'People stepping forward as they care about S'pore'

'People stepping forward as they care about S'pore'
It may be one of the longest continuously ruling political parties in the world but Alex Yam, the head honcho of internal communications for the People’s Action Party (PAP), says it can’t be stuck in the past, but must evolve.

It may be one of the longest continuously ruling political parties in the world but Alex Yam, the head honcho of internal communications for the People's Action Party (PAP), says it can't be stuck in the past, but must evolve. The Chua Chu Kang GRC MP also tells Maryam Mokhtar about how the silent majority is finding its voice and the challenges of that for the PAP today.

It's August and we just celebrated National Day. In recent months the online sphere has been pulled in different directions over issues like the National Library Board's (NLB) initial plans to remove and pulp two children's books. What do you make of this?

It's a sign that people are more passionate about our country - regardless of whether you're for or against the Government.

The mere fact that you are willing to step forward to say something shows that people do care for the future of Singapore, just that you may have very different opinions of what that future is. What you need to do is to find that balance, that sweet spot, so that we don't have two growing groups of people who are on extreme ends.

With the NLB issue, the worry perhaps would be that people are moving to the peripheries.

But again that's a sign that people do care and want their views to be heard. So the Government, community and grassroots need to then make use of this opportunity to reach out to more people and try to find that middle ground.

This is not to say that people should just accept what the Government has decided - that the two of you should stop going to the extreme and just focus on what Big Brother is telling you. But more of, "I'm not asking you to change your point of view. I'm asking you to not take it too far".

My fear is that we've discovered our passion for our country, but we may have also found a road without return that's taking us farther apart.

But what if these voices are just those of the vocal minority?

We've very often spoken about the vocal minority and what we call the silent majority. I'm beginning to see that distinction disappearing.

As voices get a little bit louder, what we used to refer to as the silent majority is also starting to find its voice. You can see it from a number of different areas - in the recent discussions on the Central Provident Fund (CPF), in the NLB issue, between the Wear White group and the Pink Dot.

So more and more people are stepping forward, even when we say silent majority, you're a silent majority only on single issues.

You could be a very vocal minority when someone rubs you the wrong way. In 2011 (at the General Election), we started seeing this dichotomy of silent versus the vocal; majority being understated by minority. But if you look at the NLB issue, the people who are coming out to speak aren't from the same group of people.

We are starting to see a fresh group of voices emerge from what we used to regard as the silent majority. The same people who are vocal about the Bukit Brown Cemetery aren't necessarily the same people who are shouting down the CPF system. So where this silent majority is, actually if you add up all these different interest groups, they could technically all be the vocal majority, just on some very different issues.

How does that change the way the Government reacts?

The engagement that we need to do on the ground isn't so much for the Government or for us as politicians to try to suss out where our chances lie. Should I take this stance because this particular majority seems to be larger? But then this particular group may disagree with another point I hold on another issue.

I think we need to start to be a little bit more objective in our engagement. At the end of the day, aren't we all Singaporeans? Sink or swim, we need to depend on each other. I have my own social values. They may not be the same as yours. But it doesn't mean we can't sit down to have a meal together, doesn't mean we can't have a decent conversation without starting a fight.

Will there be a change in the party's overall approach when deciding which stance to take over various issues?

We are often told that the PAP should represent the silent majority, but having been in the party for the last 11/2 decades, the party's strength isn't in having an entire machinery of people who say yes to everything we say.

Our biggest advantage is actually having had people who are willing to disagree with you but remain committed to a cause.

I don't expect everyone within the party will agree with everything that the Government puts up but despite the disagreement on that, they're willing to make a change and make a stand constructively and remain committed to the cause.

We need more diversity in the party and lots of it, but communication needs to be across the board and everyone needs to have that same message.

Gone are the days where the Government would look at you and say "Yes, this is the way we should go forward". We needed that in the past, if not we wouldn't have survived.

Today the ability to communicate, the ability to get feedback, work on the feedback and give feedback on that feedback becomes very important.

A truly successful party isn't one that is on the left or on the right or sitting on the fence in the centre, a truly successful political party is when its views always occupy the centre (of the political spectrum).

Even if these views are contrary or controversial?

If the country has moved to a stage where on a certain issue the population has moved there, as long as it does not run counter to our core values as a party, I think we must be prepared to take that shift, because even if internally there are people who disagree, we have a broad enough scope to allow for the diversity of views - it's not a party of compunction. So that's perhaps the state of a little of the maturity that we need to move towards at the end of the day.

You took over as executive director of PAP headquarters last year, after the Punggol East by-election defeat. What have you been busy with?

The main role at the HQ is to improve communication within the party as the first priority. We have been beefing up our internal correspondences in terms of getting information out to our own people so we can help make an informed explanation to other Singaporeans.

Would you say there have been improvements since the by-election?

We now have more feet on the ground and better communication out there. There is still a lot more room for improvement - things will take time and what had worked for us in the past may not work as well for us now. As our country progresses and changes along the way, as a political party we can't be stuck in the past, we've got to evolve as well.

You said after that by-election, that it was a reminder that hard work, a common touch and a gentle heart will be needed "more than ever". What has changed in the PAP's approach since then?

By the time we reached the first by-election (Hougang by-election won by the Workers' Party's Png Eng Huat in 2012), the Government was already taking its first steps in trying to evolve that system based on the lessons we learnt from (the General Election in) 2011 - this idea of perceived arrogance and looking a bit too paternalistic on decisions.

Even from the very early days after the discussion on ministerial salaries, you started to see that shift. But to shift takes time and it's even more difficult for a government and for a political party. So the baby steps were perhaps insufficient at that time.

Are they sufficient now?

We've seen those baby steps mature a little bit over the last year with the Pioneer Generation Package, with the softer touch on many issues. Even with MPs on the ground, the mode of communication and engagement with the residents has changed.

The new team that Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has brought in has seen some good movement there. I don't think many people expected that they would see reforms of our education system move so quickly or even in sensitive no-go areas like defence.

We have seen the Committee to Strengthen National Service and the changes in the Individual Physical Proficiency Test (IPPT). For it to evolve very dramatically over the last two to three years is a sign that while we've always been taking things seriously, we are taking it even more seriously now and at a faster pace than we did before.

We will probably see a lot more private member Bills coming up as well and getting MPs who are passionate about certain issues to pursue them.

This is your first year you've celebrated National Day as a father. How has that changed your perspectives on life?

During the Punggol East by-election (last year), my wife had a miscarriage, so we lost our first child (they have since gone on to have a son). I think that was an experience that most people can live without.

We now run a support group for parents who have either miscarriages, stillbirths or even some families who in the past had to go for abortion. We found it difficult, but having found a community that was supportive we realised the importance of it, and so that's been quite fulfilling for us.

I now feel a lot more responsible for the actions that we take collectively as a Government because I know that at the end of the day the future of the country is not mine alone any more, I've got a kid who's going to outlive me by a mile and the future is for him and his generation. The decisions become a lot weightier, they're not as simple to make.

But on the other extreme, I find myself a lot more relaxed. In the past, by the time you go home you get tired, you usually don't want to talk any more - just take your shower and makan, but now less so, because I know apart from my wife and my family, there's someone else who I'm going home to, and the reason why I'm working hard now is because he depends on that.

This Sunday is the second time PM Lee is speaking at the ITE College Central for the National Day Rally. What is the significance of this?

I think it is important to look back at what the PM said last year: "I brought the Rally to ITE for a serious purpose - to underscore my longstanding commitment to investing in every person, every Singaporean, to his full potential. And also to signal a change, to emphasise that this is not the usual NDR. Singapore is at a turning point."

He could simply have gone to ITE once and then said move on. But the significance is to me much deeper than that. We are still at ITE because we continue to value every Singaporean's aspirations. But also importantly, the signal of change is not just superficial, change is still happening, we haven't gone round the curve yet and that turning point will still need careful and steady driving.

maryamm@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on August 16, 2014.
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