Saturday 19 November 2011

In search of a new narrative - People's Action Party

What story of the PAP's role in society can help it better connect with Singaporeans today? Insight identifies themes that might form part of its new narrative.
By Janice Heng & Rachel Chang, The Straits Times, 18 Nov 2011

COME next Sunday, over a thousand People's Action Party (PAP) cadres will gather for their first party convention since the May General Election.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong will make a keynote speech, which is expected to answer some of the questions that have surrounded the ruling party since former foreign minister George Yeo said in May that it was in need of 'transformation'.

Two days later, he lost his Aljunied GRC seat. The PAP would see its national vote share fall to 60.1 per cent, the lowest since Independence.

In the early hours of the morning, after the electoral scorecard was released in full, Mr Lee told the press that 'soul-searching' was on the cards for the PAP.

Some of the conclusions that exhaustive rumination over the last six months have yielded will be made known to the party rank-and-file - and the public - next week at the convention.

Mr Lee is likely to reveal key findings from the PAP's post-mortem report of the GE, put together by a 12-man committee headed by National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan.

The document, the culmination of ground reports from its 87 branches, followed up with face-to-face interviews with key activists, will not be made public.

But party sources say that Mr Lee's speech will outline the PAP's next steps, and in so doing, aim to boost morale among cadres after a trying and, at times divisive, year.

The post-mortem reportedly dwells on the PAP's core challenge in the aftermath of the 2011 GE: forging a new emotional connection with Singaporeans.

Insight understands that one topic that has surfaced often in party caucuses - closed-door sessions attended by its 81 MPs - is what narrative this new emotional connection can be based on.

The PAP's track record, and its stature as the party that took Singapore from 'Third World to First' has served it well in election after election.

But in the 'new normal' of Singapore politics, PAP MPs say that a message of inclusiveness, compassion and humility must grow in its stead.

'A party that cares,' muses Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC MP Zainudin Nordin, of the PAP's new image. 'It's not about Singapore's economy, but about Singapore. The new narrative will be how to move forward well, and how to do it together.'

Narrative 1: Open and inclusive

SINCE Mr Lee became Prime Minister, the notion of an 'inclusive and open society' has been the key narrative of his government.

His first speech as PM, at his swearing-in in 2004, was known for that phrase, and for a vision of progress that went beyond the material.

Seven years later, MPs bring up inclusiveness time and again as the bedrock of the party's new narrative.

Aspects of this have loomed large in public discourse. Last month, President Tony Tan Keng Yam outlined the priorities of the new PAP Government over the next five years.

'A better life for all' would be the goal, he said. 'We want a fair and just society that ensures the well-being of every citizen; a gracious and compassionate community whose members care for one another; and a truly special Singapore, where our children can grow to be the best that they can be.'

He emphasised that the Government would help all strata of Singapore society: the lower-income will receive social assistance and job training, the middle-income would benefit from skills upgrading, education opportunities for their children and the ability to own a home, and those at the top will be able to use Singapore as a 'base camp' to conquer the world.

In Parliament last month, PM Lee also dwelt at length on the need to preserve social mobility in a maturing - and stratifying - society.

While more social assistance will preserve opportunities for those at the bottom to rise up, he also emphasised that Singapore's success has always been due to self-reliance.

The Government will increase and enhance opportunities in education and training - from providing good-quality, affordable preschool education to improving access to higher education.

But MPs and observers say that two obstacles stand in the way of the PAP becoming known as the party of inclusiveness.

The first is that a small country in a turbulent world cannot deflect global economic forces.

'The income gap has gone up over the last four or five years. That's a global phenomenon,' notes Sembawang GRC MP Vikram Nair, adding that one of the challenges of globalisation is its impact on low-wage workers. Initiatives like the Workfare Income Supplement scheme, he points out, can only ameliorate globalisation's impact on such workers, but not reverse it. Started in 2007, the scheme tops up the incomes of older workers who earn below a certain threshold.

The second is a perennial cynicism among some regarding the ruling party.

'It boils down to the feeling on the ground that the PAP represents the elites,' says Nee Soon GRC MP Lim Wee Kiak. 'Ministerial pay didn't help the issue. It seems that you are enriching yourself and that impression is very difficult to correct.'

One of the first things that Mr Lee did after the May GE was set up a committee to review political salaries, a topic he said was the subject of 'genuine concern' for many.

The eight-man committee, headed by National Kidney Foundation chairman Gerard Ee, was asked to bear in mind that ministerial salaries should have a 'significant discount to comparable private sector salaries to signify the value and ethos of political service'.

Several MPs chafe at the 'elitist' characterisation, arguing that it ignores the magnitude of assistance they provide for the worst-off among their constituents.

'What I find interesting is that a lot of the people who identify issues with (the lack of) inclusive growth and so on, ironically, they are young professionals in the middle class,' notes Mr Nair. 'We've put in a lot to help people at the very bottom.'

The Government has made clear that more resources will be committed to widening and strengthening the social safety net over the next few years.

MPs have also pushed for more help for other groups, like the middle class, and those just keeping their heads above water - the 'at risk' group, as Acting Minister for Community Development, Youth and Sports Chan Chun Sing puts it - and not only the 'in risk' group.

On their part, PAP backbenchers suspect that their community work must be more visible, and their successes better publicised.

Says Sembawang GRC MP Ellen Lee: 'We have to continue to do the good things we are doing, and also not be too shy about telling people we are doing good things.'

Narrative 2: Active citizens, servant leaders

TWO pairs of buzzwords have emerged this year, from two major speeches Mr Lee has made.

The first is 'servant leadership', which he spoke about at a Young PAP anniversary celebration in April, during which the ruling party's manifesto for the May GE was unveiled.

'Never forget we are servants of the people, not their masters,' he said. 'Never lord it over the people we are looking after and serving.'

'Active citizenry', the informal theme of Mr Lee's National Day Rally speech in August, is the second. 'Don't just tell us what to do, but help us do it,' was how he put his vision of Singaporeans stepping up.

Active citizenship has been part of the national discourse for well over a decade. In 1998, a report that emerged from a massive public consultation exercise launched by then-Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong identified empowered and involved citizens as key to forging a new Singapore.

In the 13 years since, the number of Singaporeans prepared to speak up and get organised behind causes they champion, has grown.

Together, the two ideas of active citizens and servant leaders conjure up a fundamentally different power dynamic between the ruling party and voters from that of earlier decades. It marks a shift from a society where the Government is the primary mover of change, to one in which there is room for grassroots movements to also exercise influence.

MPs, though, are careful to draw a distinction between active citizens and demanding ones. Several tell Insight they do not appreciate unreasonable residents taking the 'servant' aspect of servant leadership too literally.

'It doesn't mean bending over backwards to accommodate every demand,' Dr Lim points out. 'The leadership aspect is having courage to make unpopular, but fair, decisions.'

Mr Eugene Tan, an assistant professor of law at Singapore Management University, notes that the PAP, while no longer able to rest on its laurels of rapid economic progress, cannot escape the unhappier aspects of its governance legacy.

'It has ruled Singapore since 1959. Whatever problems that Singaporeans face, the finger-pointing at the Government is inevitable,' says Mr Tan.

Thus, there are some who will continue to pin the blame on the PAP for a society in which citizens must be cajoled to be active; for politicians who must now be reminded to be humble.

When it comes to a new party narrative, some, like Tampines GRC MP Irene Ng, want to practise what she preaches about Singaporeans taking the wheel.

The narrative should not be dictated by the PAP, she says - a move that can embed its new attitude.

'It is not just about the party knowing what's best for the people, telling people what's good for them and what it wants to do for them. It is about the PAP listening to the people on what they want and hope to see in a new Singapore, and working with them to get there.'

Why the PAP story needs updating
By Janice Heng & Rachel Chang

IT IS a story invoked in mass rally speeches and internal party events alike: how the People's Action Party (PAP) led Singapore to prosperity over the past 40 years.

Yet mention the phrase 'Third World to First' and the response of many young people may well be, 'so what?'

That is the concern of Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC MP Zainudin Nordin. He worries that they may turn around and say: 'That's not my story, that's your story.'

That is why he and several other PAP MPs tell Insight the party is in need of a new narrative, to help it better connect with voters who have grown up in a different Singapore.

Take as an example the group who reached voting age at this year's election. They would have been born at the end of the 1980s, into a Singapore already prospering.

They are too young to have seen the country's transformation from rags to riches.

For them, the old story lacks resonance, says Radin Mas MP Sam Tan. Worse, when repeated year after year, the 'Third World to First' narrative has started to sound like a 'broken record', he adds.

The party needs to cut a new record, he concludes. Indeed, Mr Tan believes that 'the most pressing issue facing the PAP now is to find a new narrative'.

Singapore Management University (SMU) assistant professor of law Eugene Tan believes that when the party employs the 'Third World to First' narrative, it does so not expecting voters to feel grateful to it, but to make clear the party's track record.

Yet, among some voters, that cuts little ice.

Sembawang GRC MP Vikram Nair says: 'A lot of young people would say, yes, great work in the 1980s and 1970s, but we're going to assess you on what happens going forward.'

Tampines GRC MP Baey Yam Keng says the upcoming party convention is a chance to address the question of how the PAP can 'evolve and respond to the changing demographics'.

Realignment needed

YET the search for a new narrative, if it does take place, does not mean the party is fundamentally changing, several MPs are quick to add. What is needed is not a change in party values, but the realignment of public perceptions with what the PAP has long stood for, they say.

As Tampines GRC MP Irene Ng puts it: 'The PAP always stood for inclusive growth, fair play.' When the party was fighting the election that would bring it to power in 1959, those ideals were spelt out, 'although not in these words'.

'The words then were a 'fair and just' society, and 'an honest and efficient government' that would give priority to solving people's problems,' says Ms Ng.

The caring, down-to-earth image that the current PAP might hope to build is thus not a departure from its origins. But perhaps the PAP's early history, and the political battles it had to wage, have 'hardened its stance and its image', she suggests.

Mr Nair notes that the PAP's historical origins were 'socialist' rather than capitalist. In that sense, the current narrative of inclusive growth does not mark a departure but a return to its roots.

Acting Minister for Community Development, Youth and Sports Chan Chun Sing observes that in earlier decades, the party was preoccupied with meeting the stark challenges of development.

Their attention was focused on 'developing good policies to take the country forward', and not on its public image.

Now, though, the PAP has to work on both.

'I think we shouldn't be shy to say what we stand for,' he says. 'If we don't say it, then people might paint us in a different perspective.'

Party MPs acknowledge a need to 'listen better' to citizens, and connect on a more personal level.

Mr Baey cites the recent public involvement in deciding the fate of Bukit Brown cemetery and the use of former Malayan Railway land as two examples of how the PAP Government has involved citizens.

'People would feel that the Government stance is quite different from the past,' says Mr Baey.

He hopes that citizens 'are heartened that their views are taken into account'.

Political observer Derek da Cunha suggests that party MPs have to make themselves more visible at community functions, participate in academic forums, 'and in all instances carry themselves with a greater degree of humility than they have done in the past'.

'The PAP has to connect with Singaporeans at that localised and individual level first if it wants to connect at a national level,' he adds.

Keeping to core values

THE PAP's vision and values have not changed since its founding, and are not about to do so now, say its members.

The party's vision, says Mr Chan, has always been 'to deliver a better life for Singaporeans'. And it will not relinquish values such as service to Singapore, pragmatism, meritocracy and diversity.

In decision-making, the party is welcoming different views in a process that allows for divergence. But there is a necessary second process, explains Mr Chan: 'to converge the ideas for action'.

'At the end of the day, you're still the 'Action Party', which means you have to deliver.'

For Ang Mo Kio GRC MP Yeo Guat Kwang, the party has 'got the fundamentals right', and what needs to change is the party's communication and engagement. Mr Sam Tan maintains that the PAP's principles for Singapore are sound - principles like economic competitiveness, hard work and clean government.

'While we try to change the form so as to make the party more understood and appreciated, we have to keep to our principles,' he says.

One core principle, though, is intertwined with the story of Singapore's rise from poverty to prosperity. That is the constant awareness of Singapore's vulnerability - a reality that young Singaporeans may find hard to swallow but which the PAP cannot afford to stop emphasising, its MPs say.

'We are always fighting the odds of history,' says Mr Chan.

Nee Soon GRC MP Lim Wee Kiak accepts that it might be hard for younger Singaporeans to identify with the country's past.

'But it is still important to inculcate, educate, teach the young ones about actual history before we lose it completely,' Dr Lim says.

'They still must understand how Singapore started, how vulnerable it is.'

Mr Chan is more sanguine. He believes it is not that young Singaporeans do not understand the past, but merely that the country's existential issues do not occupy their minds - which is as it should be.

'You don't have to think about it every day,' he says with a laugh.

'But once in while, you should.'

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