Keeping Singaporeans' faith in the PAP

At the PAP65 Awards and Convention yesterday, People's Action Party secretary-general and Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong spoke about the need for the party to retain Singaporeans' faith in it. Here are edited excerpts of his remarks.

In many countries, politics has broken down. Trust in leaders has been eroded. People have lost hope. Societies are divided.

I was supposed to go to Chile this week for the Apec (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation) meeting. But Apec had to be cancelled because there were mass demonstrations in Chile, triggered by public anger over social issues like public transport fares, healthcare, education and pensions.

The Chileans have lost faith in their political institutions. According to one survey, among the four institutions least trusted by their people, three were their political parties, Senate and Chamber of Deputies.

Thankfully, in Singapore, our domestic politics has been quite different. The People's Action Party (PAP) is humbled to enjoy the people's trust. Singaporeans believe that the PAP will improve their lives and take the country forward.

The anger and frustration that have divided societies elsewhere have not taken root here. But Singapore is not immune. These global pressures can overwhelm us too, if we are not careful. And the consequences will be worse for us than other countries, may even be irreparable, because we are so small and vulnerable.

Therefore, we must work even harder than any other political party, whether in Singapore or elsewhere, to keep this faith in the PAP. This depends on us doing three things. First, maintain trust in the party. Second, give people hope for the future. Third, ensure unity and social cohesion in our society.

MAINTAIN TRUST IN THE PARTY

Over the years, we have built up the deep reservoir of trust among Singaporeans.

Firstly, we uphold in the PAP high standards of honesty and integrity. Whatever we do, we do on behalf of the people, of Singaporeans, not only at the national level - the PM and ministers in government, and MPs in Parliament - but (also) every one of our party members on the ground - MPs in their constituencies, branch activists, town councillors.

You may be putting the Government's budget, you may be awarding town council contracts, or you may be looking after branch funds. It is on behalf of the people, it is the people's resources, you are looking after it, you must do it honestly and in the interest of the people. We must always do things honestly, transparently and with integrity. That is the way to strengthen the people's trust in the PAP.

Secondly, the PAP is upfront and frank with Singaporeans. That is why they trust us. When there are difficulties, we do not gloss over them or sugar coat the reality. We explain clearly the challenges, and the choices available, so that Singaporeans understand that there are good reasons for what we do. And even if the decision is unpopular, we work very hard to persuade people that this is something we have to do together.

Take the GST (goods and services tax). Very few governments in the world tell you before an election that they plan to raise taxes. I could have kicked the can down the road, and left this to the future PM and his team.

But we had to do the right and responsible thing: to be upfront with voters, to explain why the GST increase is unavoidable, and to give lots of advance notice. At the same time, we are doing two other things.

We put together a good support package to help you cope with the change, especially to help the lower-income households.

We are also making sure the opposition cannot stir this up - you can be sure they will try - by announcing the support package early, well before the GST goes up, and importantly, before the next elections.


Demonstrators throwing rocks during a protest against the government in the Chilean capital Santiago last Friday. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong contrasted Singapore's domestic politics with the situation in Chile where, he said, the people have lost faith in their political institutions. Singaporeans believe that the PAP will improve their lives and take the country forward, said PM Lee. PHOTO: REUTERS

In fact, at last year's Budget, Mr Low Thia Khiang asked: Why are you talking about the GST now? You are not doing it until later. Comrade Ng Chee Meng stood up and pointed out to him: You were the one who was asking me, asking the Government when you are raising the GST. So why are you now complaining we are explaining to the people? And if you look at his face, you know that he knows that he has been caught and he says we will talk about it when the elections come.

So we are upfront and frank, what you see is what you get.

Thirdly, what we promise is what we will deliver. Our policies have improved the lives of Singaporeans in concrete and visible ways. Necessities of life, whether it is healthcare, education, housing or transport - all are affordable and high-quality, and we keep on working to improve.

Unlike other political parties, we cannot afford to woo voters with empty words because we do not want them to come back and haunt us. So we are very careful what we put into our manifesto.

GIVE PEOPLE HOPE FOR THE FUTURE

The second thing we have to do is to give people hope for the future - to feel confident that there is a bright future for themselves and their children, that we are creating opportunities for everyone to improve their lives, and that the future Singapore will be better than it is today through our own efforts.

Hope and confidence depends on three factors.

 
 
 
 
 

First, there must be opportunities for Singaporeans. Not just opportunities for the country to prosper, but opportunities for individual citizens and their families.

Therefore, we are spending on preschool, so that all children, regardless of background, can have a good start in life. We are making heavy investments in a good education at every level, for every Singaporean, to enable you to grow to your full potential whichever path you take. You go to ITE (Institute of Technical Education), it is a good facility; you go to polytechnics, there are opportunities among many; you go to universities, you have courses which help you get a good job.

We make sure that there are opportunities for the students who are coming out from ITE or from poly or from university. Because the economy is expanding and upgrading, and we are creating good jobs.

We are launching and pursuing very seriously the SkillsFuture programme, so that workers have the skills to take on new jobs, and stay employable. All these enable every Singaporean to participate fully in our growth and success, and leave no one behind to walk alone.

That is one element of hope, individual confidence.

The second element of hope is that we have bold plans for Singapore's future, and we deliver on them. We have schemes to transform the city, and to enhance our standard of living, to make Singapore a really special place to live.

Today's Singapore is the result of many such plans over the years: MRT lines and stations, HDB townships like Punggol 21 Plus, Bidadari and Tengah, and Jewel at Changi Airport, which so many of us have visited and are proud of. But building Singapore is a never-ending project, and we always have new plans in the pipeline. Some early, some forming, some being built, and some almost completed - Tuas Port, Changi Terminal 5, Jurong Lake District, Greater Southern Waterfront.

Each one is a few words but many years of effort, and many, many spaces for ideas and opportunities.

We will never reach the limit of what we can do in Singapore. The only constraint is our imagination and daring. Every new generation will have the opportunity to shape Singapore to what it dreams, to what it imagines can be. People also have hope because when we run into serious problems and we can see serious problems, we can show people that there is a way forward.

A prime example of this is climate change. Rising sea levels are a serious problem for us, like it is for the whole world. Our children and our grandchildren will suffer the dire consequences if we don't do anything. But in Singapore, even as the seas rise, we have an answer.

We are starting preparations, we are setting aside money, and we are building our defences. And unlike many cities, we are able to do something about it. With good forward planning, we can even reclaim land from the sea and turn adversity into opportunity.

ENSURE UNITY, SOCIAL COHESION

The third imperative for us, as the PAP, as the Government, is to keep our society united and cohesive. Today, we are a harmonious society. People generally have confidence and trust in one another. Our sense of national identity has strengthened.

But the fault lines of race, language and religion have not really disappeared, and from time to time we feel them strongly. So we have to continue managing racial and religious issues closely and sensitively.

When something happens to cause offence, like people making reckless remarks or offensive posts, we have to take action.

At the same time, we have to proactively strengthen our structures and institutions that support our multiracial and multi-religious society. For example, two years ago, we amended the Constitution to make sure that from time to time, our President will be elected from the minority groups.

The President is the unifying symbol of our multiracial nation. With the President elected by national vote, it is harder for a non-Chinese candidate to be elected. How would the minorities feel if year after year, the President of Singapore were almost always Chinese? In the long term, such a scenario will foment deep unhappiness, and erode the founding values of our nation.

Amending the Constitution was a major step. I knew that not all Singaporeans agreed with it. I discussed it with the ministers, thought it over carefully. I decided that we had to make this fundamental change, for the long-term good of Singapore.

Now that we have introduced this safeguard, the minority races have an assurance that their place in our society will always be safeguarded. Just like the GRC system guarantees that there will always be minority-race MPs in Parliament.

If you ask me, overall, from a short-term perspective, this issue is probably a political minus for the Government, for the PAP.

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, we must also prevent new rifts from opening up in our society.

Being open and diverse, Singapore is constantly vulnerable to divisive forces that have sown discord elsewhere. There are several potential fault lines: between rich and poor; conservative and liberal; old citizens and new ones.

Today I will talk about just one dangerous split that we must guard against and that is a split between the people and the elite. In other countries, the masses often no longer trust the elite of their society.

People feel that their interests are no longer looked after. The entire political class has lost their respect and support. Traditional societies have become feeble.

Even socialist parties, which are supposed to care for the common man, have lost their base. In their place, populist movements have arisen. They explicitly want to upend the system, turn things upside down - but not necessarily being able to offer anything better.

We see this in the US. The white working class used to be core supporters of the Democratic Party, but the Democratic Party drifted away from this group.

President Donald Trump, as a candidate, spotted this opportunity, championed the cause of the white working class, and became the Republican Party candidate for president, and his supporters voted for the Republicans, actually voting for him, made him President.

As President, his base is not the moderate voters who are conservative in outlook but these hard-core supporters in the white working class who are very unhappy with the way things are going.

We must not let this disconnect between the masses and the elite take root in Singapore. The PAP must always remain the party of the people. Every party member - you may be a leader or an ordinary member - you must identify with the people, we must serve the people. And our government policies must emphasise the needs of the people and deliver results for them.

So we are strengthening social safety nets to support those who are most vulnerable and those who need extra help. We are giving our elderly peace of mind on their healthcare needs, with the Pioneer Generation Package and the Merdeka Generation Package.

We must make sure that our system always works for ordinary Singaporeans, so that they will embrace it as their system. This is what works for them, let us uphold it and help it to do better for us.

The symbiotic relationship between the party and the NTUC (National Trades Union Congress) is a key way the PAP stays close to the workers.

The PAP was born from the unions. We will always serve and represent the workers' interests. We speak up for workers, and give voice to their hopes and concerns.

We have never forgotten that the whole purpose of economic and social development is to improve the lives of our workers and our workers' families. This is who the PAP are, and who we must always be.

This symbiotic relationship will be even more crucial in the years to come. We will not be able to protect every job. But we will look after every worker. And we can do that only with the strong support of the unions. The PAP will always stand by workers, help you and your children progress with Singapore, and work with you to build a better life.

LEADERSHIP SUCCESSION

Comrade Ong Ah Heng, who was also from the unions, was Mr Lee Kuan Yew's branch secretary in Tanjong Pagar. He once told me that in the most difficult days of Singapore's independence struggle, people would say: If you follow LKY, you will be all right.

People had faith and confidence in the PAP. They saw what Mr Lee and his generation of leaders stood for, how they fought for their convictions, and what they did for the people. They rallied to the PAP, and together, the people and the party created today's Singapore.

We must sustain this faith in the PAP in each successive generation. We must devote ourselves to the service of our people and maintain their trust. We must give our people hope for the future. We must keep our society united and cohesive.

Each generation of PAP leaders and activists has carried on this mission. In the 15 years that I have been secretary-general, this is what I have strove to do. And one of my key tasks, from Day 1, was to build a strong team to take over from me, and to be able to carry on doing this after I am not doing it anymore.

Over the last few years, the 4G (fourth-generation) team has taken shape. The team know what is expected of them, they know what they must do. They have a very difficult task, and they deserve the support of all of us - those older than them, as well as those younger than them. Back them, they are our team, they are Singapore's team.

We must prepare for a tough fight at the next general election. There is great uncertainty in the world. A lot is at stake. This election is not just about the PAP doing a bit better or a bit worse. This election will decide if Singapore can sustain good and stable government, to be different from other countries for a long time to come - a government that can safeguard the lives and well-being of Singaporeans today and tomorrow.

We have done a lot. We have a lot more to do. But there is a lot that we can lose too if politics turns unstable, or becomes dysfunctional. The next election is about the future of Singapore.

We must convince Singaporeans that the PAP continues to be their champion. And that the PAP will work with them and for them, and advance Singapore towards a brighter tomorrow.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 11, 2019, with the headline 'Keeping Singaporeans' faith in the PAP'. Print Edition | Subscribe