Being in power for half a century breeds arrogance and hubristic tendencies. This much has been said of the People’s Action Party (PAP). Such sentiments were clearly and loudly expressed during the recent elections. Even the PAP’s own candidate for Aljunied GRC, Mr George Yeo, related how a resident had basically told him off at a coffeeshop during the hustings. The resident said he was voting against Mr Yeo’s team simply because of the condescending remarks made by Mr Lee Kuan Yew about voters in Aljunied.
Singaporeans at large too felt the PAP had too much of a chip on its shoulder and cut it down to size by reducing its vote share to its lowest since Independence. Aljunied voters took courage into their own hands, voted for the opposition Workers’ Party and thus registered its role in our history books.
With a palpable seething anger towards the PAP still simmering, the people of Singapore demand one thing from the PAP Government – change.
So it was that the secretary general of the PAP, the Prime Minister of Singapore, sought to address this expectation by declaring an agenda of reform, and he moved rather quickly in doing so as well and surprised many.
If one were to go by comments and postings online, however, it would seem that Singaporeans aren’t too quick or willing to applaud PM Lee for his new agenda. Indeed, most online comments and postings either dismiss his promises outright, calling these a sideshow, a “wayang”, too late, or an insincere attempt at assuaging Singaporeans’ anger.
Few have given the PM the benefit of the doubt, or support his undertakings.
The cynicism is evident. It is pervasive - and though online commentators are most vocal, the sentiment is not only limited to cyberspace.
I would suggest that this is the main obstacle the Prime Minister – and the PAP – will have to address, going forward. This disbelief, or skepticism, that anything will really change or that the PAP is capable of changing itself. It is understandable if one considers that such promises are not new. One would recall the “Remaking Singapore” movement in the early 2000s, and the proposed killing of “sacred cow” policies following that.
But I take a more hopeful attitude, for several reasons.
One, PM Lee no longer has the burden of having two or three senior ministers within his Cabinet who, as some suspect, would be watching over his shoulders or even staying his hands if he wanted to change things.
Two, the stepping down of Mr Lee Kuan Yew, PM’s father, symbolizes a break from the baggage of the past.
Three, PM Lee is expected to hold office for another 10 years, as he sees through the transition to the 4th Generation leadership. He would thus want to stamp his mark before too long, before he eventually steps down.
Fourth, the appointment of Mr Tharman Shanmugaratnam as Deputy Prime Minister. Known as a reformer, a thinker, a good listener and an all round excellent leader, Mr Tharman now has the ear of the PM in close range.
But the one reason why I feel PM Lee should be given time to keep his promise is that I do believe he knows, even if he does not truly appreciate it, that Singapore has changed. Singaporeans and Singapore society have changed. PM Lee would also be aware that gone are the days of yore – where the highhanded, severe and strict form of government, which has been the hallmark of the PAP Government for almost 50 years, is best left to the annals of history, to be carried away into oblivion by the winds of change.
With a “clean slate”, as Mr Goh Chok Tong and Lee senior called it, PM Lee has before him an historic opportunity to re-create Singapore in his hands, fashioned after the desires and aspirations of Singaporeans.
PM Lee has a Singapore which many envy and admire. It is, however, not a great country yet, economic achievements notwithstanding. What would make it a great country would be for its people to not be fearful, to be courageous, to be free to do and free to be.
The leader of this little red spot on the map must realize that it is not in the building of great physical complexes, or the pumping up of economic indicators, which will make this a great nation.
On the contrary, what will make this truly a great home for us is more personal. It is about no longer being afraid to do and to be, no matter who we are. It is about being able to do and to be, with freedoms enshrined in law and supported by an enlightened government and lawmakers.
In short, it is about citizen participation. It is about empowerment of the citizenry. It is the very thing which most governments are afraid of. It is, however, the one thing which all human beings crave and demand.
The cynicism of PM Lee’s promise is borne out of a citizenry being disempowered for far too long. It is easier to cast doubts than to be part of the change that they want to see, even if only a small part is required.
But cynicism, by its insidious nature, does not bode well for a nation which aspires to be more.
PM Lee’s challenge then is to address this. And the best way he can do this is by saying clearly what it is that he wants changed. So far, he has failed to articulate this in an unequivocal manner. Singaporeans still do not really know what changes he is talking about.
Once this is made clear, he should then embark on a road of no return, and move forward with his reforms.
In the meantime, I would encourage cynics to not be too quick to dismiss PM Lee’s promise. Give him time. Reform, in this case, means changing current ways of doing things, of adopting new belief systems, and of painting new landscapes of the future. It means the PAP having to change in five years what it is accustomed to the last 50 years. It's no small feat.
But change it must, of course. If PM Lee does not keep his word, then perhaps it won’t be too late to register your displeasure when the time comes.
You will have an opportunity to do this, for sure.
And PM Lee knows it too.
In the meantime, lets hold off the cynicism.