SINGAPORE - The next general election will decide if Singapore can sustain a good and stable Government that can safeguard the lives and well-being of Singaporeans, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Sunday (Nov 10).
Addressing 2,500 People's Action Party (PAP) activists at what could be the last major party gathering before the next general election, he told them to be prepared for a tough fight.
Mr Lee, who is 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.
"We have done a lot. We have a lot more to do. But there is a lot we can lose too if politics turns unstable, or becomes dysfunctional," he said. "The next election is about the future of Singapore. You have been working the ground for more than four years now... 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.
The prime minister began his speech by summarising 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 for workers and improving the public transport network.
He then set out the challenging external environment Singapore has to navigate, to underscore that the country's long term future is at stake in the upcoming polls.
He also outlined what the party has to do to retain the electorate's trust, from being upfront with Singaporeans, giving people hope for the future, and ensuring unity and social cohesion.
Externally, Singapore is likely to come under more pressure from the United States and China, as tensions between both powers grow, Mr 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 arrangement with both neighbours.
Mr 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."
But these pressures can overwhelm the Republic too, and the consequences could be irreparable, "because we are so much smaller and more vulnerable," he warned.
Mr Lee 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 with unpopular but necessary policies, and delivering what it promises.
The PAP Government's policies, he said, have improved the lives of Singaporeans in concrete and visible ways. He pointed to how necessities such as healthcare, education, housing and transport are affordable and of high quality.
"Unlike other political parties, we cannot afford to woo voters with empty words because we do not want them to come back to haunt us," he said.
He also reiterated the rationale for potential hot-button issues at the next GE, including raising the Goods and Services Tax (GST) some time after the next election and amending the constitution to ensure the elected president will be from a minority group from time to time.
The Government announced the GST hike before the next election to be upfront with voters and give them plenty of advance notice, Mr Lee said - a point Deputy Prime Minister and PAP first assistant secretary-general Heng Swee Keat also made in his speech earlier on Sunday.
It also did so and announced a support package for lower income households early, to make sure the opposition cannot stir up the issue, Mr Lee added.
On changes to the Elected Presidency to ensure minority representation from time to time, 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. But this is part of governing," he said. "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 split between the people and the elite, he added.
Noting that the PAP's strength stems from the mandate of the people, he urged party activists to always keep in close contact with them, understand their issues, and put their interests first.
In many countries, people have lost confidence in their governments, giving rise to new political factions that give vent to people's frustrations, he said.
These factions play politics, and cause deeper divisions in society instead of improving the lives of people, he added.
"The Government has to do what it can to fulfil people's aspirations, address their needs and safeguard their interests. Giving people confidence in our system will prevent cracks in the relationship between our leaders and the people," he said.
He added that 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 the PAP stays close to workers, he said it will always serve and represent workers' interests.
Mr 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 Mr Heng, has taken shape, he said, adding that they have a very difficult task and deserve 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."
On Sunday, the party also marked its 65th anniversary and recognised 402 activists for their contributions.
Former Cabinet Minister Ong Pang Boon, the last surviving member of the founding Cabinet, received the Distinguished Service Medal. Past recipients include Mr Lim Boon Heng and Mr S Rajaratnam.