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Saturday 26 January 2013

A Historic Loss for the PAP

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.

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.


  1. The major assumption that this post makes is that the PAP almost always does what is "right". Painting a picture of them as a party that gets down and dirty, making tough calls and pushing unpopular policies for the good of the people, may have been accurate a few decades ago. Not anymore. Unpopularity is not synonymous with 'rightness'. The PAP seem quite prone to making questionable decisions now, to say the least.

    As stated in this post, the current electorate is highly educated and highly demanding. Why does this post go on to assume that the PAP's inability to win over this (apparently) educated and demanding electorate is merely a reflection of the party's need to "rediscover the skill of pushing through unpopular policies it thinks is good for the good of the nation, and still win elections"? I'm making the assumption that an educated electorate is also an electorate that is (to a reasonable extent) capable of rationally discerning between the good and bad for themselves, beyond the political sweet-talking (or lack thereof).

    What about the policies themselves? Couldn't it be that in the "educated" eyes of the electorate, the PAP, on top of making "unpopular" decisions in an "unpopular" way, have been making outright wrong decisions? Being bitter and hard to swallow does not guarantee that a thing is good medicine.

    Writing this loss off to the PAP preferring to be right than popular? That's giving them too much credit, and the voters too little.

    1. well said my friend.

    2. Fully Agree.

    3. Well said indeed. PAP might just be both wrong and unpopular. Not to say that everything they do is wrong, that is just making a sweeping statement but rather I choose to believe that the policies they make are more selfish for personal gains. Correct me if I am wrong but so far all the new policies made by PAP has done nothing to help the middle class or lower class.

    4. Author's concluding sentence: "It is more important to be popular than to be right" was countered by author's own comment on 26 Jan at 12:15 hours: "For the record, I think it is more important to be right than to be popular."

      Pay And Profit (PAP) increasingly lost resonance with the masses and lost public trust precisely because they have NOT being "doing right". It is far more damaging when reality is the opposite of slogans and mission statements.

      HDB policies have resulted in HDB/EC flats being used for rental generation and flipping after a mere 5-year Min Occu Period.

      CPF policies have not provided for "Secure Retirement" for today's age 55 cohort despite CPF Board's mission statement.

      En bloc law invoking majoritianism on private property have unlocked land value only for developers and flippers (rather than owner-occupiers) which makes a mockery of MND "Endearing Home" slogan.

      Medisave and Medishield policies have not alleviated the worries of the young for their ageing parents and the old for themselves and Singhealth and Natl Health Group policies run counter to "putting patients at the heart of all we do" as per SGH slogan.

      Labour and immigration policies have resulted in under-employment of PMETs and suppressed wages of blue-collar workers on a larger scale than statistically captured.

      And the laundry list goes on ..... It is NOT about spin. It is about "doing right" by Singapore and Singaporeans.

  2. For the record, I think it is more important to be right than to be popular.

    A good thing I am not a politician trying to get elected. :)

    1. Let our leaders continue to do right, and do good.
      Let the people get the leaders they voted for.

      Thanks Calvin, for penning this down.

    2. Agreed. Then the problem boils down to the PAP being more wrong than right in the last decade or so.

      Rapidly adding 2 million souls in 2 decades without adequate infrastructure like MRT lines, hospitals and housing is wrong, and unpopular.

      Paying themselves millions is plain wrong.

      Going for economic growth at all cost because the KPIs are all linked to it is wrong and self-serving.

      You can add on....

    3. Calvin, please answer this simple question. Do you think it's right (and not popular) thing or is it popular (and not right) thing to link HDB upgrading to votes?

  3. Actually I think the crux of the problem is the difficulty for PAP to attract candidates that people can trust will do a good job because recent experience has proven otherwise. The highly sophisticated electorate is getting increasingly skeptical that plucking some other highly educated scholar pushed through the system of automatic promotion within the civil service without otherwise relevant experience to " learn on the job" as a Minister is a good deal for Singapore. Or some doctor is automatically qualified to be an MP without otherwise working the ground and understanding the issues. For the issues are many, and growing by the day.

    1. I'm sorry I totally disagree with you. "Sophisticated electorate"? Please look at the behaviour both online and offline and can you really say that Singapore has become a mature democracy?

      As for your point about a self-made doctor not being qualified to be a MP to serve the nation, then how does your argument support the case for Lee Li Lian? What has she or WP let us know about her real track record and her capabilities? We are electing MP's not just to "represent" the common person but to lead the people and come up with brilliant solutions.

      Third, about your point that "the issues are many and growing by the day", I'm frankly quite tired of hearing claims like this. The issues are the same, and the root causes are the same few things - chiefly immigration. I think everyone knows the facts that motivated the PAP to adopt an aggressive immigration policy in the first place. Yes, the policy has been too aggressive and not executed perfectly, but making a mistake does not make them "evil", and booting them out and installing another government only heightens the likelihood of over-adjustment and more mistakes!

    2. Neither have you shown in unequivocal terms that the self-made doctor is able to lead the people and come up with brilliant solutions. To lead is to earn the trust and connect with the people who will then know in their hearts of hearts that they to follow their leader no matter what. Sadly, the self-made doctor did nothing to earn the trust and connect with people.

  4. But what exactly is it to be unpopular?

    Being unpopular is when more people think you are wrong than you are right.

    Can you still claim to be right if the wisdom of the masses say you are wrong?

    The fundamental flaw in your entire piece is you enter the argument with the assumption that whatever the PAP does is right. Can you really say that the immigration policies they had implemented is right? Can you genuinely say that housing prices have been regulated well? Can you say that cost of living has not increased or that many of their policies are elitist?

    Which brings me to your point on being elite. There is nothing wrong with being an elite politician. But there is plenty wrong in elitist politicians/parties/policies. While it is true that WP rely heavily on their 'ground work' card and may not have the most well-defined policies, PAP's glaring lack of ground work is no better. Good policies can only be implemented when you have a good feel of the ground, the people these policies will affect. PAP are way too aloof. Simple as that.

    I think this is a deserved wake-up call for the PAP.

    1. "Can you still claim to be right if the wisdom of the masses say you are wrong?"

      Simple answer is yes.

    2. masses are often wrong....esp the poor and uneducated. that is why there is such a thing as vote more corrupt countries.

    3. Running a country or an organization, for that matter, based on popularity, is a dangerous thing. If you know anything about Roman history (and many civilizations/countries who followed suit)— the popular vote is what destroyed the Republic. If the masses demand that we lower taxes or get rid of it, and increase entitlements, and vote the politicians who will kowtow to those wishes, then, the country is no longer run by its leaders but by its people. What a nation or any organization needs are strong leaders. Strong in the sense of character — integrity, honesty, a clear vision, morally upright with a sincere desire to work for the betterment of others.

  5. Thanks for writing out how I feel!

    We are slowly or at least there is a trend that we are heading to a 2 party dominance system in the future. Just like the US and Taiwan.

    We can only hope for the best.

    1. Having lived in the US for over 10 years (in Washington DC no less), I dread the day when Singapore becomes just like any other divided nation. In the US, "democracy" is manipulated, and the entrenched party lines creates so much hindrance and division.

    2. Yea, and sometimes we wonder if they are there to serve the people or serve themself good for the next election. Sighs.

      It just prove that nothing is perfect.

  6. Good article. Calling a spade a spade.

  7. It's true that 'being bitter and hard to swallow does not guarantee that a thing is good medicine'. But does anyone, deep down, really think that the policies devised by the PAP are inherently wrong? Indeed, they have made questionable decisions prior to the last GE, but to their credit, can anyone say that they have not attempted to and are in the midst of turning this around? It has been about 2 years; for any policy to see fruition, I'm sure you agree that some time is necessary.

    And if you are adamant that the ruling party is making outright wrong decisions, the implication is that the replacing party should be making more right ones. But have they? They don't seem to have proposed any efficient solutions that have made the people (or the PAP for that matter) go 'wow, that's an angle we have not covered'. At this very moment, I believe that the ruling party is still trying to do their best to help the people, and any constructive criticism and good ideas by the opposition would be well-received, if, and only if, they are effective.

    I completely agree with the author in saying that the autocratic style of the ruling party of dangling carrots and threatening the electorate of consequences is not longer working in the current Singaporean demographics. They have to convince us that it's right instead of instilling the 'trust older brother, we are always right' mentality. The way that the PAP goes about gaining support for their campaign is old, and clearly Singaporeans have matured beyond that. But that is just politics, and politics should be kept distinct from the ability to roll out good effective policies to help its citizens.

    We all want a change, the people have indicated that. It's up to the ruling party to show us they can.

    1. "But does anyone, deep down, really think that the policies devised by the PAP are inherently wrong?"

      I actually think that the complexities behind these matters make splitting opinions on them down to merely "right" and "wrong" an oversimplification. However, I'd say that a lot of the policies devised by the PAP are far from beneficial to the people of Singapore. Another commenter (Jerry Ang on 26 January 2013) listed a few very good points so i'm just going to quote him.

      "Can you really say that the immigration policies they had implemented is right? Can you genuinely say that housing prices have been regulated well? Can you say that cost of living has not increased or that many of their policies are elitist?"

      I also don't think it's a case where the ruling party gets something wrong, and goes on to say "ok, sorry, we're working on it. We'll try to get it right." It's more a case of "no, we actually got it right, just trust us and don't ask so many questions." The problem isn't merely limited to the "wrong" decisions made by the PAP. It's also the fact that they can get away with it.

      That's where the opposition comes in. As long as the ruling party has autocratic control over Singapore, they can go on pushing questionable policies and making decisions that do not actually benefit the majority of Singaporeans with minimal accountability. We need alternative voices to keep them in check.

      Granted, the opposition has not wowed us with any brilliant and efficient solutions to our problems. But are we to assume that they never will and, as a result, to keep voting for the PAP and trusting that they will somehow get their act together? i don't think so.

  8. The only "unpopular" decision in their eyes is reviewing and implementing changes to their pay.

  9. The citizens can only see so much...Obviously to them things that are bad is only in a myopic manner...There are so many things beyond the surface for an average person on the street to analyse and make a point...It is inevitable that decision made by the government will gradually be to appease the population and not based on economic fundamentals that citizens cannot forsee in their heartlands

  10. End of the day it's the people who decide which party can look after them sincerely while ruling the country. Very well written article. Hopefully pap members read this.

  11. I am sorry if I take a long time to publish your comments as I am on the move a lot. Not always connected to wifi. Thanks for your comments.

  12. There were a lot of unpopular decisions in the past that were pushed through that proved to be right, at least in my opinion, especially in the LKY heydays. National service, forced relocation of people from their large farm estates to small HDB flats, compulsory second language (still unpopular to some), the closure of Chinese language schools to name a few.

    I am not saying that we should popular rather than be right, but in popular democracies, being popular unfortunately comes first as no matter how right your policy is, it is only as good as you are able to sell it. Of course wrong policies can be sold too, but if you cannot sell your policies to the electorate, you cannot implement any, right or wrong.

    1. In US, Republicans try and sell people the idea of tax cuts on the rich and spending cuts on essential public service. See what it get them into.

  13. This is absolutely right. What next? In order to win more, PAP has to lose more. To hold more than 70 percent in Parliament is unrealistic in Democratic World trend. To force more seat gains via GRC would result in unexpected lost of good ministers as proven in George Yeo case. Let the new voters decide who is the deserving candidates.

  14. One more crux of the problem is the PAP have lost touch with the people. Standing high up in their ivory tower, they think that every Singaporean will be contented with all the policies shoved down their throats.

    They fail to see the struggle of the heartlanders and that's where the majority of votes come in from, the sandwich middle class.

    The pace of living inclusive of the rising costs have been a bugbear for Singaporeans all around.

    If only the PAP govt will come down and see our struggles in daily life routine, they will know why Singaporeans are full of anger and disdain.

    It's not the popularity vote that they should adopt but rather they should start caring more and first for fellow Singaporeans alike rather than the foreign talents that is leeching and overburdening our infrastructure.

  15. Are WP supporters the only emotional ones, are there no fanatic PAP supporters as well who think the PAP can do no wrong and the right to govern is only with PAP?

    To label the historic win as emotional more than logical is to belittle the collective intelligence of fellow Singaporeans. Face the facts, the majority of Punggol East voters are middle class and well educated. They are your everyday Singaporeans, not hardcore WP supporters in Hougang.

    If its emotional, then there should be more sympathy votes to SDA and RP since its given they can't win. The PE results show the voters are sophisticated, they don't take to a last minute rookie elite that parachuted in; they don't waver to last minute PAP machinery or policy sweeteners; and they don't buy corny sob stories that make no sense.

    They have logically depraved SDA and RP any significant number of votes to send a clear message to PAP that all is not well in Singapore and they want a well organized opposition that can bring balance and voice to Parliament. Status quo is not acceptable.

    Whether popular or right is better is not the question. How long can a government be sustainable if when it keep losing support from all segments of society? What has gone wrong and how to improve is the question. All Singaporeans want is the best options for Singapore, and not just themselves.

    Respect the people.

  16. Your article highlights several key points. The PAP leaders who came after Lee Kuan Yew and his generation never had to worry about walking the ground. They were elites to be trusted and brought in, elected first, then connect with the people later. Hindsight is perfect, but its shown us that the choosing of Dr Koh Poh Koon is a further extension of this strategy and thus failed.

    Dr Koh I feel has done very well already. He has had no time to fully express his personality and can only be seen as an appendage of the already unpopular PAP. It has helped that he is not outrightly arrogant and talks in a sincere manner. Even then, the PAP strategy for Punggol East is thus wrong. It would have been better to get someone who had worked with Palmer in the town council before, someone who really knows the present day Punggol inside out, rather than someone who lived there a long time ago.

  17. Actually the Singapore electorate has been voting for PAP despite many unpopular policies by the present leadership. This is because of the trust built up by the old guard PAP. However, the present party has admitted that they made many mistakes at the GE 2011 election. They also admitted that they have been overlooked infrastructure preparations for the massive influx of foreigners in education, health, transport, and housing; leading to much hardship and unpleasantness and very high cost of living.
    The citizens gave the PAP a second chance at GE 2011 because they trusted their apologies and promises to make good. It has nothing to do with being populist. However, the PAP actions have not been satisfactory after GE 2011 : SMRT still wanting to focus on retail at sports hub,AIM, continued import of FT, runaway inflation, higher property prices,COE, lawsuits, still high ministerial salaries, lack of accountability and transparency, unfairness and failure to set an example eg tin pei ling, seah kian peng,bullying catholic church, exempting presidents son from NS, refusing to call COI for operation Spectrum, unemployment of PMET, poor national health insurance coverage, forcing Singaporeans to integrate, low wages, etc etc etc
    The people feel that they have been let down a second time and that promises at GE 2011 have been broken eg white paper for 7 million residents etc so they used the by election to give the PaP a message. This is nothing about populist policies. The pap has tried trickle down economics by enriching the top 0.1% arguing that this the only way but this has brought Singapore to a recession whilst Thailand Malaysia and Indonesia are growing. Meanwhile, govt bodies insensitively continue to buy brompton designer bikes and Herman miller chairs, but refuse to increase social welfare by more than $30 pm and give 5 billion away to IMF with a mockery of the legal system and the English world is laughing at our poor English in that case and the polling booth incident and mdm valliamal etc
    How is it a case for populist politics? Singaporeans just want a good government. There is no need to be populist or PAP would have gone 2011 GE.singaporeans can accept harsh unpopular but necessary policies as proven in the past.

  18. The Monetarists were right, yet they caused the crash in their watch. Keynesian economics was right but the world became globalized. When the Austrian School of Economics was right, everyone thought that they were wrong. You got a bunch of Engineers talking about models from Sloan trying to get the system right and that created strategies for under utilization from its over systematization and optimization. What than is right. Give the people what they want! Frankly, I do not believe all the talk about right economic policy which noone can answer; the fundamental problem of economics is how to satisfy unlimited wants from limited resources, and whose wants get priority.

  19. The article contradicts itself - the PAP has always seen itself as government - so party and government melds - so policy and politics are one and the same. I surely hope we don't go to the over political route -bec that never is good for the nation. Philosophically - the party's vein has always been lift the best and brightest - the resources to the elites (smart, rich, connections etc) and then everyone else will be lifted along. Unfor hardworking doesn't necessarily get you too far -bec the game of competition in this monetarist world is leverage and assets - esp in the singapore context. The PAP is an right wing party in my view and there will be supportors of the PAP who believe in that philosophy of best and brightest. The pap's strengths are its efficiency, its long term thinking and its lack of corruption - and it does stand out by global standards. Unfortunately - its runs too well as a company - and the reserves building means some stakeholders (namely lower income citizens) feel that their share of the pie is shrinking . The PAP also does a bad job in PR - but then again - hard to blow your trumpet yourself - . Their 'independence' has always been questioned since there is increasingly lack of trust : citizens vs govt. If PAP were sincere about betterment of Singapore lives - take an honest look in the mirror - employ independent apolitical think tanks to analyse and start questioning some fundamentals -policies that h/beliefs
    that held true in the past may not be the right ones today.

    If i inadvertently had insulted or defamed anyone - it was unintended. i apologise in advance.

  20. You said "There are media advisors, spin doctors, campaign strategists, sophisticated research going into each and every election and careful planning. The PAP has none."

    I beg to differ.

    ALL the spin doctors, campaign strategists, and research ARE already used and pushed by PAP and yet they still LOST.

    In case you don't know Calvin:

    1) Spin Doctor SPH are under Press Act, and all articles that are unfavorable to PAP are deleted, reporters are sacked, and ex-ISD directors parachute into the press under the guise of "political journalist".

    2) Campaign Strategists aka Electon Committees are DIRECTLY under the PM office, changing the electon landscape as and when PAP is threatened to loose.

    3) I can name you much more: judges are now appointed and paid under the direct discretion of PM office. Non-partisian PA's are actually filled with MPs running it like an extension of PAP.

    With all these in place, Calvin, seriously, what made you think that PAP has none?!?!?