Sunday, July 31, 2011

The new normal in politics

Jul 30, 2011

Twenty-two Members of Parliament retired from politics at this year's general election. They reflect on the new political reality and the challenges ahead for the ruling party and Singapore.

By Andrea Ong

THE new normal in politics arrived sooner than some in the ruling party had expected.

It did so for newly retired Member of Parliament (MP) Ahmad Magad.

He tells Insight that he had expected the first Group Representation Constituency (GRC) to fall to the opposition at the next general election (GE), not this year's.

With the loss of Aljunied GRC at the May 7 polls, the People's Action Party (PAP) now has to contend with 'a significant opposition party in Parliament', Mr Lim Boon Heng said last week.

The former Cabinet minister and PAP chairman was speaking on behalf of the 22 PAP MPs who retired at these polls, during a dinner held in their honour.

He said: 'Politics has changed. We have now entered a new phase, and (are) entering a new norm.'

What exactly is this new norm? What does it spell for both the ruling party and Singapore?

Change in the House
WHEN Singapore's 12th Parliament sits later this year, it will have nine opposition members - six of them elected to represent Aljunied GRC and Hougang, and three Non-Constituency MPs.

That's the largest number of opposition members in the House since 1968.

There will also be nine Nominated MPs who do not belong to any political party.

Mr Lim has predicted that 'politics will be challenging, with more voices in Parliament, and more intelligent voices too'.

The Workers' Party's team of eight representatives includes well-qualified newcomers Chen Show Mao and Pritam Singh, both with legal training, and Gerald Giam, an IT consultant.

The opposition MPs are in the House because of an 'awakened' electorate, who showed in GE 2011 their dissatisfaction with the status quo, several retired MPs said.

Associate Professor Ho Peng Kee, a former senior minister of state for law and home affairs, says: 'We now clearly have a more discerning and questioning public who want to know all the 'ins and outs' of a policy.'

He expects the opposition MPs, Nominated MPs and PAP backbenchers to keep office-holders 'on their toes', both in explaining or defending policies in Parliament and devising policies out of it.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has indicated that 'nothing should be sacrosanct' in the new political landscape.

At the swearing-in ceremony of his new Cabinet on May 21, he said: 'We will take a totally fresh look at our problems and policies, and rethink what is necessary and best for Singapore's future... Though Singaporeans trust that our policies are mostly sound, nothing should be sacrosanct.'

Indeed, before the election, few would have predicted the swift raft of changes that followed in the wake of its results.

Former prime ministers Lee Kuan Yew and Goh Chok Tong retired from the Cabinet. Another three ministers also stepped aside in the biggest Cabinet reshuffle in decades.

Plans are also afoot to slaughter a few sacred cows in policy, including the pegging of ministers' salaries to top private-sector pay.

Still, the outlook for policymakers remains challenging.

The outcome of GE 2011 is not the first electoral backlash the PAP has suffered as a result of unpopular policies.

Some election issues such as cost of living, the need for more opposition voices and high ministerial salaries are not new, acknowledges Prof Ho.

But he says: 'What is different is how these issues came together in the 2011 GE.'

They were 'woven together and presented in an inter-related way to paint a picture of a government that was not listening enough and did not fully appreciate the people's difficulties on the ground', he adds.

Former minister of state for community development, youth and sports Yu-Foo Yee Shoon is of the view that election issues used to focus on a few topics, such as the graduate mother scheme in 1984.

'Now, with better education and affluence, the issues are more diverse. Different groups and individuals have their own issues,' she says. That makes it harder for the PAP to pin down and address voters' discontent.

What worries some of the retired MPs is the loosening of a bond that the PAP had forged with an older generation of Singaporeans, a bond which allowed the party's leaders to implement unpopular policies they considered necessary for the country's future.

As former Tampines GRC MP Sin Boon Ann sees it: 'If we were running this election 20 years earlier, even if there were unpopular policies, I think people would still have the same compact with the Government, to trust the Government enough that the policies are good.'

Now, there is growing pressure on policymakers to widen the focus beyond the rationality of policies as measured by their long-term benefits, to the politics of policies.

Mr Sin says this change 'may well force the Government into doing things for the short term, with a view to the next election, rather than taking a long-term view and strategic view about where we want Singapore to be in 10, 15 years down the road'.

Former office-holder and Joo Chiat MP Chan Soo Sen recounts a scene from British television satire Yes Minister, in which a minister afraid of changing a wrong policy told his permanent secretary: 'I am their leader, I must follow them.'

That must not happen here, says Mr Chan.

'We have a rational electorate, who vote rationally. The party must continue to show political courage to do the right thing, even if we may in the short term lose some seats.

'If we don't do it, we lose more, and the nation loses more,' he adds.

Change on the ground
RETIRED MPs also believe that the new norm in politics means the PAP will have to play by the new rules of the game on the ground, at the level of constituencies.

The clearest example of this would be the ruling party's treatment of opposition wards. In the past, PAP leaders often took a hardline stance towards voters in those wards.

Upgrading carrot has lost its taste

On polling night in 1984, after the PAP suffered a 12.8 percentage point decline in its vote share, then Foreign and Culture Minister S. Dhanabalan lambasted the two new opposition MPs, describing them as 'weak opposition leaders with a motley bunch of candidates'.

After the 1991 election, when the PAP lost four seats to the opposition, then PM Goh said he would be 'a little deaf' to feedback from voters in opposition wards who 'had their bread buttered on both sides' for too long.

The PAP Government also delayed lift and estate upgrading for opposition wards.

However, several retired MPs interviewed by Insight are convinced that this year's election marked the death of upgrading as a carrot.

Mr Lim tells Insight via e-mail: 'When the opposition gained seats in the 1980s, the PAP set out to show how different opposition-held constituencies would be from PAP-held ones. In the new norm, I believe this strategy is outdated.'

He says the PAP will now have to work the ground in opposition-held wards, so as to win over voters there.

'It is more like politics in the early 1960s. So it will be politics of engagement,' he says.

The Prime Minister has indicated that the PAP will also refine the way it selects its candidates.

At the thank-you dinner he hosted for the retired MPs last week, Mr Lee said the PAP seeks candidates not just in the usual mould, but those out of it, as well as more activists with dedication and skill in working the ground.

Mr Lim notes that choosing the right candidates is essential because PAP candidates are now scrutinised much more than opposition ones.

The retired MPs stress repeatedly that PAP MPs need to be approachable and change the perception that they do not listen and have no empathy.

As Mr Lim pointed out in his speech last week: 'People want their MPs to reflect their concerns and worries in Parliament. MPs must master the art of doing so, without scoring own goals. It can be done.'

PAP MPs, the Prime Minister said, need to learn how to exercise political judgment, not just policy judgment.

Prof Ho recalls that when he first entered politics in 1991, the PAP brand name was like a 'badge of honour' and 'stamp of quality'.

'Now, residents see beyond the party brand name to assess the candidate and MP on what he or she has done or said in life, what he or she stands for,' he says.

New media is yet another game changer.

Outgoing MPs point to how it has opened the gates to vocal, unrestricted discussions among Singaporeans, and several opposition parties' skilful use of these new tools of communication during the election.

Mr Chan says the PAP has not been very effective in working out a new media strategy and picking up online feedback.

'It's a more noisy place now,' he tells Insight. 'But you still want to hear what you are supposed to be hearing.'

If the PAP thinks new media is important, he says the party needs to engage its members more on the matter, and identify and train activists instead of letting 'everybody fight their own battle'.

The party also needs to come up with content that people will want to read, he says, and does not strike them as 'strait-jacketed'.

Brave new world
AS THE retired PAP MPs leave the political stage, they are divided as to what the future holds for their party.

Mrs Yu-Foo is optimistic.

She recalls that after the PAP's share of the vote hit a low of 61 per cent in 1991, the party recovered and went on to score 75.3 per cent in 2001.

'I have confidence that if we remain engaged with the ground and get the right people to serve, we will rebound,' she says.

Dr Ahmad is less sure.

The PAP has to prepare for a future in which more high-calibre candidates will join the opposition.

'They are likely to be more formidable and give the PAP a stronger fight at the next GE,' he says.

Mr Lim accepts that the new reality for Singapore politics is one which includes a larger number of opposition MPs in Parliament. Indeed, the PAP Government had amended the Constitution before GE 2011 to make sure there will be nine opposition members in the House, whether as elected or Non-Constituency MPs, he said.

He has issued an appeal for 'constructive politics'.

The nation's future, he said in his farewell speech last week, depended on the posture and performance of the PAP and Workers' Party.

Singaporeans must also play their part, say several outgoing MPs.

Madam Ho Geok Choo welcomes the newfound 'energy and enthusiasm of Singaporeans for what's happening around them'.

She hopes it will not be squandered in petty bickering and shows of dislike, such as the booing that greeted a minister who arrived late for an event.

Some Singaporeans have greeted the new norm in politics with joy, and look forward to electing even more opposition members to Parliament at the next polls.

But others are unsettled by the pace and magnitude of changes in the party that has governed Singapore for over half a century, and its policies.

Politicians and voters will have to learn to navigate their way forward in this new political landscape. Their own and Singapore's future is at stake.

Electoral swings, past and present
1984: The first big scare

Vote swing against the PAP: 12.8 percentage points. The People's Action Party (PAP) won 64.8 per cent of valid votes - its lowest margin since independence.

Seats lost: Two. The PAP's Ng Pock Too failed to win back Anson from Workers' Party (WP) chief J.B. Jeyaretnam, and the Singapore Democratic Party's (SDP) Chiam See Tong won Potong Pasir against the PAP's Mah Bow Tan.

Sources of unhappiness:

  • Unpopular policies, namely the graduate mother scheme, which gave priority in school registration to the children of graduate mothers, and raising of the Central Provident Fund (CPF) withdrawal age.
  • The electorate's resentment against the PAP's high-handed, arrogant style.

PAP's response:
  • Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew considered amending the 'one man, one vote' system.
  • The Government scrapped the graduate mother scheme and the proposal to raise CPF withdrawal age.
  • It also set up the Feedback Unit to engage Singaporeans and the Economic Committee to review economic policies.

1991: A new Prime Minister

Vote swing against the PAP: 2.2 percentage points. The PAP won 61 per cent of valid votes.

Seats lost: Four. Potong Pasir, Bukit Gombak and Nee Soon Central went to the SDP's Mr Chiam, Mr Ling How Doong and Mr Cheo Chai Chen respectively. Hougang went to the WP's Mr Low Thia Khiang.

Sources of unhappiness:
  • Mr Goh Chok Tong, who succeeded Mr Lee Kuan Yew as Prime Minister shortly before the polls, interpreted the results as a rejection of the open, consultative style he had promised.
  • Inflation, which rose from 1.5 per cent in 1988 to 3.4 per cent in 1991.
  • The loss of three seats to Chinese-speaking opposition politicians led the PAP to conclude that the Chinese-speaking 'silent majority' felt neglected by the Government.

PAP's response:
  • PM Goh called for the PAP to band together. He even mulled over scrapping the government parliamentary committees, comprising backbencher MPs tasked to lead the debate on proposed policies.
  • The Government set up the first Cost Review Committee.
  • It also set up the Chinese Development Assistance Council (CDAC) to help lower-income Chinese Singaporeans.

2011: 'The new norm'

Vote swing against the PAP: 6.5 percentage points. The PAP won 60.1 per cent of valid votes, a new historic low. A group representation constituency (GRC) fell to the opposition for the first time.

Seats lost: Six. The WP won the five-member Aljunied GRC and Hougang.

Sources of unhappiness:
  • High housing prices, crowded trains and buses, the large influx of foreigners, rising cost of living.
  • Resentment against the PAP and desire for more opposition in Parliament.

PAP's response:
  • Mr Lee Kuan Yew and Mr Goh Chok Tong retired from the Cabinet.
  • Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong introduced an extensive reshuffle of his Cabinet, which is now leaner and younger than before the polls.
  • PAP office-holders and MPs have stepped up efforts to engage Singaporeans online and face to face.
  • The Government has launched reviews of unpopular policies which it had previously defended, such as ministerial pay and income ceilings for build-to-order Housing Board flats.

'A new phase'

'This election marks a distinct shift in our political landscape which all of us must adjust to - not only the political parties, but Singaporeans at large.'

'It's a fresh slate after a watershed election... We want the policies to be responsive, to address real problems which Singaporeans have, which at the same time, over the long term, will deliver results and a better life for Singapore... These are trade-offs and judgments, not just policy judgments but political judgments which the ministers will have to make.'

- PM Lee announcing his sweeping Cabinet changes in May

'Singapore has entered a new phase in its political development... We will take a totally fresh look at our problems and policies, and rethink what is necessary and best for Singapore's future... though Singaporeans must trust that our policies are mostly sound, nothing should be sacrosanct.'

- PM Lee at the swearing-in ceremony of his new Cabinet

'The time has come for a younger generation to carry Singapore forward in a more difficult and complex situation. The Prime Minister and his team of younger leaders should have a fresh, clean slate.

Joint statement by former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew and 
Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong 
announcing their decision to retired from the Cabinet

'I believe in all democracies, there are key milestones opposition parties aim for. In Singapore, winning a GRC was one such stated key milestone; hence, the psychological importance. So, it is quite right for the PAP to do deep 'soul-searching'.'

- Former senior minister of state for law and home affairs Ho Peng Kee

'That is the responsibility of all our candidates: not so much to win the policy argument but to win hearts, even if the policy argument is lost.'

- Former Joo Chiat MP Chan Soo Sen

'In the selection of candidates, being savvy and being able to connect with people is something that they may be looking out for. Gone are the days when you are a high-brow civil servant who cannot connect well with the ground.That's a sure loser. You're better if they keep you as a policy-maker than one who interacts on the front line because you may be a liability rather than an asset in politics.'

- Former Tampines GRC MP Sin Boon Ann

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