PAP spends 2016 on the defensive

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By: Michael D. Barr, Flinders University

Singapore’s People’s Action Party (PAP) government took an unusual approach to selling its messages in 2016. It packaged almost everything as a defence.

The government maintained that Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s fainting spell in the middle of his National Day Rally Speech does not raise concerns about his health. There is no crisis in the leadership succession, despite all the open speculation. Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam is definitely not interested in becoming prime minister — and certainly not as part of a move against his fainting boss. And Lee Hsien Loong is definitely not building either a Lee-family dynasty or a cult around the memory of his father, no matter what his sister, Lee Wei Ling, says on social media and in the press.

The prime minister also reassured voters that the Singapore economy ‘is not in a crisis’. So when Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat (aged 54) collapsed due to a stroke during a Cabinet meeting in May, it obviously had nothing to do with the stress of his portfolio.

According to the ruling party, the strengthening of the contempt of court laws and penalties are not designed to intimidate critics, political opposition activists have not been persecuted and there are no partisan double standards in administering the law. It just so happens that when two opposition activists breached the Parliamentary Elections Act it was a completely different situation to the occasions when government members of parliament — notably Tin Pei Ling and Vivian Balakrishnan — did the same thing.

The constitutional changes that reserve the presidency for a Malay candidate in the next election, PAP maintains, also have nothing to do with the fact that the government’s candidate almost lost to a popular Chinese candidate in the most recent election. The single opposition-run Aljunied-Hougang Town Council faces conflict-of-interest issues, but no one in the 15 PAP-run councils faces any such questions. Nor does anyone in the PAP-owned company that manages the financial software the PAP-run town councils use or anyone in the labyrinth of government-linked companies, government-linked social organisations, government-run and government-linked media, PAP-run trade unions, or government-linked banks that operate throughout Singapore’s economy and society.

A stinging critique on The Independent Singapore website suggesting the leadership of China had taken offence when Prime Minister Lee accused it of winning favours by handing out ‘lollipops’ is obviously not worth answering — which must explain why it was taken down. (Readers can nevertheless read the article here). China’s subsequent attacks on Lee Hsien Loong for his overt flattery of the United States and implied criticism of China over the South China Sea (among other issues) also do not, according to PAP, constitute a problem. Nor is China’s decision in November to impound billions of dollars’ worth of Singapore’s defence equipment as it passed through Hong Kong (on its way back from training exercises in Taiwan) indicative of broader tensions in the relationship.

With so much defensive negativity on display, one could be forgiven for thinking that the leadership of Lee Hsien Loong, or even the PAP government itself, might be in trouble. But this is far from the truth. The existing leadership is certainly substandard, but the institutional barriers to an opposition challenge are as effective as they are heavy handed. And even without them, Lee Hsien Loong and his government would be unlikely to be more than inconvenienced by more open electoral politics, such is their level of popular support.

The more interesting questions arise over why PAP is defensive on some of these issues. Take for instance, the sensitivity over relations between China, Singapore and the United States, which is both important and tricky in the extreme. Like another half-dozen of his Cabinet colleagues, Lee Hsien Loong is a graduate of the John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University. Lee is also a graduate of the United States Army Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. He and his colleagues have an instinctive, almost emotional, attraction to the United States. Yet, even before the election of Donald Trump, cold calculation was making it more and more clear that Singapore’s interests might be better served by accommodating China.

Former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew had enough stature in Chinese eyes to move between China and the United States without losing the respect of either, but Lee Hsien Loong is not his father, and his missteps are not so easily forgiven. His misstep about ‘lollipops’ was intended to assist the US political leadership by educating them on what they need to do to resist Chinese influence in Asia, but it went awry badly because the Chinese press, unsurprisingly, can read English.

After a year of vacated leadership and defensiveness, the most interesting times for Singapore still lie ahead.


Michael Barr is Associate Professor at the School of History and International Relations, Flinders University.

This article was first published in East Asia Forum (EAF) and is part of an EAF special feature series on 2016 in review and the year ahead. Article is republished with permission.