Whither PAP, whither the elite, whither Singapore?

Former foreign affairs minister George Yeo's posted a message on Facebook that sparked buzz. (Yahoo! file phot …


Former foreign minister George Yeo is a man of many words. Many remember him for his banyan tree speech which, in a round-about way, was telling leaders to let light shine through their over-protective shoulders and let those under them blossom.

Last month, he chose just two words and a question mark in a Facebook post to make his point.

Striking in its brevity, refreshing in its clarity Yeo's post asked pointedly: Whither Singapore?

That was just one day after the ruling party had suffered an embarrassing defeat in a by-election that exposed a 11 percentage point shift against it.

The biggest and most unfortunate victim of the 2011 General Election got more than 800 reacting on his Facebook and many more thinking what was unthinkable just two years ago.

Is the People's Action Party hurtling down a slippery slope to a bigger humiliation at the next general election in 2016? Will this lead to a two-party political system, even an Opposition sweeping into power, further down the road?

The by-election backlash surprised many, even the opposition Workers' Party, which fielded a girl next door type candidate opposite PAP's colorectal surgeon.

Singaporeans outside Punggol East, where the by-election was fought, were taken aback that the lack of everyday needs like childcare centres, coffeeshops and transport facilities had boiled over during the campaigning.

What was Mr Michael Palmer, the PAP legislator who triggered the by-election because of his extra-marital affair, doing since the general election of 2011 when PAP's vote share dipped to a post-independent low of 60.1 per cent and three ministers, including Yeo, were voted out.

Even the announcements of big-ticket items like multi-billion dollar transport infrastructure projects and baby bonuses couldn't sway the voters in Punnggol East. And the PM's last-minute entry at the final election rally had no impact on Decision Day.

Insiders say a press conference intended as a mop-up move after that speech was cancelled because grassroots feedback showed that the PM had swayed many voters.

How misplaced that feedback was. Not only did the PAP lose the constituency but polled only 43.7 percent of the votes against WP's 54.5.

Just two weeks after the by-election thrashing, the government submitted a White Paper on Population for debate in Parliament. That sparked another round of anti-government bashing with many saying an increase of 1.6 million people by 2030 taking the total population to 6.9 million, nearly half of them foreigners, will make the already crowded city unliveable.

Will the Singaporean become a stranger in his own land, some asked.

The establishment was forced to clarify that the 6.9 million figure was not a target, only a projection for planning purposes. But the damage was already done.

With the government in a state of siege and the public in a foul mood, it was left to an insider, like PAP MP Inderjit Singh, to think aloud about the eroding trust in government.

A political commentator called on Singaporeans to get over the emotional hump of angst, but she spoke too soon. For, it seemed, there were other humps to cross. Some intellectuals and economists started digging into the 42-page report and questioning the data used and the conclusions reached.

One took aim at the brains behind the report, the elite administrative service, accusing it of not displaying academic rigour in researching the paper. Another said the red flag figure of 6.9 million was "bogus".

For a report that will affect the present and future generations, there was no attempt to discuss it with the public. In the end a slightly-amended version was passed after a five-day debate in a PAP-dominated Parliament.

Inderjit Singh, who was there when PM wrapped up the debate, absented himself when it was time to vote.

Rarer still was to see thousands of people coming out on to Singapore's version of the Speaker's Corner on Saturday to show their displeasure.

Even Singapore's harshest critics have only good words for its able and competent civil service and political leadership.

But, the by-election blow-out and the White Paper wash-out have left many, not just Yeo, wondering where this country is headed.

P N Balji has more than 35 years experience as a journalist. He is now a media consultant.

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