PAP v WP: What these four years have shown


PAP has adjusted to new reality; WP content to make headway steadily, rather than noisily

An interesting period in Singapore politics will soon end with the coming general election.

In fact, it was probably the most significant four years between elections. How so?

This requires some explanation, so I should start at the beginning, after the 2011 GE.

When the ruling party lost Aljunied GRC, there were some who argued that it was a good result for the country.

They were not necessarily opposition supporters but believed that the People's Action Party's almost complete electoral domination could not last.

Sooner or later, it would lose some of its appeal: its policies might not be working as well, voters want more alternatives or they might simply tire of its longevity and desire change.

This transition to a more competitive political landscape could result in several possible scenarios. Will a two-party system emerge, as in many mature democracies? Would the PAP lose power one day? Or might it survive and continue to succeed but renewed and transformed.

Whatever the outcome, Singaporeans hoped the change would be gradual, peaceful and lead to a stronger nation, one as able as it was in the past to overcome its challenges. What they feared most was sudden, unpredictable change, leading to instability or mediocrity and a loss of confidence in the country.

Seen from this perspective, GE 2011 was a good outcome.

Even though the PAP lost a GRC, it scored a landslide victory nationwide, winning 80 out of 87 seats and 60.1 per cent of the votes.

If the country was indeed transiting towards a more normal democracy, this was a gradual, controlled shift.

That was the initial assessment in the days immediately after the GE.

Now, four years later, and as another election looms, the question is whether the experience so far has reinforced or weakened this view.

Did it offer a glimpse of what the changing politics might look like and which of those three scenarios is the more likely?

In fact, these four years were rich with data, and if I were a political scientist I would have had a field day.

The ruling party swung into action on the policy front, determined to fix those policies that had caused much unhappiness in 2011. It tightened immigration, ramped up the construction of Housing Board flats and added hundreds more buses to the public transport network financed from government coffers.

In doing so, it lived up to its reputation of being able to deliver results when it puts its mind to it.

But there was no radical change in its approach to solving these problems, no huge departure from existing policies.

Those who wanted a more fundamental review of, say, housing or transport would have been disappointed, though the Government might counter that it was more interested in tackling the problems in a pragmatic way rather than indulging in the grand ideas.

The biggest shift in thinking was on social policy.

It seems unlikely the subsidies and assistance given to senior citizens will end with the pioneer generation - more likely it signals a new approach to welfare support.

Ditto the new health insurance scheme, MediShield Life, which now covers those with pre-existing medical problems.

While you could argue the merits of each of these changes, taken together, the picture seems clear: The Government has become more responsive in helping vulnerable segments of the population.

The PAP set out to make sure these issues would not dominate the agenda when it fights the next general election.

On the political front, though, its approach could not be more different, refusing to concede much ground, and it might even have dug in some more.

It pressed the WP on the management of its town council and the saga is still ongoing.

It tightened legislation on online media and took legal action against several people for what they said in their blogs.

Wasn't this reverting to the bad old days? If it was, so be it, it seemed to be saying to its critics.

For the PAP, change would not mean going soft on its political opponents. If these four years have shown how the party is responding to the new political landscape, it is this: fix the policies but give no quarter on the political front.

On the opposition side, the only party of note is the WP, and it too showed plenty how it was managing the new situation.

Those who expected it to liven up politics here by proactively engaging the PAP and giving it a hard time would have been disappointed. Even when the debate was over ministerial salaries, an issue on which it could have scored many political points, it did not rise to the bait and maintained a position not too far off the Government's.

Did these four years show up its inadequacy as the main opposition party holding the Government accountable or was it part of its strategy to consolidate its gains.

Possibly both.

The WP is intent on being regarded as a serious-minded party appealing to the middle ground, not one on the fringe.

It believes this is the way to increase its share of the votes and that, with its small presence in Parliament, going full frontal against the ruling party on every issue will bring more risks than gains. That is why it prefers to work quietly on the ground in its own wards and in those it fancies at the next election.

For the WP, the four years have shown it is content to make headway steadily rather than noisily. It appears more in consolidation phase than in any hurry to install a two-party system.

One area though hasn't been revealed but will become clearer in the coming weeks when it introduces its candidates for the GE: Its ability to attract people into the party, particularly those with ability and commitment.

For me, this will be the most interesting and revealing part of its four-year journey so far.

Do well on this front, and it would have made real progress.

For the other opposition parties, I am afraid the four years have been more of the same. Still at the fringes, and all of them still hoping for the one breakthrough on Polling Day.

Back to the question I posed at the beginning: Has it been good for the country?

From the way the PAP responded, it has to be a qualified yes. The people got a more responsive government and the main opposition party is still keeping alive the hopes of opposition supporters. Voters now have a better measure of the two main parties and can cast their votes accordingly.

In fact, you could also say GE 2011 was good for the PAP, forcing it to adjust to the new reality. I bet that's not how they saw it four years ago.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 09, 2015, with the headline 'PAP v WP: What these four years have shown'. Print Edition | Subscribe