Clear-eyed on need to deliver

SINGAPORE - Outsiders seeking answers to the People's Action Party Government's longevity, having ruled uninterruptedly since 1959, might not take long to latch on to performance legitimacy - how power is used in ways that citizens consciously accept. Legitimacy is why ruling parties strive to deliver on their election promises.

There are parties elsewhere that manipulate ethnic vote blocs or depend on populist gestures to drum up support.

They tend to devote inordinate efforts to secure their rule and less to effective governance.

The PAP's electoral dominance, however, has resulted from the thorough transformation of Singapore's economic and social landscape. In short, it has won in the past because it delivered.

The PAP's critics point to the soft authoritarian means by which it did so, and entrenched its political hegemony in the process. The party justifies those means by the ends which they achieved.

These include the rise in living standards in the key areas of wages, education, public health, quality public housing, and transport - all against the backdrop of sound social and industrial relations.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong reiterated the facts of political life in Singapore when he spoke recently of the need for the PAP to continue performing. Certainly, the party should not grow complacent merely because it has been in power so long. Every general election is a referendum on the past term, as well as a reflection of the people's continued confidence in those seeking their votes.

The challenge for the PAP is that performance does not mean the same thing at all times. The party is well-known for the long-term view that it takes of policies.

This mindset sat well with the electorate in earlier years because the economy was buoyant enough to see people through the short term. The PAP's turn - some would say return - to the left in social policy now recognises widening social disparities and the need to assist those who cannot keep up with the pace of change.

Such citizens need basic help to secure their personal future. They will judge the PAP's performance by how it reflects their interests. Others will seek improvements in housing, health care and transport, all of which are large-scale undertakings that cannot be hurried. Yet, it would not be politic to make people wait too long if everyday needs are not met in a progressive manner, for example, in transport.

Balancing present and future demands will always be a work in progress and must go hand in hand with fiscal prudence. Thankfully, the PAP seems mindful of the need to change with the times if it is to retain its claim to the people's mandate, as well as the need to keep meeting the evolving expectations created by its own achievements so far.

This article was published on April 4 in The Straits Times.

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