After PAP's big win, avoid pitfalls of dominant parties

Supporters of the People's Action Party at Toa Payoh Stadium on Sept 12, 2015. ST PHOTO: YEN MENG JIIN
PM Lee Hsien Loong (second from left) and his team thank supporters after the general election on Sept 12, 2015. PHOTO: REUTERS

Dominant political groups in South-east Asia, such as Indonesia's Golkar (The Party of Functional Groups) and Malaysia's BN (National Front) are weakening.

By contrast, the performance of the People's Action Party (PAP) in Singapore's 2015 General Election demonstrates that dominant parties have a future.

In the 1970s to 1990s, Golkar, with support from the army, monopolised Indonesian politics. But today, it is a fragmented party in the legislative assembly under the Joko Widodo government.

Similarly, BN today is far weaker compared to its days during Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad's leadership. Since the 2008 elections, it has failed to win a two-thirds majority in Parliament; and in the 2013 elections, did not attain half of the popular votes. With the recent alleged scandals beleaguering Prime Minister Najib Razak, the ruling coalition has to quickly regain Malaysians' trust before the next elections.

Unlike BN and Golkar, the PAP in last week's election increased its share of popular votes by nearly 10 percentage points, and wrested back Punggol East constituency from the Workers' Party. The Prime Minister and his two deputies led resounding victories in the constituencies they contested.

Despite hostility shown towards dominant parties in many countries elsewhere, the PAP clearly had a winning strategy. The PAP clawed back from many setbacks in the 2011 General Election. But this is not without the PAP having to constantly change its winning formula. What works in 2015 may not work for the next elections.

The Malaysian and Indonesian dominant political groups show that the failure to adjust and complacency could drastically lead to a bigger swing towards the opposition.

One key ingredient of the PAP's success this time is its humility. PAP candidates' comments after their remarkable victory last Friday sang a similar tune: They are humbled by the strong mandate and will work harder.

Nevertheless, the PAP must not take Singaporeans' support for granted because it should recall BN's experience. In 2004, Tun Abdullah Badawi led BN to its biggest electoral victory since Independence, winning 90 per cent of seats in Parliament - only to record its worst showing four years later.

Between 2004 and 2008, BN was out of touch with the masses, and could not quell the opposition's rise. The ruling coalition failed to unite the masses as the country witnessed its worst ethnic tensions since May 13, 1969. The BN did not recover and did worse in 2013.

Conversely, being in touch with the masses propelled Mr Joko to become Indonesia's seventh president. His blusukan (surprise visits to meet the people) became extremely popular with the masses as he was able to avoid bureaucratic red tape in finding the roots to problems. Recently, President Joko visited an area in South Sumatra to understand and devise solutions to tackle forest burning which has resulted in severe haze affecting the region.

Apart from SG50 Jubilee Year celebrations and sympathy votes after the death of Singapore's founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew, credit must go to the PAP's massive efforts in reaching out to the masses immediately after the 2011 elections, when it suffered its worst electoral result.

In 2012, Education Minister Heng Swee Keat led the Our Singapore Conversation to understand people's concerns through dialogues. The challenge is for such conversations to continue, to help the leaders remain in touch with the masses, ensuring that the lives of the Singapore core are not neglected.

The emergence of promising new faces in the party also contributed to the PAP's revival. They are professionals and former civil servants who have worked closely with the grassroots.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's promise of leadership renewal appears to have resonated among the masses.

The party will likely promote three to four newcomers to ministerial positions. A smooth transition is expected, allowing current ministers to mentor newcomers, and conduct a reshuffle mid-term, with the new ones replacing older ministers in the last third of the term.

This is in sharp contrast to the way leadership renewal has been a major stumbling block for BN and Golkar; both do not have any potential young successors. For example, Datuk Seri Najib had to turn to an Umno old guard in the latest Cabinet reshuffle and to replace Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin.

In short, the increase in support for the PAP can be seen as a vote for the ways the party has reinvented itself since the 2011 elections. The increase in votes, however, is not an endorsement of all its policies.

The electorate appreciates the PAP's willingness to listen, but the party must also engage with alternative policies raised by the opposition during their rallies, as well as those raised on social media.

The attendance at and cheers given to the opposition during the nine-day campaigning show that there is support for what the opposition have to offer, though they cannot be measured in vote counts. Totally dismissing these ground sentiments may result in a similar fate like what BN suffered in 2008.

As the country unites post-GE 2015, the PAP has to live up to its promise, "With you, For you, For Singapore".

  • The writer is a Fellow with the Iseas-Yusof Ishak Institute. He works on Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesian politics.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 17, 2015, with the headline After PAP's big win, avoid pitfalls of dominant parties. Subscribe