Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The irony of GE 2011

May 7, 2011

PAP and opposition both recognise need for ruling party to change

By Chua Lee Hoong

WHATEVER conclusions the ruling People's Action Party (PAP) draws when tonight's poll results are out, there is already one certainty it knows: Its style must change.

Mr George Yeo, PAP anchor in Aljunied GRC, admitted as much on Thursday when he said that 'whatever the outcome, I see the party taking a very hard look at itself and the way it does things'

The one common thread that ran through otherwise disparate opposition campaign themes in the last two weeks was the need to provide a counter to the PAP so that it would be 'less arrogant', 'listen to the people more', have 'more heart and not just head', and so on.

Mr Yeo called it 'a cry from the heart' from voters, an emotional undertow that the Workers' Party managed to tap - and channel and amplify.

The irony of the situation is that the PAP leader himself, I believe, agrees with the need for change.

In January 2004, seven months before he became Prime Minister, Mr Lee Hsien Loong declared in a speech to the Harvard Club: 'I have no doubt that our society must open up further.

'It is not just a changing of the guard. Our world has changed irrevocably, a younger generation born after Independence is now in majority, and our strategies to grow our economy and root our people must change.'

In another speech in March 2005, he spoke of how Singapore's elite must be open and inclusive, with a shared purpose to serve.

In the years since, Mr Lee has made being 'open and inclusive' a hallmark of his premiership on both economic and political fronts.

He has paid special attention to the low-income group: The Workfare Income Supplement was introduced under his watch and - according to inside sources - against the will of some senior Cabinet figures. Today, that scheme benefits hundreds of thousands of workers.

His government is deeply concerned about a widening income gap. Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam has said that the Government aims to increase the individual median income from $2,420 in 2009 to $3,800 by 2020.

This is a significant objective because in the previous 10 years, the median income rose only from $1,840 to $2,420.

Political space has been liberalised, in small increments thus far, but will likely be liberalised further.

This General Election itself is proof of that liberalisation. Like a tightly coiled spring released, Singaporeans emerged in droves to contest the elections, support and help candidates, and take part in rally festivities.

They blogged, they talked, they snapped pictures, they cheered speakers. Climate of fear? Passed into history.

Police officers on duty at rally sites were souls of friendly civility - no iron fists lurked beneath those white gloves.

And contrary to widespread expectations derived from earlier elections, the PAP fought a clean fight in GE 2011.

An attempt by one minister to question the ability of WP candidate Chen Show Mao to connect with Singaporeans died in infancy. Another attempt, by another minister, to cast doubts on the agenda of a Singapore Democratic Party candidate said to be gay, was nipped in the bud, given no chance to flower.

In an earlier era, both attempts would likely have developed into full-blown smear campaigns. That they did not do so this year is one indication, however small, that the PAP is changing.

Mr Lee, in his 2004 Harvard Club speech, dwelt at length on how he recognised the need for consultation in policymaking. He recounted how he, as a rookie politician, had been involved in the party's post-mortem of the 1984 GE, when the PAP suffered a 12.8 percentage point swing against it from four years earlier and lost what was then an unprecedented two seats.

'Everybody was taken aback, even the voters. That election triggered much soul-searching and national debate as to what had gone wrong. The consensus was that people had cast protest votes just to register unhappiness with particular PAP policies, though in fact they still wanted the PAP to form the Government. The popular cry was for more feedback and consultation,' he said.

'The report reaffirmed that we should maintain the substance of our policies. But it argued that we should depend not just on logic but also on emotions to win support for them. It proposed emphasising feedback and consensus-building, so that people would feel and know their ideas have been included in new policies. I drafted that report as the secretary. I was then 33, fresh in politics, and that was how I saw it,' he added candidly.

The Feedback Unit was born as a result of those findings. Today it is known as Reach - 'reaching everyone for active citizenry @ home' - and its role has expanded beyond passively collecting feedback to a more activist one of engaging and connecting with citizens. (Full disclosure: I am on its supervisory panel.)

So why is there so much unhappiness still, if the Prime Minister has made much effort to be open and inclusive?

The answer, of course, is that the PAP comprises more than the PM. Singapore's political culture remains largely conservative and with high expectations of its leaders. Ministers and MPs have little margin for error in speech or behaviour.

There is also the legacy of a paternalistic PAP that suited earlier times but not today. 'We need a PAP that talks with, not talks at; a PAP that is not perceived as arrogant or high-handed,' was how Mr Yeo put it.

That was why PM Lee created such a stir when he said sorry for several government mistakes on Tuesday - earlier PMs would not have taken the step he did. It was also in keeping with the philosophy of servant leadership that he has been propounding.

What next though? The PAP knows its style must change. How? And will other ministers buy in?

Striking the right balance between being of service to citizens and maintaining good and nimble governance will not be easy. 'The key is to be authentic, not apologetic,' says one wise soul. 'There will always be hard trade-offs to make and we shouldn't go around in a tone of contrition each time a tough decision has to be made.'

If the PAP is able to make Authenticity its middle name, that would be the crowning achievement from this election, whatever its vote share turns out to be.


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