SINGAPORE - Voters in the July general election sent the "unequivocal signal" that they wanted the People's Action Party back in power, even as they felt the pain of the downturn and wanted more alternative voices to check the government, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Sunday.
The PAP will act on feedback given by activists on its campaign, he added, stressing that the party that must have the backbone and conviction to fight for its beliefs as political competition intensifies.
"All these years, people have been with us because they knew we had backbone: We will fight even with our backs to the wall, and we will never let them down," Mr Lee said in a virtual address to activists at the PAP's biennial conference.
"That's how we have been able to win support for our ideas and plans, and shown Singaporeans that we remain the best team to secure their future."
Going over the PAP's showing in the recent general election, Mr Lee said the results fell short of the party's expectations, but were not completely surprising.
It won 83 out of the 93 seats in Parliament with just over 61 per cent of the popular vote, in the lower range of its projections, and lost the newly-formed Sengkang GRC to the Workers' Party.
Mr Lee said he was confident that Singaporeans firmly supported the Government's efforts against Covid-19. But by the time the election was held, people were also feeling the pain of safe distancing restrictions and the sharp economic downturn.
Some had lost their jobs or experienced reductions in income, while others were worried about their livelihoods. Businesses, too, were frustrated by the impositions placed on them.
"Because of all this, the mood was not upbeat - it was apprehensive. The anxiety was palpable, and it cost us votes," Mr Lee said.
On top of that, the pre-existing desire for alternative voices has grown and resurfaced during this election.
"Notwithstanding these trends, the unequivocal signal from voters was that they wanted the PAP to form the government, and to see Singapore through the challenges ahead," he added. "Even many who voted for the opposition did so fully expecting that the PAP Government would be returned to power, and Singapore would continue to be in good hands."
This voting behaviour arose because people believed the PAP to be the only party who could win and govern Singapore, Mr Lee said. "The outcome is already certain; so no need to make extra sure."
He highlighted how the party held its ground in both East Coast and West Coast GRCs, as well as the Bukit Batok single seat, despite the opposition mounting a strong challenge. These were important wins, he said.
He also acknowledged the work of party activists in Workers' Party-held Aljunied GRC and Hougang, noting that they had "tended hard ground" over the past five years and more.
The party was disappointed not to have done better there, and saw the narrow loss of Sengkang GRC to the WP as a painful one, Mr Lee added.
"But we respect the decision of Sengkang voters," he said, reiterating the party's commitment to these areas. "The PAP will not give up in these opposition constituencies. We will maintain our presence. We will strive to win back the voters there - and one day, we will succeed."
Mr Lee also noted that there is no substitute for the hard, patient work of reaching out to people, solving their problems, and winning their trust and confidence. On top of engaging with residents in their constituencies, MPs will also continue to reach out to organisations such as trade associations and interest groups.
But even as the party continues its groundwork, it must not neglect the political contest, which has become more intense in the new normal, he added.
To this end, the Government must work harder to translate programmes and policies that benefit Singaporeans, into messages that people will identify with and embrace. It must also be ready to face closer scrutiny, both in and out of Parliament, Mr Lee said.
"Where the criticisms are fair and the suggestions are constructive, we will take them in, and improve our policies and performance," he said. "But we should also defend vigorously what we believe in and stand for, take the fight to the opposition, and persuade Singaporeans of the best way forward."
People will sense it if the PAP is not prepared to fight for what it believes in, he said, adding that the party has historically won support because voters knew it had backbone.
"You must have guts, you must have conviction, you must have that spunk and that fight," Mr Lee added.
"You may feel desperate, your back may be to the wall - you believe in it, stand for it, fight for it. If need be, die for it."