SINGAPORE - Singaporeans cannot have it both ways, where many want the People’s Action Party (PAP) to continue governing the country but also to have more opposition MPs elected to keep the Government on its toes, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.
After many years of the PAP in power, many Singaporeans want the party to continue governing the country as it has been doing a good job, and no one else can do it better, he noted.
So they vote for the opposition, fully expecting that the PAP will still be returned to power and can function as effectively, regardless of whether it receives strong or weak support at the polls, he said in a speech at the PAP’s biennial party conference on Sunday.
“Unfortunately, we cannot have it both ways. Whether voters give the new Government a strong or weak mandate makes a very big difference,” he told over 3,000 party members and activists.
“With a strong mandate, when the Government needs to act strongly and decisively – whether at home and abroad – everyone will know that it is acting with the people’s support. And everyone will know that Singaporeans are united, tackling problems as one and moving ahead together.”
PM Lee, who is the PAP’s secretary-general, said a strong mandate will give the government the confidence and backing to make tough calls and steer Singapore safely through ups and downs. He cited how the Government could impose tough measures such as the circuit breaker, mandatory mask-wearing, strict border controls and vaccination regimes as there was no doubt it had the people’s full confidence.
Had the PAP won the 2020 General Election narrowly with a 51 per cent vote share, instead of 61.2 per cent, it would have still formed the government and ruled Singapore to the best of its ability, said PM Lee.
But it would have lost many good MPs and ministers, and its leadership team would have been considerably weakened, he added.
“Singapore would have gone into battle with Covid-19 divided and disheartened. It would have been much harder for the Government to act decisively, or for Singaporeans to respond cohesively and resolutely,” he said.
“Our Covid-19 experience might well have been very different... And I can assure you our international position would have been considerably weakened too, both regionally and globally. A Singapore ruled by a government hanging on to power by its fingernails is bound to be pushed from pillar to post by other countries.”
PM Lee said the stakes are raised at each successive election. The more seats the opposition wins, the more the general election becomes a decision on which party will form Singapore’s next Government, he added. At the 2020 election, the Workers’ Party won 10 seats – two group representation constituencies in Aljunied and Sengkang, as well as the Hougang single seat. The PAP has delivered on its policies and promises through the decades, but this is not enough, PM Lee said, stressing that it needs to convert people’s approval of its performance into votes.
He sketched out three things it must do to “win the political battle”.
First, the party must put across its political message so that people know PAP leaders are “conviction politicians” who adopt policies and programmes because they are convinced these will benefit Singapore in the long term.
“But, more important than the details of policies, we have got to convince Singaporeans why the policies matter to them, and how they match people’s needs and aspirations,” he said.
Second, the PAP has to counter moves by the opposition and show voters where the opposition falls short, he said.
While it is the opposition’s job to scrutinise government policies and highlight mistakes, the PAP, too, has to point out instances when its opponents fail to measure up or they act against Singaporeans’ interests, he added.
“It is very easy for the opposition to support only the pleasant things the Government does, but to oppose the harder moves that are sometimes not avoidable,” he said, adding that a responsible opposition should be accountable for what it proposes and what it opposes.
Third, PAP MPs and branch activists must work the ground and show residents how the party makes a difference to them by improving the amenities in their towns, resolving conflicts and issues and advocating their concerns.
PM Lee said that party branches need to ramp up physical activities, which were paused during Covid-19, and make up for lost time by wearing their party whites and covering the ground comprehensively.
He also paid tribute to party members working in opposition wards in Aljunied, Hougang and Sengkang, and commended them for engaging residents, helping needy households and supporting bereaved families, even though they cannot hold Meet-the-People Sessions.
If Singapore’s politics go wrong, its governance will go wrong too, and so will the lives of all Singaporeans, he warned.
He cited how politics in other countries have turned contentious and volatile – governments get distracted and paralysed, and society becomes divided.
“The government has neither the ability nor the mandate to push through hard decisions or to see beyond immediate problems. What is politically expedient overrides what is in the longer-term good of the people and country. And then, we are all in deep trouble,” he said, noting this has happened in the United States and United Kingdom.
PM Lee noted that the US is having its midterm elections on Tuesday. “There is great foreboding on how the results will turn out, and how that will change their politics, possibly even making it worse”, he said.
Some think that Singapore politics will always work well as it has for 60 years, and that the natural order of things is for the country to keep on succeeding, with the Government always thinking and planning 30 or 50 years ahead, PM Lee said.
But what Singapore has today is not natural at all, and the sort of Government that it has is rare, he said.
Almost everywhere else, the Government hardly thinks beyond the next general election, and Singapore has only become like this through the blood, sweat and tears of many generations.
The PAP does not take its duty lightly, and things can easily go wrong here as well. PM Lee said that Singaporeans are not inherently better, smarter or more virtuous than people in other countries.
“Maybe we are more cohesive (but) there is no vaccine to protect us from the same dark forces of anger, fear, racism, xenophobia,” he said.
“Similar divisive emotions and tensions can build up here too, can well up here too, can explode here too. We can end up with the same messy politics and broken country that we see elsewhere.”
“To prevent this and to keep things working well for Singaporeans, the PAP must stay true to its founding mission. Not only to continue to deliver results, but to keep on convincing minds and appealing to hearts, and winning the political battles.”
On party renewal, PM Lee said the PAP has already identified some promising potential candidates for the next election, with more in the pipeline.
“I am confident that come the next general election, we will again be able to present a talented, diverse and representative team of candidates, both experienced and new, ready to work with voters and take Singapore forward.”