A Uniquely Singaporean Model of Politics: PAP as Party, or PAP as Government?Chiam See Tong with his legendary Volkswagen Beetle  Straits Times
Establishing the scene
During the Kent Ridge Ministerial Forum 2011, 4th-year engineering student Seah Yin Hwa asked PM Lee why residents in Hougang SMC are penalised for not voting PAP.
Seah explained that Hougang residents were frequently told that there were insufficient funds for upgrading projects, in stark contrast to their Aljunied neighbours “across the street”.
The relevant transcript from the Straits Times report is as follows:
“Q [Seah Yin Hwa]: When it comes to upgrading, what is being told to us is that we do not have the funds to actually go ahead with lift upgrading as well as shelters to the bus stops. When I look over across the road to Aljunied GRC, they have everything.
PM Lee: Low Thia Khiang says he has no difficulty funding the lift upgrading programme.
Q: No, my question is …
PM Lee: Your question is, why is the opposition ward not treated at least as good as and maybe even better than the PAP ward? And the answer is that there has to be a distinction because the PAP wards supported the government and the policies which delivered these good things.
All the basics apply to everybody ? your roads, your trains, your houses, your schools, your hospitals, your security and defence. But the extras which comes down to the upgrading programmes ? it?s a national programme, but between the people who voted and supported the programme and the government, and the people who didn’t, I think if we went and put yours before the PAP constituencies, it would be an injustice.” (my boldened emphases)
Judging by the question marks, the scribe probably faced some problem noting down what exactly PM Lee had said – hence I don’t think PM Lee meant to say that “extras” like “upgrading programmes” were “national programmes”, because the gist of his argument is really about distinguishing between public, national programs (hospitals, security, defence) and selective, party programs (like upgrades).
Indeed, PM Lee argues that putting opposition constituencies before PAP constituencies would be an “injustice”. Before I elaborate on PM Lee’s point here, let’s recall something he had said 5 years ago.
During a rally in the 2006 elections, PM Lee had reportedly commented on the subject of Opposition parties in the following manner (TOC):
“Mr Lee Hsien Loong, who assumed the office of Prime Minister in 2004, said during a rally in the 2006 General Election: “Suppose you had 10, 15, 20 opposition members in Parliament. Instead of spending my time thinking what is the right policy for Singapore, I’m going to spend all my time thinking what’s the right way to fix them, to buy my supporters votes, how can I solve this week’s problem and forget about next year’s challenges?”
The reason given here for having a weak opposition in the Singaporean parliament is that having a strong opposition causes destructive partisan politics, and this distracts from forming coherent, coordinated, national objectives and policies.
This sounds plausible, yet it seems to contradict PM Lee’s answer at the Kent Ridge Ministerial Forum 2011 just cited earlier. It seems that regardless of the number of opposition members in Parliament, the PAP is already spending time thinking of ‘what’s the right way to fix them’, what’s the right way to ‘buy supporters’ votes’ and to win the short-term at the expense of the long-term.
By responding to Hougang resident Seah Yin Hwa’s question that “there has to be a distinction” between those who supported the PAP and those who supported the Opposition, PM Lee is indicating that the PAP would choose selective, discriminating party interests over bigger, national interests.
By responding that “between the people who voted and supported the programme and the government, and the people who didn’t, I think if we went and put yours before the PAP constituencies, it would be an injustice.” PM Lee is reinforcing the idea that the PAP acts first and foremost as a party, and secondly as our ‘government’.
PAP as Party, PAP as Government
Many Singaporeans subconsciously equate PAP with the government, even though ‘technically’ (and by technically, we really are adopting a ‘Western’ political framework here) PAP is just a single political party. Many Singaporeans also subconsciously equate the civil service with the PAP, even though they should likewise be distinguished.
As Kenneth Jeyaretnam noted (TOC), “We have a highly-paid and undoubtedly efficient civil service to assist whatever government is in power to run the country. Presumably it will not evaporate the moment another party comes into power.”
Jeyaretnam makes a very good point, assuming that the ‘Western’ political framework can explain Singapore’s political system. Savvy Singaporeans must admit however, the distinction between civil service and PAP in Singapore is ambiguous; I think the ‘Western’ political framework really fails to explain Singaporean politics here.
As emphasized by the PAP-government itself, Singapore’s dominant-party (or authoritarian democracy) works for Singapore; we have our own model, ‘Western’ models do not easily transplant to a local context. This is why we fine people for selling chewing-gum in Singapore, this is why we have controversial capital punishment laws for drug possession. Singapore has its own model.
If Singaporeans can recognize that ‘Western’ political systems may not necessarily work in Singapore, then let’s not transplant unhealthy aspects of partisan politics and partisan behaviour to Singapore either. Let’s not penalize opposition constituencies (or lessen the penalty at least); let’s not create a ‘regionalist’ mindset that is parsed in GRC or SMC-consciousness. Let’s not have children growing up in Hougang (who never had a chance to vote) notice that their friends in Aljunied have nicer lifts, and have them imbibe an unhealthy political culture.
By neglecting opposition constituents, the PAP is acting as a party; by developing hospitals, roads and the like, the PAP is acting as our government. The difference will not always be apparent to citizens, but when heartlanders are being left out of simple upgrading schemes, they will not see PAP as a party, but rather as the government.
The PAP has to recognise this heartlander reality and really re-think its political campaign and platforms. The PAP, as the only dominant-party government (and/or government) that Singaporeans have ever known, has to reinvent itself beyond this ‘party-government’ schizophrenic double-identity that it has.
From PM Lee’s comments at the forum at NUS, it seems that the PAP has forsaken its ‘government’ role for a ‘party’ role when it comes to residential upgrading projects– but it doesn’t have to be that way. The ball is in the PAP’s court to be the ‘bigger’ person; instead of antagonizing residents in opposition constituents, the PAP can behave in an inclusive way, the PAP can behave consistently as a non-discriminating government which places Singaporean interests first, and partisan interests second.
Towards a new PAP across party-government lines
Putting opposition constituents before PAP constituents may be ‘injustice’, as PM Lee said. But including opposition constituents in upgrading plans alongside PAP constituents need not be.
Instead of ‘penalizing’ residents from opposition constituents, the PAP can use a carrot where it has traditionally used a stick – carrots do not always only have to be given to those who voted for the PAP. Further, there would most certainly have been residents in opposition constituents who voted for the PAP. The PAP, as party, can steal the thunder from opposition parties and ‘claim the moral high ground’. The PAP, as government, would also be developing Singapore in a balanced and coordinated manner.
As shown in the previous section, the presence or absence of opposition members in parliament is sometimes tangential to governments acting in a partisan manner. As long as the non-existent Opposition in parliament lives on as an imagined enemy in the PAP’s head, the PAP will act in an unconstructive and partisan way. This just weakens the PAP’s argument for citizens not to vote for the opposition, and weakens PAP’s prospects of a strong mandate. The PAP has be faithful to its mandate of furthering Singapore’s good, and not morph suddenly from a national, non-discriminating government to a suspicious, discriminating party when it comes to issues like upgrading.
Singapore is too small to foster divisive affiliations along GRC or SMC lines. For all the rhetoric and focus on national unity, PAP’s choice to behave in an acutely ‘party-like’ manner is fostering difference along GRC and SMC lines.
In purposefully ‘penalizing’ residents in opposition constituents, the PAP (as party) is not giving any incentive for these residents to vote PAP. Giving a disincentive just fosters more antagonism, not defeatist compliance. Further, GRC or SMC identity is more stark for residents in opposition constituencies – when you realize your constituency is getting left out of ‘national’ (by ‘national’, it is the majority of constituents that voted for PAP, the party) upgrading projects, the discontent that is shared by SMC residents will go some way in creating a ‘shared’ identity vis a vis residents from PAP constituents.
I am from a PAP constituent, and I don’t even know what my GRC is or if it has changed. Shame on me, but face it: there are lots of Singaporeans like me. Yet my friends who live in Opposition constituencies – like the 2 I have who live in Potong Pasir – are very aware of which SMC they are in. Even I know which constituency they are from. By singling out opposition constituents and penalizing them, the PAP is really fostering unjustified ‘regionalist’ mindsets which would work against PAP interests in the long run.
That said, maybe this is not be a bad thing. It makes for good conversation about local politics, and it is a dear part of Singapore culture – stories of Chiam See Tong and his Volkswagen beetle (article image above) which I have read in ST and elsewhere for example, are things I recall fondly even though I am not from Potong Pasir. I would celebrate it as part of a ‘Singaporean heritage’.
The PAP’s schizophrenic switch between party-and-government may seem unreasonable to some, and the ball is really in PAP’s court to have the courage to do the counter-intuitive, and reform itself along a new philosophy. Ruthless politics in PAP’s early days may have been necessary given the communist threat and racial issues; certain ISA policies may also have been necessary. Yet PAP can move away from ruthless politics if it wants to. The PAP is now quite clearly the dominant-party; it can choose its ‘government’ role over its ‘party’-role and treat Singaporeans as Singapore citizens instead of treating them according to which party they voted (or in some cases, according to which party the majority of their neighbours voted).
Pragmatic arguments can serve different masters; even though what I am suggesting here may sound ‘idealistic’ (greater good over partisan-good) as opposed to PAP’s traditionally ideological-free and non-idealistic approach, I think that my suggestions are equally ideologically-free, just as pragmatic and put Singapore’s (and even PAP’s party-government) interests at the centre. If the PAP cannot let go off its historical baggage, then I trust that our opposition parties will be able to adapt, innovate and eventually grow to pose a real challenge. Singapore was built by Singaporeans; even the PAP members were Singaporeans first, PAP members second. I believe in the ability of Singaporeans to govern Singapore, whatever political banner they appear under.
For those interested, KRC had conducted an UpFront! interview with Seah Yin Hwa before he shot to local ‘fame’ when he asked PM Lee his pertinent question. Do read the interview and find out how you can support the activities of the Middle East North Africa interest group that he has founded.