The People’s Action Party’s (PAP) biggest nightmare has come true – for the first time in their recent history, they have lost a previously safe seat. The loss of Aljunied was devastating but not unexpected – Aljunied has been closely fought for several elections, with its constituents being part of Cheng San and Eunos GRCs previously. The loss of Hougang was to be expected; Hougang is the Worker’s Party’s (WP) stronghold where it’s Chief, Low Thia Kiang’s aura is impenetrable. But Punngol East’s loss is going to drive a stake into the very soul of the PAP, the very heart of its inner leadership. It is an unmitigated disaster that will tell the PAP that it has to change, not tweak itself, but fundamentally change. EVERYTHING that used to work is now not working.
In the past, after Lee Kuan Yew had destroyed the opposition and the PAP settled into technocratic dominance of Singapore, the PAP’s winning formula was straightforward. Crunch the numbers, settle on the best most ‘rational’ policy that the statistics suggest, tell the people ‘trust us this is right’, and just get on with implementation. This clearly does not work anymore.
In the past, winning an election was straightforward. It was always Lee Kuan Yew’s philosophy that the PAP should pick highly educated professionals, ex civil servants, generals – people whom he thought was the elite - people that the PAP believed the electorate would look up to. Never mind if he never served in the grassroots, or had any presence in the constituency. If the PAP said he was the elite and the best person for the job, the electorate believed them.
Now ‘elite’ is a bad word.
Now ‘elite’ is a bad word.
In the past, one would never have imagined that a PAP candidate, a surgeon that the Prime Minister himself promised is destined for higher office, would lose an election to what the older generation would have thought of as a ‘less qualified’ candidate. In the past, one would never have imagined that the Prime Minister could turn up for an election rally, give it his all, and STILL lose the election.
That has all changed.
Everything that the PAP thought worked must now be fundamentally re-considered.
First, it must stop seeing itself as first and foremost policy makers and then a political party. Its experience in the last 4 decades of dominance was abnormal, partly made possible by a gargantuan of a man, Lee Kuan Yew. Such a figure that can lead a nation by his sheer singular vision, make an entire people bend to his will, is an occurrence that happens rarely in the annals of human history. The PAP cannot rely on all of this now. They have to first start winning elections the normal way, AND THEN start thinking of implementing policies. This is what any other political party in a functioning democracy takes for granted. The electoral dominance that its founder granted to the PAP has caused it to do things the other way round, which increasingly looks like the wrong way round. The PAP is singularly unprepared for a post-LKY era, and is paying the price for it. It must remember that it is a political party first and foremost and the party has to win elections; its MPs have to be politicians as well as technocrats.
Secondly, its election formula must change. It cannot anymore parachute in someone it endorses, push out goodies during the election period, threaten the electorate of the consequences if they don’t vote for the PAP, and hope to win. This is 3rd world electioneering. As Singapore matures as a country, our electorate matures with it. The Singapore electorate is now a highly educated, highly demanding and plural one. The problem is that whilst the electorate has grown up, the PAP has not. It is still campaigning like it did in the 80’s, the 90’s and it simply does not work. In a mature democracy, campaigning is highly sophisticated work. It is an art. It is a science. Just look at the US, the UK, Australia and even Japan. There are media advisors, spin doctors, campaign strategists, sophisticated research going into each and every election and careful planning. The PAP has none. It still believes that simply rolling up its sleeves and doing good work will win it elections. This is just naïve. The electorate has moved on; it is time for the PAP to catch up.
Thirdly, the PAP needs to re-discover the skill of pushing through unpopular policies it thinks is good for the good of the nation, and still win elections. This is very hard. Lee Kuan Yew could do it, but can the new generation of leaders? If it can’t then it needs to be popular rather than right. This is the bargain with the devil all politicians in popular democracies must make. The PAP may have to do the same.
The tragedy of all this is that nothing that is happening is new under the sun. We are following in exactly the same path as Western democracies. When political parties have to be popular to win elections, then technocratic policy making has to take a back seat. Politicians have to spend more time politicking then governing, always with one eye on the next election. We have inherited the Westminster system and we should expect very little different to arise from it. There will be 2 parties, one centre-right where the PAP has comfortably sat for 4 decades, and one centre-left, which the WP is moving inexorably into. With multi-cornered fights, people will vote tactically and the 3rd,4th, and other parties will be pushed into the political wilderness. In the end, 2 parties will take turns to govern, with one eye on making sure it wins the next election.
But where will this lead us? Can we end up any different from the countries which have the same fundamental political system as us? Or are we destined to the same fate, whether good or bad?
One can never know the future, but if there is one lesson the PAP will learn from the debacle of Punggol East on the night of 26th January 2013, it is a lesson that all politicians from developed democracies already know in their bones.
It is more important to be popular than to be right.