SINGAPORE - The deep economic pain being felt by Singaporeans due to Covid-19 and a desire for diversity in Parliament are the two key messages voters sent the Government in the recent general election, Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam said.
While the nearly $100 billion package assembled across four Budgets has helped blunt some of the impact of the pandemic, segments of the population - including those aged between 40 and 60 as well as small businesses in sectors like construction - are hurting very badly, Mr Shanmugam said in an interview with Money FM 89.3's Claressa Monteiro broadcast on Monday (July 27).
That is why apart from short-term "blood transfusions", the Government is focused on saving Singaporean jobs. And where that cannot be done, it has to "try and save every Singaporean - try and train them, give them other options to tide through this period".
"We cannot by ourselves wave a magic wand and create economic growth in the context of a global deep recession, but we can tide through and help our people," said the minister.
In a conversation billed as a look at hard truths from GE2020, Mr Shanmugam said the People's Action Party (PAP) is also keenly aware of voters' desire for a diversity of representation in Parliament.
He disagreed with some commentators' view that the 27 new faces the PAP introduced at the recent hustings were perceived as capable but boring, or that they did not have the same appeal as some of the candidates that were put up by the opposition.
"I would say it's a difference between perception and reality," said the minister, who entered politics in the 1988 general election.
"If you look at the PAP candidates in the eight elections that I've been, this is probably the best slate of young candidates - fresh, full of energy, full of ideas. They want to do things."
Mr Shanmugam cited as examples the two new members of his Nee Soon GRC team.
Ms Carrie Tan came from humble beginnings, took on a corporate job and gave it up to start a non-governmental organisation that helps underprivileged women.
Mr Derrick Goh grew up in a three-room flat in Balam Road, put himself through university and worked in global financial centres like London and New York, before returning to Singapore to take charge of POSB and revamp it. He is now a managing director at DBS.
"It tells you the world of possibilities for all our kids, and the new candidates from the PAP symbolise that," said Mr Shanmugam. "It may be that because there are so many of them, that not all of it comes through."
While the PAP's candidates do not attract as much attention because the party has been in power for the living memory of most Singaporeans, Mr Shanmugam said: "If people look at them, they will see passionate young men and women who want to create a better Singapore."
He also acknowledged that the party needs to think about how to present its candidates better so that people know what they have done and what is their vision for Singapore.
Asked if the PAP was shifting its search for candidates away from its traditional grazing grounds of the civil service and the military, Mr Shanmugam said the party's underlying principle is to choose people it thinks can best serve residents, and "not start with pre-conceived ideas that military is bad or military is good, civil service is bad or civil service is good".
While talent has traditionally gone into the civil service and the military, which means the talent pools in these sectors were deeper, today's private sector holds a substantial talent pool too, and the PAP looks for people of quality across different sectors, said Mr Shanmugam, who was a lawyer in private practice before he joined politics.
"The essentials you look for are the same: The person, does he have energy? Does he have the heart to serve? Is he willing? Is he capable?
"Those questions are fundamental and they don't change," said Mr Shanmugam. "Where you find them, as society changes, you also have got to change the way you look for people, because the people you bring in have got to fit the needs of a changing population."
On the issue of political succession, Mr Shanmugam said the fourth-generation (4G) leadership team has to forge its own way both in working with a new generation of Singaporeans that have different expectations from their parents and grandparents, but also to emerge from under the shadow of "an extremely formidable and popular Prime Minister and two senior ministers who have very large footprints".
In that sense, the challenges they face are no different from when the 2G under Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong was emerging from the shadows of the "towering generation" that was the founding fathers, or when the 3G under PM Lee Hsien Loong had to emerge from their shadows.
Yet, in the Singapore style, each generation as it emerges will be helped by the previous generation of leaders, said Mr Shanmugam.
"It is, as we have indicated, a work in progress started some time ago, and they have to both get the confidence of the population and a changing electorate, and at the same time carve out their own roles and work with each other in a changing international context with many new challenges," he said.
On whether GE2020 showed that young and first-time voters want the PAP to move towards a more liberal and populist style of governance, Mr Shanmugam said he did not think that was the case.
"They were, in my view, no different from younger voters of previous generations - they want fairness, they want justice, they want to feel that they are part of a system where people are able to express themselves, and they want good governance and they want the party in government to produce results," he said.
"And, you know, it's not an unfair expectation."