COMMENT: Long live the PAP?

The PAP building at New Upper Changi Rd. (Photo: Screenshot/Google Maps)

With a title like “Is the People’s Action Party Here to Stay?”, you can bet that I flipped to the back of the book to find the answer. I was rather bemused at Dr Bilveer Singh’s parting shot: “Would it not be a duty and obligation for the one-party dominant state to think of Singapore and its interests to prepare an alternative government to continue administering the Republic in the best interest of its people?’’

So I had to ask the good professor whether he thought it was even conceivable for the PAP to think this way – prepare for its own demise. His answer was that one-party states do not last long (Singapore has the longest staying ruling political party in the non-communist world by the way). Rather than wait for a schism in the PAP to lead the opposition to power – or worse, for the country to get a rude shock if the PAP was suddenly overthrown, the PAP, which prides itself on serving the national interest, should draw up a contingency plan.

Clearly, Dr Singh, who lectures political science at the National University of Singapore, believes that the PAP should stay on – for a myriad of reasons, including an opposition that is unprepared and has no desire to form the government in the near future. Any erosion of authority should be – and more likely to be – a gradual evolution than revolution.

You can say the dangers of a freak election, which the PAP has warned against, is subtext in the book. But I would also describe it as an examination of the political culture that the PAP has engendered over the past 50 years, and the tools that the party, as the incumbent, has at its disposal to perpetuate its longevity. So what would have to happen for the PAP to “go’’?

The book, which runs to 302 pages including appendices on what other political luminaries have said about the PAP’s future and electoral results over the years, is a good text-book for students. It sets Singapore’s political history in chronological order right up to this year when two new parties, People’s Voice Party and Progress Singapore Party got themselves registered and Mr Heng Swee Keat was appointed Deputy Prime Minister. Dr Singh analyses the outcomes of the 2011 and 2015 general elections and why voters turned against the party in 2011 but returned in droves in 2015.

There is a chapter on Malaysia’s landmark election last year which returned the maverick Mahathir Mohammad to power as head of the opposition – and whether this would be replicated in Singapore.

Dr Singh, who has a textbook on Understanding Singapore Politics to his name, thinks it would take a huge scandal like the 1MDB saga, severe corruption and mismanagement and a splintered, fractious ruling party – which the PAP currently shows no signs of being.

“Singaporeans view the PAP not just as a ruling party to be elected every four or five years but a long-term governing compact that has successfully delivered political, economic and social goods since 1959.’’ The voter’s DNA has become used to the PAP, creating a “Pavlovian-type transactional ruler-ruled pact,’’ he added.

The ‘mother of all issues’ regarding the PAP

Dr Singh doesn’t pull his punches when he discusses how the PAP would not be entering the coming general election, due by April 2021, from a “very big comfort zone’’. The “mother of all issues’’, he says, is trust and confidence in the ruling party and government, also a consistent theme in recent ministerial speeches.

He cited commentaries on recent happenings such as the Hyflux saga, the SAF deaths, the SingHealth hacking, the SMRT breakdowns as raising question marks over the PAP’s vaunted efficiency. That the Chinese language Lianhe Zaobao ran a critical editorial, and other heavyweight commentators have raised the issue of a supposed loss of touch showed that “issues of the capabilities of political leaders and the growing divide between the political elites and the masses have become mainstreamed’’.

“To that extent, will issues relating to the credibility and whether there is a growing trust deficit between the rulers and the ruled in society becoming hotly discussed in the coming general elections remain to be seen’’.

The effect of the Lee family saga

Before you ask, yes, he did raise the “Lee Hsien Yang factor’’, but he has no more insights than any political watcher on whether the Prime Minister’s brother will enter the electoral ring, save to say that there will be implications and ramifications if he does.

I wished that Dr Singh would go into greater detail on other factors that would lead to an extension or diminuation of the PAP’s hegemony such as:

How will the PAP capitalise on the legacy of its founding father, the late Lee Kuan Yew, as a reason for its continued dominance? While Mr Lee’s passing had an effect on boosting the PAP’s votes, will there come a time when a generation of Singaporeans look more at what the PAP can do now, rather than its track record, when they vote? As for the current and older generations, will they agree with the Progress Singapore Party, led by ex-PAP member Tan Cheng Bock, which appears to be campaigning on how the PAP has “lost its way’’ ?

Is the PAP’s network, which extends beyond government to the bureaucracy (through the Civil Service and statutory boards), workers (through the National Trades Union Congress), to community groups (through the People’s Association), to the economic sphere (through Government-linked companies) and the military, a boon or bane to voters? Or is it another reason for the voters to acquiesce to the status quo because Singapore simply cannot afford a plural political system?

Will social media play a bigger part in raising political consciousness of Singaporeans, such as placing more importance on non-material goods, such as individual freedoms and human rights? Or will those who are lagging behind economically magnify their material grievances to some effect?

Will the PAP rank-and-file start to demand more say in the selection of its leaders or is the PAP leadership convinced that its cadre approach will hold despite a better-educated base?

Dr Singh refers to Law and Home Minister K Shanmugam’s remarks that the PAP will stay in power till at least 2029, or two election cycles. Maybe we will have another book before then. With a title that is less clickbait, please.

So, is the PAP here to stay? Well, it depends on how you define “here to stay”.


More from the author:

Will Cheng Bock’s appeal to the Merdeka generation work?

The Mr Heng I will follow