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The PAP – facing its new mandate

A “GE2011 One Year On” special report

~ By Ghui ~

Pre GE 2011, the political landscape in Singapore has been virtually static since the 60s. The PAP dominated the scene and it was a forgone conclusion that they would win every election. Of course, the PAP still reigns supreme, All ministers are PAP members and the PAP still hold a majority of 81 out of 87 seats in Parliament. To the untrained eye, the status quo has been maintained but if one has an understanding of politics in Singapore, the mood has unmistakably shifted.

One year on from the momentous results of GE 2011, it is perhaps apt to look at the PAP pre GE 2011 and post GE 2011.What have they achieved post GE 2011? Have they learnt from it? How have they progressed?

Before GE 2011

Singaporeans were a generally apathetic lot. The outcome of each election was so predictable that no one really bothered. There were of course the political martyrs such as JBJ, Tang Liang Hong and Chee Soon Juan. There was also Chiam See Tong who seemed to have beat the system but beyond the few names, there were no alternatives to look to beyond the PAP.

This led to us viewing the PAP as a solid block devoid of individuality. No one really knew what each person stood for. Few even knew who their MPs were. The PAP were simply a faceless entity that seemed to have existed time immemorial. They were simply the men in white who controlled Singapore.

Post GE 2011

The results of GE 2011 sent shockwaves within the establishment. A relatively popular minister was defeated at the polls in favour of the underdog. Prima facie, it was a surprise. The PAP had seemed entrenched. However, if one were to take a closer look, the writing had been on the wall years before. The apparent astonishment was testament to how complacent the PAP had become.

For years they had relied on their track record of economic growth, oblivious to the changing voter demographics. So focused on the magic GDP numbers, they developed tunnel vision and forgot to keep in touch with sentiment on the ground. When they lost Aljunied, they were caught unaware, almost as if the rug was pulled from under their feet.

It is human nature to get self assured after prolonged periods in power and history is replete with examples of this phenomenon. To a certain extent, I can understand why the PAP felt able to rest on its laurels but the key test is how they have evolved post GE 2011.

Rejuvenation

The catchphrase post GE 2011 has been accountability. The electorate wanted to see the PAP earn its votes. No longer were they satisfied to accept the usual rhetoric. The old guard were seen as an obstacle to rejuvenation and fresh faces were required. This was exacerbated by the so called alternative media which provided views which departed from the usual main stream media which was perceived as a mouthpiece of the PAP.

There are certainly examples of a more active stance taken vis`-a-vis renewal within the party. Shortly after GE 2011, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong sought to rejuvenate the PAP. The Cabinet was reshuffled and many old faces were replaced by younger and fresher ones (http://www.chinapost.com.tw/asia/singapore/2011/05/19/302960/Singapore-PM.htm).

While I applaud this, PM Lee seemed to contradict the new wind of change by appointing former cabinet minister Lim Boon Heng to lead the charge in formulating strategies to win back ground support in Aljunied. This flies in the face of rejuvenation for while I mean no disrespect to Mr Lim, he is most definitely viewed as a member of the old guard (http://theonlinecitizen.com/2011/12/pap-fresh-faces-needed/).

From this, it would appear that while the PAP seems all set to embrace change, it is a harder task than envisaged.

Engagement

A significant factor as to why the PAP lost ground support was perhaps a lack of meaningful engagement with the masses. Having been entrenched in power for so long, they got used to giving orders as opposed to consultation.

By taking the lofty higher ground, they chose to disregard the alternative media as inferior rumour mongers, not realising that their voters were increasingly taking to the alternative media for the alleged truth.

As a result of their failure to effectively engage, the internet became fertile ground for expressing dissatisfaction with the ruling elite. While the internet did provide much useful information, some of the content were either exaggerations or unsubstantiated accusations. Be that as it may, these alleged “internet falsehoods” were symptomatic of a larger problem - that people were frustrated and felt unheard.

These concerns could have been addressed by the PAP through dialogue and engagement. But instead, the status quo of dealing only with the mainstream media was maintained and distrust for the mainstream media continued to fester. As a result of the PAP’s failure to: (1) acknowledge the growing power of the online media, (2) recognise that many Singaporeans regarded the main stream media with suspicion, and (3) adopt an attitude of open dialogue online,  they indirectly contributed to the churning of the rumour mill they so fear.

If the PAP had actively engaged Netizens earlier, perhaps Aljunied may not have been lost in such dramatic fashion.

Fast forward one year, the PAP seems to have taken heed. Tony Tan in the run up to the Presidential elections took great pains to engage alternative media outlets such as The Online Citizen. He did not have to but he did! While I know that he was no longer a PAP member when he ran for President, he was very much seen as the “PAP endorsed candidate”. It was a close fight between him and Tan Cheng Bock but Tony Tan was victorious in the end and I have no doubt that the online media played a part (http://theonlinecitizen.com/2011/08/new-media-engagement-may-have-given-tony-tan-and-tan-jee-say-the-edge/).

Baey Yam Keng is yet another MP who has made a concerted effort to engage the alternative media. He recognised the power of social media and acknowledged that it could not be ignored and that it was the “new normal” (http://theonlinecitizen.com/2011/10/baey-yam-keng-will-the-government-continue-engaging-toc/).

In the furore which ensued after Baey made some comments which were perceived as in favour of Sun Xu, his handling of the aftermath displayed his commitment to engaging the populace. Instead of retreating into silence, he chose to publish his side of the story, trusting in the judgment of Singaporeans (http://sg.news.yahoo.com/blogs/singaporescene/scholarships-based-merit-not-nationality-baey-152120978.html). Whether we agreed with his initial view points is beside the point. The fact that he chose to engage in dialogue proved to me that some elements of the PAP are ready to embrace change.

Prime Minister Lee has recently set up a Facebook page and a Twitter account. Dr Yaacob Ibrahim has also stated that “Engagement is now the buzzword. Consultation. The most important point of doing it is not because it’s fashionable or popular but because it’s the best way forward. The underlying impetus is to engage as many people as possible.”  (http://sg.news.yahoo.com/govt-online-outreach-efforts-not-%E2%80%98populist%E2%80%99-in-nature--mica-minister.html)

Despite these positive steps, Dr Yaacob Ibrahim has advocated for the development of an Internet Code of Conduct which will be supervised and guided by his ministry. This seems to fly in the face of effective communication with Singaporeans.

Singaporeans want to communicate as equals with their leaders. By suggesting that Singaporeans need to be supervised or guided by the government on how they should formulate their views or express their opinions imply a parent-child relationship which is the very thing that has infuriated Singaporeans about the PAP.

Many in the online community are against the formalisation of a Code of Conduct. They believe that the online world is able to regulate itself and castigate irresponsible posters adequately and that there are already other forms of legislation in place to deal with irresponsible statements. To a large extent, online vitriolic is a result of years of pent up anger which has been unleashed all at one shot. In time, when Singaporeans get used to the relatively freer internet, they will naturally become more circumspect.

The fear is that the formalisation of such code of conduct could be used as a means to suppress any form of dissent which would then negate all of the seemingly positive steps taken by the PAP to enhance engagement. For the government to gain credibility in its efforts at engagement, it needs to come across as sincere and any talk of government intervention could smell highly of unwanted involvement.

As Cherian George said: “any code of ethics or mechanism for community moderation will only take off if it is devised entirely by practitioners, with not even the slightest hint of official influence or control. Even if totally independent, it would be difficult enough for any group of bloggers, no matter how well respected, to persuade others to adopt a code. Herding cats would be simpler. The merest whiff of government involvement would destroy any chance of success – that would be like trying to herd cats while walking a dog.” (http://journalism.sg/2012/03/11/a-voluntary-code-of-ethics-for-blogs-possible-but/)

Some Singaporeans on the other hand favour some form of internet regulation. They cite the need to protect the multicultural and multi religious facets of Singapore. Personally, I don’t think that we need a separate internet code of conduct to deal with this because as mentioned above, there is a slew of other legislation that can be utilised to tackle this.

But, in the spirit of democracy, everyone is entitled to have a say and if we must have an online code of conduct, then its development must be led by a committee made up of equal representation from all aspects of the online world. Mica will not need to “supervise or guide” and their participation should be limited to having a representative on the committee like everyone else. All members of such committee must be given an equal vote. Issues must be debated openly without any intervention from the ruling government.

This is the only way the government can pave the way for change and ensure that they don’t destroy all their positive overtures at engagement thus far.

I don’t as yet know which way the internet code of conduct will go or how effective the PAP will be at sustained engagement. At the moment, it seems to be a case of “mixed signals”.

The Dreaded D Word

Despite promises for a “lighter touch” on the internet, the spectre of defamation suits reared its ugly head when The Temasek Review Emeritus had to issue an apology to PM Lee on the basis of its defamatory content.

Some have taken this incident as the government back paddling from its promises. Has the government taken one step forwards but two steps back?

The ISA also remains firmly in place despite our neighbours across the border pledging their eradication of its use.

Which way Singapore will go remains to be seen. The government has indeed made unprecedented efforts to communicate with the masses and there have not been the usual raft of law suits post the 2011 elections. So perhaps, the government just needs a bit more time to get used to its new mandate?

MP Salaries

This was one of the biggest sources of discontentment in Singapore. Government salaries were exorbitantly high in comparison with other countries and many felt rightly outraged.

Post GE 2011, the government did form a committee to review ministerial salaries and the salaries of the President, the Prime Minister and ministers were indeed reduced. This was a move that would have seemed impossible just a few years back!

Certain controversial elements still remain in the calculation of ministerial remuneration – most notably, the bonus component and the benchmarking of ministerial salaries to the top 1,000 Singaporean earners.

Overall, the salary review was a positive step forward and credit must be given but the buck does not stop here. The PAP will need to continually revisit the issue and assess if the bonus component or the private sector benchmark works.

Sky Rocketing Property Prices and Transport Woes

Inflation and stagnant incomes were twin issues that plagued and continue to plague Singaporeans. Property prices are sky rocketing and many Singaporeans are facing difficulties in owning a flat. The government has tried to combat this by introducing a raft of stamp duty reforms to cool the market. It is not possible at this point to make an accurate assessment on whether these reforms have worked but again, I take this as a positive sign that the government is trying to address the concerns of Singaporeans. As to whether its measures are effective remains to be seen. At the moment, citizens still feel squeezed (http://gintai.wordpress.com/2012/04/23/is-this-my-singapore/).

The mayhem on our public transport is yet another bone of contention. Stretched to its limits, our transportation system seems to have imploded. The government has beseeched us to be patient, reasoning that changes within the transportation system would take time.

Frustrating as it is, I have to grudgingly admit that building up infrastructure does not happen overnight. Perhaps they ought to have had more foresight in their immigration policies and city planning but these points are now moot because they are already reality. I am more concerned with what the government has planned going forward.

In Conclusion

The PAP has certainly made its share of faux pas this past year. Most notably, former Prime Minister’s gaffe in relation to the “Do you have a boyfriend” saga (http://theonlinecitizen.com/2011/09/lee-kuan-yews-below-the-the-belt-answer/). There was also the backlash caused by Minister Khaw Boon Wah’s comment that one could have a bypass for $8.

However, despite the miscalculations they have made, there has been some progress on the part of the PAP to be more transparent, more approachable and more engaging. What is perhaps lacking is a clear agenda on its “terms of engagement” because presently, no one knows where they really stand. Perhaps, the PAP are not really sure themselves but I know what I would love to see – more robust debate, more answered questions, a sustained effort to maintain channels of communication without fear and most of all, a clear and unambiguous commitment from the PAP to honour, value and respect our views.

At the end of the day, the PAP is not perfect. What is important is that it learns from its mistakes. In some instances, they have while in others, more definitely needs to be done.  The question we have to ask ourselves is if enough has been done? This is especially prescient in light of a much more credible opposition.

One year is too premature to assess the PAP’s performance in totality and Singaporeans should continue to watch. But what we can take out of post GE 2011 is that the political bar has been set higher and the PAP will have to meet this challenge head on in 2016.

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