Saturday, May 28, 2011

Transforming the PAP

May 27, 2011
3 Ps behind PAP's image problem

The men and women in white are members of the People's Action Party, but some have accused them of being proud, arrogant politicians. Why? And what can the PAP do about it? Li Xueying, Cassandra Chew, Elgin Toh and Teo Wan Gek report

THEY seem a breed apart, dwelling in a pristine bubble far from the madding crowd.

That, at least, is the stereotypical view of a People's Action Party (PAP) politician. He or she is likely to cruise around in a luxury car, never having to take public transport.

When he goes to the ground, the PAP MP tends to arrive after everyone else, speaks mainly to grassroots leaders and then makes a quick exit.

Undergraduate Elly Mohamad, 24, says these politicians are 'atas', a Malay word to describe people who think they are above everyone else. That image is at odds with the PAP ethos of being 'servants of the people' - as Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong reminded party members at a Young PAP event last month.

'Never forget we're servants of the people, not their masters,' he said then. 'Always maintain a sense of humility and service. Never lord it over the people we're looking after and serving.'


THE May 7 elections saw the PAP's historic loss of six seats, its worst performance since Independence.

Among other things, the 6.5 percentage point vote swing - from 66.6 per cent in 2006 to 60.1 per cent this year - has been blamed on a widespread perception that the ruling party, in power for 52 years, has become arrogant.

It was first surfaced during the hustings by former foreign minister George Yeo, who said the PAP has to take a 'very hard look' at itself and review the way it governs. He identified the problem on two levels: It has to listen harder; and it should not dismiss people's unease over the pace of change driven by globalisation.

'We need a transformed PAP,' he concluded.

That has to go beyond just rhetoric. The PAP has to acknowledge the grievances, he said.

He recounted how he told Mr Lee during the campaign: 'It's not enough to just say, we're servants, you're masters, because that's just one line. Until people are convinced that you've heard, they are not sure that you have.'

The next day, Mr Lee apologised for his government's mistakes and after the elections, promised that the ruling party would evolve to accommodate more views and participation.

But what really is it about the PAP that has led people to think of it as arrogant?

It can be drilled down to three Ps: poor public relations, personalities and policies.

Poor PR

MANY take umbrage at the way the PAP handles people's concerns - at least, publicly.

Housewife Annie Ang, 60, said: 'They have been in power for too long; they have forgotten to listen to the hearts of the people.'

For instance, many Singaporeans were unhappy that they had to wait three years for an unqualified apology from the Government on the escape of terrorist detainee Mas Selamat Kastari. Mr Lee apologised for it during a lunchtime rally at UOB Plaza during the recent campaign.

Retiree Saleem Akhtar, 59, said: 'They need to change their style. When they are wrong, they just try to argue and explain their way out. If you made a mistake, just come out and admit it. What we want is accountability. You acknowledge, and we move on.'

Mrs Ho Jong Lin, 55, an assistant general manager of a manufacturing company, pointed to another instance of ministers brushing people off when they voice their worries.

'When we talk about rising health- care costs, the PAP will compare us to other countries to tell us we are better off. But that's such a turn-off.'


FOR others, the problem lies with individual MPs and ministers.

Mr C.T. Lingam, 77, a retired technical officer, said he has written letters of feedback to five or six different ministers. Only one replied. 'I'm very hurt,' he said. 'Good ideas are submitted but not being looked into.'

Mr Timothy Lim, 48, a sales director, was disappointed his former MP in Aljunied GRC did not follow through on his case after he went to her at a Meet-the-People session.

He added that he had not seen his MP before the elections, saying if 'after five years they do not feel like your MP, then the personal touch is missing'.

The perception of arrogance is exacerbated by instances of MPs arriving late for community events.

Worse, some speak only with grassroots leaders before exiting quickly. They not only leave a bad impression, but also leave without a good sense of what moves ordinary Singaporeans.

Observed a grassroots leader from Moulmein-Kallang GRC: 'So they are close to only a limited pool of people, hear from only the limited (group of) people what's happening, and they don't really know what's happening to other people, those on the buses or trains.'

In 2004, then-party whip Lim Boon Heng had to issue a reminder to MPs to be punctual.


WHEN it comes to policies, one source of tension seems to be between the PAP's aversion to being viewed as populist and yet, at the same time, reassuring people that they are being heard and their concerns will be addressed.

The ruling party prides itself on being able to push through necessary but unpopular policies, which will yield results only years down the road.

For instance, as noted by Pioneer MP Cedric Foo, it cashed the political chips it gained after successfully managing the Sars crisis in 2003, to restructure the Central Provident Fund (CPF) and cut contribution rates - 'a problem that needed fixing though we knew it was unpopular'.

But has it swung too far in the direction of tough love, such that people feel PAP politicians care little for them?

Procurement manager Beni Ong, 52, believes so.

In the past, PAP MPs 'know what it's like to fight for every vote', he said. But today's MPs are 'more like technocrats, recruited to run and administer policies, but not to look into the problems of residents'.

He added: 'They think they can let the grassroots organisations do the job. But they forget that the grassroots are often feeding them false information, because they are always very positive.

'All they think about is policies and not the people.'

Change needed, locally and nationally
CLEARLY, it can no longer be business as usual for the PAP.

Insight spoke to 15 MPs and all agree that much needs to be done to alter the perception of PAP arrogance.

They point to feedback received during the election campaign and decreased vote shares - especially in areas they knew previously to be PAP strongholds - as clear signals.

Said Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC MP Teo Ser Luck: 'This GE was a very good lesson for all of us.'

Change, they said, will have to take place at both the national and local levels.


At the local level

THE relationship between MPs and residents has to be strengthened, they say.

Mr Liang Eng Hwa is taking one firm step to strike at the image of the MP placed on a pedestal.

The MP for Holland-Bukit Timah GRC has told his grassroots leaders that starting this term, he should not be called the 'guest of honour' at grassroots events. Rather, they should tell residents that 'the MP will also be attending'.

He will also arrive ahead of time to mingle, instead of turning up only at the appointed time.

MPs are also thinking of ways to reach out to people beyond the routine MPSes and grassroots events.

Mr Edwin Tong, an MP for Moulmein-Kallang GRC, acknowledged that the grassroots events have been reaching out to 'the usual suspects'.

Meanwhile, it is difficult having meaningful conversations at MPSes, as people are impatient after the long wait, said Sembawang GRC MP Ellen Lee. She hopes she can persuade residents to 'stay on to have a decent conversation'.

Mr Tong has started to organise small informal coffee or makan sessions with residents of two to three blocks at a time. There is no speech, no programme - just chit-chat.

'I would like to do the same with schools, condominium residents, hawker associations, unions etc, the people we seldom see,' he said.

Mr Liang is going one step further - meeting residents in one-on-one sessions at kopitiams. For instance, one e-mailed him with concerns about the layout of the new Bukit Panjang MRT station. They will have a coffee together this week.

In cyberspace, the party's online efforts would have to be beefed up to better reach out to the young.

Mr Zaqy Mohamad, a Chua Chu Kang GRC MP and Young PAP vice-chairman, acknowledged that the party does not yet have a good formula for packaging content.

'Our MPs are on Facebook, they put up pictures of block visits, but there are no substantative elements that explain to residents why certain things are done,' he said.

So to gather feedback on the transport system in Chua Chu Kang, he is conducting surveys of the bus services on his page.

Meanwhile, MPs could visit schools informally to give talks that would raise political awareness.

'We can teach about democracy, and also how to analyse policies and manifestos,' said Mr Zaqy.

But it is not just about talk. MPs have to take action to follow up on interactions with residents, said Mr Teo.

'Sometimes we have good intentions, but when they are executed on the ground, they are less than perfect because of a lack of follow-up, so we end up disappointing residents and confidence falls.

'If we want to transform, we cannot just change at the intent level at the top.'

Ultimately, MPs must remember that they need to be the face and the voice of the residents, said Mr Tong.

'It used to be that politics was about the party.

'Now, it is becoming more about what the individual candidate can offer to the residents. And I think it is up to each MP to take the initiative.'

At the national level

THE philosophy of how the PAP Government crafts its policies has to evolve, and its process revamped, said the MPs.

One important change is that policymakers need to be more mindful of short- term pain, and not be overly focused on the long-term good.

Health Minister Gan Kim Yong said: 'Even for policies that are good for Singaporeans in general, there could still be negative impact on certain segments of the people, especially in the short term.'

This means that policymakers have to be 'engaged with the people at every step of the policy implementation process'.

'We may need to fine-tune our policies to minimise the impact, find ways to help them cope, and explain the trade- offs in our policy choices,' said Mr Gan.

'This way, we can help our people more effectively and gain their support for our policies.'

West Coast GRC MP Arthur Fong notes that some Singaporeans are caught between policies.

One instance is when old housing blocks undergo the selective en-bloc redevelopment scheme (Sers) and residents have to plough back their compensation into their CPF accounts, leaving them with little liquid income.

'This is good in the long term in ensuring that they have sufficient retirement funds,' said Mr Fong.

'But sometimes, we need to consider their needs too and be more flexible in mandating that they channel the money back into CPF.'

A second change that backbenchers like veteran MP Inderjit Singh hope to see is an opportunity to be involved in the policymaking process much earlier.

'We need more upfront involvement of the MPs, even before the policies are formulated, rather than at the tail end of the policymaking process,' he said.

Currently, MPs are tapped for feedback after policies are more or less crafted, but before they are passed in Parliament, he said.

He believes that policies which would have benefited from earlier discussions with MPs range from the housing income ceiling, now being reviewed, to whether more Singaporeans should be allowed to stay in rental flats.

Such a process will mean some time lost, conceded Marine Parade GRC MP Seah Kian Peng, 'but I think it's time worth losing'.

'Because once the communication is done well, everyone can catch up later. When everyone is on board, they can move at double the speed.'

But how much longer can this process stretch without compromising the capability of policymakers to move in time?

Mr Singh said it is a 'matter of judgment and the PM has to decide'.

'If that is what it takes for a policy to be effective and to be right, then it's okay for us to lose the efficiency.'

A lifting of the party whip on more Bills in Parliament will also go some way in convincing people that a full debate is taking place and that all concerns will receive a complete airing and be taken into account, added the MPs.

PAP MPs also recognise the need to better communicate the thinking behind policies. That has to go beyond speeches in Parliament because as Mr Zaqy said: 'Ministers give one long speech in Parliament. Who remembers?'

Office holders, civil servants and MPs will have to do constant explaining on the ground - in layman's terms.

There is a need to convince younger and better-educated voters of the necessity of certain policies and teach them about trade-offs, said Mr Zaqy.

Added Nee Soon GRC MP Muhammad Faishal Ibrahim: 'The policymakers should be more open and upfront in what are the challenges that we face as a society.'

Immigration is one area where more openness and explanation are needed, MPs said.

A lack of communication has also allowed untruths to perpetuate. Said Sembawang GRC's Ms Ellen Lee: 'We have been accused of not doing a lot of things, when actually it has been done or is work in progress.'

Finally, policymakers must be prepared to admit mistakes and be ready to change when their policies are found to be wanting.

Nee Soon GRC MP Lee Bee Wah said policymakers should not see 'fine-tuning as a loss of face'.

'Rather, see it as an act of faith to the people affected,' she added.

The Prime Minister said as much during the election, when he sought Singaporeans' understanding for missteps by the Government.

'When these problems vex you or disturb you or upset your lives, please bear with us. We're trying our best on your behalf.

'And if we didn't quite get it right, I'm sorry but we will try and do better the next time.'

His humility struck a chord with many and has set the tone for the PAP's transformation.

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