PAP: To remain dominant without being dominating

THE People's Action Party (PAP) wants to remain a dominant party anchored in society - without dominating in all areas, said Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam.

It can do this as an open political party, he said, that galvanises a diversity of views and ideas, including critical opinions.

"I believe we can play a dominant role, retain a dominant position without wanting to completely dominate," DPM Tharman said in an interview with The Straits Times.

"It's in Singapore's interest that you do have a dominant party, but it's got to be one that's open to diversity, welcoming of a responsible opposition."

But Mr Tharman also took pains to stress that economic policy must remain important for the kind of society Singaporeans want, even as the politics may be changing.

He urged them to preserve what has allowed the average Singaporean to raise his standard of living over time, amid a debate on the continued importance of economic growth.

Mr Tharman was answering questions related to politics chosen by readers in an online poll conducted by The Straits Times' Singapolitics website. The questions came in fourth, eighth and 10th out of 20 questions.

Mr Tharman said he was optimistic about the future role of the PAP because the party has changed significantly over the last five years, and continues to change with a younger generation of ministers leading the charge.

"If we can continue to involve people and to help them to take responsibility collectively for making a better Singapore, I think we can retain our anchor role in Singapore society," he added.

Mr Tharman, who is second assistant secretary-general of the PAP, admitted that the party is, however, facing challenges on two fronts.

One challenge is that it is a natural part of human psychology to "want a check on the PAP", which has been in power with a large majority in Parliament since Independence.

A second challenge: it is becoming more difficult to raise the quality of life for Singaporeans at the same rate as in the past.

But this is the case in other Asian economies such as Hong Kong, Taiwan and South Korea, as well as in the United States and Europe, he added.

Singapore, however, has managed to help the average person continue to improve his life, he said. Any young person can find a job quickly, "in fact faster than anywhere else in Asia", and that must be preserved.

"So economic policy is not irrelevant to the type of society we want because we are a society that still has aspirations to move up.

"People do want to move up, basically. Families want to move up. They want their children to do better than the parents."

Since the 2011 General Election, which saw the PAP lose its first GRC and record its lowest margin of victory, Singapore has become better off, he said.

People are much more engaged and civil society is more active.

"Part of a healthy political system is one with a decent opposition presence in Parliament and outside, and a responsible opposition," he said.

Outlining how Singapore can get its politics right, he said it is with a government that does not "just go with the whims of the day" but focuses on the long term.

It must also communicate policies well and have MPs who serve with a heart on the ground.

"In deciding on our basic policy objectives and our preferences for the long term... when you involve people in the thinking process, they become very aware of the trade-offs."