Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong yesterday set out what is at stake for the next general election, saying it will decide if Singapore can sustain a good and stable government that can safeguard Singaporeans' lives and well-being.
Addressing 2,500 People's Action Party (PAP) activists at what could be the last major party gathering before the general election, he told them to be prepared for a tough fight.
PM Lee, the PAP's secretary-general, called on activists to continue working hard to convince Singaporeans to give the ruling party the mandate to lead the country again in the upcoming election, which will take place amid an uncertain global environment.
There is a lot to lose if Singapore's politics turn unstable or dysfunctional, he said, adding that the upcoming polls are "not just about the PAP doing a bit better or a bit worse", but whether Singapore can be different from other countries for a long time to come.
"The next election is about the future of Singapore," he said. "Soon, it will be time for battle again."
The general election must be held by April 2021, but is widely expected to be called next year.
PM Lee began his speech by highlighting what the PAP Government has done since the last general election to improve people's lives, from increasing pre-school and tertiary subsidies and rolling out the Merdeka Generation Package to help manage the cost of living, to creating better jobs and improving the public transport network.
He then set out the challenging external environment Singapore has to navigate, and outlined what the party has to do to retain the electorate's trust, from giving people hope for the future to ensuring unity and social cohesion.
Externally, Singapore is likely to come under more pressure from the United States and China to take a side, as tensions between both powers grow, PM Lee noted.
Nearer to home, while relations with Malaysia and Indonesia are good, there remain difficult issues to resolve, he said. These include water with Malaysia and airspace arrangements with both countries.
PM Lee stressed that aside from a capable government, strong domestic support is crucial in managing these external issues. "The unity of Singaporeans is our first line of defence," he said at the PAP convention at the Singapore Expo.
"Others will be watching us closely to see if the PAP wins a strong mandate, especially at a time of leadership transition."
He said the PAP will have to maintain the "deep reservoir of trust" it has with Singaporeans - a compact he said the party had built up by being upfront about unpopular but necessary policies, and delivering what it promised.
He also reiterated the rationale for potential hot-button issues at the next general election, including raising the goods and services tax some time after the election and amendments to the Constitution to ensure the president is from a minority group from time to time.
On changes to the elected presidency, he said minority ethnic groups now have an assurance that their place in Singapore's society will always be safeguarded.
"Overall, from a short-term perspective, this issue is a political minus for the Government, for the PAP," he said. "But this is part of governing. I am convinced that we did the right thing. We must never, ever be afraid to do what is right for Singapore."
Beyond race and religion, the country also has to guard against fault lines like a disconnect between the masses and the elite, he said. The PAP's strength stems from having the people's mandate, he added, urging party activists to always keep in close contact with the people, understand their issues and put their interests first.
He said the PAP has to make sure the system always works for ordinary Singaporeans so that they will embrace it.
Highlighting the party's "symbiotic relationship" with the unions as a key way it stays close to workers, he said the PAP will always serve and represent workers' interests.
PM Lee then stressed that the electorate's trust in the PAP has to be sustained in every generation.
The party's fourth-generation team, led by Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat, has taken shape, he said, adding that it has a very difficult task and deserves full support across the party.
"Back them. They are our team, they are Singapore's team," he said.
The country, he added, needs the best team to take it forward. "That team is the PAP."