Has the PAP lost faith in itself?

papconventionBy Elaine Ee

Recently I attended a dialogue session with a Member of Parliament as part of a constituency event. It was lively, with important issues raised and animated participation from the audience and the MP.

About mid-way through the session, the MP hastily asked that no one report on it. But something about the discussion wouldn’t leave me, and I feel compelled to write about it.

Before I launch in, I want to register that it’s not the place of an MP, or anyone, to tell someone else what they can or can’t write about. And in an age of blogs, Facebook and Instagram, you really can’t stop people posting and sharing things.

A comment that like comes from a state-controlled media mindset that conditioned people to think they need an authority’s blessing to write about something, and allows the government to show only the face they want people to see. Writers and journalists should write about things they feel are important and interesting – and damn well make sure they get it right.

However, so as not to embarrass anyone and to respect the confidentiality of those at the discussion, I won’t name the MP or the constituency or the event. The point I’m making also goes beyond any individual, so naming people is not necessary.

People fired salvos, raised complex issues and voiced their frustrations. They were vocal, felt strongly about things, and questioned the MP on certain PAP policies.

What stayed with me after the session was that the MP couldn’t defend his party’s policies well on any of the topics that were raised. In fact, there were moments when it sounded like he was apologizing for these policies, saying that he agreed with the audience, knew that the policies are flawed and have always been flawed – but he can’t do anything about it. The big ship can’t be easily turned around.

Which is true, it can’t. But I expected that as a senior member of the PAP, he believes in his party’s policies and is able explain to a doubting public why they work and should stay. Unless, of course, he himself doubts too.

Education was the main topic discussed. One person spoke at length about how he felt PSLE was an unnecessary burden and source of stress, and wanted to know if it could be done away with.

The MP’s reply was that when MOE asked parents whether they wanted to scrap PSLE, the majority still said ‘no’, in spite of all the complaints about this exam.

He distanced himself from the issue, basically saying that PSLE is there, not because the government is being difficult and wants it, but because the people want it. So don’t shoot the government, they are just doing the bidding of the people.

We’ve seen this tactic before. Using feedback to pass the buck. ‘We’re not imposing unpopular measures or refusing to change because we’re bad, it’s “the people” who are making us do these things.’

I’m sorry but if a policy is yours, you are responsible for it. If you inherited it from your predecessors, you are still responsible for it now. At no point, did the MP say why he thought PSLE was good or necessary. The irony is that it was someone in the audience who spoke up for the exam.

Other issues were the bilingual policy, in particular the need to pass Mother Tongue for admission to junior college or local universities. The person who raised this felt that it was too onerous to have this as a basic requirement, and unfairly put some students, who might be bright in other areas, as a serious disadvantage.

And the MP replied by referring to a study that showed only very few people are actually able to be properly bilingual, and that most people learn one language at the expense of another, and at the tail end are people that can’t ever go beyond a single language. It sounded like he was agreeing with the person concerned, and admitting that the bilingual policy is misguided!

This happened again when someone raised the issue of our class sizes being too big. Class sizes currently stand at about 40, with the exception of primary 1 and 2 classes where it is 30. This is down from a class size of over 40 for all levels in previous years, which is likely what has been since the time MOE’s education system was formed.

The MP cited a study that said only when class size drops to about 25 from 40 will we see a significant difference in teaching and learning. (To be fair, he did say that we don’t have enough teachers to allow reducing class size anytime soon.)

He also made a comment about health schemes, saying that someone should tell the Health Ministry that their Pioneer Generation and CHAS scheme are too complicated. I think he meant it humourously in a self-deprecating way.

Ok, he gets it. But doing so in his position looked apologetic, intimated that he is uncomfortable with some of his party’s policies, and possibly conflicted about his own party.

Perhaps this is the truth. Perhaps he is conflicted. I also felt that he very much wanted to come across as a nice guy. Someone who, in spite of his lofty position, can identify with the concerns of the everyday person.

While that made him amiable, it certainly made the PAP look weak. It cast doubt on how much support the leaders have from within, how unified the party is, and whether they have a clear sense of where they are going, and where they want to take the country.

If an MP and senior party member cannot confidently and convincingly stand up for his party, then perhaps there are cracks in the party armour that might run even deeper.