Monday, 7 November 2022

Singaporeans cannot have it both ways – more opposition MPs but also effective PAP government: PM Lee Hsien Loong at PAP Conference 2022

PAP needs strong mandate to govern Singapore firmly and decisively: PM Lee
By Hariz Baharudin, Assistant News Editor, The Straits Times, 6 Nov 2022

Singaporeans cannot have it both ways, where many want the People’s Action Party (PAP) to continue governing the country but also to have more opposition MPs elected to keep the Government on its toes, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

After many years of the PAP in power, many Singaporeans want the party to continue governing the country as it has been doing a good job, and no one else can do it better, he noted.

So they vote for the opposition, fully expecting that the PAP will still be returned to power and can function as effectively, regardless of whether it receives strong or weak support at the polls, he said in a speech at the PAP’s biennial party conference on Sunday.

“Unfortunately, we cannot have it both ways. Whether voters give the new Government a strong or weak mandate makes a very big difference,” he told over 3,000 party members and activists.

“With a strong mandate, when the Government needs to act strongly and decisively – whether at home and abroad – everyone will know that it is acting with the people’s support. And everyone will know that Singaporeans are united, tackling problems as one and moving ahead together.”

PM Lee, who is the PAP’s secretary-general, said a strong mandate will give the government the confidence and backing to make tough calls and steer Singapore safely through ups and downs. He cited how the Government could impose tough measures such as the circuit breaker, mandatory mask-wearing, strict border controls and vaccination regimes as there was no doubt it had the people’s full confidence.

Had the PAP won the 2020 General Election narrowly with a 51 per cent vote share, instead of 61.2 per cent, it would have still formed the government and ruled Singapore to the best of its ability, said PM Lee.

But it would have lost many good MPs and ministers, and its leadership team would have been considerably weakened, he added.

“Singapore would have gone into battle with Covid-19 divided and disheartened. It would have been much harder for the Government to act decisively, or for Singaporeans to respond cohesively and resolutely,” he said.

“Our Covid-19 experience might well have been very different... And I can assure you our international position would have been considerably weakened too, both regionally and globally. A Singapore ruled by a government hanging on to power by its fingernails is bound to be pushed from pillar to post by other countries.”

PM Lee said the stakes are raised at each successive election. The more seats the opposition wins, the more the general election becomes a decision on which party will form Singapore’s next Government, he added. At the 2020 election, the Workers’ Party won 10 seats – two group representation constituencies in Aljunied and Sengkang, as well as the Hougang single seat. The PAP has delivered on its policies and promises through the decades, but this is not enough, PM Lee said, stressing that it needs to convert people’s approval of its performance into votes.

He sketched out three things it must do to “win the political battle”.

First, the party must put across its political message so that people know PAP leaders are “conviction politicians” who adopt policies and programmes because they are convinced these will benefit Singapore in the long term.

“But, more important than the details of policies, we have got to convince Singaporeans why the policies matter to them, and how they match people’s needs and aspirations,” he said.

Second, the PAP has to counter moves by the opposition and show voters where the opposition falls short, he said.

While it is the opposition’s job to scrutinise government policies and highlight mistakes, the PAP, too, has to point out instances when its opponents fail to measure up or they act against Singaporeans’ interests, he added.

“It is very easy for the opposition to support only the pleasant things the Government does, but to oppose the harder moves that are sometimes not avoidable,” he said, adding that a responsible opposition should be accountable for what it proposes and what it opposes.

Third, PAP MPs and branch activists must work the ground and show residents how the party makes a difference to them by improving the amenities in their towns, resolving conflicts and issues and advocating their concerns.

PM Lee said that party branches need to ramp up physical activities, which were paused during Covid-19, and make up for lost time by wearing their party whites and covering the ground comprehensively.

He also paid tribute to party members working in opposition wards in Aljunied, Hougang and Sengkang, and commended them for engaging residents, helping needy households and supporting bereaved families, even though they cannot hold Meet-the-People Sessions.

If Singapore’s politics go wrong, its governance will go wrong too, and so will the lives of all Singaporeans, he warned.

He cited how politics in other countries have turned contentious and volatile – governments get distracted and paralysed, and society becomes divided.

“The government has neither the ability nor the mandate to push through hard decisions or to see beyond immediate problems. What is politically expedient overrides what is in the longer-term good of the people and country. And then, we are all in deep trouble,” he said, noting this has happened in the United States and United Kingdom.

PM Lee noted that the US is having its midterm elections on Tuesday. “There is great foreboding on how the results will turn out, and how that will change their politics, possibly even making it worse”, he said.

Some think that Singapore politics will always work well as it has for 60 years, and that the natural order of things is for the country to keep on succeeding, with the Government always thinking and planning 30 or 50 years ahead, PM Lee said.

But what Singapore has today is not natural at all, and the sort of Government that it has is rare, he said.

Almost everywhere else, the Government hardly thinks beyond the next general election, and Singapore has only become like this through the blood, sweat and tears of many generations.

The PAP does not take its duty lightly, and things can easily go wrong here as well. PM Lee said that Singaporeans are not inherently better, smarter or more virtuous than people in other countries.

“Maybe we are more cohesive (but) there is no vaccine to protect us from the same dark forces of anger, fear, racism, xenophobia,” he said.

“Similar divisive emotions and tensions can build up here too, can well up here too, can explode here too. We can end up with the same messy politics and broken country that we see elsewhere.”

“To prevent this and to keep things working well for Singaporeans, the PAP must stay true to its founding mission. Not only to continue to deliver results, but to keep on convincing minds and appealing to hearts, and winning the political battles.”

On party renewal, PM Lee said the PAP has already identified some promising potential candidates for the next election, with more in the pipeline.

“I am confident that come the next general election, we will again be able to present a talented, diverse and representative team of candidates, both experienced and new, ready to work with voters and take Singapore forward.”

PAP will work ‘doubly hard, triply hard’ to regain lost seats at next GE: Lawrence Wong
By Goh Yan Han, Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 6 Nov 2022

There is no guarantee that the People’s Action Party (PAP) will win the next general election, nor is it inevitable that he will become the next prime minister, Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong said on Sunday.

This is why the ruling party will work “doubly hard, triply hard” to regain the seats it has lost and will go all out to earn the support of Singaporeans to secure a strong mandate to govern, said Mr Wong.

He was speaking at the People’s Action Party Conference and Awards 2022 held at Resorts World Convention Centre on Sunday. It was Mr Wong’s maiden speech at a party conference.

The event, attended by more than 3,000 PAP members, will also see the party hold its biennial election for its central executive committee, where 12 members will be directly elected by party cadres. The committee is the party’s top decision-making body.

Mr Wong said he had no doubt that political contestation in Singapore will intensify with time, and called on party members to brace and strengthen themselves for tougher and more uncertain elections.

The Workers’ Party (WP), for one, is now an established political force that holds two group representation constituencies and one single-member constituency.

Mr Wong noted that the WP contested six constituencies in the last election, and that the sum of the votes it received across the six contests was slightly more than the votes for the PAP.

“What if the WP had contested more seats? Would the PAP still have won 61 per cent of the votes nationwide? Would we still have returned to power?” he asked.

As a political party, the PAP has to be clear-eyed and confront its political challenges and challengers head-on, he added.

Noting that the PAP has governed Singapore continuously since 1959, Mr Wong said many here have become accustomed to it forming the government and assume that it will automatically continue to govern the country no matter who they vote for.

But there is no such guarantee, he emphasised.

“Every election from now on will be about which party forms the government,” he said.

The PAP’s internal review after the 2020 General Election indicated that a stronger desire for checks and balances and diversity in Parliament is here to stay, and the PAP must recognise and respect Singaporeans’ desire for this.

Mr Wong called on party activists to continue meeting Singaporeans where they are, including online, and to have the conviction to represent the PAP, stand up for its values and explain the party’s beliefs and policies.

The experience of other countries is that political parties that seek short-term advantage will not hesitate to tap peoples’ fears and frustrations, offering simplistic proposals to score political points and get more support.

“These proposals are often cleverly packaged to sound as attractive as possible, but the remedies are really snake oil that do not solve any problem,” he said. “Indeed, they just make things worse, and in the end it is the people who suffer.”

This is why PAP activists have to step up efforts to address residents’ concerns, connect with them and consolidate support on the ground.

“We must have the courage to correct misperceptions and untruths, and tell people what this party and this Government have done, and what we will continue to do as long as we have their mandate,” said Mr Wong.

He added that during his visits to the party branches, the two most popular questions he gets asked are when the next election will be and when he will be taking over as prime minister.

He said: “We know the election must take place by 2025. Whether it happens before or in 2025, we already know that it will be a tough battle.

“So the real questions to ask are not when the succession or when the election will take place, but how we can prepare ourselves to put up the strongest fight; how we can win the confidence and trust of Singaporeans; how we can secure a clear mandate.”

To do that, the party must do well in both government and politics, said Mr Wong.

Since he was chosen to lead the fourth-generation (4G) leadership team in April, Mr Wong said, he had gone around to visit the party branches and collect feedback.

He is a member of the PAP’s central executive committee, having been elected into the body in 2020 after having been co-opted back in 2018.

Several Malay activists he spoke to encouraged him to speak more in Malay, he added.

Switching to Malay, he said that he is hard at work studying the language and will speak more of it in the future. With more time and practice, he will become better, he added.

“I still have to work on my magic cup,” he said in English, a reference to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s ability to speak in a different language each time he took a sip while at the lectern.

Mr Wong also said he had felt the support from party members during the visits.

“It is a great privilege to be able to serve, and to give back to our party and our country. I do not take the trust invested in me lightly,” he said.

“I make this solemn commitment: I will give the full measure of my strength in service of my party, my people and my country.”

Mr Wong said Singapore is entering a more dangerous world where war cannot be ruled out and growth is slowing, even as the city state’s needs continue to grow, its population is ageing and climate change remains an existential crisis.

The country is entering a sustained period of higher prices, seeing the emergence of a new Cold War between the United States and China and experiencing the effects of climate change.

Apart from the fraught external environment, domestically, the economy is maturing, the population is ageing and the needs of the people are continuing to grow, he noted.

All these challenges will ultimately affect social cohesion, said Mr Wong. If Singapore is to succeed, it cannot wish away these challenges but must confront them head-on, bravely and wisely, he added.

When there are diminishing opportunities for progress, tensions between people of different races, religions or places of birth are bound to flare up, he added.

No country is immune to such forces tearing apart its social fabric, much less a young and tiny country like Singapore. This is why the Republic cannot wish away these challenges but must confront them head-on, bravely and wisely, said Mr Wong.

He highlighted the need to maintain the “precious solidarity and trust that we have in Singapore”, which was why his first priority after taking on the role of deputy prime minister in June was to launch the nationwide Forward Singapore engagement exercise.

The objective of the exercise is to help Singaporeans of all backgrounds realise their full potential and share in the country’s success, while strengthening social protections for them in a more uncertain and volatile world. Another aim is to build a stronger sense of solidarity and responsibility in society, he added.

Noting that Singapore and the 4G team have emerged from the Covid-19 crisis stronger and with a deepened reservoir of trust, Mr Wong said he is confident that by working together, the PAP will overcome the challenges and prevail.

“We must show through our words and actions that the PAP is the only party with the ability and determination to take Singapore forward.”

PM Lee says opposition ‘missing in action’ when it comes to thorny issues like repeal of Section 377A
By Lim Min Zhang, Assistant News Editor, The Straits Times, 6 Nov 2022

The opposition has been missing in action when it comes to thorny issues, such as the impending repeal of Section 377A of the Penal Code, which criminalises sex between men, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Sunday.

Speaking at the biennial People’s Action Party (PAP) conference, he said the opposition cannot just “lie low and disappear”, particularly if it aims to win more seats in Parliament and eventually take over the government.

When it comes to “spiky issues” such as the repeal of Section 377A, the Government has to assess the problem, weigh the arguments and work out the right way forward to the best of its judgment, said PM Lee.

Ministers Masagos Zulkifli, K. Shanmugam, Edwin Tong, Desmond Lee and others have spent months meeting contending groups, which all have very strong and passionately held views on this issue, he said.

“They listened carefully, they explained patiently, they got all sides to accept that on such an issue, everyone has to give and take. No group can get everything it wants.

“Now, where is the opposition on S377A? Are they critiquing the Government’s approach? Do they support or oppose what the Government is doing? Are they offering alternative proposals? None of the above.

The opposition is missing in action. They have said nothing so far. They have declined all comment. They refuse even to say whether they have a party position, or if they will lift the whip on MPs when Parliament votes on the amendments, which is going to be done at the end of this month.

“Why? They do not want to displease anyone – therefore they have gone AWOL (absent without leave). You can’t be AWOL if you want to govern Singapore.”

Governing Singapore is a serious business, said PM Lee, who is also secretary-general of the PAP. So is being the opposition, especially if it aims to win more and more seats, which must eventually mean taking over, he said.

“You can’t lie low and disappear when it suits you. And when the opposition does that, it calls into question its fitness for Parliament, let alone to govern,” he told more than 3,000 party members at Resorts World Convention Centre where the conference was held.

A Bill to repeal Section 377A was introduced in Parliament in October, paving the way for the colonial-era law to be struck from the books. The Workers’ Party previously declined to comment when asked then if it would lift its party whip for the debate.

In a statement issued after PM Lee’s National Day Rally in August when the move to repeal Section 377A was announced, the Workers’ Party said it would participate in the Parliament debate on the repeal and the proposed changes to the Constitution relating to marriage.

But of biggest concern are politicians and parties who stir up resentment to gain political advantage, added PM Lee.

“They tear relentlessly at fault lines – residents versus foreigners, citizens versus PRs (permanent residents), even old citizens versus new. Sometimes they veer into racist territory. They talk about a certain trade agreement, but actually they are talking about a certain race.”

PM Lee said they are not trying to obtain information or solve any problem with their speeches and questions.

“In fact, they are not interested in solutions. They are deliberately working up passions, exacerbating tensions, in order to create disaffection, divide society. Why? To win votes.”

While Singaporeans are not naive, they are also not immune to rhetoric that manipulates emotions, especially when times are tough, and people are anxious and under pressure, said PM Lee.

“Such irresponsible actions by the opposition do nothing to improve our lives,” he added.

“We have seen what happens elsewhere when divisive politics hold sway and unscrupulous politicians gain support, sometimes get into government.

“We have got to get Singaporeans to recognise such rabble-rousing for what it is worth and repudiate it, stand with the PAP, prevent divisive politics from taking hold here.”

PAP conference: Urgent social and political challenges have to be tackled
The messaging that it cannot be business as usual comes amid societal and political changes.
By Grace Ho, Opinion Editor, The Straits Times, 7 Nov 2022

On Sunday, as they’ve done every two years since 1982, more than 3,000 men and women in white gathered for the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) conference where they elected the party’s top decision-making body.

The election was significant because the Central Executive Committee (CEC) is the party’s nerve centre: It screens election candidates at the final stage, and makes pre-election decisions on which MPs will be retired. Historically, it also decided on the setting-up of party bodies such as the HQ Executive Committee, the PAP Community Foundation, Women’s Wing and Youth Wing.

Each PAP conference has two notable parts: the CEC elections, and leaders’ speeches.

The elections

The PAP, formed in 1954 and in power since 1959, has had cadres since the 1950s. One way it saw to stop communist infiltration was by confining the power to elect party leaders to this smaller inner circle.

In her 1971 thesis Singapore’s People’s Action Party: Its History, Organisation and Leadership, former diplomat Pang Cheng Lian colourfully described CEC voting as a closed system, in which “the cardinals appoint the pope and the pope appoints the cardinals”.

Per Article VII of the party’s Constitution, 12 places are filled formally by the election process, while no more than six members may be co-opted into the CEC. The 13th and 14th highest scoring candidates are usually co-opted into the CEC at the party conference itself.

There were times when individuals who weren’t on the nomination list at the party conference were later co-opted by the CEC. This enables younger MPs and ministers who may not have their own support base within the rank and file of party cadres, but who the CEC feels are part of the core leadership or who represent younger MPs, to be brought in. An example was the co-opting in 2018 of fourth-generation (4G) leaders such as Lawrence Wong and Desmond Lee.

This year, other than the chairman of the 35th and 36th CECs, Minister for Trade and Industry Gan Kim Yong, not standing for re-election to the committee, the composition of the CEC did not change significantly. Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Edwin Tong and Minister for Communications and Information Josephine Teo were co-opted into the CEC as they received the 13th and 14th highest votes.

This is in keeping with what PM Lee Hsien Loong pointed out on Sunday, which is that the 4G had earlier chosen Mr Wong to lead them, and the CEC election sees that renewal follow through in the party leadership.

Moreover, the bulk of the transition from 3G to 4G already took place in 2018. That year saw the retirements of Messrs Khaw Boon Wan, Yaacob Ibrahim, Teo Chee Hean, Tharman Shanmugaratnam and Lim Swee Say as CEC office holders.

Further co-options, and decisions on filling the CEC office-bearing positions, are decided subsequently at the first CEC meeting shortly after the conference. Office-bearing positions include the chairman, vice-chairman, secretary-general, assistant secretary-general, treasurer, assistant treasurer, and any other posts the CEC sees necessary to establish.

One development to look out for next could be the election of Mr Wong as the first assistant secretary-general, or ASG. Under the PAP Constitution, the ASG “shall assist the secretary-general in the discharge of his duties, powers and responsibilities and in the absence of the secretary-general shall act in his place”.

The post has traditionally been held by the prime minister-in-waiting, such as Messrs Goh Chok Tong, Lee Hsien Loong and Heng Swee Keat previously, or by a deputy PM or DPM-to-be.

The speeches

Each conference speech is broadly similar: There is an overview of the global political and economic situation, their impact on, as well as political and other developments within, Singapore, and a call to action.

In 2016, PM Lee, who is party secretary-general, warned of sharpening divisions in developed countries that could affect global stability and security, and the need for the PAP to represent all segments of society. His 2020 speech after the July General Election, and while Covid-19 was still raging, was similar: He spoke of giving people hope for the future, and ensuring social cohesion amid an erosion of trust in the political class around the world.

So, by most measures, the speeches by PM Lee and Mr Wong on Sunday were no different. Global situation? Check. Both men opened their speeches against the backdrop of US-China tensions. Representing all Singaporeans and winning their trust and confidence? Check.

But there was a palpable sense of social and political urgency.

Societal changes

For one thing, Singapore society has changed and is changing: From the size of families and ageing profile of its population, to disparate salaries of different groups of workers, Singapore’s ethnic and nationality make-up, and the huge accumulation and inflows of wealth and capital.

As Nanyang Technological University Associate Professor Teo You Yenn said in a speech at the Singapore Economic Policy Forum on Oct 18, the inequalities Singaporeans face are not problems of outliers, nor can they be fixed by plugging gaps.

Hence, Sunday’s speeches acknowledged that more fundamental policy changes are needed. Mr Wong, for example, signalled moves under the Forward Singapore engagement exercise to strengthen assurances and protection for Singaporeans, and to tilt policies further in favour of the less fortunate and vulnerable.

But governing well also entails doing well in politics. On this, the messaging was sharper than in previous years.

In his 2020 speech, PM Lee delivered this line: “You must have guts, you must have conviction, you must have that spunk and that fight… believe in it. Stand for it. Fight for it. If need be, die for it.”

While there was no talk of dying this year, there was still talk of fighting. More importantly, PM Lee discussed at great length that Singaporeans can’t have it both ways – where they want the PAP to continue governing Singapore, but also have more elected opposition MPs to keep the Government on its toes.

Watching the vote share

There are two reasons for this. The first is internal: Had the PAP won GE2020 narrowly with a 51 per cent vote share instead of 61.2 per cent, it would have lost many good MPs and ministers. It would have been much harder for the Government to act decisively, including during crises such as Covid-19.

The second is external: A Singapore ruled by a government hanging on to power by its fingernails is bound to be pushed from pillar to post by other countries. PM Lee said: “At the very least, everyone will say: ‘Hang on, stand back. Watch and see. Will they still be there tomorrow?’”

Mr Wong pointed out that the sum of the votes the Workers’ Party (WP) received across its six contests in the 2020 election was slightly more than votes for the PAP.

These numbers were publicly available right after the elections: The WP secured just over 50 per cent of the total vote in the four group representation constituencies and two single-member constituencies it contested in against the PAP. But Sunday was the first time the party explicitly made it clear how, in the constituencies where there was a straight fight between both sides, more people had collectively voted for the WP than the PAP.

Extrapolating this to the rest of the country and to future elections, the real risk is that if the WP contests more seats, the PAP may not win the majority of votes nationwide, or even be returned to power. Nor is it inevitable that Mr Wong will become PM.

Some may interpret PM Lee’s and Mr Wong’s “fighting” speeches as a huge hint that Singapore will head into a general election next year, which also happens to be when the presidential election will be held.

But I’m not so sure. I don’t think the perceived temperature of a speech is a reliable indication of when an election will be held. Plus, holding a presidential election and general election in the same year, such as in 2011, is the exception to the norm.

Rather, I believe the speeches were an impassioned repudiation of the belief that has taken hold among some Singaporeans – and which has been reinforced by messaging from the opposition – that the PAP won’t lose its supermajority in Parliament, and that even if it does, it can still carry out its agenda effectively.

WP chief Pritam Singh, for example, had said during a GE2020 walkabout that even with one-third of the seats in opposition hands, the Government would have an “incredibly strong mandate”, including passing Bills. But the fact is there are real costs to the leadership bench strength, as well as Singapore’s external position.

The risks

The talk of political challenges isn’t just aimed at the public who aren’t all convinced, but also at the party’s own ranks: That it needs to step up to counter the opposition and not give it a free pass.

Part of this comes down to inexperience, something that live Parliament debates have thrown into sharp relief. Some newer politicians are less quick on their feet in countering, point by point, the opposition’s arguments in the House.

But the larger problem is that even if one can argue well, threading that needle has just become much more difficult in an era of short attention spans and quick tempers.

What’s the worst that can happen to a politician who mangles facts and figures? He gets admonished, and every minute of admonishment detracts from constructive debate. The person who admonishes him, even if correctly, appears to the public like a bully.

It is hard for even an engaged citizen to visualise a crisis that wasn’t. This is what happens when your best and most important work is largely invisible, the Financial Times’ Janan Ganesh wrote evocatively in July.

“Unable to see that less responsible leadership would have led to mass suffering, we feel at liberty to take risks in the polling booth. And so the absence of disaster becomes its own kind of disaster,” he said.

Last year, when I interviewed political historian Shashi Jayakumar, the question that came up was: Will the PAP face the inevitable second-act trouble that plagues many other political parties around the world?

Dr Jayakumar noted that the party leadership, in its GE2020 post-mortem, had not come to a fatalistic appraisal concerning the irreversible tide of PAP decline. Nor do most PAP leaders think that a two-party system featuring a strong opposition is inevitable.

But the possibility of that happening grows with time; for the PAP, it cannot be business as usual. The outcome is existential for both the country and the party. The stakes will get higher with each successive election as the PAP keeps getting returned to power – until it doesn’t.

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