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The significance of Lim Boon Heng’s tears

Ng E-Jay /

On Monday, during a 90-minute press conference to introduce three new PAP candidates, Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office Mr Lim Boon Heng broke down when addressing a question about groupthink in the PAP. During the same press conference, Mr Lim had earlier announced his decision to retire from politics.

A reporter had directed a question at the new PAP candidates, asking them if they had a counter argument to the worry about the potential for groupthink amongst policymakers, and also their opinion on younger Singaporeans wanting more diverse and robust debate in Parliament.

Mr Lim was quick to speak up on behalf of the candidates. At first, he appeared jovial, emphasizing that he was not standing for elections but wanted to give a quick response. Then he became serious, saying that there was no groupthink on the casino issue, and that the cabinet had been quite divided on the issue. He said that it had been a difficult process for him accepting casinos, and that he almost could not make his speech in Parliament.

That was when Mr Lim became overwhelmed with emotion. He had to pause for around 15 seconds while cameras snapped away. Then he said, “So if you think there is groupthink, that is one example you can quote – there is no groupthink.”

It is not clear whether the casino issue had been earlier raised in the same press conference, but given Mr Lim’s sudden tears, it is obvious that issue meant a lot to him both then and now. It is also clear that the speculation of groupthink within the PAP roused in him very strong feelings, even though the question had originally been posed to the candidates rather than to him.

Then Mr Lim went on to give another example, about the concern the trade union had for the lower income, and the impact of globalization on them, with wages stagnating and even falling. Mr Lim broke down a second time, before finally stating that the trade union pressured the government to do something for the working poor, the end result of which was the implementation of the Workface Income Supplement scheme.

In between tears, Mr Lim then repeated emphatically, “So, there is no groupthink.”

Mr Lim’s strong emotional reaction to the question of groupthink and his raising of the examples of the casinos and the poor is significant because it provides hints that there are deep rifts within the ruling party concerning key policies. It is probably not too far off the mark to imagine that Mr Lim had disagreed strongly on certain policies such as the opening of casinos in Singapore, but had the painful and unenviable task of having to toe the party line when the final decision was made.

Besides Mr Lim, Dr Lily Neo has also been known to actively champion the needs of the poor, only to frequently find her pleas falling on deaf and uncaring ears. Once, Dr Neo was so frustrated with the lack of progress in Parliament concerning assistance for the poor and underprivileged that she felt compelled to raise her voice in Parliament.

Is such a state of affairs good for Singapore? What benefit is there to citizens if supposedly independent minded PAP MPs find that they have to toe the party line even concerning issues on which they have strong objection? If absolute power resides in the cabinet and there are no voices to credibly challenge the cabinet and hold it accountable to Singaporeans, is this healthy for our nation?

Mr Lim’s tears are like a canary in the coal mine, pointing to cracks that might be forming in the PAP leadership. In recent memory, no PAP minister or MP has resigned in protest or proceeded to openly challenge the PAP soon after stepping down. The PAP party discipline is still very strong. But if this party discipline only serves to mask growing discontent within the PAP ranks, the PAP could be in for a period of volatility in the years ahead.

This takes us back to the question of whether a one party system or multi-party system is better for Singapore.

When Mr Lim tearfully emphasized that there is no groupthink in the PAP, he most likely meant it as a positive for the PAP, indicating that PAP members are capable of exercising independent judgment and are not bound by dogma.

On the other hand, would there be a need to defend the PAP from speculation of groupthink if there is multi-party democracy in Singapore, where diverse voices can be heard without fear of persecution, and where there is active political participation from every corner of society?

The interest of Singaporeans would be better served if the ruling party constantly has to earn its mandate through free and fair elections, if Singapore’s political leaders have their feet constantly put to the fire through robust multi-party debate and activism, if there is a credible opposition in Parliament to challenge bad policies and devise good alternatives.

Mr Lim’s emotional reaction during the press conference is the sign of fatigue and strain that a one-party system imposes on itself. The party whip can hold Mr Lim’s tongue, but it cannot stop his tears. A one-party state creates the illusion of consensus and stability, but it serves Singaporeans less and less.