SINGAPORE - Author Shashi Jayakumar's nearly 800-page book on the history of the People's Action Party (PAP) gives it the chronological treatment. But several themes and topics recur throughout its history: the party's unending and existential search for talent, party reinventions that occurred from time to time, policy reforms, its treatment of the opposition, and preparations for general elections.
A History Of The People's Action Party: 1985-2021 notes that the areas where the PAP has put in some of the "hardest yards" - delivering growth, communication and party renewal - are also areas that have proven to be some points of stress in recent years amid higher expectations from an affluent and educated populace.
It observes how having a "reservoir" of trust is integral to the straight-talking that the party engages in when communicating with Singaporeans. The PAP's attempts to improve people's lives and, at the same time, take hard policy decisions, it says, will increasingly have to be reconciled within this reservoir.
Here are some of the key points from the book:
1985-88: Transition and renewal
The 1984 General Election saw a surprise 12.9 per cent vote swing against the party compared with the 1980 election. The party's post-mortem final report said the Government had "tempted fate" through unpopular policies or policy suggestions such as raising the Central Provident Fund withdrawal minimum age from 55 to 60, and the Graduate Mothers' Scheme.
To develop more channels for citizen participation in policymaking, the Feedback Unit was set up in 1985. Then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew and First Deputy Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong also spent much of the period addressing issues of the party's organisation, vitality and spirit, with the youth and women's wings set up to broaden the party base.
All education and social activities of the party were conducted through the PAP Community Foundation (PCF). Singaporeans were thus brought indirectly into contact with the party through PCF initiatives such as family days and bursary awards.
1987-1991: The polity in transition
The idea of group representation constituencies (GRCs) was publicly mooted in 1987. While this ensured that there would always be minorities represented in Parliament, some opposition figures saw it as an attempt to hobble the opposition, given the logistical and recruitment challenges of fielding multi-candidate teams.
Town councils were a key theme at the 1988 hustings, with the PAP pointing out that residents would suffer if an MP with insufficient calibre to maintain the estate - implying an opposition candidate - was elected.
When the September 1988 polls came around, the party secured a new mandate by winning 80 out of 81 seats, with a vote share of 63.2 per cent. The premiership passed from Mr Lee to Mr Goh in November 1990, with Mr Goh promising a more consultative style of governance.
Three years later, the party's vote share tumbled to 61 per cent from 63.2 per cent in 1988 and it lost three single-member constituencies, with then Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) chief Chiam See Tong comfortably retaining his Potong Pasir seat. The PAP's internal post-mortem noted that lower-income groups were struggling, and some among the Chinese-educated felt alienated after all vernacular schools were converted to the English medium by 1987. The party came around to a position that would have reverberations through the 1990s and beyond - that those who supported the PAP had to be rewarded in some way, while those opposed to it had to pay some price.
1992-1997: The mandate
The PAP Government realised that more had to be done to counter dissatisfaction on cost-of-living issues. The Cost Review Committee was announced in 1992. Its 1993 report, among other recommendations, called for the timing of fee increases to be staged better.
A 1992 Marine Parade by-election saw the PAP roundly defeat the SDP. But the SDP had kept the issues of growing elitism and rising costs alive, setting the stage for a continuing debate in the 1990s on class divisions in society.
From 1992, the votes-for-upgrading strategy became fully crystallised. While voters in opposition wards could not be denied the benefits of national programmes such as Edusave and MediFund, the PAP felt it made sense to serve the constituencies that voted for the programme first.
The party's victory at the 1997 General Election was a resounding one with 65 per cent of the valid votes, up from 61 per cent in 1991 - its best showing since 1980. Internal analysis showed that Housing Board upgrading may have tipped the balance in favour of the PAP, especially in areas where the flats were very old. More generally, the party's "local government" strategy, which focused on municipal services and the availability of polyclinics and kindergartens, also played a role.
1997-2001: Unity amid global uncertainty
The theme of unity and coherence as a bulwark against future challenges was developed in then PM Goh's August 1997 National Day Rally speech, where he explained the need for foreign talents as well as to re-examine fundamentals.
The PAP leadership was determined to maintain what it saw as the integrity of the political process even in the face of rapid technological developments. At the December 2000 party conference, then DPM Lee Hsien Loong said the Government had to manage debate "actively and skilfully, guide the debate without stifling it... or letting wrong ideas take root". In hindsight, the 1990s was the last decade when the Government was able to definitively control the discourse.
Economic difficulties, experienced not just by the poor but also by many in the middle classes, were exacerbated by the downturns of 1998 and 2001. With the 9/11 attacks weighing on everyone's minds, the polls were announced for November 2001. The widely felt need for certainty, security and stability was evident in the party manifesto, "A People United: Secure Future, Better Life".
The 2001 election was the PAP's largest renewal exercise since 1984. A total of 23 MPs retired and 25 new candidates were introduced - a diverse slate that had no Singapore Armed Forces scholars and only two from the public sector. The PAP secured all but two of the 27 contested seats, with 75.3 per cent of the valid votes.
But the upgrading carrot failed to shift Mr Low Thia Khiang of the Workers' Party (WP) in Hougang and Mr Chiam in Potong Pasir, and the book traces the decline of upgrading as an effective carrot to 2001. Mr Low also played another card - the spectre of one-party dominance - by appealing to Singaporeans not to give the PAP a "blank cheque".
2002-2006: Holding the ground
At the party convention in 2003, the party's "refreshed" values - honest, multiracial, meritocratic and self-reliant - were presented, with a fair and just society at the heart of it.
The Government faced dissatisfaction over aspects of planning and economic policy. For example, with the opening of the North East Line, bus services running along the same route were cut in July and August 2003, sparking anger among affected residents. Other controversial moves included raising the goods and services tax over 2003 and 2004, and upping the inflow of foreign talent. Permanent residency applications would eventually hit a peak in 2008.
But the 2006 election delivered a satisfactory result, with the PAP taking 66.6 per cent of the popular vote. This election was the first one where the Internet truly mattered. Online discussions went beyond the allowed limits of political discussion set out in the relevant regulations.
While the top decile of households had over the first half of the decade seen appreciable income growth, the bottom deciles saw negative income growth. The price of public housing, transport congestion, rising healthcare costs and the influx of foreigners were other pain points.
The Government moved to enhance support, announcing in the 2007 Budget the permanent Workfare Income Supplement to replace the one-off Workfare Bonus for low-income workers; and expanding ComCare, which was introduced in 2005. But public discontent boiled over in April 2007 when upward revisions to ministerial salaries came up for debate - in the very same month when various MPs pointed out that the increase in public assistance was not sufficient.
In the run-up to the 2011 General Election, the public expressed the desire for a clean and smear-free campaign, partly fuelled by the apparent maturing of the opposition, which could boast of candidates with strong academic and professional achievements. The WP kept to its theme of a "First World Parliament", with Mr Low, the party chief then, warning that if the WP bid failed in Aljunied GRC, the opposition might be completely shut out of Parliament.
A remark from then Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew that "if Aljunied decides to go that way (vote WP), well Aljunied has five years to live and repent" sparked a public backlash. The overall effect of social media was that issues such as the "repent" comment kept circulating, even when the PAP tried to move on.
On May 7, 2011, the WP took Aljunied with 54.7 per cent of the vote there, the first time a GRC had fallen into opposition hands. The PAP had suffered its most serious electoral reverse since 1984.
New normal: Rethinking, reform, revival
One area where the Government moved relatively quickly to relieve pressure was healthcare. It also ramped up the building of new HDB flats and cooled the property market. In August 2012, PM Lee Hsien Loong announced the start of Our Singapore Conversation, a national dialogue whose scale dwarfed previous efforts. There was also a rethinking of government communications, for which an overall master plan did not exist before 2011.
In August 2013, during a landmark National Day Rally speech, PM Lee announced a swathe of changes to expand social safety nets, including the introduction of the Pioneer Generation Package, and the new universal medical insurance scheme MediShield Life to replace MediShield. The broader message was to bring about a "new way forward" for Singapore, with a more diverse and vocal populace, contested political landscape and maturing economy.
These efforts had parallels in earlier history, such as Remaking Singapore and Refreshing PAP over 2002 and 2003. But these were done from a position of strength after the PAP's victory in the 2001 General Election. It is more apt to compare them with the National Agenda or Agenda for Action initiative of 1985 to 1988, coming as they did after the 1984 General Election reverse.
2015: A strong showing
The PAP's efforts, policy- and engagement-wise, were to pay off in the general election in September 2015, which it won with a resounding 69.9 per cent of the vote - its best electoral showing since 2001.
Opposition missteps played into the result. There had since 2014 been concerns raised over apparent lapses in accounting and governance at the WP-run Aljunied-Hougang-Punggol East Town Council. But there was also the recognition that the election had been in many ways anomalous: That year marked the 50th year of Singapore's independence (SG50), and founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew had died in March.
The party also upped its social media game with significant investments. These included funds allocated to the development of the PAP's mobile app, website development and support, as well as Facebook ads and Twitter engagement.
2020 and beyond
With the fading of SG50's afterglow, and the Covid-19 outbreak in 2020, the PAP leadership - perhaps in tacit recognition of the issues and anxieties that had been percolating on the ground - gave little sense that it expected the July 2020 election to see a "flight to safety" of the type seen in 2001. Also especially resonant was the WP's argument that the PAP should not be handed a "blank cheque".
Two GRCs and one SMC lost to the opposition made for the worst result in terms of seats lost for the PAP since independence. In a surprise move, the WP's Mr Pritam Singh was offered the designation of Leader of the Opposition.
The book notes that many of the "fixes" that were needed after 2011 were policy moves but in 2020, there seemed to be stirrings of a different type of dissatisfaction - ranging from a desire among voters for alternative voices in Parliament to the friction and unhappiness that came with having to deal with the bureaucracy during the pandemic - especially among individuals who in the course of their ordinary lives would have had little interaction with government agencies.
Given the personal costs of the job, inducting quality candidates into the party could become even more difficult in the years to come. The PAP will likely seek to be more inclusive as it engages the electorate, especially segments that disagree with the party and its policies.