SINGAPORE - There is no guarantee that the People’s Action Party (PAP) will win the next general election, nor is it inevitable that he will become the next prime minister, Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong said on Sunday.
This is why the ruling party will work “doubly hard, triply hard” to regain the seats it has lost and will go all out to earn the support of Singaporeans to secure a strong mandate to govern, said Mr Wong.
He was speaking at the People’s Action Party Conference and Awards 2022 held at Resorts World Convention Centre on Sunday. It was Mr Wong’s maiden speech at a party conference.
The event, attended by more than 3,000 PAP members, will also see the party hold its biennial election for its central executive committee, where 12 members will be directly elected by party cadres. The committee is the party’s top decision-making body.
Mr Wong said he had no doubt that political contestation in Singapore will intensify with time, and called on party members to brace and strengthen themselves for tougher and more uncertain elections.
The Workers’ Party (WP), for one, is now an established political force that holds two group representation constituencies and one single-member constituency.
Mr Wong noted that the WP contested six constituencies in the last election, and that the sum of the votes it received across the six contests was slightly more than the votes for the PAP.
“What if the WP had contested more seats? Would the PAP still have won 61 per cent of the votes nationwide? Would we still have returned to power?” he asked.
As a political party, the PAP has to be clear-eyed and confront its political challenges and challengers head-on, he added.
Noting that the PAP has governed Singapore continuously since 1959, Mr Wong said many here have become accustomed to it forming the government and assume that it will automatically continue to govern the country no matter who they vote for.
But there is no such guarantee, he emphasised.
“Every election from now on will be about which party forms the government,” he said.
The PAP’s internal review after the 2020 General Election indicated that a stronger desire for checks and balances and diversity in Parliament is here to stay, and the PAP must recognise and respect Singaporeans’ desire for this.
Mr Wong called on party activists to continue meeting Singaporeans where they are, including online, and to have the conviction to represent the PAP, stand up for its values and explain the party’s beliefs and policies.
The experience of other countries is that political parties that seek short-term advantage will not hesitate to tap peoples’ fears and frustrations, offering simplistic proposals to score political points and get more support.
“These proposals are often cleverly packaged to sound as attractive as possible, but the remedies are really snake oil that do not solve any problem,” he said. “Indeed, they just make things worse, and in the end it is the people who suffer.”
This is why PAP activists have to step up efforts to address residents’ concerns, connect with them and consolidate support on the ground.
“We must have the courage to correct misperceptions and untruths, and tell people what this party and this Government have done, and what we will continue to do as long as we have their mandate,” said Mr Wong.
He added that during his visits to the party branches, the two most popular questions he gets asked are when the next election will be and when he will be taking over as prime minister.
He said: “We know the election must take place by 2025. Whether it happens before or in 2025, we already know that it will be a tough battle.
“So the real questions to ask are not when the succession or when the election will take place, but how we can prepare ourselves to put up the strongest fight; how we can win the confidence and trust of Singaporeans; how we can secure a clear mandate.”
To do that, the party must do well in both government and politics, said Mr Wong.
Since he was chosen to lead the fourth-generation (4G) leadership team in April, Mr Wong said, he had gone around to visit the party branches and collect feedback.
He is a member of the PAP’s central executive committee, having been elected into the body in 2020 after having been co-opted back in 2018.
Several Malay activists he spoke to encouraged him to speak more in Malay, he added.
Switching to Malay, he said that he is hard at work studying the language and will speak more of it in the future. With more time and practice, he will become better, he added.
“I still have to work on my magic cup,” he said in English, a reference to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s ability to speak in a different language each time he took a sip while at the lectern.
Mr Wong also said he had felt the support from party members during the visits.
“It is a great privilege to be able to serve, and to give back to our party and our country. I do not take the trust invested in me lightly,” he said.
“I make this solemn commitment: I will give the full measure of my strength in service of my party, my people and my country.”
Mr Wong said Singapore is entering a more dangerous world where war cannot be ruled out and growth is slowing, even as the city state’s needs continue to grow, its population is ageing and climate change remains an existential crisis.
The country is entering a sustained period of higher prices, seeing the emergence of a new Cold War between the United States and China and experiencing the effects of climate change.
Apart from the fraught external environment, domestically, the economy is maturing, the population is ageing and the needs of the people are continuing to grow, he noted.
All these challenges will ultimately affect social cohesion, said Mr Wong. If Singapore is to succeed, it cannot wish away these challenges but must confront them head-on, bravely and wisely, he added.
When there are diminishing opportunities for progress, tensions between people of different races, religions or places of birth are bound to flare up, he added.
No country is immune to such forces tearing apart its social fabric, much less a young and tiny country like Singapore. This is why the Republic cannot wish away these challenges but must confront them head-on, bravely and wisely, said Mr Wong.
He highlighted the need to maintain the “precious solidarity and trust that we have in Singapore”, which was why his first priority after taking on the role of deputy prime minister in June was to launch the nationwide Forward Singapore engagement exercise.
The objective of the exercise is to help Singaporeans of all backgrounds realise their full potential and share in the country’s success, while strengthening social protections for them in a more uncertain and volatile world. Another aim is to build a stronger sense of solidarity and responsibility in society, he added.
Noting that Singapore and the 4G team have emerged from the Covid-19 crisis stronger and with a deepened reservoir of trust, Mr Wong said he is confident that by working together, the PAP will overcome the challenges and prevail.
“We must show through our words and actions that the PAP is the only party with the ability and determination to take Singapore forward.”