Dissecting that PAP60 speech – visionary leadership, or a return to hubris?

Lee Hsien Loong pap60 party rallyBy Howard Lee

There is something deeply concerning with the speech made by Lee Hsien Loong, Prime Minister and secretary-general of the People’s Action Party, at PAP’s 60th anniversary rally, and it has nothing to do with his grossly inaccurate statement “opposition parties having no vision”, or the continuation of the fear rhetoric that effectively ask citizens to vote PAP, just to be safe.

No doubt, he touched on the party’s revised vision – a nation of opportunity, a fair and just society, and a democracy of deeds – and peppered it with how the PAP has and will continue to build on this, through effort in education, enhanced social safety nets, and encouraging volunteerism.

The PM also earnestly and repeatedly declared that the PAP was a “national party”.

“First of all, we have to be a national party for all Singaporeans. It is not always the way parties are organised. In fact, in many countries, the political parties represent factional interests – it may represent an ethnic group, it may represent a regional group, it may represent a social class.”

That is fine, really. All organisations need a unique selling preposition, and if the PM really believes the PAP differs from “factional interests” as compared to other political parties, then that would be his spiel.

What matters more, however, is not the policy initiatives or the party identity, but who the speech was for. PM Lee was addressing party members, loyals and activists. The last seven of the 14-page speech was dedicated to outlining what a “party of action” should do, a call-to-action for his followers. What can we gather from the message he is sending them?

Running through these last seven pages, you might be hard pressed to find any direction set by the PM. In fact, what we did see was a healthy does of immature snipes at the opposition parties in Singapore.

“When other people say First World Parliament, you do not know what that means. We say First World Nation – Here we are!”

“When we face problems, we acknowledge them publicly and deal with them. We do not pretend there is no problem – no comment, studying the matter, thinking about it, will clarify one day – We settle NOW!”

“You lie low, hoping the public will forget the issue and the issue will go away and the public will forget you and you might as well go away.”

“Others will oppose us not because they disagree with what we are doing or saying or proposing but just to cause trouble, get us out, get in, take charge and then God knows what!”

“It will be about whether we continue to have a First World Government, not about a so-called First World Parliament.”

“The Opposition does not see any duty to bring people together, solve problems and plan for the future. Far from it. The fewer the problems, the worse their prospects.”

“So every time we put out a popular policy, they say “Do More.” But they do not say “How.” They do not say money from “where.” They do not say whom they are going to “Take from”, in order to “Give more.”

“If everybody accepts what they say, then we will have a lot of checkers; no workers and if they spend all their time checking on one other, there will be a gridlock, like in other countries.”

So perhaps the PM was indulging in a bit of politicking, encouraging his followers to have a few jokes at the expense of the opposition. That should have been the end of it, had the call-to-action not ended in a more serious tone.

“…the next GE is going to be a deadly serious fight. It will be about who forms the government, not how many seats the opposition gets.

It will be about whether we continue to have a First World Government, not about a so-called First World Parliament. Every seat – every GRC, every SMC will be contested. Every seat, every contest will be a national contest, not a local one. Every seat is a general election, not a by-election.”

Granted, these are mighty useless, if not stupidly self-defeating, words. It suggests that there were times where the PAP did not take a GE seriously, and it has only realised that a GE is about national issues to begin with. If so, it was a realisation many years late – GE2011, if not earlier, was by all counts the signal flag that says Singapore’s politics have gone national.

But let’s assume that the PAP had woken up to reality. What, then, does the PM want his followers to do?

“We depend on you, Comrades, to keep us close to the ground. We depend on you to speak up for our Party. We depend on you to win the hearts and minds of Singaporeans.”

So here we have it. After a full spiel on the various policy achievements, the PM has done nothing more than rest on his laurels and get his activist to “speak up for the party”. Granted, national policies are the domain of the public service, but the message to activists had been to spread word of the good that the PAP has done, without any mention of listening to citizens to understand the impact of such policies.

Hubris, as we might fear, has already set in for the PAP. And it has only been three years.

Worse yet, with snipe after snipe at opposition parties, would his followers not be inclined to think that this “national party” would best be able to contest in “national elections” by taking pot shots at its opponents?

In fact, we already see the virus spreading. Young Ministers such as Lawrence Wong and Desmond Lee spared no effort in brainlessly attacking the Workers’ Party – for weeks, mind you – over its town council not declaring figures relating to service and conservancy charges. Lee possibly exhibited the worst example, by force-feeding the local municipal issue of a town council’s management of its funds into a matter of “integrity and national reputation”.

If this what the PM means by a “national party” taking on a “national contest”?

If that is how the PM hopes to rally his troops for the next great battle, then he has either completely missed the target, or complacency has set in early. National policies are not rolled out by the government, not his party, but his followers have a duty to find out if such policies have made a positive impact. Yet, all we have is a call for them to “counter, expose and defeat” contrarian views. Worse, he leads in a battle of rhetoric over anything but the national.

The PM seems to have forgotten why the PAP lost Aljunied GRC, and why he had to make a personal apology in GE2011. He has forgotten that character assassination and the politics of slime wins a party no favours. He has forgotten that the true litmus test of government policies is not the volume of chest thumping among party loyals, but at the polls among those who can see right through you.

But citizens have not forgotten. It is time the PAP remembers, too.