Air-Conditioned Nation

Essays about Singapore / Cherian George

Category: Elections (Page 2 of 2)




The Workers’ Party’s winning margin in Hougang has dipped, but it can still claim a record that no other, not even the People’s Action Party, is able to boast of. Since 1981, the WP has never been voted out of any seat that it held.* Today, this strong loyalty to the Hammer brand withstood internal ill-discipline, embarrassing leaks and allegations of flip-flopping, as Png Eng Huat beat the PAP’s Desmond Choo.

After months of drama precipitated by the misconduct of former MP Yaw Shin Leong, the status quo has been restored, with the WP in charge of Houngang-Aljunied and the PAP enjoying an 81:6 majority in Parliament. But the 2012 by-election was never going to be about the Hougang seat alone. Its significance was always in its implications for 2016. In that regard, both the WP and the PAP are due for a sober post-mortem.


WP’s growing pains

Putting recent controversies behind it, the WP can continue to trot forward as the top dog in the Opposition pack. It looks like it’s here for the long haul, unlike the National Solidarity Party with its conveyor belt of leaders; and, unlike the Singapore Democratic Party, it’s able to avoid stunts that alienate that section of the electorate that holds the key to the Opposition’s long-term success – PAP voters who might be persuaded to switch to the Opposition.

But the tightest ship in the Opposition flotilla has been showing some cracks. Since the WP’s historic victory in May 2011, it has been hurt by high-profile exits, including the ignominious loss of its original Hougang MP. The conduct of Poh Lee Guan, who kept the public and even his party guessing as to whether he would stand against its chosen candidate, has yet to be satisfactorily explained.

The truth is, internal cohesion will continue to be a challenge for the WP.

First, Low Thia Khiang’s management ethos is a key reason for the WP’s electoral effectiveness but it also creates internal strains. Those who can’t accept his tight party discipline will leave. This is nothing new: several star candidates in the 2006 GE defected soon after (Goh Meng Seng, James Gomez, Chia Ti Lik).

Second, the weight of public expectations on the WP means any cracks exact a higher political cost than before. To be entrusted with more seats in Parliament House, it must show that its own house is in order. Leaks and resignations in lesser parties hardly cause a ripple, but they can hurt the WP. Any ambitious, self-serving member (which every party has plenty of) knows that. This makes the WP vulnerable to political blackmail by individuals and factions within the party.

Third, the stakes will be higher in the coming years than before. Now that winning additional seats is a realistic proposition, restless wannabes will be jostling for a place in the East Coast GRC team and other key 2016 targets. Younger members will be positioning themselves for the WP’s third generation leadership, which, if Singapore does arrive at a two-party system by 2021, would be the generation that reaps the benefits of Low’s hard work. For every individual the party appoints to a coveted position, there will be others who feel cheated.

Fourth, although the WP is the party to join if you want to be part of a winning Opposition team, it has limited powers of patronage. With very few exceptions, former PAP politicians keep their mouths shut. Often, it’s because of a lifelong sense of esprit de corps. As for any disaffected members of the establishment who are tempted to betray the cause, a hankering for GLC and statutory board appointments may be enough to keep them smiling stiffly at the powers-that-be. The WP can dangle no such carrots to keep its members happy.

Fifth, Opposition solidarity has never been more than temporary marriages of convenience, and it is getting harder for the WP to avail itself of this resource. As a byproduct of its spectacular 2011 success, it is now seen as set apart from the rest of the Opposition. It’s striking that (as far as I can see from their websites) neither the SDP nor the NSP issued statements in support of the WP in the run-up to the Hougang battle. The battle was framed as PAP vs WP and not PAP vs Opposition, which may help explain the surprising amount of anti-WP sentiment online.

Many anti-PAP Singaporeans want to believe that all talk of intra-Opposition friction is a fabrication of PAP-controlled media. But the truth, as anyone who has spent time talking to Opposition politicians knows, is that there is no love lost between them. You don’t have to look far to find Opposition members who think the WP has grown too big for its boots.

PAP’s uphill road

The PAP has chipped away slightly at the WP’s winning margin in 12 months. The ruling party will try to draw encouragement from that. It has to. It is important for its activists to maintain credible pressure on Hougang and Aljunied and keep Low and his team busy in their own backyards – because if the WP has too much time on its hands, there is a good chance that East Coast GRC will be the next Aljunied, come 2016.

One comforting sight for the PAP must have been the online support it received. In the 2011 GE, the ruling party was shellshocked by the barrage of one-sided criticism on the internet. In the immediate aftermath, the conventional wisdom was that netizens would continue to play the role of a 12th man for the Opposition, helping to counteract PAP dominance offline.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the by-election. No longer was cyberspace so uniformly hostile to the PAP. Suddenly, the WP was getting its share of criticism online. A “Fabrications About The PAP” Facebook page run by a supporter of the ruling party, Jason Chua, has been injecting a steady stream of pro-PAP messages into social media.

TREmeritus, the successor to Temasek Review, appeared more balanced than its predecessor, which had the loudest anti-PAP voice in the 2011 GE. More interesting was the role played by Temasek Times. Its name is reminiscent of the old Temasek Review and it claims to have Temasek Review readers among its editors. With its consistent focus on public unhappiness over immigration, it was never entirely pro-PAP. Overall, however, Temasek Times was unmistakably tougher on the WP than on the ruling party – making less of an effort to be fair and balanced than the Straits Times.

Extrapolating from 2012, it appears that the 2016 online environment will be quite different from 2011. It will still pose a major worry for the ruling party, which will continue to be thrown curve balls by online critics. The big change, though, will be that Opposition parties will no longer get a free pass, which is good news for the PAP.

Style, substance and structure

Realists in the establishment know that, whatever the PAP does, Singapore’s dominant party system is eroding. In its place will be a much stronger Parliamentary Opposition that, even if it doesn’t amount to a full-blown two-party system, will more accurately reflect public opinion in a complex city-state.

The PAP needs to manage that transition in a way that keeps its own authority and integrity intact, and without unwittingly accelerating its own decline. This will require changes in style, substance and structure.

The PAP’s stylistic changes include its frenzied adoption of social media such as Facebook. More importantly, it is changing the tone of its delivery and trying to appear less high-handed. An air of pained sincerity has replaced the we-know-best glare as the preferred face of PAP politicians. Teo Chee Hean may have replaced Wong Kan Seng as the PAP’s tough-talker, but Teo’s style is nowhere near as hardline or divisive as the PAP of old. However, since public expectations have also evolved and today’s Singaporeans are more sensitive to perceived arrogance, it is not clear whether the PAP has changed enough in this regard.

The ruling party continues to struggle in its search for an effective campaign formula. When it tries to exploit Opposition missteps, it risks coming across as an undignified bully. Teo Chee Hean’s allegations that Png was being less than honest probably had mixed results. Among swing voters who are not quite sold on the Opposition, the doubts cast on Png may have been sufficient to pull them into the PAP camp. Equally, swing voters hoping for a kinder gentler PAP may have seen enough evidence in this campaign that the PAP hasn’t changed, and cast their votes for the WP.

As for substance, this is the PAP’s traditional strength – the area where its technocrats come to the fore. The government has been realistic enough to avoid claiming that the effects of its policy changes are already being felt on the ground. For this reason, it avoided treating the 2012 by-election as a confidence motion in the PAP. Ideally, the PAP would have liked to take the full 5 year term before going back to the electorate.

However, it may not be able to wait till 2016. Since the late 1970s, the PAP has used elections not only to renew its mandate but also to induct fresh blood for self-renewal. PAP rejuvenation has become worryingly slow. By the 2006 GE, it had become clear that Singapore’s fourth Prime Minister would have to emerge from that or the next cohort of 30-somethings or 40-somethings, who would step into the top job midway through 2016-2021 term.

If there is indeed somebody in the current Parliament who can take the helm, he/she and the party have certainly done a good job of hiding the fact. The PAP has always been justly proud of its record of planned leadership succession. By its own high standards, the PAP – and Singapore – risks a leadership crisis unless there is a significant injection of heavyweight talent at another by-election well before 2016.

Singapore also needs to insure itself against the possibility that the PAP will ultimately fail to deliver. This is why structural reform – not just changes in style or substance – is important. Without institutional safeguards, the PAP’s problems will automatically become Singapore’s problems. If the party goes down, there is a high chance that, in desperation, it will clutch at whatever levers are within reach, including national institutions that should represent the public interest, not party interests.

In the Hougang campaign, the WP highlighted three such problem areas. There is the Elections Department, which currently answers to the Prime Minister’s Office when it should be an independent authority. The People’s Association, a key nation-building institution that should bring Singaporeans together, can be abused in a way that divides people along party lines. And, finally, Singapore Press Holdings and MediaCorp operate under close government supervision, undermining their credibility in the coverage of controversial political issues.

Some in the PAP may fear that structural reform of Singapore’s democratic institutions will just accelerate its decline. But this would be the case only if the PAP’s electoral success so far has been hollow, and built on an unfair political foundation. If it wants to preserve its status as Singapore’s dominant national movement, there is no alternative to winning the contest of ideas fair and square. If it can do that while subjecting itself to the check and balance of transparent and neutral democratic institutions, its standing will only be elevated.

* Since 1981, two Workers’ Party MPs have lost their seats – J.B. Jeyaretnam and Yaw Shin Leong – but both through disqualification and not at the polls.

presidential election 2011


Some will insist that the election result was far from unambiguous, with the winner receiving barely more than one-third of Singaporeans’ votes

Looked at another way, though, the people have spoken in resounding fashion.

First, it’s clear that most people are not ready to give up on the PAP. Two Presidential candidates with a combined total of more than half a century as PAP MPs – and who only quit the party in order to run for the PE – have together received 70% of Singaporeans’ votes.

Second, however, most people are not prepared to give the government their blind obedience or implicit trust. Presented with credible alternatives, almost two-thirds of the electorate were willing to turn their backs on the government’s preferred candidate.

The bottom line is no different from the GE: Singaporeans may not be ready for a revolution, but they demand a new relationship with the government.

The PE has followed the GE trajectory in another respect: it’s shown that a reshaping of Singapore politics can just as likely come from splits in the Establishment as from outside the PAP. One of the striking things about May’s GE was the entry of PAP-lookalikes into opposition ranks. The PE showed this even more clearly.

This, then, is the new terrain of Singapore politics – what Dr Tony Tan has called the new normal. Dr Tan has survived it, just barely. For him, the worst is probably over. The largely ceremonial role of the President – a role that most Singaporeans are quite comfortable with – means that Dr Tan will be allowed to put the heat of the campaign behind him.
As for the PAP government, it may feel momentary relief that it’s still on track and in the driver’s seat – but there’s still no light at the end of the tunnel.

A productive contest

The close contest will leave many Singaporeans rueing the way the anti-government vote was split among three candidates. Indeed, if it had been a straight fight between the government’s man and either Tan Cheng Bock or Tan Jee Say, the result would have been a stunning victory for those who wanted to push the PAP into a corner.

However, such thinking overestimates the importance of the Presidency in Singapore’s democratic evolution. Even if Tan Jee Say had won – then what? All the candidates eventually admitted that the President’s role was pretty circumscribed and all vowed not to be confrontational.

The real battleground for openness and democracy is in the partisan struggle for Parliamentary seats, and in civil society. That being the case, the four-way Presidential contest has been helpful, for it has allowed a range of ideas and ideologies to be openly debated.

These issues included:

  • How the PAP should accommodate the new reality of an institutionalised parliamentary opposition, and how agencies should treat opposition MPs;
  • Whether the ISA should ever again be used against non-violent political opponents;
  • Whether mandatory capital punishment is ripe for review; and:
  • Whether Singapore’s wealth is distributed equitably enough.
  • It’s unlikely that such issues would have gotten as thorough an airing and generated such a range of opinions if there had been only two candidates.

They can now be picked up by other Singaporeans. And, ultimately, how such debates are resolved will have a greater impact on Singapore politics over the next six years than whether the Presidential Election was won by Tan, Tan, Tan or Tan.


* 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.




To depoliticise elections for the Head of State, Singapore needs new institutions such as an Ombudsman.

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GE2011: aftermath

towards a democratic society…

Text of a talk given at a post-election forum organised by Maruah and The Online Citizen on 15 May 2011.*

This has been the most written about, most video’d, most followed and most discussed election in Singapore history, so I am not going to review the scores, the highlights and lowlights. That would put you to sleep – and I don’t have the licence to slap you awake.

Instead, I would like to offer some perspectives on what these polls mean for democratisation in Singapore.

Yesterday’s shock announcement that Lee Kuan Yew and Goh Chok Tong would retire from government confirms what has always been true about Singapore elections: the mathematical results are less important than how the numbers are interpreted. Even though last weekend’s vote amounted to an extension of the world’s longest running winning streak among countries with multi-party elections, even though Singapore’s is still a system with one dominant party, the government has interpreted the results as requiring it to undergo a significant makeover.

Lee Kuan Yew and Goh Chok Tong scored their share of own goals during the campaign, but in apportioning blame for unpopular government policies, it’s not the case that they had to bear more responsibility than their Cabinet colleagues. But, again, it’s the symbols, the narrative, that counts more than the facts. Lee Kuan Yew has chosen to sacrifice himself to give the strongest possible signal that this is a government able to mount a revolution from within, for a national cause that is greater than the future of the PAP’s high priest.

Similarly, the future of Singapore’s unfinished democratic project is not to be gleaned from last week’s score or even any survey results. It’s more of an exercise in reading tea leaves.

Today, I’d like to argue that a few steps have been taken towards greater democratisation, though probably not as much as the hype suggests. I’ll argue that although the political culture has evolved to be less amenable to top-down government, Singapore remains inhospitable to progressive causes and has yet to develop spaces for mature debate.

The struggle for Singapore’s soul, to borrow George Yeo’s expression, is just beginning. And, I’ll argue, it’s not just the politicians but also leaders of civil society and public intellectuals who have a role to play in producing a good outcome.

Changing political culture

The GE has reshaped the political terrain in a couple of indisputable ways.

First, Lee Hsien Loong’s promise to keep the system contestable cannot be reversed. It is clear that the electorate is less willing to accept an unfair playing field. To the extent that the public sees unfairness, it will apply a kind of electoral affirmative action: it will give the opposition a discount and judge the PAP more harshly. Thus, people crucified PAP candidates for saying silly things, but politely pretended not to notice when opposition candidates did the same. Tactical missteps of the PAP were dissected in detail, while the mismanagement of the Reform Party went unqueried, even by the ordinarily probing and perceptive Online Citizen. I’m convinced that the public will judge the PAP fairly only when the PAP plays fair with the opposition; oh, and when the PAP reviews ministerial salaries.

Furthermore, this GE is forcing the PAP to outgrow its dependence on a non-level playing field. This hasn’t happened yet, but it is moving in that direction.

Interestingly, this is not mainly the work of the Singapore Democratic Party, which has campaigned fiercely against injustice in the political system. Instead, it’s due to Low Thia Khiang’s Workers’ Party, which has chosen a strategy of scaling the walls instead of bringing them down. That’s the democratic significance of the WP victory in Aljunied: it taught the PAP that it can’t hide behind credentials or reputation, because the opposition can find credentialed candidates and build an attractive brand; nor can the PAP so readily use safety in numbers in GRCs as a way to hold on to seats, as the WP has shown that GRCs are a way to win big. Henceforth, the PAP will have to focus more squarely on issues that matter to the electorate, and that’s good for Singapore democracy.

Second, it is clear that Singapore’s political culture has shifted.

Decades of depoliticisation, in which normal politics has been replaced by technocratic administration, seem to have given way to an openly contentious culture. The largely unrestricted internet has played a major role here. Fifteen to twenty years ago, PAP leaders demanded deferential treatment in the name of “Asian Values”. Today, Confucian norms are no match for a citizenry accustomed to freewheeling blogs and online forums. The GE made it clear that Singaporeans no longer tolerate being talked down to.

Still focused on good governance

Beyond that, I would be cautious about claiming that Singaporeans are suddenly great supporters of democratic competition, and I am even less persuaded by claims that this was an internet revolution. I don’t think we can explain the GE outcome without reference to good old fashioned economic factors. Although Singapore has been enjoying double digit growth, the structural problem is that is growth pattern has changed. As one of the most open and exposed economies on earth, it has had three externally triggered recessions in the past decade, with heady growth spurts in between. Such volatility has played havoc with the government’s much vaunted planning capabilities. Policies concerning public transport, public housing and immigration have all been buffeted by violent swings in the economy, and all were major election issues.

So, before we conclude that Singaporeans are suddenly pro-democracy, it would be prudent to entertain the possibility that they are still mainly in favour of good governance. What is clear is that they want the PAP to govern better. By returning the PAP to power on Saturday, Singaporeans accepted the reality that it remains the natural party of government. By the end of the campaign, the need for the PAP to change was not in dispute. The debate was instead over whether the PAP’s own internalised values of service could drive that change, or whether it needed a stronger opposition to force the pace and and set the direction of the change. The electorate rejected, possibly permanently, the PAP’s model of self-motivated self-improvement. For decades, Singaporeans have bought the line that accountability and transparency could be pursued on the PAP’s own terms, with no need for strong external checks and balances. This position, bucking the global trend, was made plausible by the PAP’s record of corruption-free government and well distributed economic growth. This is no longer accepted, due to economic volatility coupled with the widespread conviction that the PAP is the only group that thinks that the PAP does not suffer from groupthink.

Nothing in this election has challenged the viability of the PAP’s brand of illiberal democracy. But Singaporeans are evidently not immune to a dose of democratic common sense: government, they’ve concluded, will perform better when confronted with a threat of unceremonious eviction, a threat that must occasionally be realised if it is to be taken seriously.

Democratisation, though, is more than about seats in the legislature going one way or another. It can also be measured by the progress made in values such as tolerance of diversity, as well as practices such as the exercise of public reason.

Is it a great victory for progressive causes?

That Singapore has hardly become a liberal society is shown by the fact that Singapore’s middle ground continues to reject the SDP. Yes, it was the most improved party. But despite having the most progressive platform – or I should say, because it’s the most progressive – its result was still a little below the opposition average.

As for the WP, I, like thousands of others at Serangoon Stadium, felt roused by the tide of people power. But I also felt uncomfortable when Low Thia Khiang, in the final 10 minutes of the most important speech of his political life to date, played the anti foreign worker card. He reminded Serangoon Gardens voters that they did not want a foreign worker dormitory to be built in their back yard. He criticised George Yeo for saying that the “the important thing is to do what is right, you cannot always worry about votes” and not resisting the dormitory.

I am proudest of my friends at Maruah and TOC when they stand up for what’s right even when the government and the majority of Singaporeans are not interested. In ordinary times, Maruah and TOC have not been afraid to champion foreign workers’ rights. I hope election fever hasn’t obscured anyone’s commitment to such causes.

Nurturing public debate

This leads me to my final point about the state of democratization, which is about creating a climate conducive to the exercise of public reason.

Personally, this has always been my main beef with the government. Singapore’s openness and diversity have always been great strengths in the cultural and economic realms. But the government has been intolerant of political diversity, and some of us in this room have personally suffered the consequences.

One of the positive developments we saw in this GE was ordinary citizens blowing the whistle on PAP politicians who displayed their intolerance and disrespect for opposing views and values. The public gave a strong signal that it would not stand for the kind of demonisation of the opposition and castigation of the electorate that had occurred in past elections.

The problem, though, is that while netizens helped to neutralise the PAP’s negative campaigning they did little to create anything positive. Other than a handful of influential bloggers such as Alex Au, netizens did little to grow the space for the kind of deliberation that is associated with a mature democratic political culture.

Instead of being cultivated as a space for reasoned debate, large expanses of online public space evolved into a grotesque mirror image of offline public space. The offline world has been rendered unconducive to the exercise of public reason by a thin-skinned, all-powerful government that builds pseudo-consensus by marginalising opposing views. In reaction, opponents of the government have colonised cyberspace with a vengeance, ensuring that its spectrum of views are limited in range – from the rabidly anti-government to the moderately anti-government.

Unlike the government, they cannot easily use defamation law as a political weapon; nor are they able to fix the careers of opinion-shapers in the media or in the universities; nor control the activities of NGOs that do not share their narrow worldview. They can use only words to punish perceived ideological opponents, which include those who dare utter anything positive about the government. Personal attacks, flagrant lies and twisted logic are all part of their arsenal.

Instead of positions being arrived at through argument, arguments were marshalled according to entrenched positions. At best, the cyber-opposition showed that it could outshout the government, thus giving the government second thoughts about its own intolerant approach to public debate. There is, however, no guarantee that Singapore will evolve a less polarised, more deliberative democracy. The internet has the potential to facilitate that evolution, but as of now this remains a promise that is largely unfulfilled.

Role of civil society

Allow me to conclude with some remarks on the role of non-partisan civil society in pursuing a progressive agenda for Singapore. Although Low’s winning battle cry was to start investing seriously in an alternative to the PAP, the ruling party’s continued dominance for at least the next five and probably 10 or more years is undeniable. Therefore, internal reform within the government is still an important avenue for change. In the short term, it is the most important avenue.

For anyone interested in this process, former administrative service officer Donald Low has written possibly the most important analysis of the government’s internal dynamics post-GE. He points out that “internal party politics, the party’s conservative ideology, and its hierarchical structure” are obstacles to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s goal of achieving genuine reform. Donald Low points out the risk of a conservative backlash if liberals in government demand too much too soon.

Reading such analyses, it is tempting to give up on the possibility of revolution from within. I know many Singaporeans who right now want to believe that the time has come when they can stop factoring the PAP into their calculations: post-GE, they can now demand political change on their terms and if the PAP doesn’t like it, they’ll just kick them out next time. This is politically naïve.

Just as it is a mistake to put all our eggs in the government basket, it is surely also a mistake to put all eggs in the opposition or non-government basket. I think reformers outside of government need to encourage and reinforce the government’s internal reforms, applying pressure that is perceptible, but without inviting a conservative backlash.

Singapore’s more experienced civil society activists and public intellectuals have a crucial role to play here.

These are individuals who have seen it all before; who have been slapped down many times, insulted, condescended to, treated like carriers of communicable diseases – but are still suckers for unpaid public service.

These are people who approach problems with open eyes. They see the obstacles, they are not naïve. But they also look out for glimmers of opportunity. This is the kind of skeptical hopefulness and idealism that many experienced hands in civil society already possess, and that I think will be indispensable for encouraging positive change in Singapore.


* 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.



A quick response to the opposition victories in the 2011 election.

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the lee hsien loong compact

If Singaporeans getting their fill of Opposition rallies deign to watch one video from the Other side, I recommend this one: Lee Hsien Loong’s speech by the Singapore River yesterday. Regardless of how much impact it has at the polls, this could go down as a landmark speech, because it potentially signals nothing less than a new compact, a recasting of the relationship between the PAP and the people.

Until now, the PAP has based its authority largely on what some scholars call “performance legitimacy”: we rule because we deliver. Of course, every regime must ultimately deliver or die (though there are some that dispense with both performance and legitimacy, prolonging their tenure through raw violence). Since no government can please all of the people all of the time, most democratic systems rely on a more resilient form of legitimacy: we rule because the people have given us the authority to.

Such moral legitimacy arising from having been democratically elected has always had some relevance for Singapore and the PAP, which is why our journeys to polling centres on Saturday are part of an unbroken tradition dating back to 1959. But despite the PAP’s record of consistently winning the support of the majority of Singaporeans through elections, it has been chary of highlighting the star on the national flag that stands for democracy. This is because the PAP has had some difficulty justifying Singapore’s hybrid system, which upholds democratic procedures but gives short shrift to civil liberties. Hence, the emphasis on performance legitimacy instead: to paraphrase Deng Xiaoping, who cares what colour the cat is, as long as it catches mice.

Yesterday’s speech suggests a subtle shift in this principle. It arises from the Prime Minister’s recognition that people are indeed bothered when the cat looks down its nose at all and sundry, giving bad-tempered snarls at anyone who dares to cross its path (even the owner who feeds it). To complicate matters further, it turns out that, no matter what its pedigree, the cat cannot catch every mas, I mean, mouse. Partly since the doors of the house are always open to a rodent-infested world, but also because the cat is only human (OK, time to leave the feline metaphor behind).

So, exit pure performance legitimacy, enter what we might call systemic legitimacy.

The new compact proposed by PM Lee doesn’t guarantee that a PAP government will always deliver, but assures a system that will self-correct when delivery fails. To summarise his points (gleaned from yesterday’s rally speech and his press conference on Monday):

• Exposure to the global economy has put Singapore on a rollercoaster that is playing havoc with planning. (Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam had described the new boom-bust pattern in this year’s Budget Speech.)

• The government acknowledges the problems this has caused for transport and housing, as well as other mistakes that can’t be blamed on external factors.

• Sorry will no longer be the hardest word. (And to lead from the front, the PM said it twice.) The PAP will take responsibility for mistakes, and learn from them.

• It promises to get many more decisions right than wrong (thus, the core of performance legitimacy is retained). For this, it needs a strong team elected by the people. Strong government with a decisive mandate is better for Singapore.

• The government will ensure that the political system remains open and contestable – recognising that moral legitimacy comes from free and fair elections. But it will continue to fight to win every contest.

• Finally, Singapore does not need a strong opposition to bring out the best in the PAP. Instead, PAP politicians will be driven by their internalised value system. They promise to be “acutely aware that they are servants and not masters, that they are accountable to the people”.

Now for implementation

While these principles are an improvement, the question is how they will be executed. In particular, how will the balance be struck with another established principle that the PM reiterated yesterday: the need, after debate, for a consensus, a conclusion, and decisive action; and the need to preserve the political system that allows for such governance.

Empowering an effective government with the capacity to carry out its mandate is certainly a key function of democratic elections. However, the problem with this principle as applied in Singapore is that it’s been used to justify forcing aside dissenters and denying citizens the information they need to participate fully in public life.

Accountability loses meaning when it is always applied on the terms of those who are being held to account. Consensus loses moral power when it’s achieved by muting those who differ.

Therefore, critical Singaporeans cannot be blamed for reserving judgment about the significance of the shift from performance legitimacy to systemic legitimacy. It all depends on how talk translates into action in the coming years.

Indeed, I myself would have brushed all this aside as mere election rhetoric, but for one point that caught my eye in PM Lee’s remarks over the past week. I’m not referring to how he distanced his government from Lee Kuan Yew’s fighting words (which is no doubt one of the main talking points from yesterday’s speech, along with his use of that magic word, “sorry”).

No, what I noted was the use of the future tense in his Monday press conference, when describing the new compact. Here it is, as quoted in The Straits Times:

“I think you want a government which has a strong mandate but at the same time is acutely aware that they are servants and not masters, that they are accountable to the people. Their duty is to do good for Singapore and not only look after the immediate concerns of voters but also to look after the long-term interests of the voters and their children.”

If he had then turned defensive and declared that the PAP had already delivered such a government, he would have lost me. Instead, he said:

“That’s the kind of government which we would like to be able to [form] from this election.”

The sub-text: there is room for improvement; my next government will embody these principles in a way that my previous ones did not.

For those of us still predisposed to hope, even against evidence that invites despair, PM Lee’s remarks this week invite us to believe his promise, that tomorrow may indeed be better than today.


* 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.



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.



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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