By Howard Lee
As a public relations campaign, you can say that the ruling People’s Action Party is off to a bad start as it heads into the coming general elections.
Nowhere is this more apparent than the back-and-forth in both online and traditional media that tried to pick apart the words of soon-to-be former Member of Parliament Inderjit Singh and Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen. And to be clear, the damage is not about any perceived disunity, but any perceived attempt at covering it up.
In the end, it all got back to a truce of sorts, with Singh saying he is still with the PAP and will be helping out the Prime Minister in his campaign, and Ng clarifying that his intention was not to snide Singh but just to make sure all MPs get a dignified exit.
All’s well? Not nearly.
It would be foolish for anyone, much less the national broadsheet in a belabouring report citing both men extensively, to try and suggest that the PAP is one united team. We seem to have too easily forgotten the emotion and angst during the last general elections in 2011, where Lim Boon Heng and George Yeo cried in front of national television.
Lim revealed that in major decisions like the casinos, there was no unity within the PAP, while Yeo vouched for change within the party. All point to disagreements within the PAP.
How entrenched are these differences, and how wide the spectrum? It is hard to tell, because if there is one game that the PAP plays well, it is presenting a united front, even if it was never a united party. In truth, it will be ridiculous to think that a party as large as the PAP would not have differences between its members, and what we see in the public sphere is but only the surface veneer. Beneath surely lurks more disgruntlement, unhappiness, in-fighting, party-politicking, cut-throat deals for executive power.
Some might say that for such disputes to surface is surely a bad deal for the party. In fact, online punters have attributed the same to opposition parties, pointing to fractures within when party members leave, kick each other out, or openly voice disagreement with their leaders.
Yet in the broader scheme of things, such disagreements are surely good for political discourse and better reflect what citizens want. We want to see that our elected representatives reflect a bit of our needs, wants, troubles and satisfaction. An MP who sticks too much to the party line becomes the party – an automatic monolith governed by one agenda.
In the PAP’s case, that agenda has been popularly defined as “growth at all cost”. And we know today where that has led us.
Disagreements are as natural as we are all different. The only problem is that the PAP tries too hard to keep it all under the lid, fearing that it shows weakness. Oddly, it is the very same party that has advocated that Singaporeans need not vote in opposition parties because there is enough diversity within PAP’s ranks.
Wither the diversity? Perhaps in quiet mutterings between MPs and their constituents or, blessed as we are with technology today, a muted outburst on their social media channels.
But such outbursts would naturally lead citizens to think: Were they engineered to demonstrate that precise point that there is diversity within the PAP? Is there really true diversity, which should be visible in open disagreements? Where are the hearty “I’m quitting because I had enough of your nonsense, which includes…”?
If we are meant to mature as a polity, then we should be open to the idea that political diversity, both within and between parties, is necessarily a healthy state of being for Singapore. It does not mean to say that policy-making grinds down into gridlock, as some would have us believe. It just means that we get to see more views, aspirations and ideas thrown at the government to make more considered and moderate policies.
Perhaps the days of Lee Kuan Yew’s iron-in-the-belly politics should be consigned to the past, as with the agree-to-disagree ideology. Singaporeans want to see a more compassionate side of politics, politics that they can relate to, politics that puts them, not the party, first. We can only see it when our politicians wear their hearts on their sleeves, even if it means disagreeing openly with their fellow colleagues.
This we do not have, and judging from the fracas between Singh and Ng, will not likely have for this coming general election.