SINGAPORE - The People's Action Party must maintain its core identity and continue representing all Singaporeans, even as it responds to Singapore's changing politics, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Sunday (Nov 8).
He stressed that the party must continue to govern Singapore well, work the ground, stay accessible to voters and lead by example, calling on all activists to commit themselves to these tasks as the country battles its worst economic crisis since independence.
"Never forget we are the People's Action Party," Mr Lee, who is party secretary-general, said in his virtual address to around 2,000 PAP cadres at their first gathering since the July general election. "We are not the party of special interest groups or particular communities. We represent the people of Singapore."
The PAP held its biennial conference on Sunday, with cadres gathering at their respective branches to cast their votes for the party's central executive committee. Meanwhile, party leaders and MPs congregated at NTUC Centre near Raffles Place, where they had to take rapid Covid-19 tests before entering the venue.
In his speech, Mr Lee noted that the PAP has won general every election since independence by constantly evolving and rejuvenating itself, and keeping its policies fresh and relevant to the times.
But to sustain the Singapore model, the party cannot stand still as the country and its politics change, he said.
Singaporeans still want stability and progress, job security and opportunities for themselves and their children.
But increasingly, they want to also participate more actively in shaping society, re-examine basic assumptions, and look beyond the tried-and-tested way of doing things, said Mr Lee.
On top of that, they want to have greater checks and balances, more alternative voices, more robust public debates, and closer scrutiny of government policies, he added.
"These expectations and desires will only grow with each new generation of Singaporeans," Mr Lee said. "The PAP must respond to them, and at the same time, we must maintain our core identity and what we stand for. We must continue representing all Singaporeans, and not just a particular sliver or segment of the population."
These points were reiterated by Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat in his own speech delivered before PM Lee spoke. Mr Heng noted that the PAP's core strength is in focusing on taking action to get the right things done for Singaporeans.
"To do this more effectively, we have to evolve how we engage a changing electorate," said Mr Heng, the party's first assistant secretary-general. This involves strong ground engagement as well as a stronger online outreach, he added.
He urged activists to reach out to Singaporeans, including those whose views differ from their own, to engage them in an "inclusive and constructive manner".
The prime minister noted that the PAP has started a virtuous cycle in Singapore by delivering on aspects such as housing, education, healthcare and security. This helped it to gain strong political support, which resulted in political stability and allowed the party to think long term. Taking the long-term view allowed it to deliver better lives for Singaporeans, enabling it to further retain voters' confidence.
Singapore must keep this cycle going for as long as possible, Mr Lee said. "Once we break it, it will be impossible for any party to restore it, not even the PAP."
Many countries have fiercely-contested democratic systems and more exciting politics, but do not always deliver good government, he noted.
Instead, contestation often makes politics unstable and divided, with those in power focusing only on their own short-term political survival.
"Those out of power make irresponsible, extravagant claims to get in. They offer deceptive short-cuts and painless remedies, without being upfront about the costs and consequences," he added.
"As a result, the government cannot make any long-term commitments, and the country cannot maintain a consistent long-term direction to steer its way forward."
Singapore is not like that, but the PAP will need to adapt to what Singaporeans want to see in their politics, Mr Lee said.
He noted how the party's fourth-generation leaders have been leading initiatives to encourage Singaporeans to come forward and express themselves. These include the Emerging Stronger Conversations, as well as the East Coast Conversations launched by DPM Heng in his constituency.
The latest batch of MPs can each bring their personal experience, speaking with conviction and passion to represent the concerns and interests of Singaporeans, Mr Lee added.
He also said that leadership renewal remains one of his top priorities, reiterating that he would see the country through the crisis brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Singaporeans will judge the PAP not only by its past, but by what it will do in this term of government and what it can continue to do, Mr Lee said. "Our actions must strengthen their trust in the PAP, and our policies and plans must continue to take Singapore forward."
"We are a party of purpose, of conviction, of action. We have made life better for millions of Singaporeans," he added. "We will constantly pursue a more just and equal society. And we are ever determined to walk alongside every Singaporean, striving towards a brighter future together."
This article was first published in The Straits Times.