SINGAPORE - The People's Action Party (PAP) has made a sustained effort since the 2011 general election to engage with the ground, update its policies and increase its investments in social issues. It has also appointed new political leaders and publicly introduced potential election candidates.
Such moves are implicit signals of a "New PAP" - one that is concerned about social and not just economic issues, one unembarrassed to provide Singaporeans with social spending and one which wants not to be seen as elitist.
Yet, there is considerable cognitive dissonance between what the PAP views as the "New PAP" and the public perception of the same.
First, with public sentiment shifting towards emotive nationalism, political leaders still come across as objective technocrats rather than patriots. Singaporeans want to hear, see and feel that political leaders recognise that leading Singapore means taking care of the interests of Singaporeans.
Second, the moves to govern the social media and artistic spaces through rule changes by the Media Development Authority give the public the impression that the PAP rule is still characterised by information control and censorship. Political leaders may have to choose their battles more wisely.
In such issues, it is impossible to separate policy from politics and the latter will define any discourse. Interventions therefore become the issue rather than the subject they address.
Third, the use of the defamation law, however justified, is politically outdated as a mechanism for political leaders to safeguard their reputations. They should perhaps let their record be their reputation and trust that reasonable Singaporeans will be able to judge fact from any malignity.
Taken together, the public perception is that while the PAP has done new things, this is but new wine in an old bottle.
To prove the case that the PAP has transformed from within, it will have to show more empathy, display less of a need to control and have greater faith in the good sense of the people.
As Singapore enters the second half of the current term of government, there is a sense that we are also entering the final lap of the political race to the next election. Policy adjustments have now spanned all the main areas. In parliament, the Prime Minister has started the countdown to the next general election with a combative stance towards the opposition on constructive politics.
While many real policy changes have resulted since the last election, it is an uncomfortable truth that many real political changes remain to be realised.
The upshot of complicated policies and the muddied perception of the "New PAP" is that public discourse is in danger of being captured by critics at the margin who fall into three categories.