making a difference, what used to be unthinkable would suddenly be a serious option: challenging the PAP leadership in the electoral battlefield.

The experiment with openness

This gradual shift in emphasis from Broad Church to Narrow Base was probably triggered by the 1991 General Elections. In the PAP’s worst performance to date, it lost four seats and saw its share of the popular vote slip to a historic low of 61 percent. Significantly, this rebuff at the polls came soon after the government had declared its intention to open up, and on the heels of a major liberalisation of censorship rules. Deputy PM Ong Teng Cheong said in the 1991 GE post-mortem that the PAP was paying the price of neglecting conservative heartlanders and pandering to English-educated liberals.

From then on, it became harder for the Broad Church to flower. When the writer Catherine Lim was warned in 1994 that she would be treated as a political opponent on account of her critical commentaries, it signalled a resurgence of the Narrow Base tendency. Consultative processes continued, in the form of Singapore 21 and other projects, but the PAP became less apologetic about making decisions on behalf of the silent majority without hindrance from the vocal minority. By the late 1990s, mutual suspicion had set in, with government feeling that the chattering classes did not want to understand it, while critics believed officials had stopped listening.

In hindsight, one wonders if the PAP miscalculated after the 1991 GE disappointment. It is certainly true that openness and consultation was never going to be a major concern of the average voter. As much as many liberals hate to admit it, they are in the numerical minority; most Singaporeans are politically conservative and care much more about economic benefits than political rights. That much was correct in the PAP’s post-1991 calculation: if it narrowed the political space in order to govern decisively, this would not cost many votes, and might even gain some.

However, this solution focused only on the demand side of electoral politics: what voters wanted. A successful electoral formula would also need to address the supply side: the flow of electable candidates to the various parties. And the supply side is extremely sensitive to whether alternative points of view are embraced. By failing to build on the hopefulness of the early 1990s and polarising democratic space, the PAP may have unwittingly nudged individuals into the Opposition who would otherwise have been quite happy to contribute within the non-partisan middle ground.

Rising to the challenge

Of course, even if this diagnosis is correct, there is no clearcut prescription. Liberals would argue that the solution for the PAP is obvious: open up more space for independent-minded Singaporeans so that they are not lost to the Opposition. Others, however, would counter that such a strategy would just encourage the repoliticisation of the Establishment – better to give everyone a good scare, so that only an extremely small and brave minority would defect to the Opposition. Hardliners may also claim that those who join the Opposition are no great loss, or that they are motivated by less than noble impulses (which is bound to be true in some cases).

There is no telling how such a debate will be resolved within the PAP leadership, post-GE.

But in searching for the right path, the writings of one respected Singaporean social scientist may be illuminating. According to him, Singapore needed the kind of political stability found in mature democracies. The key lay in the Establishment or “power elite” – that “informed and articulate” 1 percent of society that gives “ballast, continuity and purpose”.

Writing in 1964, he said that the problem with Asian countries was that leadership was being left to polarised political parties. They needed to develop a non-partisan Establishment. Comprising “civil servants, the professionals, business leaders, trade union leaders, writers, the church, the universities, and so on”, this group “transcends political affiliations”, he said.

This call for a thriving non-partisan and independent Establishment did not come from some woolly academic, but rather PAP founding father Goh Keng Swee, writing in the 10th anniversary publication of the party.

He warned that while a democratic system was easy to run when the economy was expanding, the real test would come in a crisis. “I do not believe we will survive this test unless an effective and intelligent non-party leadership of public opinion emerges such as has been achieved in the established democracies.”

“When you talk of public opinion, it is really the opinion of this group that matters, for they set the pace for the indifferent and inarticulate 99 percent,” he went on. “Further, debate and discussion among the group goes on vigorously and continuously, in books, in newspapers, radio, TV, etc. It is by this free and open debate that agreement of basic ends, and purpose is achieved in substantial sphere of national affairs.”

In deciding future strategy for the PAP, its leaders could do worse than to heed this voice from its past.




These elections are marked by a surprising number of potential opposition candidates who are former public sector scholarship holders and officers of the government’s elite administrative service. They include confirmed opposition members Tan Jee Say, Benjamin Pwee, Tony Tan and Hazel Poa (H).

These moves draw attention to the fact that one of the biggest threats to PAP dominance – and the main political challenge facing the 4G leaders – is internal: the possible disintegration of the tight cohesion that has characterised Singapore’s establishment. What we’ve witnessed so far certainly doesn’t amount to that. The danger for the PAP lies instead in higher-level officials either challenging the CEC for control of the party (like PAP leftists did in the 1950s) or defecting to the opposition (like the Barisan Sosialis).

In the 1980s, former solicitor general Francis Seow (I) went all the way. The highest-level defector in post-independence Singapore was former president Devan Nair (F), but he did not attempt to lead any organised challenge. Former NTUC Income chief Tan Kin Lian (G) has also challenged the government verbally but without campaigning head-on against the PAP.

In recent times, high-level establishment figures who’ve expressed contrary views have respected existing lines of authority. Prominent examples include Ong Teng Cheong (A), who as president held a press conference to complain against the government’s treatment of his office; Cabinet minister Lim Boon Heng (B), who showed his sorrow over the decision to allow casinos; and former party chairman Toh Chin Chye (E), who was openly critical of the government from the backbenches.

Former mandarin Ngiam Tong Dow (C) has criticised the lack of original thinking in government; while ambassador-at-large Tommy Koh (D) has consistently shown moral courage by speaking up for disability rights, the arts and other issues that are within the government’s peripheral vision at best. While such public interventions by its own loyalists may annoy the government, they may be what’s needed to show others that the Establishment really is a “broad church” – persuading those with firm and independent convictions that they can change the system from within, thus moderating the temptation to defect.



Many users of mobile devices, I suspect, would have a hard time explaining the difference between 4G and 3G, even if they’ve already put 4G phones on their shopping lists. The rollout of new product versions can be downright dizzying for consumers.

The PAP’s introduction of its fourth generation leadership through the upcoming General Elections may be no less perplexing. Is PAP 4G a major upgrade or a routine enhancement? After all, this is not the first GE that’s been a labelled a “watershed” election. It’s not even the second or third. The PAP does GEs like Steve Jobs does Macworlds. Despite their regularity, each is pitched as an event of millennial significance: This is The Next Big Thing, we are told.

This year, though, I don’t just buy the “watershed” hype. I actually think the ruling party may be understating how big 4G is. This is going to be a paradigm shift… a game changer – insert your own cliché here, and you would be right.

This is only partly because the new generation of PAP leaders will have to forge their own bonds with a younger generation of Singaporeans. “They have different impulses, different ideas, different experiences,” said the prime minister of young voters. “Our duty is to make the party and its leadership relevant to this growing generation, sensitive to their aspirations and capable of mobilising them behind the steps that must be taken to make Singapore a better place for all.”

Addressing Singaporean electorate, he said, “You have got to know this young team, they have got to know you and you’ve all got to jell and build on what we have built…. And you have got seven to eight years to learn how to build up that team spirit – a Singaporean society that really cares for each other, not the kind of election slogans they give at these rallies.”

These statements would not be out of place in the current campaign. But they are actually three decades old. The first quote is from PM Lee Kuan Yew’s speech to the PAP Conference in 1982, the second from his Fullerton rally in the 1980 GE.

Changing voters, changing Establishment

Self-renewal has been the leitmotif of the PAP’s election messages for decades. This is not just in recognition of leaders’ advancing age, but also an acknowledgement that the electorate keeps changing from GE to GE: it gets more educated, more demanding and more desirous of citizen participation and government accountability. In most GEs over the past three decades, the polls have been framed as a watershed moment for inducting and establishing a new generation of leaders who will form a new compact with the new generation of Singaporeans.

So standard is the “watershed” line that it may have lost its effect. Yet, it has never been more apt as it is now in 2011. Like every election, this one is an opportunity to recast the relationship between state and society. In addition, however, the 4G leaders will find themselves facing a radically changing establishment.

In post-LKY Singapore, I predict Singapore’s elite will fracture, requiring of its leaders political skills that have not been needed since independence.

As any number of political scientists will tell us, elite dynamics are at least as important as grassroots people power in shaping political change. Cracks and alternative nodes within an elite give opposing forces a toehold and leverage as they scramble for power.

Until now, Singapore’s elite has been uniquely cohesive. Even the Communist Party of China displays more open contestation, more jostling for power and more leaks than the PAP. Here, the monolithic establishment keeps any differences within its tight circle. Its unity is a key reason for decisive PAP government and, to that extent, a major ingredient of Singapore’s success formula. But it is not natural.

Singapore’s 4G leaders will have to manage the transition to more a normal condition of open intra-elite contention.

Normalisation of politics

There are at least five reasons for this change. First, the sheer number of elites – including products of the scholarship system and other high level administrators – has been growing. Among them will be independent-minded, public-spirited individuals who will be willing to voice major disagreements with Cabinet, and even support or lead lobbies and factions. They won’t form the majority, but there will be enough of them to transform politics.

Second, the areas of potential disagreement will grow. Currently, the PAP argues that Singapore’s room for manoeuvre is so narrow that any intelligent, sincere person who puts his mind to policy questions would arrive at the same set of conclusions. Even if this is true now, it will be less so in the future, as Singapore and the world become more complex. For decades, the PAP managed to replace politics with technocratic administration. As questions of values and quality of life come to the fore, the tide will reverse and normal politics will return.

Third, the number of public sector appointments available for former public servants – such as directorships in government-linked companies – are not unlimited. This means that a growing number of establishment individuals will find themselves outside of the government’s sphere of influence. And some may not even value such appointments, since they would have already saved enough for a comfortable life thanks to high public sector salaries, or have enough private sector opportunities in Singapore and the region.

Fourth, it will get harder to wield the stick against internal dissenters. The last time the PAP had to deal with factions and defections was in the pre-independence era, when it could rely on the colonial authorities to forcibly neutralise the leftists. Up to the 1980s, the knuckleduster treatment was so routine that it could be applied with little political cost. In an age when more calibrated coercion has become the norm, any harsh crackdown on internal dissent is likely to backfire.

Last – but certainly not least – the 4G leaders will not be able to count on the PAP’s single most powerful centripetal force: its minister mentor. The party’s internal organisation was inspired by the communists and the Roman Catholic Church. The PAP without Lee Kuan Yew would be like the Vatican without the Pope. And, unlike the Vatican, which picks a new Pope when the old one passes, the place vacated by Lee cannot be refilled. Post-LKY, the leadership would never again be able to invoke his unique combination of charisma and fear.

The 2G and 3G leaders may witness the beginnings of this normalisation of elite politics. They will probably try to fight the symptoms. On the other hand, Chan Chun Sing, Heng Swee Keat, Ong Ye Kung, Tan Chuan Jin and Lawrence Wong will have to face the sea change head-on. And despite taking over one of the world’s most successful political parties, there is little in its troubleshooting guide to show these 4G leaders what to do.

Botch the process and the scenario of a PAP split can turn from whimsy to reality. Shepherd it adroitly, and the PAP can dominate another 50 years.

One may wonder whether a group of men cut from the same cloth as their predecessors can possibly succeed in reforming the party. History reveals enough precedents. Two of the biggest internal revolutions of late 20th century history – Deng Xiaoping’s in China and Mikhail Gorbachev’s in the Soviet Union – were mounted by products of the system, who inherited it and then transformed it.

The changes ahead for little Singapore are nowhere near as epic. But, by the standards of this stable city state, PAP 4G will mark an inflection point, and the next 10 years will be truly transformative.
















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