Is the People’s Action Party in decline? Concurrently, are Opposition parties in ascendancy? The answer seems to be yes to both questions.
Before the just concluded General Election, there had been only three times since Singapore became independent that the Opposition had more than one or two elected representatives in Parliament. In 1991, the Chiam See Tong-led Singapore Democratic Party managed to capture three seats. Post-Chiam, the SDP has been out of Parliament except when Mrs Lina Chiam became NCMP from 2011 to 2015. In the historic GE2011, the Workers’ Party added Aljunied GRC to its Hougang stronghold to increase its legislative presence from one to six. For a brief period (2013 to 2015), it also had Punggol East under its control. It retained all seats except Punggol East in 2015. And now it has 10, after having cockled its way to the hearts of voters in Sengkang.
At the very least, the PAP government’s decision to sanctify Pritam Singh as Leader of the Opposition, with extra pay and perks, is a timely and welcome recognition that Singaporeans do not wish a return to the early years of unchecked power. So much for the prospect of having to accept the tasteless carrot of entering Parliament as relatively less influential duckweed NCMPs.
Of course, voters are also demanding more diverse voices to reflect the maturing of the political system where the PAP no longer has a monopoly of ideas to bring the country forward. Even more telling, it appears to me that the party is looking more and more like a party which is running out of steam. Simultaneously, the Opposition is picking up momentum. Both sides have to woo an electorate which actually wants to be wooed – and not “bought”. This means who you are is becoming as important as what you promise to deliver.
In this new-style contest, the PAP is having a poor start as its rejuvenation process is in trouble.
The 4G leaders can’t connect with voters, especially the younger ones. The PAP may think these leaders are the best and most effective people to carry the torch for party and country.
Voters have just said NO. They said it most loudly in Sengkang, East Coast and West Coast. The WP team, led by He Ting Ru, practically walloped a so-called strong PAP team led by NTUC sec-gen Ng Chee Meng, a Minister in the PM’s Office. Voters also said they did not quite endorse DPM Heng Swee Keat and his team in East Coast. They were saying, by extension, that they did not quite care two hoots that he was PM-in-waiting, which was quite a slap in the face, the sting of which must still be keenly felt and acknowledged.
In West Coast, the Progress Singapore Party was a whisker away from being among the first newly formed parties to be elected into Parliament in their first few months of existence. It will take heart from its creditable showing across other parts of the island, including in Tanjong Pagar, Marymount and even Kebun Baru, a PAP stronghold (first held by Lim Boon Heng, ex-NTUC sec-gen and now chairman of Temasek Holdings) on the edge of PM Lee Hsien Loong’s hinterland.
The battle-hardened SDP continues to march relentlessly towards Parliament. Paul Tambyah in Bukit Panjang was the third best performer after the PSP in West Coast and WP’s Nicole Seah and company in East Coast.
Everything seems to be pointing to a PAP struggling within itself to decide whether to continue with its less than effective 4G leadership – and, as it moves forward, how to remain relevant within the changing social and political landscape. With or without Heng and his team, or whether Heng will still be the next PM (or even whether he is a caretaker PM with a short lease of life).
The signs are not good.
The body language of the party leaders at the press conference to announce the new Cabinet line-up did not exhibit confidence or enthusiasm. Everyone looked tired and all too eager to get it over with. And a rah-rah National Day Rally? Forget it. Not in the mood.
There’s a resigned sense of been there, done that about the current bloated PAP. No spring in the leaders’ feet, no freshness, no new ideas, no sense of mission.
In stark contrast, the WP has become the IT party of the moment and its Sengkang MPs the IT team which the Gen X and Y voters have adopted as one that is most able to articulate their frustrations and dreams. There is simplicity and sincerity in everything the WP leaders do. Take over the town council? “We are ready to start tomorrow and we will do our best.” My salary has been doubled? “I’ll donate half of the hike to charity and worthy causes.”
This readiness to roll up sleeves and get to work is contagious. No frills, no oversized table for a bloated Cabinet or divisional CDC HQ. Just a simple room with basic furniture.
Those scenes of Dr Goh Keng Swee squatting down at Kreta Ayer to listen to the problems of a wizened elderly woman or Ong Teng Cheong drinking water straight from the tap of a humble HDB flat are becoming more and more nostalgic with each passing year and election.
I totally agree with Dr Tan Cheng Bock and Lee Hsien Yang that the PAP has truly lost its way.
Tan Bah Bah, consulting editor of TheIndependent.Sg, is a former senior leader writer with The Straits Times. He was also managing editor of a local magazine publishing company.