Singapore: After watershed election, time for PAP to take stock

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The Singapore parliament - Photograph: James Mason-Hudson. - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, commons.wikimedia.org

Singapore’s ruling People’s Action Party must now be prepared, if it is truly committed to democracy, to create more space for other parties and its people to match its “developed nation” status, John Fong writes.

In the recent Singapore general election, the People’s Action Party (PAP) once again secured the ruling mandate, after 55 years of post-independence power.

This may give the impression, or rather a one-sided interpretation, to neighbouring developing nations within Asean that a single political party might well be able to stay in power indefinitely.

But then, little do the regimes and authoritarian leaders within Asean know – or perhaps they are in denial – that Singapore politicians such as former Prime Minister Goh Chok Tok believe in “political renewal, not political recycling”.

A friend of mine even admires such leaders for “the way they hold office to such high regard, like there is a genuine sense of moral obligation to the people and continuity instead of self-interest”.

The late Lee Kuan Yew emphasised providing for the people’s needs and their economic development and criticised neighbouring countries for having democracy but failing to provide a decent life for their people.

As Singapore’s PAP extends its ruling mandate, its formula for party longevity is unique. Other political parties in Asean aspiring to the level of public trust the PAP has enjoyed – though now somewhat eroded – need to place more emphasis on solving the people’s problems.

This would mean prioritising and trying to solve the people’s socioeconomic problems, easing religious and ethnic tensions and providing an efficient public transport system. Affordable education and healthcare must be provided for all. These are some basic requirements for a country to become a developed nation.

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On 11 January 2017, outgoing US President Barack Obama gave his farewell speech in Chicago before an enthusiastic crowd who kept chanting and interrupting, “Four more years! Four more years! Four more years!”

“I can’t do that,” Obama replied. “In 10 days, the world will witness a hallmark of our democracy.…”

“Nooo…”. the crowd registered their disapproval.

But this time, Obama told them sternly, “No, no, no, no, no — the peaceful transfer of power from one freely elected president to the next. I committed to President-elect Trump that my administration would ensure the smoothest possible transition, just as President Bush did for me. Because it’s up to all of us to make sure our government can help us meet the many challenges we still face.”

In the recent Singapore general election, the main opposition Workers’ Party won a historic 10 out of 93 seats, the most it has ever held. The PAP’s share of the popular vote fell by 9% from 70% in the previous election as the Workers’ Party, the Progress Singapore Party and the other opposition parties gained ground.

For 55 years since independence, the PAP has largely delivered whatever Singapore needed: developed nation status, with stability, security and prosperity, though problems have cropped up.

Just as Obama stressed the need to subscribe to the highest principles of democracy in his speech in 2017, the PAP should now subject itself to the highest moral and democratic obligations.

Change is inevitable, and the current new millennial voters are not as attached or charmed by traditional political parties – nor are they restricted to conservative values like the older generations of voters.

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Sometimes, a political party or an individual can find more strength in being able to loosen or even let go its tight hold on power rather than clinging on to it. If a nation is truly developed, no matter whichever political party or government rules, it will continue to prosper.

The PAP has provided guidance and helped generate growth to the nation for decades. It must now be prepared, if it is truly committed to participatory democracy, to provide more democratic space for other parties and its people to complement the “developed nation status” it has achieved for Singapore. Eventually the lion must learn how to rest its roar.

John Fong, an Aliran member, is a masters student in social science in a local public university

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