Renewed PAP can meet goals without political tightening

SINGAPORE - Long-time watchers of the ruling People's Action Party (PAP) might have felt a sense of deja vu over the past week.

Following a shocking setback at the polls where its vote share fell to a historic low and the opposition breached a parliamentary glass ceiling, the PAP embarked on a soul-searching exercise.

This culminated in a document that updates its founding mission for a new generation, which is adopted en masse at a party convention. The resolution is then adapted into the PAP's manifesto for the next general election.

The year? 1988.

The electoral setback then came in the 1984 General Election. The ruling party's vote share dropped by 12.9 percentage points and opposition MPs J.B. Jeyaretnam and Chiam See Tong were voted into the House.

The party leadership commenced rounds of consultation and engagement with the PAP rank and file and members of the public. This went into an Agenda for Action that outlined goals like nation building and social and cultural development.

In the 2013 iteration of this process, the PAP adopted a new resolution at its convention on Sunday, also after rounds of consultation with its rank and file. At seven paragraphs, it is more succinct than 1988's 18-pager, but similar in spirit and purpose.

It pledges to uphold the party's democratic socialist ideals, and build an open and compassionate meritocracy that moderates the excesses of the free market.

The resolution will answer the question of "what the PAP stands for" in this new phase of Singapore's development, said Acting Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Lawrence Wong, who was its key drafter.

It also aligned the ruling party's mission statement with the major national shift towards social support announced by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in this year's National Day Rally.

This is the ruling party's playbook when met with crisis.

"Crisis" may be overstating matters. Even at its lowest, it remains nationally dominant, so some may argue that it need not over-correct in reaction to the vagaries of voters.

But it is the very fact of its overwhelming dominance which necessitates that its soul-searching and repositioning be conducted so publicly. If nothing else, this allows the electorate to feel like it can bring about a change within the party without a change in government.

The parallels between that period in the late 1980s and today's moment abound.

Then, a post-recession process of economic restructuring into high value-added industries was under way; today, there is a mammoth effort to reduce Singapore's reliance on cheap foreign labour and boost its productivity.

GE 1984 was also when PM Lee entered politics; GE 2011 will likely be when the next prime minister, whoever he may be, did the same.

But the decade after the 1984 General Election unfolded in a way that made that electoral opening a false spring. Between that general election and the next, Group Representation Constituencies (GRCs) were created.

The preservation of multiracialism in Parliament, the original reason for their creation, was a noble intention. But as GRCs grew and grew in size, more people became convinced of Mr Chiam's 1988 view that their real purpose was to "edge out the opposition".

To many, a six-man GRC had little to do with multiracial representation and was more a repudiation of the one-man, one-vote democratic premise.

Then there were frightening instances of government clampdowns that reverberated through the population.

In 1987, 22 people, including several Catholic Church workers, were detained for alleged Marxist activities; in 1993, two Singapore Press Holdings journalists, together with then director of the Monetary Authority of Singapore's economics department Tharman Shanmugaratnam, were charged under the Official Secrets Act.

Then Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong also introduced the practice of putting opposition-voting wards to the back of the upgrading queue in the early 1990s. Upgrading was a government programme and these voters had not voted for the Government, he said.

The price that pluralism paid was a big one. There were 55 walkovers in the 2001 General Election, and only a third of Singaporeans exercised their constitutional right to vote.

Today, the Government has moved decisively in the direction the PAP's new resolution spells out: of supporting social mobility, giving more help to the needy and vulnerable, and blunting the education system's grades fixation.

Universal medical insurance is on the way, as are majorly subsidised Housing Board flats for this generation of young families.

Deputy Prime Minister Tharman has elucidated a new doctrine of active government support for self-reliance in its social programmes.

But against this backdrop, some glimpse a 2013 corollary of the political tightening of the late 1980s.

This has been especially evident in the online sphere, which is a perennial thorn in the PAP's side and an area that still frustrates a usually confident government.

After a year or two of seeming openness, with all major PAP politicians joining social media and a "light touch" regulatory framework, a sort of wintry frost has descended.

Besides its new licensing framework for news sites that requires a $50,000 bond and for offensive material to be removed within 24 hours, legal action has been initiated against several prominent bloggers and online commentators.

The Attorney-General's Office is prosecuting its second contempt of court charge in as many years against blogger Alex Au, who runs the Yawning Bread site.

This week, the regulatory framework claimed its first casualty in the form of socio-political website Breakfast Network, which decided it could not sign off on the "onerous" registration forms that the Media Development Authority wanted it to. Founder Bertha Henson has returned to blogging on a personal basis.

The PAP's political leadership will and has justified and downplayed these moves.

Holding those who spread misinformation online to account is only reasonable, it says. Plus, the regulatory framework is not onerous at all, it argues - another new site, The Independent, has signed its forms with no issue.

But it should not disavow the intentional message that this is sending. That message is that the Internet, ground zero of Singapore's political awakening, is not beyond its control.

The Government's goals - fewer trolls, less indiscriminate spreading of falsehoods, a higher quality of discussion and debate - are legitimate.

No public realm in a civilised society should not be subject to some rules governing interaction.

There have also been no "victims" in the Government's latest moves: No prominent blogger has been thrown in jail nor silenced completely, for example.

Yet, many see what has happened as akin to a hippopotamus showing an approaching fisherman its teeth. I can snap you in two, is the message, so don't come any closer.

I hope that this is not the start of the kind of wilting that occurred two decades ago.

For one thing, the Internet will be controlled - and even then, not completely - only by sweeping and costly firewalls like in China. The PAP Government neither desires to be, nor is, so authoritarian.

Secondly, the party's leadership today seems to be resigned to, if not actively encouraging of, the fact that pluralism and political contestation are here to stay and probably grow.

In 2010, PM Lee publicly committed to shrinking the sizes of GRCs and increasing the number of single seats. This direction will likely be upheld when the electoral boundaries for the next general election are announced.

The party may well reverse its 2011 General Election losses in the way it did in the late 1980s, but if it does, it should be through its policies and not political manoeuvres.

This is not beyond a renewed PAP with a galvanising mission statement. It would be a mistake to sully the impact of this earnest new movement with any political tightening that bespeaks only insecurity.

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