PERSPECTIVE: In his book, A History of the People's Action Party, 1985-2021, Shashi Jayakumar explores the development of the PAP from 1985 to the year in the immediate wake of the 2020 General Election.
Here, we reproduce an excerpt in which Jayakumar examines at length how the political landscape of Singapore has permanently changed after the 2020 GE, with the rise of social media in particular raising the barriers to entry for prospective MPs and increasing public desire for a sizeable Opposition presence in Parliament.
However, while there is recognition within the party's leadership that the PAP now stands near the end of an era in which the country had a single dominant party, one can expect the party to gear up to fight for the hearts and minds of the electorate, as well as prepare to tackle an Opposition that will aims for more seats in Parliament.
A History of the People's Action Party, 1985-2021 is published by NUS Press, and you can get a copy of the book here.
By Shashi Jayakumar
The next PM and leader of the PAP must have both charisma and technocratic excellence
In 2018, when asked about the next leader and what role he should play in the next election, PM Lee observed:
"He will have to pull his weight and . . . show that he deserves to be what his peers and his colleagues in Cabinet think that he can do . . . this is necessary. If you’re unable to win elections, you cannot be the leader. You can be a great thinker, you can be a great planner, but you have to be in politics."
Besides technocratic excellence and acumen, then, the next prime minister and leader of the PAP will have to be able to campaign, canvass, and move the people.
He will also have to have the qualities to best a strengthening Opposition in debate in and out of Parliament—an Opposition whose leader is able to match the most eloquent of the PAP’s MPs and ministers in debate and unafraid to cross swords with PM Lee. The next prime minister will need to have intellect and charisma, but at the same time will lead in an era when he will likely be first amongst equals.
One retired minister observed after the 2020 election:
"We had an extraordinary run—either out of luck or destiny—we had Lee Kuan Yew, Goh Chok Tong, Lee Hsien Loong. We cannot expect or hope for a repeat—we need to transit to a different mode. The leadership of future generations will depend more on institutions, values and processes. We will still need excellent people, but we may not have one exceptional individual leader in charge of a team reporting to him. We may need more teams of leaders bringing us forward and navigating the complex issues likely to arise for the next 50 years."
It is this mode of consensual and combinatory leadership that will have to take Singapore forward. Lee Kuan Yew, who towered above almost all of his colleagues, recognised this, observing when interviewed by the author in 2011 that "every team has a different mix, but the total result of the mix is performance, in performance and persuading people to a course of action and delivering in that course of action".
However, renewal in the PAP cannot just be limited to the top
The concept of holistic renewal is deeply embedded within the Party. It knows that if it is to thrive, replenishment of the ranks cannot simply be at the leadership level.
The Party will need to convince candidates with genuine ability to stand (many of whom will not become office-holders), supported by a strong network of volunteers and activists (who must also be refreshed).
But as previous chapters have shown, inducting quality candidates into the Party has been problematic for decades, with the task likely becoming even more difficult in the coming years.
Part of this stems from the demands on MPs: a swathe (large, and growing) of the electorate wants MPs to work for them, while at the same time desiring empathy, authenticity and relatability in the individual they elect.
Some MPs interviewed by the author, especially well-known for putting in the hard yards and spending considerable time on the ground, have spoken of a type of “emotional availability” that they increasingly sense constituents desire in their MPs.
MPs cannot merely be present, and even visibly walking the ground is not enough. The sense of full-heartedness and empathy, and being actively interested in the lives of residents, must be shown at all times. Any sense of being perfunctory in interactions is going to come with a cost, and MPs must increasingly be seen and felt to be working directly for the interests of constituents in very tangible ways.
The rise of social media has raised the entry barrier for prospective candidates
Many individuals considering heeding the call to stand for election accept that a certain amount of grassroots politics (meet-the-people sessions, walkabouts and block visits for example) is part of the package. Now, however, they have to learn how to project themselves both in the flesh and on social media.
They can be directly targeted, too, on social media by critics, with some of the character assassination being of a very personal nature.
This has a knock-on impact not just on the candidate but on his or her family. All these factors will now be weighed by candidates asked to stand. Many will decide that the role is not a fit for them. Some former ministers, interviewed by the author, suggest that if they were to be asked now to join the political fray as a PAP candidate, they might not have responded the same way as they did earlier. Toxic personal attacks may deter some from agreeing to stand as candidates.
But the overall, critical challenge—perhaps the critical challenge—for the Party is talent.
There will continue to be able people from the private sector as well as senior civil servants (including senior officers from the armed forces) willing to serve, but the Party may find that these taps will in future run less reliably than they formerly did.
It will be important to find and nurture new clusters of talent, but it is not immediately apparent where these are. And where there are reservoirs of individuals found—individuals committed to making a difference in society—it may well increasingly be the case in the future that major Opposition parties such as the WP are attempting to tap these as well.
What type of person should the Party be looking for? SM Teo Chee Hean, who has been in politics since 1992, explained:
"It is ideal if you can find a person who is a persuader and a mobiliser and who is also able to think through the problems of the future. It is not easy to find such a person. Persuaders and mobilisers can be good on the stump. But you also need a person who can be good on the ground, not just people who turn up and make a good speech."
We have many loyal activists at the branches who believe in what the PAP does—which is that it is a sincere party which works for the interests of the people. Many of them are motivated by this belief and serve with no great expectation of becoming members of parliament and so on. They just want to serve. That’s a strength and an asset. I think the issue really is, can the MPs and the candidates spend more time before they get put up for election; can we “grow” them up within our branches so that they grow with us? The more time they have with the branches, the more time they spend working with the ground, the better. That’s always true. But I think it’s also important for the Party to cast its net wide. For every election you have people who have served for a long time as activists. You can find a number of such people today in our ranks. We always look for them, and we hope to find more of them. But at the same time, we need to reach beyond the Party to look at the whole of Singapore, to bring in people who share the same ideals and the same beliefs."
PM Lee commented:
"We need a range. I need people from the private sector, I need people who know how the government works, I need people who have ground experience in the branches and constituencies. I need people who have political aptitude and skills. It does not mean experience necessarily, but just that kind of temperament, mindset and personality, so that they analyse problems that way, and if they are on stage they can project and have an impact.
It will be harder and harder to attract good people. For MPs I think we can get quite good people, but as it becomes less certain that you will stand in constituencies and win, the hurdle becomes higher. The hurdle is also higher because of the nastiness of the stuff thrown at you, particularly on social media. That is one minus. The other minus is that for ministers: first, the financial sacrifice is greater. Secondly, the uncertainty is also much greater, as you cannot be sure that you will come in and become a minister of state or a minister. You have to stand for elections; but it is a viable career. But I am not sure if that will continue to be
the case in the future. So to get somebody who is midway through his professional life and to make a drastic change, which is mostly irreversible, is challenging. To get somebody later in life, who has already mostly proven himself, and say now you come in and try, and hope to replicate that success in government, is also not easy. But if we do not find the right people, the next team will be weaker, and if the team is weaker, it becomes even harder to maintain political dominance. It is a very serious problem."
End of one-party dominance
Lee Kuan Yew pondered the most—and the furthest—when it came to the PAP’s political longevity. Writing in 2008, he observed in an unpublished manuscript:
"It does not seem likely that the opposition can field a First Division team of candidates to form a shadow government and challenge the PAP in the next General Election. That could change in future if the PAP slips by allowing sleaze and corruption to creep in. That would be the beginning of the end for the PAP. Next, the PAP could lose its dynamism because its leaders are not talented and dynamic enough as in previous generations. Then talented men and women of integrity outside the PAP must come forward to offer themselves as alternatives, otherwise the Singapore Story will unravel. What is certain is that Singapore needs a First Division government, the best that Singapore can put together. This is the best way to organise ourselves as a society and a government. Only with such a government can we widen our economic and political space abroad and maximise our potential. Mediocrity in leaders will lose Singapore its brand name it has gained for itself."
Elsewhere, Lee was even more stark, stating that the day would eventually come—either on account of a decline in the PAP’s quality, or the Opposition fielding a team equal to the PAP—when the electorate would decide to vote the Opposition into power.
Others within the Party have seen this possibility, but through the prism of the normal development of societies. Tharman Shanmugaratnam observed:
“I believe it is not possible to resist a longer-term secular drift down in the PAP’s share. It will happen in any maturing society. We should hope to achieve a new equilibrium eventually, and avoid a continuous spiral down. The PAP vote share might be somewhere slightly above 50 per cent, which is still unusually high by any standard. It will probably happen within a few elections from now. But we need to manage the process, avoid a destabilising decline and a loss of confidence by Singaporeans in their future. If you resist it completely you risk a sudden break. So how do we stay a little above the normal fray, so people think of the PAP really as stewards of Singapore’s political as well as economic future? If it does come to a situation where we feel we really are at risk of losing because you’ve got a very capable Opposition in place, we would have an interest in them being as responsible as possible. Not taking positions that put Singapore’s future at risk externally or even domestically. You’ d have an interest in them having the right instincts and the right measure of things."
Singapore politics changed permanently after 2020, but this is not to say that the leadership in its post-mortem has come to some sort of fatalistic appraisal concerning the irreversible tide of PAP decline. Nor do most PAP leaders think that the task has fallen on the PAP to ease Singapore into a two-party system featuring a strong Opposition.
As Chan Chun Sing (interviewed in 2016) maintained:
"The Party is here to defy the odds of history and to make sure we can keep ourselves as a going concern—we have to work very hard to make sure we keep going in that way. In Singapore our circumstances are unique. It is for the PAP to lose rather than Opposition to win. Anybody who wants to run Singapore must gain the trust of the people. Singaporeans by and large are practical people—they look for people whom they can trust to deliver results and pull the country together. I don’t think it’s inevitable.
Number one: can we continue to attract good people— the right people with the right values—who are in there for the larger good? Number two: having got good people in, can we keep our unity and cohesion in increasingly challenging global circumstances? We have been exceptionally fortunate up till this point to have been able to get in people and get the team to gel together. The new generation will have to bond together as a team in a much shorter time than Lee Kuan Yew’s generation. That will be our challenge. Not so much a new leader, but to groom a team of leaders who can support each other in a more complex environment."
What there is near-uniform recognition of within the leadership is that the PAP stands now near the end of an era in which the country had a single dominant party.
The people, clearly, do not want a complete wipeout of the Opposition—they would not tolerate it.
But the PAP is gearing up to meet the challenges it faces
Interviews with activists, MPs and ministers suggest that the PAP is gearing up and prepared to fight for the hearts and minds of an electorate that increasingly seems to want a sizeable Opposition presence in Parliament.
The Party is also gearing up for the challenge of an Opposition that at some stage will not be content with a handful of seats but will want more—more even than the denial of the PAP’s "supermajority" in Parliament, notwithstanding the position taken by Pritam Singh, leader of the Opposition and chief of the Workers’ Party (which poses the most formidable challenge), that the WP still has “many, many more miles to go”.
The thinking, as far as can be discerned in interviews and informal interactions with activists and MPs, is not solely about a binary future where the PAP and WP jostle.
There is also interest, but not apprehension, in the moves of other parties such as the SDP and the PSP. If the PSP can build, consolidate its organisational machinery, and step out of Dr Tan Cheng Bock’s shadow, then it might emerge in time as a significant player, and not just in areas in the west of Singapore, where it currently has more support.
Some of the most visible, surface-level changes to the PAP’s playbook may well be seen on the campaign trail in future elections. Desmond Lee, minister in charge of the PAP post-mortem effort, remarked that "the rallies are in your phone—you can have a rally every day by playing and replaying messages and themes. The 2020 GE though was almost entirely conducted on social media. People looking for answers and alternatives—they had it in their pocket all the time."
In 2020, as in 2011, the PAP tried to ensure that issues advantageous to the Party were front and centre of its campaign messaging, but the big picture (jobs and livelihoods in 2020, for example) was overshadowed by other issues, with the PAP’s own rebuttals of points raised by the Opposition also seeming to have the effect of pushing its overarching narrative further into the background.
Even as future elections are likely to see a return to normalcy (with real-world rallies returning), more risks will be taken, with younger activists likely to have more say particularly when it comes to the crafting of messages and outreach using social media.
There will likely be further thinking, too, on what many observers saw as the negative style of campaigning. It is unlikely, however, that the PAP in and out of the election cycle will simply adopt a gentler style. Calling out what it sees as Opposition mistakes and distilling hard truths that might seem unpalatable (but necessary for the electorate to hear) has simply not been part of the PAP’s playbook. It is part of its DNA.
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