GE2015: Can PAP crack its performance paradox?

Its impressive policy record will likely be hammered by an opposition keen to claim credit for achievements

Now that Polling Day is set for Sept 11, the focus shifts to the next P - how well the parties have performed.

That, in turn, informs voters' views on who they think can best represent them over the next five years.

But what is the relevant timeframe to assess past performance?

Is it the People's Action Party's (PAP) 50-year track record of leading Singapore since independence in August 1965?

Is it the 10-year record of the team under Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, who has been at the helm since May 2004?

Or is it the four-year record of the opposition, which won its first group representation constituency in the watershed General Election (GE) of May 2011?

As the party that forms the Government, the PAP has been on the offensive in seeking to define the terms by which political performance should be judged.

The timing of this election helps it make its case that good governance is vital to Singapore's survival and success. Both the year-long Golden Jubilee celebrations and the week of national mourning in March for founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew have brought to the fore how far this nation has come in the past 50 years - under PAP leadership.

At the National Day Rally on Sunday, PM Lee highlighted the bond between the Government and people over the last 50 years as one of three factors that enabled Singapore to get to where it is today.

"The Government has kept its promises, what we said we would do, we did do. We have kept our politics honest, we insisted on high standards of integrity in public life, no corruption, no dishonesty.

"We are also honest when it comes to policies and when it comes to the choices that we have to make. We do not shy away from hard realities, we do not sugar-coat difficult issues. We do right by Singaporeans," Mr Lee said.

He also held up the achievements of his team in the last decade - in strengthening safety nets, in housing, healthcare, education and in beautifying the city.

On the upcoming GE, he said: "This election will be critical. You will be deciding who is governing Singapore for the next five years; but more than that, you will be choosing the team who will be working with you for the next 15-20 years. You will be setting the direction for Singapore for the next 50 years."

At the same time, the PAP leadership has sought to debunk the opposition's claim that having it in Parliament keeps the Government responsive and accountable to voters.

Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam was the most explicit in doing so, in a speech he delivered 10 days ago to the Economic Society of Singapore. In it, he made the argument that the most remarkable aspect of Singapore's development is not economic growth per se but inclusive growth that has seen incomes grow across the board, with measures in place to moderate inequality and keep social mobility high.

"I recognise of course that there is some political cunning in saying that this all came about because of GE 2011. I'm sorry, it didn't. The world did not start in 2011," he said.

"We made very clear our intentions and motivations well before 2011, made clear that it was a multi-year strategy, and step by step, starting with the kids, through working life, and into the senior years, we have been moving towards a more inclusive society. We intend to continue on this journey, learning from experience and improving where we can. But this is a far more important agenda than a reaction to 2011," he added.

Mr Tharman is right; the world did not start in 2011.

But the reality is that the politicisation of many Singaporeans did. And from their perspective, the Government's responsiveness in areas of deep public discontent - whether buses and trains, property prices, healthcare costs or foreign worker inflows - is due in part to the presence of the seven opposition members voted into Parliament since 2011, the largest number since independence.

If such sentiments hold sway among swing voters - who, according to a 2011 Institute of Policy Studies survey, now form the largest bloc at 45 per cent of the total - then the Workers' Party (WP) may still be in a political sweet spot. It remains the PAP's only real rival at the polls.

During the 2011 campaign, WP chief Low Thia Khiang asked voters to elect opposition MPs to serve as co-drivers because "without co-drivers, Singaporeans keep getting taken for a ride".

Do voters still find such an argument persuasive? Even if some are disappointed by the WP's performance in Parliament or have doubts about its ability to manage a town council, others may believe that what the opposition party needs is yet more electoral support to help it grow and strengthen.

For the PAP, this state of affairs results in a performance paradox it may well find hard to crack.

Its team of ministers has worked hard to address the hot issues of GE2011. They have put more buses on the road, improved train capacity, ramped up the supply of new flats and cooled prices, moderated the inflow of foreign workers and introduced generous healthcare subsidies for pioneers and those on lower incomes, with lifelong medical insurance coverage to kick in for all from November. That is an impressive policy record.

But what will it yield in terms of votes? Will voters applaud what the Government has done? Or give the credit to the opposition? We'll know on Sept 12.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 26, 2015, with the headline 'Can PAP crack its performance paradox?'. Print Edition | Subscribe