Tuesday, September 8, 2009


Sep 5, 2009

THE PAP did not expect its share of votes in 1984 to be as high as 1980's 77.66 per cent. After all, it had already suffered a loss - its first since 1968 - in the 1981 Anson by-election. Many of the issues that contributed to that loss might be specific to the ward but the result was also an indication of a growing trend among the people to vote for the opposition.

PAP was surprised and disturbed, however, by the scale of the swing - 12.8 per cent - and the plunge in majority votes in almost all the wards across the island.

In material terms, there was no reason for the people to be unhappy. The four years from 1980 to 1984 had been exceptionally good years.

Salaries had gone up by 8.7 per cent in every one of those years. By August 1984, the PAP government had also succeeded in housing 80 per cent of the population and three-quarters of them owned their HDB flats (public housing flats built by the Housing and Development Board).

So what were the reasons for the swing?

'We tempted fate,' was the blunt answer the party gave in its own post-mortem report that was released for the first time for this book. 'Had it not been for the tremendous depth of support which PAP enjoyed, we would have been voted out of office.'

The report was a merciless piece of self-examination. It identified, with no punches pulled, the reasons for the swing against the party and made recommendations on what the party should do to rebuild the kind of extensive support which the PAP government had enjoyed.

But it was more than just a post-mortem exercise. If the 1984 general election marked a major turning point for PAP, then the 33-page document was a significant signpost that pointed to that turn. From it, one could trace the transition of the Old Guard leadership to the new and the shift in the party's style.

What had remained unchanged, though, was the substance of its policies. The PAP government would always work for the long-term good of Singapore.

The shift in style had been gradual, so gradual in fact that one could take in its full measure only by stepping back at the end of the 1980s and looking at how much the society had changed.

It was just as well that the PAP government started making the change in the mid-1980s. It helped prepare both the party and people to adjust to the new demands of globalisation and the exponential growth of new information technologies that came full throttle in the 1990s. Because the new technologies shortened business cycles and forced a faster pace of change, society had to become more nimble and rely less on its old command-and-control approach to doing things.

The post-mortem report was put together by a task force set up by Goh Chok Tong, who joined the party in 1976 and had, by 1984, become the party's assistant secretary-general. Chaired by Ong Teng Cheong, it was made up entirely of the key members of the 1980 and 1984 cohorts.

Lee Hsien Loong, a member of the task force, wrote up the report. The eldest of Lee Kuan Yew's three children, he was 32 years old in 1984. He left the army, where he was brigadier-general, to go into politics.

In the general election, he fought against a lightweight - Giam Lai Cheng - from an inconsequential party in the new, largely working class ward of Teck Ghee in Ang Mo Kio. As he recounted more than 20 years later, his team was sure he would take away her deposit (which all election candidates were required to put down and which would be forfeited if they failed to collect at least 12.5 per cent of the votes) but he did not.

Lee didn't stop at two

PAP had tempted fate by rolling out one controversial policy after another in what was an election year, the post-mortem report noted. It was never done in past election years.

In the first six months of 1984, Lee Kuan Yew, worried about potential problems 30 to 50 years down the road, pushed through two policy ideas that roused a population which had become apathetic with growing affluence.

From the 1980 census, he discerned a trend of 'lop-sided procreation'.

The better educated women were not marrying and if they did, were producing at the most two children. Less educated women, however, were producing more children when, in most instances, they did not have the resources to raise them, much less give them a good education.

So a graduate mothers policy was launched. Lee gave graduate mothers their pick of preschool or primary school for their third child. It sparked off a public outcry. The papers were inundated with angry calls and letters, even from tertiary educated women who, at the time, made up only 1.3 per cent (14,515) of the female population.

The Straits Times published the more considered responses but allowed room also for the more emotional ones, such as that sent in by an incensed 40-year-old single professional: 'I am deeply insulted by the suggestion that some miserable financial incentive will make me jump into bed with the first attractive man I meet and proceed to produce a highly talented child for the sake of Singapore's future...The only fanatics who have done such things were the storm troopers of Nazi Germany.'

Eugenics, or the science of selective breeding to improve the hereditary qualities of a breed or a race, was an idea as old as Plato but it was discredited when the Nazi regime used it to justify its racial superiority and sent thousands of 'inferior' Jews to the gas chambers.

No post-war leader in the developed world would go near that idea. It would be political suicide. But Lee was not one to flinch from his conviction.

He believed that human intelligence was innate and carried in the genes, and that nature did not distribute its gifts evenly among all people.

Tony Tan artfully dismantled the controversial policy soon after the election but Lee must have felt vindicated by findings that advances in genetics and evolutionary biology turned up afterwards. A human being does not come into the world a blank slate and there are inherent biological limits to what he can be and do which are specific to him because of his genetic make-up. The right environment will allow him to achieve his fullest potential but it cannot extend by very much the limits set by his genetic make-up.

The other potential problem Lee tried to anticipate was the prospects of Singapore becoming a greying society. According to an official estimate, about 20 per cent of the population would be aged 65 and above by 2030. The elderly could be a heavy burden on future generations if they did not have the means to support themselves and take care of their medical needs.

Lee got Howe Yoon Chong, a former senior civil servant who crossed over into politics and was made the health minister, to form a committee and study the problem. Howe and his team took great pains to put together a comprehensive report with a list of recommendations. They did not expect it though to become a bomb that blew in their faces after Lee released it to the public.

There were many useful recommendations in what came to be known as the Howe Yoon Chong Report but what drew the public's exclusive attention was the one which suggested the raising of the retirement age from 55 to 60, then 65 eventually, and pushing back accordingly the age when people could withdraw their savings from the Central Provident Fund (CPF), a government-managed pension scheme.

The public outcry was even louder this time. Alarmed, the government put it on the backburner, pending more studies to be done in the area.

The post-mortem report said the people felt insulted and were deeply resentful of the two policies: 'The CPF proposal suggested that people could not be trusted to look after their own money even in old age. The graduate mothers policy... implied that not every citizen's child would be equally talented or valued, and worse, that parents too were not equal.'

Lee, seemingly unfazed by all the fuss, did not stop at two.

In the second half of the year, he proposed that Parliament be allowed to have three Non-Constituency MPs if no opposition candidate won in a general election. These MP seats would be offered to contestants who had failed to win the election but garnered the highest votes in the opposition camp. They could debate freely in Parliament but not vote on critical matters. Critics saw it as a salve to the younger electorate's wish for some opposition presence in the House to check the PAP.

He also mooted the idea of an elected president whose principal task would be to safeguard the nation's reserves from future governments that might be tempted to dip into them for all the wrong reasons. Under the Constitution, the government appointed the president whose role was largely a ceremonial one.

'It was a long list of new ideas for the electorate to digest,' the post-mortem report said. The report was also candid in its admission that the PAP's election strategy was wrong. The party had planned to take the high ground, focus on long-term issues and ignore the controversies that had been stirred up by the slew of policy changes during the year.

In an article published in The Straits Times after the general election, political commentator Chan Heng Chee of the National University of Singapore said: 'Harsh and unpopular policies introduced in the context of immediate threats to economic survival, such as measures deemed necessary after separation from Malaysia and the withdrawal of British troops, were better understood and borne with. The population as a whole has been much less swayed by the necessity of controversial measures to ensure the continued development, prosperity and stability of Singapore in the 21st century.'

The opposition appeared to have understood this well and to have gauged correctly that the people's anger and resentment had not been defused by the time the election was held. It tapped into that latent disaffection and exploited it to good effect in the nine days of campaigning.

Pushed against the ropes and put on the defensive, the PAP was forced to beat back the opposition on those very issues that it had originally ignored.

But it was a case of too little, too late.

The party had also misread the ground although the second-generation leaders had spent three years tilling it after the loss of the Anson seat in 1981. Their constituency walkabouts had been too well stage-managed by local grassroots leaders who were eager to bear only the good news, the report said.

Its nerve network of party branches, citizens' consultative committees, community centre management committees and residents' committees was no longer the effective feedback loop that the leadership thought it was. The branches, dormant outfits that came to life only during elections, had to be reinvigorated and new members had to be encouraged to staff them. They had to also consciously campaign for the party even during the non-election years.

The post-mortem team also found that the mass media, though supportive of the government, did it no favours. Instead, in overplaying the PAP, the print media created doubts and disbelief among the voters.

Their emphasis on the defects and deficiencies of the opposition helped stir up more sympathy for the opposition rather than hurt them. And voters were indifferent to the party broadcast and the daily press conferences at the party headquarters.

Ang Peng Hwa, dean of the School of Communication and Information at the Nanyang Technological University, agreed that the approach that the newspapers took during the run-up to the election was 'too obviously 'pro' the ruling party'.

'It hurt the papers' credibility as well as the PAP's,' he said.

At the time, Ang was a young reporter at the newly launched afternoon daily, The Singapore Monitor (now defunct), and was part of the team covering the election. He remembered: 'The circulation of The Singapore Monitor was climbing steadily before the GE. But after the event, it plunged. Readers were perceptive.'

To win anew the right to rule

A PERTINENT point made in the post-mortem report was that the right to rule had not been transferred automatically from the Old Guard to the New. It was probably not transferable.

'The most important priority of the new leadership must be to establish a close rapport with the people, to win the right to rule,' it said.

First, the party had to revamp its image. People had come to see it as arrogant and unfeeling. It did not understand the problems of the less fortunate and showed no compassion for them.

PAP also had to change its purely rational approach towards selling its policies. People needed to be engaged emotionally. Logic alone was not enough to win them over. The party had to stop harping on the quality of its candidates as it only reinforced the perception that its super-achievers were too removed from the ground and had no feel for the common man.

'The PAP must find some visible way to demonstrate that it has ordinary people in its inner circle and for people to identify themselves with the candidates even though the candidates are not poor or ill educated,' the report said.

Feedback and later on, EQ (or emotional quotient) would become buzz words as the party, led by Goh Chok Tong, developed a more consultative style of governance.

Although the party had always maintained a low profile, the wide range of essential services that the PAP government provided such as the day-to-day maintenance of HDB estates had made it omnipresent in people's lives.

'The government must do less, rather than more, for the people' was the report's recommendation. Most significantly, the report accepted that 'the opposition is here to stay'. The conjunction of events that made possible the high degree of consensus in the first generation was unlikely to repeat itself, it pointed out.

In and out of Parliament, PAP had to engage its opponents in ways different from those of the past. The party's objective was to maintain a large and stable majority for PAP rather than to eliminate the opposition altogether.

Electorate put on notice

IT HAD been the practice of the PAP to begin introducing its new candidates for a general election a month or two before the event. Parliament would be dissolved and two weeks or 10 days before Nomination Day, the respective dates for nomination and election would be announced.

For the 1984 general election, however, Lee Kuan Yew gave a full year's notice.

There were several reasons for the long notice, he told his audience at a rally. Chief among them was that the year-long process 'would be political initiation for the post-Malaysia generation, the under-30s, the generation that has not personally experienced strife and deprivation'. It would be 'the education of a whole generation of young voters', he said.

Lee achieved his goal at some cost to the party. But more than that, he succeeded in jolting a population out of its comfort zone. It was an apathetic population that believed that the PAP government would take care of its every need even as it chafed at the restraints.

Looking back some 20 years later, Lee said that there was method in the way he shook up the electorate. He was certainly not playing brinkmanship, as was suggested by Chan Heng Chee in her 1985 article in The Straits Times.

Lee said: 'The percentage could go down but we could not lose. And even if we were to lose, how many seats could we lose? Not many. The position is not one of just happiness as we go along, up and up and up.

'Every now and then, it's a bumpy ride. Put your seat belts on. Turbulence. That's life.'

It was a lesson that the younger generation had to learn.

More importantly, Lee thought it was necessary to have a proper shake-up before the handover 'so all the weaknesses, all the potential anti-votes, could be identified'.

The anti-communist phase was ending. The communists and their supporters had been resettled and although for some years they still voted against PAP, the antipathy had largely dissolved. Their children had grown up and were doing well.

But new problems were cropping up. As Lee elaborated: 'One phase had ended where we met an economic and social problem of inequality because of lack of opportunities. But we have created a new problem of equal opportunities but not equal results. So this had got to be defined so that people would understand it.'

The meritocratic system had led to a new divide in society, not by wealth but by ability. There were winners and losers. The less able could be resentful and vote against PAP. The new leaders had to be made to see this. They had to attend to the less able without resorting to the kind of welfare policies that had debilitated the workforce in once-successful economies like Germany and France.

So 1984 was indeed a turning point. The post-mortem report, besides being a signpost, would also serve as a roadmap for PAP in the 1990s.

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