PAP has made changes to policies and ties with S'poreans since last polls: Ng Eng Hen

PAP has made changes to policies and ties with S'poreans since last polls: Ng Eng Hen
People's Action Party organising secretary and Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen

Since the swing against it in the 2011 General Election (GE), the ruling People's Action Party (PAP) has knuckled down to make significant changes to its policies and relationship with Singaporeans.

It has improved housing and transport infrastructure, introduced social policies - universal healthcare insurance, lifetime perks for pioneers - and spent more time listening to and communicating with Singaporeans, said party organising secretary Ng Eng Hen.

"We've addressed more problems that had existed from before 2011," he said in an exclusive interview with The Sunday Times on the PAP's strategies ahead of the next general election, which must be held by January 2017.

He referred to the next general election as an "inflection point" for a country freshly bereaved after the death of founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew and facing unprecedented challenges in its 50th year of nationhood.

The relationship between Singaporeans and the PAP was like that of an old married couple. "You take each other for granted," said Dr Ng, who is Defence Minister, describing the 2011 GE as a rough patch.

The PAP lost a group representation constituency for the first time and its national vote share hit a low of 60.1 per cent, down about 6 percentage points from the figure in 2006.

See also:
PAP's new approach: Up close and personal
Opposition parties ready, especially WP and SDP

"But we have to decide whether this union between the PAP Government and the people for the last 50 years is a marriage worth keeping and whether you're still bearing good fruit. We think it is and we'll fight for it."

To improve the bond, PAP politicians have made some shifts - such as using social media outreach - that felt "unnatural" at times, Dr Ng admitted during the 90-minute interview at his office in the Ministry of Defence last month.

In the style of the late Mr Lee, many PAP politicians had been taught to "talk less and do more", said Dr Ng. But voters nowadays want "a sense of their leaders and a personal discourse".

In response, PAP leaders have been "coming out of our comfort zone", he said.

He acknowledged a greater effort made on the ground: "We've tried to get closer to residents. Even our campaigning style has changed. I go into homes and stay much longer, spend time with residents, and it's worked. People understand us."

The PAP Government has also moved on national issues and acknowledged that it had been slow to react to some, such as transport, healthcare and housing.

Dr Ng said: "We've combed our hair, we've put on a new suit, but the heart hasn't changed. I don't believe the heart had gone wrong."

While thegeneral election date is unknown, Dr Ng, who is in charge of the PAP's recruitment, indicated that the slate of new candidates is ready. "If (Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong) decides to go (to the polls) soon, we shouldn't hold him back. If he wants to go, we'll be ready."

To avoid past criticisms of candidates being out of touch with the ground and "parachuted" in, the party has sent most potential new candidates to its branches early to build rapport with residents.

The response has been encouraging. Dr Ng said: "People have commented that we're working harder."

But he also said voters should appreciate the significance of the next general election, which could be watched internationally for signs of whether a post-Lee Kuan Yew Singapore will stay as "tough, hard-working, realistic and open".

Singapore's long stretch of continual prosperity is also facing unprecedented pressure from an ageing population, the challenge of keeping standards of living rising from a high base, and tension among Asian giants.

Dr Ng said: "We have to bring in people who are able to deal not only with the daily issues, but also whom we can prepare for these challenges, so that once something precipitates, they can see us through."


This article was first published on July 05, 2015.
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