What PAP's internal election is about & what the 2020 results reveal

MS Explains: An internal election for the party's own leadership, but it has significance to Singapore as a whole.

Martino Tan | Nigel Chua | November 08, 2020, 07:16 PM

The People's Action Party (PAP) went through an important internal election on Sunday, Nov. 8.

This was the biennial election for its Central Executive Committee (CEC), which is the political party's highest decision-making body.

But the election results, voted by more than 3,000 party cadres on Sunday, revealed that those casting votes did not want any drastic changes during the Covid-19 crisis.

Ten of the 12 leaders remained the same, with Education Minister Lawrence Wong and National Development Minister Desmond Lee elected to the CEC for the first time.

Here are the members of the 36th PAP CEC (not according to their number of votes):

1. Lee Hsien Loong

2. Gan Kim Yong

3. Masagos Zulkifli

4. K. Shanmugam

5. Heng Swee Keat

6. Chan Chun Sing

7. Grace Fu

8. Ong Ye Kung

9. Tan Chuan Jin

10. Vivian Balakrishnan

11. Lawrence Wong

12. Desmond Lee

What's at stake?

While this is an internal election for the party's own leadership, it usually has significance to Singapore as a whole.

This is because these elections have implications on Singapore's government and politics going forward.

The movements of individuals within their party at times mirror movements or prominence in their appointments in the government.

The role of Secretary-General of the PAP (a position within its CEC), for example, has traditionally been held by the prime minister (PM).

In this vein, Heng Swee Keat's appointment as the party's first assistant secretary-general in November 2018 led many to conclude that he was the PM-in-waiting.

Meanwhile, the makeup of the CEC after its 2018 elections signalled to observers that 4G leaders were on the rise, with Teo Chee Hean and Tharman Shanmugaratnam no longer elected to the CEC, in line with them relinquishing their deputy prime minister (DPM) roles.

Same seven names

As the 2020 CEC election results have shown, the aim is not to make any major changes to PAP's top leadership for the time being. Rather, this is a "transition CEC election" to test out new 4G leaders.

The first hint was given on Nov. 7, when The Straits Times reported that the party will highlight the same seven names as two years ago.

In 2018, ST scored a scoop, noting that there are seven names chosen by the CEC that were clearly marked out, signalling its choice of the party's core leaders.

They were:

1. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, 68; PAP's Secretary-General

2. Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat, 59; PAP's 1st Assistant Secretary-General

3. Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing, 51; PAP's 2nd Assistant Secretary-General

4. Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam, 61; PAP's Treasurer

5. Health Minister Gan Kim Yong, 61; PAP's Chairman

6. Sustainability and the Environment Minister Grace Fu, 56; PAP's Organising Secretary; and

7. Social and Family Development Minister Masagos Zulkifli, 57; PAP's Vice Chairman

This is in keeping with the tradition to an old "group of seven".

Between 2011 to 2018, seven ministers held the top seven party office positions that has remained unchanged.

They were PM Lee, Senior Ministers Teo and Tharman, Minister Shanmugam, and retired ministers Khaw Boon Wan, Yaacob Ibrahim and Lim Swee Say.

Rise of Ministers Lawrence Wong & Desmond Lee

Hence, one of the aims of this CEC election appears to assess whether both Wong and Lee, co-opted in 2018, can be directly elected.

Both were given important party responsibilities after GE 2020.

Wong fronted its post-mortem press conference on GE 2020, while Desmond Lee led the PAP's review on its election campaign.

In his speech today, Heng also spoke about Desmond Lee's involvement:

"Sec-Gen and I asked Comrade Desmond Lee to reach out to our activists after the GE to do a review and to gather views. I thank all of you for your honest and useful feedback. The review has been completed and the CEC will be discussing the findings."

Desmond Lee's involvement was also echoed by PM Lee:

"Comrade Desmond Lee has been seeking views from our activists and branches. Many of you have given valuable feedback. E.g. how we can organise ourselves more effectively; how to strengthen our branches to fight future elections; which voter groups we need to pay more attention to; how we can pitch our message more precisely to different groups."

In the media, there was some buzz surrounding Wong, following The Straits Times's highly positive feature on him last Sunday, Nov. 1.

This is because it is rare for a senior editor of the national broadsheet to declare publicly about a politician's prime minister calibre.

Sumiko Tan, ST's executive editor, opined that "some political pundits now say he (Wong) could well be a contender for prime minister one day".

Wong and Lee's direct election to the CEC, edging out Ministers Josephine Teo and Indranee Rajah, signified that both ministers have good support within the party.

Ministers Teo and Indranee were co-opted into the CEC, and are likely to have received the 13th and 14th highest number of votes, not necessarily in that order.

The popularity of Ministers Ong Ye Kung, Vivian Balakrishnan, and Speaker Tan Chuan-Jin

While the seven out of 12 names were guaranteed because of the CEC's shortlist, it is an intense competition for the rest of the five CEC positions.

And it appears that Minister Ong Ye Kung, Minister Vivian Balakrishnan and Speaker Tan Chuan-Jin continued to be popular leaders among the PAP diehards over the past few years.

Transport Minister Ong Ye Kung was one of the best electoral performers in GE 2020, garnering 67.29 per cent in Sembawang GRC.

This GRC performance was the third best, after SM Tharman's Jurong GRC (74.61 per cent) and PM Lee's Ang Mo Kio GRC (71.91 per cent).

Ong was first directly elected in the 2018 CEC, and this is the second time he was directly elected in the CEC.

Foreign Affairs Minister Vivian Balakrishnan also performed well in GE 2020, garnering 66.36 per cent in Holland-Bukit Timah GRC team.

Following his absence in the 2014 CEC committee, Vivian had been directly elected in the past three CEC elections (2016, 2018, and 2020).

He was co-opted into the 2012 CEC committee but was not part of the 2014 CEC nor its co-opted members.

An interesting political trivia: Speaker Tan Chuan-Jin has been part of the CEC for as long as DPM Heng and Minister Chan.

Heng, Chan, and Tan had been appointed to the CEC in November 2011 to replace three of the six positions left empty after the General Election.

In 2012, Tan was co-opted in the CEC and was likely to have received the 13th or the 14th highest number of votes.

Since 2014, Tan appears to be a favourite among cadres, being directly elected into the CEC in the past four CEC elections either as a top 12 leader or the 13th/ 14th ranked leader (2014, 2016, 2018, and 2020).

Tan was also singled out for praise by DPM Heng in his speech:

"Some of our MPs also successfully built a following on social media, introducing political and policy issues, and engaging with residents in interesting new ways. Comrade Chuan Jin for example not only explains policies and what the Party stands for well, he has also gotten people excited about how Parliament works."

Who did not get in this time?

Labour Chief Ng Chee Meng and Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen are not part of the CEC for different reasons.

The labour chief was in the ballot but did not garner enough votes to be among the top 14 leaders.

The Straits Times understands that the other names on the ballot were labour chief Ng, newly-promoted ministers Maliki Osman and Edwin Tong, Senior Minister of State Janil Puthucheary and North West District mayor Alex Yam.

Minister Ng was not part of the ballot.

ST noted that Ng, who was co-opted in 2018, was dropped from the list of nominees this time round.

18-member CEC and the cadre system

The PAP's constitution provides for a maximum of 18 members.

A total of 12 seats are up for grabs at the elections held during the party's conference.

The 12 elected CEC members can then co-opt up to six more members.

One tradition is for the party to co-opt its 13th and 14th most popular leader.

The previous PAP CEC, its 35th, had 18 members.

What it means to be elected

Elected to the PAP's CEC is significant as it shows that one has support from a select group of PAP insiders known as "cadre members" or "cadres".

The CEC will in turn appoint new cadre members out of those who have "proved their loyalty and service to the principles and objectives of the Party", according to the PAP's party constitution.

In a 1971 thesis (later published as a book) by Singapore University Master's student Pang Cheng Lian, this arrangement was described as a "closed system", where "the cardinals appoint the pope and the pope appoints the cardinals", in a reference to how the highest echelons of leadership of the Catholic church are similarly arranged.

Cadre system

The word "cadre" was adopted by communist parties in the 1930s, referring to a select group of members who control a party or train others, and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) maintains a cadre system to this day.

Cadre systems are also found in a military context, and can refer to an arrangement where units are made up by regular soldiers forming its core, while other soldiers — such as conscripts — rotate to fill its ranks.

And it is very possible that the PAP's founders had these cadre systems in mind when they put the PAP's own cadre system in place, with the objective of growing the party's membership, while keeping control in the hands of a smaller core group.

Toh Chin Chye, a founding member of the PAP, is quoted in the 2010 book Men in White: The Untold Story of Singapore's Rulling Political Party, candidly revealing that the system had communist origins:

"... we copied the communists. They had their own cadre system, that's why it's difficult to penetrate the communist party. It was not our idea, it was their system we copied."

There is irony in this situation, however, as the system's leftist origins did not prevent it from being used to defeat left-wing elements within the PAP.

Only cadres can vote for CEC, after near-takeover in 1957

At the time the PAP was founded in 1954, the CEC was elected by all party members.

From 1958, however, only cadres were allowed to vote at PAP CEC elections.

This came out of a tumultuous period in the PAP's early years where its moderate members, led by Lee Kuan Yew, contested for control of the party against its left-wing faction.

The left-wing faction won four CEC seats at the then-annual party conference in 1956.

It admitted new members into the party in order to increase its support, and went on to win another two seats, giving it six out of the 12 seats.

As founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew reflected in his 1998 autobiography, "the folly of adopting a democratic constitution had left it open to capture through the penetration of its own party branches."

The left-wing faction of the PAP was soon crippled, however, after a number of its CEC members — including the CEC chairman Tan Chong Kin — were arrested due to their connections with unions that were used for communist activities.

"We discussed several possible changes to ensure that [a takeover from within the party] could never happen again," Lee wrote.

Cadre system today

There are no public figures stating how many PAP cadres there are, but today's press statement by the PAP stated that more than 3,000 cadres voted in the PAP's 2020 conference.

Previously, ST reported that an estimated 2,000 cadres voted at the PAP's 2018 conference, a number that doubled in the 20 years since ST reported that there were around 1,000 cadres in 1998.

Cadres' attendance at party conferences is mandatory, and absence at two consecutive sessions can be grounds for demotion to ordinary membership, according to the PAP's constitution.

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Mothership Explains is a series where we dig deep into the important, interesting, and confusing going-ons in our world and try to, well, explain them.

This series aims to provide in-depth, easy-to-understand explanations to keep our readers up to date on not just what is going on in the world, but also the "why's".

Top image via Ong Ye Kung Facebook.