The Lee Kuan Yew factor in winning over voters

The Lee Kuan Yew factor in winning over voters

In an interview last month, Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen described founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew's passing in March as "his last gift to us".

This was in the form of a national unity that emerged through the celebration of his life and mourning of his death, a unity all the more notable for how rare it has become.

It's surprising nowadays to find consensus on any one thing, and even where consensus exists, for it to be so viscerally and deeply felt.

In mourning the man who singularly defined this nation's first independence-era act, Singaporeans felt a new appreciation for how far the nation had travelled, with him leading the way.

But the unity also stemmed from a shared national anxiety.

The goals and priorities of LKY-era Singapore have been achieved in most ways. Now, the people want something more - but there is little consensus on what.

With this post-LKY, post-affluence second act still tentative and undefined, we clung to one another.

As this coming general election will show, Singaporeans may also cling anew to the People's Action Party (PAP), the only organisation in the short history of this country that has been able to inspire, and channel national consensus into national greatness.

In that sense, Mr Lee's death was actually a final gift to his political party, one he was devoted to but also cajoled, corralled and crafted to his image.

For Mr Lee's strengths are the PAP's strengths, and his weaknesses, the party's too.

Throughout the week-long national mourning, those strengths - forward, big-picture thinking, a steely preference for the tough over the popular, an integrity that bordered on uncompassion - seemed re-validated through the lens of the future the party brought about.

Like in a long marriage, qualities that had become tiresome with familiarity were jolted through loss into the foundation, once again, of love and devotion.

The examination of his life, bringing alive scenes of an orphaned, unruly Singapore that was poised on the brink of extinction, triggered a process of "self-discovery" in both the old and young, as Dr Ng put it.

What was discovered, it seems, is something the party itself has always repeated: that this government is not so bad at all.

That the PAP itself expects the "LKY dividend" to be sizeable can be seen in the way that a general election before year-end is now all but guaranteed, after the release of new electoral boundaries on Friday.

A 2015 GE, if indeed it happens, would depart from the five-year electoral cycle associated with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong - polls were held in 2006 and 2011 - and will be a strain on public resources and energy in a year that has seen massive back-to-back public events, from the SEA Games to SG50 celebrations.

Prior to Mr Lee's death, such factors were spoken of as reasons not to hold a jubilee-year general election.

After his death, as PAP activists saw a surge in volunteers, members and overall goodwill, they started talking about these factors as mere minor considerations.

But to declare this electoral timing as opportunistic, as some have already done, is to ignore the fact that the "LKY dividend" is no sure thing.

The likely magnitude of its payoff come this general election will be due largely to how the party has evolved after Mr Lee stepped down. Mr Lee's strengths are the PAP's strengths ,and his weaknesses, the party's.

And in the 25 years since he stepped down as prime minister, Mr Lee's successors have slowly but surely backed away from the more unpalatable aspects of his political legacy.

His knuckleduster approach to politics - which endured even after the volatile period when leftists threatened the nascent state - saw reprisals against critics and opponents that many considered excessive, feeding a culture of government-knows- best obeisance.

While the nation is still dealing with this legacy, Singapore politics - and society as a whole - has been increasingly open and unafraid over the past two decades, a fact that only the most blinkered of critics could deny - and, in their denial, prove the point.

There may still be defamation suits now, but legal fees can be crowd-funded, a phenomenon that has been made possible not just by the Internet but by the support among segments of the population for the principle of plurality.

The PAP cannot be fully credited with the civil-political opening up, but it has not resisted the tides of change the way many other long-ruling incumbents have done around the world.

And in the realm of social and financial assistance, the current generation of PAP leaders have boldly ushered in a new era of state largesse that Mr Lee would have been, at the very least, slightly uncomfortable about.

Whether universal health insurance, permanent cash pensions for the bottom fifth, or the $8 billion Pioneer Generation Package, the current Government has pulled back the perimeters of the space that Mr Lee believed should be largely occupied by self-reliance and fiscal prudence.

On ministerial salaries, a policy Mr Lee remained ardent about despite - or perhaps because of - perennial public resentment against it, the symbolic one-third cuts to political pay in 2012 were a clear repudiation.

Where Mr Lee once saw high political pay as bitter medicine that the population must be persuaded to swallow, the current generation of leaders acknowledged, in the pay review that resulted in the salary cuts, that persuasion is not a one-way street, and giving some ground to win over some doubters not always a sign of weakness.

There would be no LKY electoral dividend if the PAP had cleaved to the axioms he forged instead of being ready to remake itself for a new generation.

The ways in which the ruling party has evolved can allow a new generation to appreciate Mr Lee's legacy from a place that's largely freer of his imperfections.

Despite all this, Mr Lee's impact on the vote even in death - which is likely to be as influential as it was in life - should give the ruling party pause. The "LKY dividend" is likely to pay off only in this coming general election.

But the great man's shadow will loom over many to come. Mr Lee was feared, but he was also loved, and the 70 per cent to 80 per cent national vote-shares that he garnered as party secretary-general and as prime minister are likely never to be seen again in Singapore politics. Part of this is due to a growing diversity in this electorate.

But a major factor is also that the party is no longer the dynamic, galvanising force it was under him; The inner workings of a long-ruling incumbent are unlikely to throw up the sort of bold, creative leadership that he embodied, which emerged from the tumultuous times he lived in.

Mr Lee had the hero's way of transferring his steel and ambition to those he led - his boldness emboldened his people and his big dreams broadened their own.

As the old footage that played in a loop during the week of mourning showed, he could ignite a passion in the people that no other Singaporean politician has ever come close to.

It may be that the days of passion for its politicians are gone for a country rounding 50, whose open horizons have narrowed into a wiser understanding of the finite options ahead.

When Mr Lee died, that was perhaps part of what Singaporeans mourned. A first love that has yet to be eclipsed, the heart thrumming to possibility, and the swooping breathlessness of the uncharted.

rchang@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on July 26, 2015.
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