PAP conference: Desire for greater political diversity here to stay, but Singapore must be alert to polarisation, says DPM Heng Swee Keat

Sharper contestation can easily spiral into unstable and divided politics, warned DPM Heng Swee Keat. ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM

SINGAPORE - The electorate's desire for greater political diversity and more checks and balances - clearly felt during the recent general election - is here to stay in Singapore, said Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat on Sunday (Nov 8).

Subsequent general elections will only get tougher for the People's Action Party as the opposition will seek to deny it a two-thirds majority in Parliament, and thereafter, to displace it and form the government, added Mr Heng, who is the ruling party's first assistant secretary-general.

The PAP won 83 of 93 seats at the July 10 election, which saw the Workers' Party increase its number of seats to 10 after winning its second group representation constituency (GRC) in Sengkang.

Addressing party cadres at the PAP's biennal conference at the NTUC Centre, Mr Heng said the party must earn the right to lead, and urged them to be alert to what is at stake.

Sharper contestation can easily spiral into unstable and divided politics, he warned.

While the polarisation seen in other countries has not taken root in Singapore, it is not immune to such pressures, he added.

He cited how Singapore's openness - which has fuelled its progress - can quite easily be hijacked and used to exploit the anxieties of workers during an economic recession.

"Anti-foreigner sentiments can be easily stirred up. Some anxieties are understandable. But if we turn inwards, Singapore will spiral downwards," Mr Heng said.

Beyond globalisation, race, religion, and inequality are other fault lines that can greatly divide Singapore society, he added.

Social media can allow differences to be more easily amplified and used to breed unhappiness or insecurity among different groups of Singaporeans.

He called on the PAP to do what it can to resist such pressures.

"We must take an inclusive approach to serve all Singaporeans, and not pit one group against another. If our unity is lost, Singapore will stumble," the DPM urged.

The party's mission is "crystal clear" - to secure Singapore's long-term success, he said.

"Yes, GE2020 matters very much. But, for us, SG100 and SG200 matter even more."

Beyond the immediate challenges, Singapore must look ahead, he said in his address.

Mr Heng pledged that the party will protect the interests of Singaporean workers, strengthen social safety nets to support the vulnerable, and make sure that every Singaporean, regardless of starting point, will have a fair chance to do well.

"In a turbulent and uncertain future, the PAP will need to work even harder to build consensus and create the political space for us to do the right thing for Singapore and Singaporeans."

He outlined three ways the party will evolve to engage a changing electorate, from ground engagement, to reaching out online, and growing its base of activists.

Strong ground engagement remains fundamental, he said. "Singaporeans must not see the PAP as just a capable government, but also people they can relate to, whom they can trust."

This can be done in various ways, from having meet-the-people sessions, to walkabouts and visiting families with needs.

Discussions to surface new ideas and find ways to work together, such as the East Coast Conversations, must also be done.

The PAP also has to improve its online outreach, Mr Heng said, noting that anecdotally, some voters were responding to how opposition parties portrayed themselves online rather than what they stood for and what they could do.

The impact of social media will only increase with time as the world becomes more digital, he added.

The PAP must have a stronger presence online, he said. This will take experimentation and imagination to adapt content and messaging in new ways.

Such efforts will also give the public a better sense of the breadth of ideas within the party, with PAP MPs being a big sources of diverse ideas, he said.

On efforts to broaden and renew party ranks, Mr Heng said that as a national party, the PAP must continue to recruit widely so that its MPs and activists can represent the growing diversity of society.

"As a broad tent that occupies the middle ground, the PAP can better organise ourselves to champion the concerns of various groups," he said, calling the effort to grow its base of activists who have the integrity, ability and commitment to serve a "critical task" going forward.

Although each generation of PAP activists has adapted and evolved to better represent and better serve people, what remains constant are the party's conviction and values of honesty, meritocracy, multiracialism and self-reliance.

"We must never stop building a fair and just society where everyone can be developed to their full potential, regardless of their background and starting point in life," said Mr Heng.

He added that Singaporeans have again given the PAP the mandate to take Singapore forward into a more challenging and contested future.

The PAP must put the survival and success of Singapore and the well-being of Singaporeans foremost in everything it does, he stressed.

"To continue earning the right to lead, we must win over the hearts and minds of our people. We must continue to reach out to all Singaporeans."

"We must persuade Singaporeans on the choices that we need to make, and work in partnership with our people to put plans into action."

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