PAP: From ‘divide and conquer’ to the ‘prisoner’s dilemma’

~by: Dr Tan Chong Kee~

Some quick notes on the strategic options of a Singaporean politics in transition:

Setting the Scene

For a very long time, PAP maintained its absolute dominance using a divide and rule strategy, ensuring that opposition parties are numerous and small while nipping in the bud any sign of growth whenever possible (think Tang Liang Hong, Jeyaratnam, Chee Soon Juan, etc). This divide and conquer strategy had served to maintain the PAP’s dominance well, but is now starting to break down.

Meanwhile, the Worker’s Party has learned how to grow in this environment. If the WP plays its cards right, it is no longer unthinkable for Singaporean politics to become a two-party contest.

A two-party political contest is great for pluralism but also comes with its own problems. The most critical one being the danger that it could degenerate into a prisoner’s dilemma game. This is a game in which collaboration would produce the best outcome, but the players cannot help but choose to undermine each other instead.

Let’s suppose that we have a two-party landscape where both PAP and WP are equally matched. They face a daily choice of whether to prioritise national interests or party interests. Prioritizing party interest means the willingness to jeopardize the country to score point against one’s political opponent. A clear  example is how the Republican Party in the US blocked a routine raising of debt limit to score points against President Obama, bringing the country to the brink of default.

On the other hand, an example of prioritising national interests is the willingness to suffer apparent “loss of face” by modifying existing policies based on sensible feedback.

If both parties prioritize national interest, neither will “score point” over the other but Singapore will prosper. However, if one is too focused on “fixing the opposition”, there is a strong temptation to prioritize party interest instead. This will lead one party to always discredit the other party’s ideas, regardless of the idea’s merit or potential benefits for the country. Sooner or later, both parties will be at war and effective governance goes out the window.

How can Singapore enjoy greater democracy and accountability without our politics becoming like the current deadlock between Democrats and Republicans in the US?

What Would PAP Do?

To answer this question, let’s consider three things that could happen with the PAP now: Business as usual, Reform, or Split.

Business as usual is where the PAP hardliners retain leadership of the party despite lessons from GE2011 and PE2011. Fact is, the PAP could well continue to rule for the next 10-20 years using this strategy. It will just mean a continuation of current trend, where opposition parties grow and gain more seats at each election. If the oppositions merge to create a single party, or if say the WP grows rapidly ahead of the others, it will take perhaps 3-4 elections for this large opposition party to topple the PAP from power. If they don’t, it will take longer.

Besides being very difficult and costly to pull off, “business-as-usual” will entrench “fixing the opposition” as the default behaviour and prematurely lock Singaporean politics into a prisoner’s dilemma game. This option locks in long-term pain in exchange for short-term gain. Not a wise move unless all you care about is your remaining few years of dominance.

Reform is when the PAP liberals gains leadership of the party. It will likely mean things like tackling income disparity, playing fair, openness to alternatives, etc. Doing so does not mean one must become xenophobic, a welfare state, or resorting to the pork barrel. But it does mean greater wisdom, empathy, and imagination.

A successful reform could take the wind out of opposition parties’ growth. If done expertly the PAP may even be able to, for a considerable length of time, prevent any opposition party from becoming an equal rival.

The sweet spot for a stronger opposition in this case would probably be one that holds 20 – 35 per cent of parliamentary seats. This will give the PAP sufficient room to government effectively, but not so much room that it can ignore legitimate concerns and weather a national backlash. Similarly, such an opposition will be much more committed to prioritize national interest because it needs to convince at least 15 per cent more voters of its ability to govern well. In case of emergency, they will have a manageable learning curve and can take power without too much hiccups.

Although optimal, reform will be hard for the PAP to pull off. PM Lee’s apology during GE2011 could be interpreted as a ship-burning signal that he is fully committed to reform. But it remains to be seen how much opposition he will face from within the party and how far he is prepared to go.

Gazing into the Crystal Ball

The third scenario is for the hardliners and liberals to go their separate ways, i.e., a PAP split. A PAP split will result in a three-party system, with a right-wing hardliner PAP being the largest party, a liberal PAP party, and a left-wing opposition party. In this situation, the hardliner PAP may be able to continue with divide and rule by playing one of the smaller parties against the other, split the opposition support, and thus maintain dominance. We had a taste of this in the recent presidential election.

A three-party political landscape would shift our politics more towards Western Europe model (Germany, Austria, etc.) where three-party contests between the right-wing, centrist and left-wing parties are the norm. Extrapolating from the PE2011, a right-wing PAP would get about 35% vote, a centrist liberal PAP about 35-40 per cent vote, and a left-wing opposition about 25 – 30 per cent vote. All parties must thus shift more towards the center in order to win more than 50%. Centrist politics are generally more unifying, although that benefit would be balanced against the risk of instability from having to form coalition government.

All three scenarios or any combination of hybrids could happen at the same time, e.g.: hardliners and liberals with the PAP could share power, while a very small number leaves to join the opposition. What will happen in reality depends on how various factions within the party play out. I have provided three pure conceptual scenarios so that we have the tools to recognize and analyze real-life scenarios.

To conclude, three things (or their hybrids) could happen within the PAP during the next 10-20 years. All of them will likely lead to greater political plurality. While some of them will likely lead to a “political soft-landing” where national interest trumps, others have significant risks of a “hard-landing” to a divisive politics of mutual undermining and deadlock. A discerning electorate can help to ensure the better outcomes in future elections by supporting PAP reformers when possible and voting for the opposition when they run against the hardliners.

Dr Tan Chong Kee is the founder of Sintercom.

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