SINGAPORE: Singapore’s ruling Peoples’ Action Party (PAP) must adapt to what its citizens want in their politics, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said on Sunday (Nov 8).
In a speech at the party’s central executive committee (CEC) elections, Mr Lee, who is also the party’s secretary-general, acknowledged that Singapore is changing, and the party must not stand still.
“They still want stability and progress, job security and opportunities for themselves and their children,” he said.
“But increasingly, Singaporeans want other things too,” he said. This includes being able to participate more actively in shaping society, having more checks and balances, more alternative voices, and scrutiny of government policies.
“These expectations and desires will only grow with every generation of Singaporeans,” he said, although he added that the 66-year-old party must continue representing all Singaporeans, and not just a segment of the population.
Mr Lee said the party has managed to stay in power by constantly “rejuvenating ourselves and keeping our policies fresh”. The PAP must keep doing this, he said, which is why its fourth generation of leaders has been leading initiatives to encourage people to come forward and express themselves, such as through the Emerging Stronger Conversations.
“Our hope is that through these platforms, Singaporeans will feel empowered to make a difference and contribute to society, working hand-in-hand with the PAP,” he said.
Trying to stay relevant is also why the party has been introducing new leaders at every general elections, such as the latest batch of PAP members that joined parliament after the July ballots.
Some of them have joined the cabinet to “help the PAP to provide Singapore with the leadership it needs”, Mr Lee noted.
Though he said that leadership renewal remains a top priority, Mr Lee reiterated the promise he made to see Singapore through both the ongoing COVID-19 and economic crisis.
DISAPPOINTING ELECTION RESULTS
Mr Lee acknowledged in his speech that the July election results were short of the party’s expectations, although he was “not surprised”.
Before the elections, observers had predicted a landslide victory for the PAP as they thought voters would make a “flight to safety” amid the pandemic, he said.
“I never believed this. On Nomination Day, I said I didn't think this was a realistic outcome. I was confident that Singaporeans firmly supported the government and its efforts against COVID-19 … but I also knew that public health was not the only thing on voters’ minds.”
People had already been feeling the pain from safe distancing measures and the economic fallout, losing their jobs and income, or worrying about their future. At the same time, businesses were also frustrated by the COVID-19 restrictions.
“The anxiety was palpable, and it cost us votes,” he said.
Aside from public health and bread-and-butter issues, the desire for a stronger opposition had grown over several elections and resurfaced during the last round, Mr Lee pointed out.
Notwithstanding these trends, the unequivocal signal from voters was that they wanted the PAP to form the government and see Singapore through the challenges ahead, he said.
“Even many who voted for the opposition, did so fully expecting that the PAP Government would be returned to power, and Singapore would continue to be in good hands,” he suggested.
“The outcome is already certain, so no need to make extra sure of it. It's a strange dilemma that we face, but that's how it is,” Mr Lee said.
He stressed that the party will review the election results carefully and draw lessons from it, noting that National Development Minister Desmond Lee has been seeking views from its activists and branches.
In turn, these activists have given feedback in areas such as which voter groups the party needs to pay more attention to, and how they can better pitch their message.
The party, he said, must not neglect the political contest.
“We must work harder to translate programmes and policies that benefit Singaporeans, into messages that people will identify with and embrace (and) stand ready to face closer scrutiny, both in and out of Parliament,” Mr Lee said.
When there is fair criticism, the party should listen to it and improve their performance. But it should also take the fight to the opposition and defend itself “vigorously” on things its stands for.
“If we are not prepared to fight hard for what we believe in, people will soon sense it,” he said.
“All these years, people have been with us because they knew we had backbone: we will fight even with our backs to the wall, and we will never let them down.”
“That's how we've been able to win support for our ideas and plans, and show Singaporeans that we remain the best team to secure their future.”
Mr Lee highlighted how Singapore's political stability has allowed the ruling party to deliver progress, warning that having "more exciting politics" and "fiercely contested democratic systems" can have detrimental results as those in power are focused on short-term political survival.
"As a result ... the country cannot maintain a consistent, long-term direction to steer its way forward."
"Do we want such excitement in Singapore?" Mr Lee asked.
"Is it good for Singapore to have this ups and downs, the hurly-burly, the unpredictability, the bitterness, the division, the rancour, the splits, which will take many, many years to heal?
"Or do we want to keep want to keep on building on what we have, treasuring what we have achieved, remedying the flaws, the shortcomings - which there will always be - making it less imperfect ... year by year, election by election. So that by the time you handover to your successors (and) children, you can say, 'we made Singapore better for you. Please do the same for your successors and your children.'"