You can tell when the PAP is nervous.
It is when they have to cart out the big guns to placate the masses.
So far, six of the ruling party's heavyweight ministers have had to come out to address the groundswell of disgruntlement exhibited by Singaporeans palpably angry with the way the non-existent 2017 Presidential Election played out.
Six heavyweight ministers
In order of their appearance in the immediate lead-up to and after Sept. 14, 2017 when President Halimah Yacob was sworn in:
[Sept. 8, 2017] Law and home affairs minister K Shanmugam said at the Institute of Policy Studies forum a reserved election will preserve the unifying role of the president and it is one of the efforts by the government to actively promote racial harmony. [Source]
[Sept. 8, 2017] Minister in the Prime Minister's Office Chan Chun Sing said at the same IPS forum that a reserved presidential election will cost the PAP votes but it is for the greater good of Singapore. [Source]
[Sept. 14, 2017] Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong admonished Singaporeans to get behind President Halimah after her walkover victory, as she ironically became the divisive figure in the non-existent PE. The former prime minister said the process is controversial but the president is not. [Source]
[Sept. 20, 2017] Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam said during a dialogue at the Nanyang Technological University that the strong reaction to the reserved presidential election is encouraging as people view race to not matter these days and it is good to have this aspiration, but it is not realistic -- yet. [Source]
[Sept. 27, 2017] Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean said the elected presidency is part of many far-sighted moves put in place by the government and its justification will reveal itself in the future, apparently. [Source]
[Sept. 29, 2017] Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong addressed the elected presidency topic head-on for the first time and his comments were widely reported in the mainstream media. However, his take on the PE was actually made at a closed-door dialogue on Sept. 23, but only revealed publicly on Sept. 29, almost a week later -- after the transcript of his comments was edited. This effectively gives him the last word on the issue that has divided a large swath of Singaporeans. [Source]
A hard sell?
Unless you were keeping count and paying close attention, the only odd thing you would have noticed is that the PAP government kept harping on this topic.
Taken individually, each minister's message is piecemeal and not very effective or convincing in overriding the emotions the electorate have been displaying.
But taken together, the messages carry some weight due to it being repeated, but converge into a few usual talking points and well-worn arguments about race sensitivities and maintaining stability in Singapore.
The only two messages that managed to cut through the clutter were Chan's and PM Lee's.
From policy to politics
Chan's point at the IPS forum that the PAP stands to lose votes and inflict a political cost on itself, due to its role in the machinations of the reserved presidential election, strays from policy straight into politics.
Chan was the first among the ministers to highlight this political problem for the PAP.
To even acknowledge that the ruling party is actually cognisant of the fact that their actions are really pushing the buttons of the electorate is clever.
Well, clever within a forum context with an invited guest audience of academics and opinion leaders who can appreciate such macro trade-offs as necessary evils.
But post-forum and after the walkover election, Chan's perspective invites counterarguments that are not as easily debunked.
For example: The ruling government can simply be seen as taking a calculated risk with whatever decisions they make in 2016 and 2017, because the next general election will only be due in 2021. And four years is a long time in politics.
And implicit in Chan's message is that the long-term interests of Singapore can be secured at a short-term cost to the ruling party -- effectively embedding an unspoken assumption.
The stability and success of future Singapore benefits, yes, the people, society by and large, and of course, the incumbent ruling party.
Therefore, this inability to untangle the country from the government and the ruling party -- given its preponderance nature -- makes the message that the PAP is always right, now and in the future, one that is not easy for Singaporeans to swallow.
But Chan said it anyways.
PM Lee gets final word
What is also conspicuous about PM Lee's PA Kopi Talk at Ci Yuan CC is that his words were meant for selected ears at a closed-door dialogue with 500 grassroots leaders on Sept. 23.
In essence, he was speaking to the converted.
What is interesting then is that the transcript of his event was reported on by the media only almost a week later on Sept. 29, effectively giving PM Lee the last say in the controversial elected presidency proceedings.
One natural query then: At what point was it decided a closed-door dialogue suddenly contained a message that was important for the rest of Singapore's public to know? And for the mainstream media to be alerted to it for reporting?
And if you line all the messages up one after the other, you can see how the totem pole looks like.
But what is also of great interest is the speech PM Lee gave, which contained nuggets of reinterpreted facts.
To the grassroots leaders within a closed-door setting, there will be absolutely nothing PM Lee said to disagree with.
To the ears of average outsider Singaporeans, it can come off as grating, with some rewriting of the narrative going on.
For example: PM Lee asking where were the Salleh Maricans and Farid Khans in the 2011 Presidential Election -- to illustrate that an open election is hostile to minority candidates -- is to ignore the fact that GE2011 was where the PAP took a beating of their lives.
The fact that a general election candidate subsequently ran as one of the presidential candidates, showed that the climate in Singapore was politicised and confused.
More importantly, the climate was hostile to everyone, regardless of race.
In fact, one out of the four Chinese Tans that ran for PE2011 didn't even managed to get his election deposit back.
In other words, Singaporeans are prone to giving a Chinese man short shrift. When they are unhappy, race may not be the top of their voting considerations.
Race can be used to justify a lot of policies in Singapore
There's no need to overstate an easy point.
The secret recipe in the Singapore sauce is that race relations have been used to justify many things here: How elections are carried out, how public housing is organised, how manpower resources in the country's defence forces are allocated, so on and so forth.
But the Singapore sauce, like any good dish, has to be updated from time to time to suit the modern Singaporeans' tastes.
As long as Singaporeans are still okay partaking of this sauce and they don't tire or disagree with the taste, they will continue eating out of the government's hands.
But the point is that the government will need to renew its social compact with a new generation of Singaporeans regarding race-base policies, even though it may feel to some like age-old self-evident truths.
Because reminding them why it should still taste good after a long time will be the tricky part.
And that would take way more than mere justification and persuasion, way beyond heavyweight ministers' explanations, a think-tank's survey on race relations, a two-day parliament sitting, and close-door forums.