As Singapore marks its 55th birthday, the country is finding itself caught in the middle of two major political developments taking place at the same time. The question is whether this calls for concern or celebration.
The first of these two occurrences is the decline of the ruling People’s Action Party. The party “suffered” the so-called first “shock” in 2011 when an A or A-minus team lost Aljunied GRC to the Opposition. Why was that ever a shock to anyone except the PAP? All the arrogant take it or leave it policies – influx of foreigners, under-developed healthcare system, faulty public transport, piecemeal and half-measure social welfare programmes – the party was ramming down the throats of helpless true-blue Singaporeans prior to GE2011 were an invitation for electoral backlash.
The party did almost everything it could to correct its policies and seize back the momentum and, aided by the huge sense of community debt evoked by the passing of Lee Kuan Yew, succeeded in 2015 to postpone the desire of Singaporeans for more checks and balances and greater accountability.
GE2020 has brought back and highlighted that desire – which will be pivotal in the way Singapore shapes its journey towards a future either without the PAP in power or with a diminished PAP fending off the challenges of a growing and increasingly dynamic Opposition.
“We’re at an inflexion point in terms of political mood and expectation,” former Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong said. What has surprised him was the speed at which Singapore has reached this point: “I was expecting this change, but not now (because of Covid-19: writer’s insertion) ). I was anticipating it maybe in 2025, when the 4G takes over and there’s a change in leadership. If not, the one after that.”
He should not have been so startled.
It has been as clear as daylight to anyone who has eyes and ears that the PAP team – in particular the 4G members – is no longer exceptional. Indeed, it is startlingly lacking in leadership panache. One can push the narrative that it is team work which matters most at this post-LKY banyan tree juncture up to a certain point, that giants are a product of their times and that they are once-in-a-lifetime phenomena. Collegial leadership does not, however, mean colourless or play safe leadership or accepting a lowering of the all-important, public-speaking standard that is the sine qua non for national leadership at the highest level.
The decline of the PAP leadership is truly glaring.
Simultaneously, the Opposition has not only been getting its act right but has also been learning so fast that it has momentum on its side.
There was a time when the Opposition was so naïve that it actually went around warning people that the vote was not secret. They were asking people to vote for them and telling them the vote was not secret. How stupid could one get. And the type of candidates who would appear only during an election and disappeared in the periods in between did little to get voters interested in the Opposition.
Not now. GE2020 showed that Opposition parties have matured dramatically and are longer fly by night. The Workers’ Party has already institutionalised itself as part and parcel of Singapore’s political system and can only get better and become a force to reckon with. But it is relatively limited in its national reach and the gaps will be filled by the here-to-stay Progress Singapore Party which will see its presence grow in the west and north and the effervescent Singapore Democratic Party.
All have talented people. All have hungry members who have been hardened from having to fight for everything instead of being spoonfed or mollycoddled by a grassroots machinery which has been propped up over the years by resources usually enjoyed by incumbents, particularly those in power for so long.
Success will beget success for the WP, PSP and SDP.
Hardened, hungry and hyperactive Opposition – spurred on by the fall of Sengkang GRC – versus a ruling party which has been softened over the decades by lack of internal challenges and genuine renewal.
I think there is great reason for celebration. Singapore will see an overdue sea change – for the better – in the years ahead.
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.