By Andrew Loh
In the past week, much has been discussed about how the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) could lose power.
Ho Kwon Ping, former detainee and current chairman of Banyan Tree Holdings, laid out various scenarios at a public forum last week of how this could happen.
On Sunday, Straits Times opinion editor, Chua Mui Hoong, picked it up and went one step further – she said that the gap between the ruling elite and the masses “is [the] biggest political risk for the PAP.”
“I think the biggest and most dangerous political divide in Singapore that can arise is that between the political and socioeconomic elite, and the hoi polloi,” Ms Chua wrote.
It is ironic that she used the term “hoi polloi” to describe the masses, in an article to raise the alarm about the detachment of the elite from the common folk.
“Hoi polloi” is often used in a derogatory sense.
Be that as it may, before we get into what Ms Chua and Mr Ho said, it is worth remembering that a collapse of the PAP is not a new idea.
Presidential candidate, Tan Cheng Bock, had raised this scenario in 2011, after the conclusion of the presidential elections.
Dr Tan, who lost to the PAP’s chosen candidate, Tony Tan, said:
"There's definitely a division in the PAP. I can see many of the grassroots openly come and tell me they support me in spite of being told by others not to. They obviously abandoned that expected stand and it's reflected in the votes. The PAP split is right down in the middle.”
So, there is nothing new in the idea that the PAP may collapse and how this can happen, which seems to be the focus of Mr Ho and Ms Chua.
What we should realise is that the PAP will lose power – because nothing stays permanently, forever.
So, to speculate why this will happen is really quite a meaningless and useless thing to do. It is a waste of time because it is a given that it will happen.
The real question we should focus on is, instead: do we have a system in place which is robust enough to carry Singapore forward when the PAP loses power, and when a new party takes over, or if we have a coalition government?
This is the more important question which will focus our minds on what is crucial – for the country, not for a political party which will come and go, be it the PAP or the Workers’ Party or any other.
And if the PAP govt is failing the people, isn't it good that it loses power?
Isn't it the responsible thing to do to vote them out?
The real question is thus: how can the system be changed or improved - so that no matter which party is in power, Singapore will not go under.
And for this, it is clear that we cannot depend on the PAP to change or for it to change the system. This is because even if it wants to, it cannot. Why?
The vested interests are too entrenched.
Do you think a grassroots chairman, for example, will tell the PAP Govt that the grassroots should be allowed to serve any MPs who have been elected by the people, whether PAP or opposition MPs? Has any grassroots chairman ever told the PAP Govt this?
And even if some have, will the PAP listen and agree to this?
Of course not.
The chairman of the grassroots umbrella organisation is also the secretary general of the PAP.
And the Board is filled with ministers from the PAP as well.
On Monday, the Straits Times reported how PAP MPs and activists were in Sembawang GRC helping to paint the homes of some rental flats residents.
It reported MP Hawazi Daipi emphasising “the importance of having grassroots organisations and party activists working together and gelling in GRC-wide activities.” [Emphasis added.]
You may well ask, “Why are grassroots organisations ‘working together and gelling’ with PAP activists?”
One would have hoped that the grassroots organisations would be apolitical or politically neutral.
The same grassroots organisations do not seem to want to work with the opposition WP or its activists.
This is but one example of how the PAP cannot change the system – it is too valuable for it at times. Being able to make use of the grassroots organisations to further its political agenda is something which it will never give up, unless there is a change from the outside, even as Singaporeans keep telling the PAP Government that the grassroots should be politically neutral.
So, it is not whether the PAP will lose power which should concern us. Instead, it is a question of how the system can be improved, which can only happen via others outside the PAP.
There are also other examples of how the PAP will not listen even to good ideas and suggestions.
It may be because they are stubborn, or because they think they know better than the “hoi polloi”.
But the more important observation would be this: the PAP cannot change simply because it has too much invested in keeping the current system going, even when the warts are clear to one and all.
Will the PAP introduce an independent election commission?
Will it free the media?
Will it change or improve the system of how our judges are appointed?
Will it let the Arts have free space, instead of banning such works at the slightest discomfort?
Will it introduce a Freedom of Information Act so that Singaporeans will have a more transparent government?
Will it have an independent electoral boundary review committee which is outside of the purview of the prime minister’s office?
What are the economic growth directions, going forward, besides building more skyscrapers and flooding the island with foreigners?
These, and more, are the things that matter.
Often, the PAP refuses to listen – to the very serious detriment of Singaporeans.
Here are two recent examples:
The Little India riot last December showed how the red flag raised by WP chairman, Sylvia Lim, about the shortage of police resources had been ignored and neglected by the authorities – for 8 years – until the riot happened and the police commissioner himself revealed the shortage during the commission of inquiry hearings.[Read it here: “Lack of police resources – how Sylvia Lim tried to sound the alarm for 8 years.”]
“We need more police officers, more firefighters, more immigration officers. What has been done to ensure that recruitment is keeping pace with the increased population?” Ms Lim asked in Parliament in 2008.
Apparently not much.
In fact, the prime minister admitted in 2011 that his government has not foreseen such needs even as it increased the foreign population.
Another example is how the WP had also warned – also 8 years ago – about the danger of congregation of those with economic power and those with political power.
"Those with economic power tend to congregate with those with political power, resulting in a power elite network,” the WP election manifesto of 2006 warned.
“The consequence of such a structure is imbalance in policy formulation."
This, arguably, is what has indeed happened, with the influx of cheap labour, the proliferation of shopping malls, condominiums and such all over our island, decimating our land and our places of heritage and history, the depression of wages, and the increasing inequality gap of which Ms Chua wrote about.
And all these despite Singapore’s position as one of the wealthiest places on earth, with its people one of the hardest-working, slogging for more hours than most on the planet, with one of the highest forced savings rate to boot.
What then has gone wrong?
At root, a government which is so ensconced in its ivory tower that it no longer can hear what the people are saying, until the problem stares it in the face – and then it starts running after the problems, the same problems which it created by its faulty and ill-conceived policies.
And this is again indeed what the PAP Government has been doing since 2011 - running after problems it created, with no time for new ideas, new imaginations, new creativity.
It is the same old same old - from trying to curb freedom of speech online, to defamation suits, to leaving the door wide to foreigners, to erasing places of memories.
In conclusion, as Elaine Ee wrote in January 2013:
"For those of us who have chosen or who have no choice but to stay, we need to continue to build real alternatives to the PAP and stop viewing them as the only party that can ever govern Singapore."
This is crucial because, yes, the PAP will lose power one day.
It is our responsibility as Singaporeans to install in the system checks and balances as safeguards for ourselves.
And such safeguards cannot come from the PAP itself.
It must and can only come from others outside of it.