TOC Editorial /
The People’s Action Party (PAP) has been the subject of much criticism over the past week. But the discontentment towards the party that has led our nation since independence could well be misdirected.
A whole gamut of policy failures has been attributed to them. The high cost of living, influx of foreigners, unaffordable housing, overburdened transport systems, increasing healthcare costs - the list is long.
The familiar refrain goes like this: the government no longer listens, does not empathize with the concerns of ordinary citizens and is therefore not able to solve our problems.
But perhaps the real issue here is not that the PAP does not try hard enough.
Perhaps the more important lesson for this ruling party that has led our nation-state for more than 50 years is its failure to realize that the party, by itself, can no longer deliver us from all the problems that we will face in this complex world.
After many days of being harangued by opposition parties for its many mistakes the past five years, the Prime Minister publicly apologized and promised to “put things right”. He freely admitted that it is not always possible for things to turn out perfect.
Indeed, lest we forget, people who hold political office are imperfect people trying to do a difficult job. To borrow a wonderful phrase from American historian Joseph Ellis, political leaders are often “improvising on the edge of catastrophe”. The outcome of public policy is as much the result of chance, contingency and unintended consequences as it is due to careful planning.
The PAP brandishes its track record and its “successful formula” for creating prosperity for the people. The opposition promises change and offers to be an alternative voice in parliament. Pitting performance against promise, we are presented with a false choice.
Even the best laid out plans are only today’s best guess. In this increasingly complex world, constant adaptation is the key to survival. Just as there is no guarantee that the PAP will continue to get things right, do not expect that the opposition has all the answers either.
To believe either one to be true is to allow ourselves to be lulled into a false sense of security.
So what then is this election really about?
At the heart of this is an opportunity for us to define what kind of society we wish to create for ourselves.
For the longest time, there has been one dominant version of the Singapore Story: We are an accidental nation, constantly called to recognize our vulnerability in this volatile world. With little room for error, our collective anxieties may be assuaged if we would only trust in the wisdom of our leaders to protect our interests.
This national narrative was reinforced very recently by Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew who reminded us that Singapore would not be what it is today if Singaporeans had chosen the wrong candidates in past elections.
But the danger of relying on one single story to frame the national psyche is not that it is wrong, but rather that it is incomplete.
The groundswell of discontent that has emerged during this general election may be interpreted as a symptom of a clash in values and differences in priorities between those in positions of authority and the people they are supposed to represent.
With increasing boldness, many are shaking off their reticence. Among the stories that have surfaced online and offline, the major themes that have resonated with the public include the desire for greater accountability, transparency, justice and compassion in governance.
In all of this, one important question begs to be answered: What are the fundamental values that drive our decision-making in public policy?
If we envision our society to be one where the pursuit of wealth creation is balanced by the fair distribution of these benefits among the people, then we have the responsibility to ensure that the representatives that we elect to parliament should also share these same values.
But we need to go beyond that. A basic feature of democracy is the capacity of individuals to participate freely and fully in the life of their society. We must take ownership of the process and not abdicate responsibility to our leaders, calling them to account only once every five years.
Ho Kwon Ping, in an insightful article in the Straits Times observed that as a maturing electorate, our demands are increasingly shaping the responses of both the incumbent and opposition parties.
Singapore may be moving deliberately yet irrevocably towards a First World electorate - in an evolutionary process that may take another two or three elections over the next two decades - but one that embraces common values so that the electorate, not the political parties, demand civility, intellectual rigour and competence of all their politicians, whatever their affiliation.
The incumbent and opposition parties have billed this election as a pivotal one for leadership renewal. So choose wisely. Take some time before polling day to talk to people who may not share your same views. Engage and listen. Suspend your judgment. Defend and persuade. Then make a considered and responsible choice.
The story of this election may well be that we are slowly but surely finding our way as citizens in a democratic society, navigating a new relationship with those in positions of authority, exercising shared responsibility and leadership in creating a nation we can all be proud of.