Sunday, 7 April 2013

A new PAP or a party returning to its roots?

Populist or pragmatic? Whatever your perceptions of the PAP, the results of the recent Budget and White Paper debates have marked a turning point of sorts for Singapore’s ruling party
By Amir Hussain, TODAY, 6 Apr 2013

Some observers have described it as “populist” and “politically driven”, others called it “pragmatic” and responding to the times. And while there were those who felt that the People’s Action Party (PAP) Government’s recent measures — which have a socialist slant — and various eye-catching suggestions by its Members of Parliament were a collective reaction to the results of the 2011 General Election, there is also a view that the party was simply honouring the social compact where the Government takes care of the people and responds to their needs.

Nevertheless, political analysts and Members of Parliament TODAY spoke to were clear about one thing: The first three months of the year — a frantic 90-odd days where big decisions for the country were made and debated upon during the White Paper and Budget debates — marked a turning point of sorts for the PAP. Some analysts went as far as to say that a “new” PAP has emerged in response to political realities.

Other experts and PAP MPs, however, stressed that the party’s fundamentals, including an aversion to the moral hazard of a welfare state, have not changed.

National University of Singapore (NUS) political scientist Bilveer Singh said: “There is a perception and tendency to conclude that there is a leftward shift in the PAP, this is more apparent than real.

“The PAP has always been a highly pragmatic party and it is a party that adopts policies that are correct and necessary rather than ideological and dogmatic. To that extent, the issue of whether there is a left, right or centre shift in the PAP is simply irrelevant.”

Ang Mo Kio GRC MP Inderjit Singh started the ball rolling during the White Paper debate in February when he said that he would rather not have some of the trade-offs of economic growth, in exchange for “a cohesive, united nation where people feel taken care of at home and are confident of their future”.

Less then a month later, the Government announced in its Budget statement an unprecedented move in which it would directly subsidise Singaporeans’ wage increments in the form of the Wage Credit Scheme, which would benefit workers earning up to S$4,000 a month.

The tax system was also tweaked to make owners of pricey homes and expensive cars contribute more to the country’s coffers.

Overall, the Government would prioritise social spending, with more hospitals, polyclinics, childcare centres, elderly homes, social assistance and payouts for low-income workers. Citizens would also pay less for medical bills, HDB flats and preschool centres.

The Government also signalled a greater focus on preserving the country’s heritage, including allowing free entry to museums.

During the Budget debate, MPs also proposed offering free public transport before the morning rush hour — a suggestion the Government is seriously considering — amid impassioned calls for more to be done for the needy and the elderly.

MPs also had fewer qualms about showing nationalistic fervour. For example, Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC MP Hri Kumar called for a tax on permanent residents who do not serve National Service. Holland-Bukit Timah GRC MP Christopher de Souza suggested that the Government limit foreigners to selected new developments and allow them to resell the property only to Singaporeans.

The fact that these policies and suggestions are uncharacteristic of the PAP — and the Old Guard would probably have thumbed their noses at some of them — has not gone unnoticed.

During the Budget debates, Workers’ Party MP Pritam Singh noted the PAP Government’s “shifts to the left” of the political spectrum.

Last month, in an essay published on the IPS Commons website, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy researcher Alisha Gill and the school’s Senior Fellow Donald Low wrote that the Budget this year “points to a slowly changing governmental approach to Singapore’s social compact”.

“More than anything else, it shows a government that is trying to find a new balance between its long-standing emphasis on individual responsibility and incentives with a greater willingness to expand social protection and increase the progressivity of the fiscal system,” they added.

Welfare no longer a dirty word

Several PAP MPs have recently brought up in Parliament the once-taboo topic of welfarism. For example, during the White Paper debate, Marine Parade GRC MP Seah Kian Peng noted that over the years, the party’s key principle of self-help “has hardened to an ideology of anti-welfarism”.

“We need to examine this strain of anti-welfarism in our political philosophy and see whether it still fits into the Singapore of the future,” he said.

The ruling party’s hard nosed stance against Western style welfarism was most evident among members of the Old Guard.

When he was the Prime Minister, Mr Lee Kuan Yew had, for instance, argued that welfare states “undermine self-reliance. People did not have to work for their families’ well-being”. The late former Senior Minister Mr S Rajaratnam once said: “We want to teach the people that the government is not a rich uncle. You get what you pay for. We want to disabuse people of the notion that in a good society the rich must pay for the poor. We want to reduce welfare to the minimum, restrict it only to those who are handicapped or old. To the others, we offer equal opportunities. Everybody can be rich if they try hard.”

In their essay, which argued against attaching purely positive or negative connotations to “welfare”, Ms Gill and Mr Low wrote that the first generation of PAP leaders “was not against redistribution as such” and, in practice, they “did not shy away from taking unprecedented steps to redistribute incomes and wealth”, including passing the Land Acquisition Act, which gave the Government far-reaching powers to seize privately-owned land for public use at below market prices.

The researchers contended that what the Old Guard rejected were “redistributive policies which distorted or undermined economic incentives”.

Assoc Prof Singh reiterated that “the welfare dimension of PAP policies have always been there and very evident”.

“Social welfare policies of assisting the poor have been an entrenched and integral aspect of the PAP,” Associate Professor Singh said, citing concessions for conservancy charges, electricity and water bills, financial support for the unemployed, subsidised healthcare, and bursaries and scholarships for the poor.

He added: “True, the PAP has created an image of itself as a party that desists ‘welfare’ a la West (and its various abuses), but that does not mean that it is anti-welfare. No government anywhere can be anti-welfare. “What you are seeing today is simply a stronger commitment to its past policies without the political elites running down welfare per se, but at the same time these people-oriented policies are not being sold as welfare policies.”

While he agreed that there was “no radical shift” in the PAP’s mentality and ideology of “extreme elitism, meritocracy, market fundamentalism and aversion to welfare”, Dr Lam Peng Er of the East Asian Institute at NUS felt that “the calibration of more ‘populist’ public policies” could also be attributed to pressures from the electorate, as the PAP keeps an eye on the next General Election which is due by 2016.

“The efficacy of the PAP’s endeavour to recover lost electoral ground with these policy change(s) lies in the eyes of the beholder. To its supporters, the PAP is a pragmatic party which responds swiftly to new societal needs. To its detractors, the PAP is appeasing the electorate to stay in power without fundamental change,” Dr Lam said.

Singapore Management University law lecturer and Nominated MP Eugene Tan added: “I would say that the primary driver really is the need for the party (to be) more acutely sensitive to the need to be popular and for their overall policy to continue to be seen as legitimate. So in the end, it’s very politically driven.”

PAP ‘returning to basics’

Observers also attributed the “sea change”, as Assoc Prof Singh put it, to a new generation of PAP MPs.

MPs today are “much more aware of the importance of their own personal brand”, former NMP Siew Kum Hong said. “They understand that with real political contestation, they’re going to have to establish their own personal brand because it’s no longer enough to be a PAP MP; you have to have your own brand,” Mr Siew said.

Assoc Prof Singh added: “In some ways, as the older PAP generation fades away, there is a return to the basics of the PAP by the newer generation of PAP MPs and leaders who believe that the PAP is essentially a people-oriented party.”

He also noted that the younger PAP leaders “are very mindful of developing a new compact with a new generation of Singaporeans who are conscious of their rights, are more demanding (and) have higher expectations”.

Rejecting suggestions that the PAP was playing to the gallery “as this is not something (it) believes in”, Assoc Prof Singh said: “This is the new PAP that you will be seeing … more often in the future as the new PAP leaders are of a different mould (and) belief system and would slaughter whatever sacred cows of the past to ensure that the PAP is what it purports to be — a people’s action party.”

While Mr Inderjit Singh, a veteran MP, acknowledged there is a greater diversity among the current slate of PAP MPs, he noted that, in the past, the likes of former PAP MPs Tan Cheng Bock, Tan Soo Khoon and Wang Kai Yuen “have always reflected their views the way (their successors) have been reflecting right now”.

“We’ve always done it. But less last time, maybe more now” he said.

On whether the shift was a response to the 2011 General Election, he said: “You can link the consequence of the last GE to the reality on the ground … So now we are addressing the root causes.”

He added: “As the economy and the country progress … a bigger number cannot catch up … so it’s best that we take care of their needs.”

Dr Puthucheary, a first-term MP, reiterated that for the PAP Government, “the underlying fundamentals about doing things in the best interest of Singapore have not changed”.

Citing the Our Singapore Conversation project as an example of how the PAP Government has adopted a “ground up, consultative approach”, he said: “But what is clear is that as time changes, the way in which we achieve those aims needs to change and has changed.”

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