SINGAPORE: The People’s Action Party (PAP) “must never, ever be afraid to do what is right for Singapore”, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Sunday (Nov 10) at the PAP convention, a gathering of the party's members and activists.
Citing the Government's decision to amend the Constitution to allow for a Presidential Election to be reserved for a particular racial group if no one from that group has been president for five continuous terms, Mr Lee acknowledged that not all Singaporeans agreed with the decision.
"Overall, in the short term, this issue is a political minus for the government, for the PAP. But this is part of governing. I am convinced that we did the right thing,” he added.
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Mr Lee, the secretary-general of the ruling PAP, said the change was made for the “long-term good” of Singapore, noting that fault lines of race, language and religion “have not really disappeared”.
“We have to continue managing racial and religious issues closely and sensitively. When something happens to cause offence, like people making reckless remarks or offensive posts, we have to take action,” he said.
“At the same time, we must proactively strengthen our structures and institutions that support our multiracial and multi-religious society.”
Adding that the President is “the unifying symbol” of multiracial Singapore, Mr Lee highlighted that it would be more difficult for a non-Chinese candidate to be elected if the President is elected by a national vote.
“How would the minorities feel if the president of Singapore were almost always Chinese? In the long term, such a scenario will foment deep unhappiness, and erode the founding values of our nation.”
Aside from ensuring unity and social cohesion in the society, Mr Lee said the PAP will also have to maintain trust in the party and give people hope for the future to keep Singaporeans’ faith.
PAP DOES NOT "SUGERCOAT REALITY": PM LEE
Mr Lee said the PAP has “built up a deep reservoir of trust” among Singaporeans over the years because of its high standards of honesty and integrity, its upfront and frank approach, and its ability to deliver on its promises.
Adding that every party member, from the Prime Minister to party members on the ground, must work on behalf of the people, he said: “You may be putting together the government’s budget, you may be awarding town council contracts, you may be looking after branch funds. It’s on behalf of the people, it’s the people’s resources, you are looking after it, you must do it honestly and in the interest of the people.
“We must always do things honestly, transparently, with integrity.”
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Mr Lee also stressed that the PAP does not gloss over difficulties or “sugarcoat the reality”.
“We explain clearly the challenges, and the choices available, so that Singaporeans understand there are good reasons for what we do. And even if the decision is unpopular, we work very hard to persuade people that this is something we have to do together.”
Addressing the GST increase also raised by Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat in his speech, Mr Lee said: “ Few governments in the world tell you before an election that they plan to raise taxes. I could have kicked the can down the road, and left this to the future PM and his team.
“But we had to do the right and responsible thing: Be upfront with voters, explain why the GST increase is unavoidable, and to give lots of advance notice.”
By announcing the GST hike and the corresponding support package early, this helps to make sure that “the opposition cannot stir this up”, said Mr Lee.
“You can be sure they’ll try,” he added.
PAP policies have also improved the lives of Singaporeans “in concrete and visible ways”, said Mr Lee, noting that healthcare, education, housing and public transportation in Singapore are affordable and high quality.
"Unlike other political parties, we cannot afford to woo voters with empty words because we do not want them to come back to haunt us,” he added.
DELIVERING ON PLANS FOR SINGAPORE'S FUTURE
The Government must help people “feel confident that there is a bright future” for themselves and their children, said Mr Lee.
This depends on three factors: Opportunities for Singaporeans, delivering on plans for Singapore’s future and tackling future problems.
Addressing the Government’s heavy investment in education, Mr Lee said opportunities for Singaporeans does not refer to just opportunities for the country to prosper, but also opportunities for individual citizens and their families.
“Therefore, we are spending on pre-school, so that all children, regardless of background, have a good start in life. We’re making heavy investments in a good education at every level for every Singaporean, to enable you to grow to your full potential,” he added.
Mr Lee also said the ITE colleges, polytechnics, universities and the SkillsFuture programme enable Singaporeans to participate fully in Singapore’s growth and progress.
“And to leave no one behind to walk alone,” he added.
Mr Lee also addressed the Government’s “bold plans” to transform Singapore and enhance the standard of living.
He noted that the new MRT lines, HDB townships and Jewel at Changi Airport are the results of similar plans over the years.
“But building Singapore is a never-ending project, and we always have new plans progressively taking shape,” he said, listing examples like Changi Terminal 5, Tuas Port and the Greater Southern Waterfront.
“We will never reach the limit of what we can do in Singapore. The only constraint is our imagination and our daring. Every new generation will have the opportunity to shape Singapore to what they want it to be.”
Mr Lee also stressed that the government must tackle serious future problems “vigorously”, to show Singaporeans that “there is a way forward”.
Citing Singapore’s efforts against climate change, he said: “We are starting preparations, we are setting aside money, we are building our defences. Unlike many cities, we are able to do something about it.
“With good forward planning, we can even reclaim land from the sea, and turn adversity into opportunity.”
DISCONNECT BETWEEN THE MASSES AND THE ELITE
Mr Lee also acknowledged that there are several potential fault lines that Singapore is vulnerable to, between rich and poor, conservative and liberal, old citizens and new.
“Beyond race and religion, we must also prevent new rifts from opening up in our society. Being open and diverse, Singapore is constantly vulnerable to divisive forces that have sown discord elsewhere,” he said.
Addressing “a split between the people and the elite”, Mr Lee said that in other countries, the masses no longer trust the society’s elite.
“People feel that their interests are no longer looked after. The entire political class has lost their respect, and support. Traditional societies have become feeble. Even socialist parties, which are supposed to care for the common man, have lost their base,” he said.
“And in place of them, populist movements have arisen, which explicitly want to upend the system, turn things upside down, but are not necessarily able to offer anything better.
Referring to the United States as an example, Mr Lee said that the white working class used to be core supporters of the Democratic Party. But as the Democratic Party drifted away from this group, Donald Trump as a candidate spotted this opportunity, championed the cause of the white working class. His supporters then voted for the Republicans, making him President.
“As president, his political base is not moderate voters in the middle ground, but these hardcore supporters in the white working class who are very unhappy with the way things are going,” said Mr Lee.
Stressing that a similar disconnect between the masses and the elite cannot happen in Singapore, Mr Lee said the PAP “must always remain a party of the people”.
Acknowledging that the PAP was “born from unions”, Mr Lee added that every party member must identify with the people and serve them.
“We must make sure that our system always works for ordinary Singaporeans, so that they will embrace it as their system,” he said.
“We have never forgotten that the whole purpose of economic and social development is to improve the lives of our workers and the workers' families.”
Adding that the relationship between PAP and NTUC will be even more crucial in the coming years, Mr Lee said: “We will not be able to protect every job. But we will look after every worker.”
In conclusion, Mr Lee noted that the 4G team knows what is expected of them and what they must do.
“They have a very difficult task, and they deserve the support of all of us, all those older than them and all those younger than them. Back them, they are our team, they are Singapore’s team,” said Mr Lee.
Warning that the PAP must be prepared for a “tough fight” at the next General Election, Mr Lee said “a lot is at stake”.
“This election is not just about the PAP doing a bit better or a bit worse. This election will decide if Singapore can sustain good and stable government, to be different from other countries for a long time to come,” he said.
“Soon it will be time for battle again.”