A survey conducted by the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) has revealed that fewer Singaporeans regard the PAP as a credible party. The IPS, which is a part of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, found that 73 per cent of those polled agreed or strongly agreed that the PAP is a credible party – down from 87 per cent in 2006. This means that more than 1 in 4 Singaporeans believes that the PAP is not credible.
“The political consciousness of Singaporeans has changed very radically,” said NUS sociology professor Chua Beng Huat. “The PAP will probably continue to be the dominant party for the next twenty years, but we’re moving toward a more normal, democratic culture.”
Independent political analyst Derek da Cunha has often referred to an “irreducible core” of anti-PAP voters, saying that a segment of the electorate would literally vote for any candidate as long as he or she was not affiliated with the PAP. Judging from the survey results, it would appear that the irreducible core of opposition supporters is growing in size, which does not bode well for Singapore as it points towards an increasingly polarized political landscape.
For voters to want more alternative voices in Parliament is one thing, but to regard the PAP as not being credible is another thing altogether – it means that more people have begun to lose their trust in the party that has been credited with being clean, incorruptible and morally upright as it built Singapore into a bustling metropolis shortly after independence.
What could be the reasons for the PAP’s loss of credibility?
Firstly, the PAP’s image of infallibility has completely eroded. When Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong admitted the mistakes of his administration and apologised to all Singaporeans in the lead up to the May 2011 general election, the illusion that the PAP could do no wrong was finally and emphatically shattered. The PAP has gotten a lot wrong in recent years, and more damningly, it has been perceived as unwilling to take accountability for its mistakes. The fact that ministers such as Mah Bow Tan and Wong Kan Seng were quietly retired from the cabinet does not help, because their exits were framed in such a manner as to ensure that they would be as dignified as possible. Had they resigned or been forced to resign in shame, at least they could have served as scapegoats for the overall failings of the party, and the voters could at least have been appeased by the PM’s resolve to start on a clean slate.
Secondly, the quality of life in Singapore is worsening despite the country’s economic growth. People are having to work longer hours to make ends meet, with graduate salaries hardly being sufficient to afford even basic necessites such as HDB flats. The cost of living has spiralled out of control, and with it, the income gap has risen so dramatically that Singapore now has one of the highest Gini co-efficients in the world. It would appear that the fruits of economic success have been so inequitably distributed that the spoils are being enjoyed almost exclusively by top earners, while ordinary Singaporeans have actually experienced a worsening of their living standards. The discontent on the ground is real, and naturally, the PAP is being blamed – because its pro-business disposition has alienated not just the working class but the middle class as well.
Thirdly, the PAP has lost its monopoly on talent. In the past, PAP leaders could justifiably argue that their party was the only one that offered up suitably qualified and competent candidates for public office. The opposition, having been decimated by wave after wave of political persecution between 1965 to 2001, were caricatured as being a motley crew of rabble-rousing opportunists who could hardly string a coherent sentence together. Now, however, the tide seems to have turned – a huge number of highly-qualified professionals have joined the opposition ranks, including several former government scholars and civil servants. As a result, the public perception of the opposition has On the other hand, the PAP seems to have problems attracting talent, particularly from the private sector. The fact that so many PAP candidates at the recent election were drawn from an elite inner circle – bound together by family and social connections – came across as repulsive to the electorate.
If the PAP wants to re-establish itself as a credible party, it has to revert to its meritocratic principles of yesteryear and truly become more inclusive instead of just claiming to be so. It has to draw its talent from a wider pool than just the NTUC, the civil service, the establishment law firms and the relatives and personal friends of former leaders.
In addition, it has to demonstrate that it is willing to take accountability for its mistakes by makinexamples of its under-performing ministers.
The party has to put the interests of Singapore before the egos of its leaders; if a minister makes a mistake, he should be held to account publicly rather than being allowed to retire gracefully.
Before the PAP came into power, the Progressive Party helmed by C C Tan was one of the pre-eminent political parties in Singapore. It was wiped into oblivion by the David Marshall-led Labour Front in 1955 because of its insularity and failure to connect with the masses. The PAP would do well to learn from the lessons of history and avoid a similar fate.