Thursday, 16 December 2021

A History of the People's Action Party, 1985-2021: New book traces key developments of PAP in government

PAP at turning point again, party must continue working with Singaporeans to take country forward: PM Lee Hsien Loong
By Hariz Baharudin, The Straits Times, 14 Dec 2021

The People's Action Party is once again at a turning point as it navigates an ongoing leadership transition and a new generation of voters, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

Drawing parallels between now and 1985 when the party was passing the baton to its second-generation leaders, PM Lee said there are many questions about the future, including how the PAP and its fourth-generation team will deal with new challenges, and whether they have what it takes to bring Singapore forward.

In a speech on Tuesday (Dec 14) at the launch of a book that chronicles the PAP's history since 1985 held at the National University of Singapore, he said the next 35 years will be quite different from the last.

"It must always work closely with Singaporeans to take the country forward."

The book, titled A History Of The People's Action Party: 1985-2021, recounts the party's activities and events during that period. It was written by Dr Shashi Jayakumar, a senior fellow and head of the Centre of Excellence for National Security at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies and published by NUS Press.

PM Lee noted that the PAP is now in the midst of a leadership transition from the 3G to the 4G team, just like in 1985 when its second generation of leaders was taking over from the pioneer generation.

At the time, only founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew, Mr S. Rajaratnam and Mr E.W. Barker remained in the new Cabinet.

The PAP's vote share fell sharply by 12.9 percentage points to 64.8 per cent in the 1984 General Election, which also heralded a generational change in the electorate, said PM Lee. For the first time since independence, the PAP received less than 70 per cent of the overall votes.

At the post-election conference, Mr Lee Kuan Yew had said the older generation of voters who stuck with the PAP through Singapore's earlier years were beginning to fade away, and were replaced with a younger generation that was better educated and more demanding of their leaders.

"It seemed like the PAP was losing its political dominance," said PM Lee on Tuesday. "It was a moment for introspection, perhaps even concern. What did the future hold for the party, and for Singapore?"

Today, PM Lee is the only one of the 1984 batch of PAP MPs still in politics, and the pioneer generation of voters who began to leave the scene in 1985 are mostly gone.

About 60 per cent of today's voters were born after independence, he said. Growing up in a stable Singapore, they experienced steady progress and benefited from the nation's collective efforts to develop its economy as well as its identity.

"Their aspirations, hopes and expectations are different from the young voters in the 1984 General Election," he said.

PM Lee said that while the PAP won a strong mandate in last year's general election, the party's vote share fell by 8.6 percentage points to 61.2 per cent and it lost two group representation constituencies to the opposition for the first time.

He expressed hope that the new book will provide a sense of history and perspective to the PAP's journey over the past decades, and help its readers appreciate how Singapore has achieved what it has.

While Singaporeans who have lived through the past decades may not consider the country's stability, progress and success astonishing, PM Lee said all this was hardly predicted - much less foreordained.

"It did not happen by itself, nor has it happened in very many other countries. And yet it happened in Singapore," he added. "How did Singapore manage to achieve this? The PAP is an important part of the explanation."

This is why the party's history from 1985 to 2021 is a story well worth telling and understanding, he said.

"I hope this book will… most importantly, inspire the next generation - party activists, party leaders and Singaporeans alike - to be equally committed, resourceful and resolute in pursuing a brighter future for Singapore."

New book traces key developments of PAP in government
By Grace Ho, Opinion Editor, The Straits Times, 14 Dec 2021

Author Shashi Jayakumar's nearly 800-page book on the history of the People's Action Party (PAP) gives it the chronological treatment. But several themes and topics recur throughout its history: the party's unending and existential search for talent, party reinventions that occurred from time to time, policy reforms, its treatment of the opposition, and preparations for general elections.

A History Of The People's Action Party: 1985-2021 notes that the areas where the PAP has put in some of the "hardest yards" - delivering growth, communication and party renewal - are also areas that have proven to be some points of stress in recent years amid higher expectations from an affluent and educated populace.

It observes how having a "reservoir" of trust is integral to the straight-talking that the party engages in when communicating with Singaporeans. The PAP's attempts to improve people's lives and, at the same time, take hard policy decisions, it says, will increasingly have to be reconciled within this reservoir.

Here are some of the key points from the book:

1985-88: Transition and renewal

The 1984 General Election saw a surprise 12.9 per cent vote swing against the party compared with the 1980 election. The party's post-mortem final report said the Government had "tempted fate" through unpopular policies or policy suggestions such as raising the Central Provident Fund withdrawal minimum age from 55 to 60, and the Graduate Mothers' Scheme.

To develop more channels for citizen participation in policymaking, the Feedback Unit was set up in 1985. Then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew and First Deputy Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong also spent much of the period addressing issues of the party's organisation, vitality and spirit, with the youth and women's wings set up to broaden the party base.

All education and social activities of the party were conducted through the PAP Community Foundation (PCF). Singaporeans were thus brought indirectly into contact with the party through PCF initiatives such as family days and bursary awards.

1987-1991: The polity in transition

The idea of group representation constituencies (GRCs) was publicly mooted in 1987. While this ensured that there would always be minorities represented in Parliament, some opposition figures saw it as an attempt to hobble the opposition, given the logistical and recruitment challenges of fielding multi-candidate teams.

Town councils were a key theme at the 1988 hustings, with the PAP pointing out that residents would suffer if an MP with insufficient calibre to maintain the estate - implying an opposition candidate - was elected.

When the September 1988 polls came around, the party secured a new mandate by winning 80 out of 81 seats, with a vote share of 63.2 per cent. The premiership passed from Mr Lee to Mr Goh in November 1990, with Mr Goh promising a more consultative style of governance.

Three years later, the party's vote share tumbled to 61 per cent from 63.2 per cent in 1988 and it lost three single-member constituencies, with then Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) chief Chiam See Tong comfortably retaining his Potong Pasir seat. The PAP's internal post-mortem noted that lower-income groups were struggling, and some among the Chinese-educated felt alienated after all vernacular schools were converted to the English medium by 1987. The party came around to a position that would have reverberations through the 1990s and beyond - that those who supported the PAP had to be rewarded in some way, while those opposed to it had to pay some price.

1992-1997: The mandate

The PAP Government realised that more had to be done to counter dissatisfaction on cost-of-living issues. The Cost Review Committee was announced in 1992. Its 1993 report, among other recommendations, called for the timing of fee increases to be staged better.

A 1992 Marine Parade by-election saw the PAP roundly defeat the SDP. But the SDP had kept the issues of growing elitism and rising costs alive, setting the stage for a continuing debate in the 1990s on class divisions in society.

From 1992, the votes-for-upgrading strategy became fully crystallised. While voters in opposition wards could not be denied the benefits of national programmes such as Edusave and MediFund, the PAP felt it made sense to serve the constituencies that voted for the programme first.

The party's victory at the 1997 General Election was a resounding one with 65 per cent of the valid votes, up from 61 per cent in 1991 - its best showing since 1980. Internal analysis showed that Housing Board upgrading may have tipped the balance in favour of the PAP, especially in areas where the flats were very old. More generally, the party's "local government" strategy, which focused on municipal services and the availability of polyclinics and kindergartens, also played a role.

1997-2001: Unity amid global uncertainty

The theme of unity and coherence as a bulwark against future challenges was developed in then PM Goh's August 1997 National Day Rally speech, where he explained the need for foreign talents as well as to re-examine fundamentals.

The PAP leadership was determined to maintain what it saw as the integrity of the political process even in the face of rapid technological developments. At the December 2000 party conference, then DPM Lee Hsien Loong said the Government had to manage debate "actively and skilfully, guide the debate without stifling it... or letting wrong ideas take root". In hindsight, the 1990s was the last decade when the Government was able to definitively control the discourse.

Economic difficulties, experienced not just by the poor but also by many in the middle classes, were exacerbated by the downturns of 1998 and 2001. With the 9/11 attacks weighing on everyone's minds, the polls were announced for November 2001. The widely felt need for certainty, security and stability was evident in the party manifesto, "A People United: Secure Future, Better Life".

The 2001 election was the PAP's largest renewal exercise since 1984. A total of 23 MPs retired and 25 new candidates were introduced - a diverse slate that had no Singapore Armed Forces scholars and only two from the public sector. The PAP secured all but two of the 27 contested seats, with 75.3 per cent of the valid votes.

But the upgrading carrot failed to shift Mr Low Thia Khiang of the Workers' Party (WP) in Hougang and Mr Chiam in Potong Pasir, and the book traces the decline of upgrading as an effective carrot to 2001. Mr Low also played another card - the spectre of one-party dominance - by appealing to Singaporeans not to give the PAP a "blank cheque".

2002-2006: Holding the ground

At the party convention in 2003, the party's "refreshed" values - honest, multiracial, meritocratic and self-reliant - were presented, with a fair and just society at the heart of it.

The Government faced dissatisfaction over aspects of planning and economic policy. For example, with the opening of the North East Line, bus services running along the same route were cut in July and August 2003, sparking anger among affected residents. Other controversial moves included raising the goods and services tax over 2003 and 2004, and upping the inflow of foreign talent. Permanent residency applications would eventually hit a peak in 2008.

But the 2006 election delivered a satisfactory result, with the PAP taking 66.6 per cent of the popular vote. This election was the first one where the Internet truly mattered. Online discussions went beyond the allowed limits of political discussion set out in the relevant regulations.

2007-2011: Inflexion

While the top decile of households had over the first half of the decade seen appreciable income growth, the bottom deciles saw negative income growth. The price of public housing, transport congestion, rising healthcare costs and the influx of foreigners were other pain points.

The Government moved to enhance support, announcing in the 2007 Budget the permanent Workfare Income Supplement to replace the one-off Workfare Bonus for low-income workers; and expanding ComCare, which was introduced in 2005. But public discontent boiled over in April 2007 when upward revisions to ministerial salaries came up for debate - in the very same month when various MPs pointed out that the increase in public assistance was not sufficient.

In the run-up to the 2011 General Election, the public expressed the desire for a clean and smear-free campaign, partly fuelled by the apparent maturing of the opposition, which could boast of candidates with strong academic and professional achievements. The WP kept to its theme of a "First World Parliament", with Mr Low, the party chief then, warning that if the WP bid failed in Aljunied GRC, the opposition might be completely shut out of Parliament.

A remark from then Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew that "if Aljunied decides to go that way (vote WP), well Aljunied has five years to live and repent" sparked a public backlash. The overall effect of social media was that issues such as the "repent" comment kept circulating, even when the PAP tried to move on.

On May 7, 2011, the WP took Aljunied with 54.7 per cent of the vote there, the first time a GRC had fallen into opposition hands. The PAP had suffered its most serious electoral reverse since 1984.
New normal: Rethinking, reform, revival

One area where the Government moved relatively quickly to relieve pressure was healthcare. It also ramped up the building of new HDB flats and cooled the property market. In August 2012, PM Lee Hsien Loong announced the start of Our Singapore Conversation, a national dialogue whose scale dwarfed previous efforts. There was also a rethinking of government communications, for which an overall master plan did not exist before 2011.

In August 2013, during a landmark National Day Rally speech, PM Lee announced a swathe of changes to expand social safety nets, including the introduction of the Pioneer Generation Package, and the new universal medical insurance scheme MediShield Life to replace MediShield. The broader message was to bring about a "new way forward" for Singapore, with a more diverse and vocal populace, contested political landscape and maturing economy.

These efforts had parallels in earlier history, such as Remaking Singapore and Refreshing PAP over 2002 and 2003. But these were done from a position of strength after the PAP's victory in the 2001 General Election. It is more apt to compare them with the National Agenda or Agenda for Action initiative of 1985 to 1988, coming as they did after the 1984 General Election reverse.

2015: A strong showing

The PAP's efforts, policy- and engagement-wise, were to pay off in the general election in September 2015, which it won with a resounding 69.9 per cent of the vote - its best electoral showing since 2001.

Opposition missteps played into the result. There had since 2014 been concerns raised over apparent lapses in accounting and governance at the WP-run Aljunied-Hougang-Punggol East Town Council. But there was also the recognition that the election had been in many ways anomalous: That year marked the 50th year of Singapore's independence (SG50), and founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew had died in March.

The party also upped its social media game with significant investments. These included funds allocated to the development of the PAP's mobile app, website development and support, as well as Facebook ads and Twitter engagement.

2020 and beyond

With the fading of SG50's afterglow, and the Covid-19 outbreak in 2020, the PAP leadership - perhaps in tacit recognition of the issues and anxieties that had been percolating on the ground - gave little sense that it expected the July 2020 election to see a "flight to safety" of the type seen in 2001. Also especially resonant was the WP's argument that the PAP should not be handed a "blank cheque".

Two GRCs and one SMC lost to the opposition made for the worst result in terms of seats lost for the PAP since independence. In a surprise move, the WP's Mr Pritam Singh was offered the designation of Leader of the Opposition.

The book notes that many of the "fixes" that were needed after 2011 were policy moves but in 2020, there seemed to be stirrings of a different type of dissatisfaction - ranging from a desire among voters for alternative voices in Parliament to the friction and unhappiness that came with having to deal with the bureaucracy during the pandemic - especially among individuals who in the course of their ordinary lives would have had little interaction with government agencies.

Given the personal costs of the job, inducting quality candidates into the party could become even more difficult in the years to come. The PAP will likely seek to be more inclusive as it engages the electorate, especially segments that disagree with the party and its policies.

Trust, pragmatism, renewal: The book Lee Kuan Yew asked for but did not get to read
By Grace Ho, Opinion Editor, The Straits Times, 14 Dec 2021

The mic drop came one minute into the interview: It was founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew who, in mid-2011, asked Dr Shashi Jayakumar to write a book on the history of Singapore's ruling party.

Given how fundamental Mr Lee was to the book, Dr Jayakumar - who is a senior fellow and head of the Centre of Excellence for National Security at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies - felt the proper way to credit him was to state in his speech on Tuesday (Dec 14) Mr Lee's key role, rather than simply a brief acknowledgement in the introductory matter.

Indeed, there is little mention of Mr Lee in the acknowledgements section of A History Of The PAP: 1985-2021. Only near the bottom of Page 717, among a list of interviews with politicians, is there a brief entry: "Lee Kuan Yew, 28 Dec 2011".

Mr Lee was in a reflective mood after the watershed 2011 General Election, and had made it clear he wanted two things: First, an academic approach to the history of the People’s Action Party (PAP) compared with an earlier 2009 book Men In White: The Untold Story Of Singapore's Ruling Political Party - in short, a treatment of the PAP not solely as a political party, but also the PAP in government.

Second, something young people could read. He feared they were losing their grasp on the fundamentals of what made Singapore special, and what must be done for it to continue to thrive and prosper. "He was concerned with the overall survival of Singapore, and said several times that young people may well want something else and say: 'Let's try the other side'," said Dr Jayakumar.

He added that Mr Lee did not dictate what he should write, and urged him to speak to as many people as possible, including those from the opposition. "It was very much Mr Lee's view that no view should be consciously shut out." The opposition figures he approached either declined or only spoke off the record.

With its extensive bibliography of interviews, oral histories, parliamentary and party speeches, and personal correspondences with politicians and government officials - not including over 130 pages' worth of appendices and even more footnotes at the end of each chapter - the book would take another 10 years to complete.

But in 2011, Mr Lee was already becoming frail, and he would not live to read it.

A 10-year labour of love

The book gives a dispassionate account of the party's strategies - from the use of the PAP Community Foundation (PCF) to bring people into contact with the party socially; emphasising the responsibility of running town councils so that residents would think twice about voting in weak opposition candidates; to a system of "markers" in Parliament who were assigned to rebut opposition members.

Some will remember the cuts in the number of PCF kindergarten places in opposition wards, or the votes-for-upgrading strategy in the 1990s - which the book notes were products of internal thinking at the time that those who voted for the PAP should be privileged in some way over those who did not.

Dr Jayakumar spoke of the fallibility of people's memories, the fragmentary nature of surviving documents from the archives, and the occasional difficulty of reconciling them with the details of events.

He cited an internal caucus that Mr Lee held after opposition politician J.B. Jeyaretnam won the 1981 Anson by-election - where Mr Lee had asked those MPs who agreed to hand over the community centres and residents' committees (RCs) to Mr Jeyaretnam, to raise their hands.

"I talked to various people who were at this meeting, looked at what available documents there were, and I was able to identify more or less who had raised their hand. But when I asked them, some could not remember," said Dr Jayakumar.

In fact, Mr Lee and others among the top leadership had already thought things through. They had made the decision not to hand over the community centres and RCs, given that these were part of what the PAP had fought so hard for. But MPs were asked to raise their hands so Mr Lee could "test" them, especially the newer MPs.

There was also a group of older MPs who, having retired during the PAP's major renewals in the 1980s, felt hard done by the party.

"Some who had been with the party since the 1960s did not have educational qualifications at a higher, especially tertiary, level. Several were relatively young, and amongst some there was this feeling of being cast aside while still having something to offer. So this renewal, which is core to the DNA of the party - and it has to do that - actually cuts in another very painful way."

He added that while they intellectually understood the need for renewal, they felt as if they had done something wrong while still vigorous, and feeling that they still had much to offer. "Today it's different - two terms, three terms, step down - you do not get judged in terms of public perception as having done something wrong."


The book also touches on the themes of pragmatism, trust and renewal that undergird a party which sees itself not just as a major political player, but possibly the only national institution capable of taking Singapore to the next level.

Freed from the shackles of ideology, successive PAP governments tackled perennial pain points such as housing, transport and education. Sometimes, the moves were spurred by the sting of election losses - from shelving unpopular policies such as the Graduate Mothers' Scheme in the 1980s, to more help for lower-income groups following the 1991 General Election, and building more HDB flats after 2011.

There was a philosophical shift over time. Take, for example, the 1989-1990 exercise to come up with shared national values. Then PM Lee Kuan Yew objected to proposed values such as "social justice" and "fairness and compassion" on the grounds that it would lead people to believe there was an absolute standard of justice.

But fast-forward to 2003 when "a fair and just society" became part of the PAP's refreshed values; and today, the Government's mantra of fairness and inclusion.

Dr Jayakumar observes that following the 1984 General Election, a key part of the PAP's post-mortem was the observation that, if left unchecked, Western-style values and the rising tide of individualism would make further inroads into society.

"So when the younger leaders enunciated (national values) then, there was always a coda or series of caveats saying they had no intention to proceed along this trajectory where the country would adopt Western mores," he said.

Initiatives such as Agenda for Action (1988) and Singapore 21 (1997 to 1999) to some degree were still top-down, and more in the vein of making sure Singaporeans understood what was at stake and had the same cultural ballast. But later iterations such as Our Singapore Conversation, he noted, were more diffuse, devolved and recognising of differences within society.

"There has been a genuine appreciation in the last 10 years of the diversity of views among the people who will take Singapore forward. If these are not understood and managed well, then identities can splinter, fray and cause deep divisions in the social fabric."


When he spoke to Dr Jayakumar in 2011, Mr Lee said if there was one factor above all the others behind the PAP's success, it was "trust in the ability of the PAP to deliver what it promises".

It was also his conviction, expressed elsewhere, that this was something that could not be wasted: "The next generation of PAP leaders will inherit this trust. They must not betray it. They cannot afford to squander it."

Building a "reservoir" of trust was a phrase that came up often in Dr Jayakumar's conversations with the 4G leaders. He articulated several dimensions to this: The probity and integrity of the party's rank and file and leadership; policy changes made in consultation with Singaporeans, such as those relating to foreign workers, cost of living, healthcare and retirement adequacy; and ground engagement, whose scale, tempo and intensity, especially from 2011 to 2015, was "unprecedented".

Guiding this is the idea of servant leadership, he said. "The way we carry out retail politics has fundamentally changed. When people come across as humble and personable, it's not just much more amenable to surfacing real pressure points, but it also feeds into this reservoir of trust. People feel that the MP is actually working for them."

In good times and bad, the party can bank on this reservoir of trust to carry the ground - a key difference compared with some Western societies, he added. "You may disagree with the party, but you are prepared to be brought in under a rather broad umbrella - some of the national consultation exercises served this purpose.

"The party is prepared to reach out to anyone, even to those who fundamentally disagree. Not necessarily in an attempt to convert them, but to say: 'We come to you as Singaporeans.'"


Much has been written of Mr Lee's preference for Dr Tony Tan to be his successor instead of Mr Goh Chok Tong, and the series of criticisms he made of Mr Goh in 1988.

Mr Goh told Dr Jakayumar it was possible that Mr Lee was testing the waters on the issue of political succession.

Mr Goh said: "If you were to put it to the ground, Tony and myself, he might have in an election beaten me. In the party, of course, I would have an advantage because I spent time with the branch secretaries, visiting people, dialogue sessions.

"So I think (PM) was trying to change things. In other words, this is my public assessment, if there is a rejection of me by the party members, by the MPs, then well, Tony would have to serve."

But whatever his personal preferences, Mr Lee had specifically directed that his successor be chosen by peers. He accepted the choice and stepped aside.

Citing Plato's The Republic, Dr Jayakumar noted the philosopher Socrates' observation that the proper motive for ruling is that one is compelled to rule, lest someone worse ends up the ruler. "Plato is not saying that the ruler who thinks he can do the job is necessarily a bad ruler," he said. "But he is saying that the best reason for wanting to be a ruler is necessity, and not because one is grasping for it."

He was struck by this point when examining the 1984 succession. No one was grasping for the job. Mr Goh got the job through consensus by his peers, and he agreed to do the job because he knew he would have his peers' support.

But what does this mean for the 4G leadership? Dr Jayakumar declined to be drawn into a discussion on who will be the next PM.

A major factor contributing to the party's longevity, he said, is its "obsessive" search for the best people and the battery of tests it puts them through - from tea sessions and background checks, to psychological tests and personal statements, after which one can still fail to make the final cut.

"I don't think any other party in Singapore is like this. And this is somewhat tied to the late Mr Lee's belief that once you start to get mediocre people, you start a slow slide down from which Singapore can never recover."

But the search for talent, never mind a leader, started to become more difficult by the 1990s. At least one former minister told him that if he had to go through the "circus" that younger candidates go through now, he might have thought twice about joining.

Dr Jayakumar cites the example of Ms Tin Pei Ling, who was an object of mirth and mockery early in her career but went on to become a well-loved MP. "Your life, your family, what you've done - and for men, what you did in national service - it's picked apart ruthlessly."

"In terms of recruitment, the needle that the party has to thread is probably narrowing, but it is not necessarily an impossible task," he said, noting the party's strenuous outreach efforts and attempts to cast the net wider.

Challenges ahead

The PAP's internal bodies dealing with new media have gone through periodic rejuvenations. But to some extent it has had to play catch-up - because there is something deeply embedded in the nature of social media which aids the counter-establishment, the sensational, and the kinds of forces which want to overturn orthodoxy, he said.

There is also the question of whether the pro-PAP Internet brigades (IBs) have really helped the party's cause, something which he left to the experts to decide.

The party, he noted, has said that these pro-PAP IBs are not from the party - and so they should be cast as people who decided on their own to rebut falsehoods about the PAP. But it may be true that some Singaporeans see them as being associated with the party.

Then there is the need for the PAP to call out falsehoods and inconsistencies by the opposition, both in and out of elections. But it comes up against the issue that some voters have, which is that they think the party has to be "fair" all the time - exacerbated not just by the fact that the PAP is the incumbent, but also that it is seen to be "above the fray" when it comes to politicking.

Will the PAP face the inevitable second-act trouble that plagues many others around the world?

The book notes that the party leadership, in its GE2020 post-mortem, has not come to a fatalistic appraisal concerning the irreversible tide of PAP decline. Nor do most PAP leaders think that the task has fallen on the party to ease Singapore into a two-party system featuring a strong opposition. Education Minister Chan Chun Sing, who was interviewed in 2016, said "it is for the PAP to lose rather than opposition to win".

Dr Jayakumar pointed out that the party's reaction to stress and even election setbacks, especially in 1984 and 2011, has not been to turn inward and become insular but to accelerate renewal.

He thinks the party will speed up its candidate search for the next election. "(It will) look for people who are willing to serve in this febrile climate, rejuvenate the various party internal bodies, make sure that they are in shape and, at the branch level, get a sense of the grievances on the ground."

"We've lost those days where there were halcyon periods when GRCs and old wards were not contested for years at a time," he said.

He added: "And when those elections did happen, you actually had the luxury of redistributing resources and assets - not just from party headquarters itself, but also on the part of candidates who were not contesting, to go around and help others.

"From here on, it's all hands on deck."

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