At the launch of Dr Shashi Jayakumar’s book, titled A History Of The Peoples Action Party, 1985 – 2021, on Dec. 14, 2021, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong spoke and drew parallels between the lead up to the 1984 and 2020 general elections and the subsequent aftermaths.
PAP’s vote share fell sharply by 12.9 percentage points after the 1984 election, resulting in a less than 70 per cent of the total votes – a first since independence. PAP lost two Single Member Constituencies (SMCs): Anson to Mr J.B. Jeyaretnam and Potong Pasir to Mr Chiam See Tong.
The 2020 election saw PAP’s vote share dropped by 8.6 percentage points and the Party lost two Group Representation Constituencies (GRCs) for the first time since the GRC system was implemented: Aljunied and Seng Kang to the Workers’ Party.
Some common themes run through both 1984 and 2020 elections, and the drops in vote shares occurred against a backdrop profoundly influenced by three broad factors.
Firstly, Singapore was affected by downturns. By the end of 1984, it was evident that the economy was slowing down and 1985 saw Singapore experienced its first recession post-independence. The Covid-19 pandemic which started at the end of 2019, hit Singapore the hardest in 2020 when the economy recorded its worst full-year recession since independence.
Secondly, the electorates in both elections were also of a new generation of voters who interestingly shared similar traits despite from different generations: better educated, more demanding of political leaders, enjoyed the success but did not experience the challenges of founding years.
Third and lastly, leadership renewal. In the 1984 election, many of the old guards retired or stepped down to make room for the 2G team, only Founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, Mr S. Rajaratnam and Mr E.W. Barker remained in the cabinet. After the election, ESM Goh Chok Tong was chosen to be the leader and became first Deputy Prime Minister in 1985.
The 2020 election saw the emergence of 4G leaders (DPM Heng Swee Keat, Ministers Chan Chun Sing, Ong Ye Kung, Lawrence Wong) as they anchored different GRCs. DPM Heng also emerged as the leader of the 4G team but he later stepped aside as leader citing age as a factor.
PM Lee said during this year’s Party Convention that the 4G team will need a little longer to make a decision but he’s confident that they will settle it well before the next general election.
We’ve been through this
Drawing these parallels may present a gloomy outlook for our Party. Indeed, there currently are several unknowns and risk factors, including Covid-19 and runaway inflation.
But take comfort in the 35 years since the 1984 election: the economy grew; Singapore oversaw another leadership transition; we overcame the SARS outbreak; we got through the 2009 financial crisis; unemployment rate remains low; we experienced a party renewal in 2001 with 23 Members of Parliament retiring and 25 new MPs taking their place; we honoured our Pioneer and Merdeka Generations.
And so on.
If we examine what the PAP government has achieved the past 35 years, we will understand why Singaporeans’ expectations of us is high, as it should be.
But if we think this progress was achieved as part of a natural order, we would be sorely mistaken.
The reservoir of trust
The Singapore of today is the direct result of the trust between the PAP government and the people.
When Founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew met Dr Jayakumar in 2011 to give his the assignment of writing the book, Mr Lee told him that the factor behind the Party’s success was the “trust in the ability of the PAP to deliver what it promises”.
He added: “The next generation of PAP leaders will inherit this trust. They must not betray it. They cannot afford to squander it.”
This trust is a sacred one, it’s not for anyone to waste or take for granted. This same trust is the one that propels the Party to do the right thing – however tough the policy is – so as to achieve, in Senior Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam’s words, “society-wide upliftment”, that while the nation progresses, everyone gets to enjoy the fruits of our success.
It is the same reservoir of trust that allowed the PAP government to implement measures against Covid-19 and keep Singapore running no matter what. It is this “high trust” society, as PM Lee put it during the Party Convention, that made people trust that there will be proper medical treatment; workers and businesses will be taken care of; supermarkets will be stocked; essential services will not be disrupted.
The fact remains: Over the past 35 years, the Party has walked alongside Singaporeans, not just in fair weather days, but also thunderstorms. And will continue to do so as long as this reservoir of trust is intact.
New operating environment
Even though the Party lost another GRC at the last election, we must not lose sight of the clear mandate given to us by our fellow Singaporeans. Unavoidably, the political landscape has shifted and changed along with the times. The results means that we are working with an electorate that is more sophisticated and educated. We must continue to work and engage them proactively regardless.
While the opposition cause will probably grow in this new operating environment, in the same stroke, it would also mean that they will be increasingly held to a higher standard – a standard that has been set by the PAP government. This is because of the high-trust society that we’ve built up over the years. And because Singaporeans know that at the heart of all our decisions, we are doing the right thing for Singapore and Singaporeans.
As the ruling Party, it is imperative not only to maintain this standard but also raise the bar higher. This is the only way to operate in this new environment.
The next 35 years
In his speech at the launch of the book, PM Lee raised a salient point, saying that the PAP’s government job is not to foretell the future but to create it.
Such is the pragmatic nature of the Party: there’s no time for navel or crystal ball-gazing. We can only control and shape our own actions to navigate our way out of things that are not in our control and we must continue to be responsible for the nation’s security, stability and success.
PM Lee ended his speech in a poignant note, saying: “It must always work closely with Singaporeans to take the country forward. So that in 35 years’ time, another historian writing another volume about the PAP will have as inspiring a story to tell of how the party continued to keep Singapore exceptional and successful through the decades. And whoever is launching that next book can do so with the same sense of pride, gratitude and thanksgiving, as I have launching this book today.”
Dear Comrades, let’s create the next 35 years together.
Cover image credit: PM Lee’s Facebook page