Political change at the ballot box

Recently I was invited to an "informal chat" with a small group of undergraduates from our different universities. I found them reassuringly interested in political and social issues.

The discussion quickly turned to the notion of "change". One student argued that the United States had had its first African-American president in Barack Obama, the Arabs their "Spring" and even Malaysia had their "Anwar", referring to former deputy prime minister-turned- opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim. Singapore needed to get on the bandwagon of "democratic progress", he said.

My reply was that this line of thinking was woolly thinking. To draw parallels across cultures, context, circumstances and conditions was simplistic.

Importantly, such views reveal an ignorance of the considerable trajectory of political change we have gone through in Singapore, and suggests that democratic action has been ineffective in Singapore. Neither is true.

The May 2006 General Election was significant for being the first contested with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at the helm. The People's Action Party (PAP) saw its vote share plummet to 66.6 per cent from 75.3 per cent in 2001.

In 2011, the PAP did even worse, losing a group representation constituency (GRC) and, with it, not one but two Cabinet ministers.

The shifts have registered a significant political response since.

There is a massive ramp-up in public housing construction. In transport, there is commitment to new mass rapid transit lines, the addition of 500 buses and opening of operating licences to foreign entrants.

In education, significant investments are being made in adult education and increasing the capacity at the tertiary level.

In health, the forthcoming MediShield Life is functionally a universal health insurance scheme. In social policy, the $8 billion Pioneer Generation Package for the elderly and strengthening of social safety nets are sizeable and structural policy commitments which signify a political shift to the left for a historically conservative PAP.

The evidence of the historical narrative of cause and effect would suggest that this shift was not voluntary, as some in the PAP would like to portray, but a political response to democratic action as expressed in electoral results.

Additionally, the ongoing announcements of the retirement from politics of second-generation PAP leaders, noted for their political conservatism, such as former minister for home affairs Wong Kan Seng, together with the comment by labour leader Chan Chun Sing that "Singapore should not forget its socialist heart", are indications that these policy shifts are anchored in people changes that indicate that the political trend is longer term rather than ephemeral.

So, in short, there have been and continue to be significant political changes in Singapore arising from democratic action.

Singaporeans should not be beguiled by the idea that change must be associated with colourful and disruptive political action in the form of protests, revolutions and dramatic individual gestures. These histrionics are neither benign nor as progressive as they may seem from a distance.

Singapore has indeed moved left in social policy - and this brings into question whether moving left politically is an undiluted merit good.

The notion propagated by the liberal camp is that social welfarist policies are inherently good. This ignores the lessons of Western European nations where social welfarism has produced systems which are fiscally impossible to sustain yet politically impossible to unwind. The buck gets kicked around the soccer stadium of politics. It is only a matter of time before the umpire of financial sanity blows the whistle.

The political shifts of the PAP in the recent decade are not a reflection of a deliberate political design but a survival reaction to electoral stimuli, which is normal for any political incumbent.

In that sense, the PAP is not, because of these shifts, an exceptional party leading the pathway of change, but instead a normal party responding to voters whose primary consideration is the practical one of retention of power.

What is exceptional is that, unlike the situation for incumbents in many other countries, the PAP finds itself in the fiscal condition to back its political bets - for the time being.

It is my hope that the coming election focuses attention on the long-term implications of current choices.

The PAP is pursuing a paradoxical path. It is making long-term policy and thus fiscal commitments in reaction to periodic short-term political conditions - namely a deterioration in the popular vote over successive recent elections.

This is potentially problematic. How far left is left enough? How left is sustainable and for how long? What are the longer-term implications on fiscal policy and social values?

These are critical questions to debate as they underpin the viability of current and potential policy choices which seem to be lining up in a hardening direction.

Whether change is a good or bad thing is a matter of results, and results may take some time in coming.

What matters now is that the process of setting political direction be one where there is debate on practical ideas and facts and not on abstract causes and fickle sentiment.

It is said that in a democracy, the electorate gets the government it deserves. If this is so, then the end result of democratic action is the responsibility of the voter, not the politician.

Indeed, the politician is a creature created by the voters' choices.

In this election, therefore, voters should be careful of what they vote for, in case their vote ends up creating a political creature lurching too much to the left.

• The writer is the CEO of Future-Moves Group, a management consulting firm.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 20, 2015, with the headline 'Political change at the ballot box'. Print Edition | Subscribe