A unicorn's identity crisis

A unicorn's identity crisis

What a difference four years makes.

This time in the 2011 General Election, when it became clear how much resentment and discontent over certain government policies had built up on the ground, it felt like the decline of the mighty People's Action Party (PAP) might be in its opening phase.

Fast-forward four years, and the one thing voters and politicians across the spectrum can agree on is that the ruling party has become, in the words of Workers' Party (WP) chief Low Thia Khiang, a "better, more responsive" government.

This stunning turnaround has not been properly appreciated. Rather than anger and resentment over housing, transport and population policies, the electoral campaign now is taking place with the underlying assumption that the most urgent problems have been fixed and longer-term concerns are in the process of being addressed.

The question politicians are fighting over is who gets the credit.

This is the kind of thing that makes outsiders marvel at Singapore politics and apply terms like "unicorn" to its system.

The question of who gets the credit for good governance may seem like a storm in a teacup to countries struggling over, well, good governance.

But in this magical fantasy world in which we are lucky to be living, the debate represents what could be termed a unicorn's identity crisis.

Perched on one shoulder, we have the current generation of PAP leaders, who have shown decisively in the past four years that they are capable of bold policymaking and of emerging from the dogma and inertia that plague long-ruling incumbents everywhere.

GE2011 may have accelerated the PAP's shift to the left in social policies, but they were already moving in that direction to better provide for a maturing Singapore.

On the other hand, we have the WP, which says that its electoral breakthrough caused a period of fast and popular policy change.

Mr Low has said: "I'm very happy that the support (of Aljunied GRC voters) has resulted in a better and more responsive government."

Without the wake-up call of losing a group representation constituency and two ministers with it in 2011, we would not have the PAP of today, is the WP's message.

The party has also highlighted what it calls "policy U-turns" in the areas of foreign manpower, social support and public housing by contrasting ministerial statements before 2011, and after.

For example, the Government insisted that building flats according to demand and linking new flat prices to the resale market was the right strategy prior to 2011; Mr Khaw Boon Wan, after he became National Development Minister in 2011, promptly de-linked prices from the resale market, and directed HDB to "build flats ahead of demand" to meet a backlog.

The WP also notes how points in its GE2011 manifesto - such as for the Government to pay for public transport equipment - have been taken up. This is claiming a little too much credit: the WP were not the first nor the only people to have come up with these points and policy suggestions.

And it is simplistic to paint the PAP leadership as a monolith that changed its tune after the 2011 polls; Cabinet ministers can also have different views from one another, and changing circumstances, which include a changing electorate, can shift the balance of trade-offs when making policy.

But it is true that the PAP Government now is markedly more responsive to public sentiment than before.


As the most credible opposition politicians who were willing to stand up in an unforgiving electoral landscape, the WP has earned some right to flaunt this as its work.

But how far can the "vote opposition to have a better PAP" argument take the WP?

PAP leaders have rebutted the argument in a number of ways in recent days. They've pointed out, for example, that voters in swing seats are playing with fire if they use their ballots in this way, as they could lose the politicians who are crafting and delivering those popular policies.

To me, the most compelling rebuttal by far has been that from Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, on Nomination Day, when he asked voters not to reduce elections to a "game".

"It's not a game where 'I threaten you a little bit, and then you do a bit more', " he said. "(Or) on the other hand, the Government threatens back a little bit, and then the voters shrink back."

This kind of cynical ballot undermines the relationship the PAP has always prided itself on having with the people - one of deep, honest trust, and a mutual acknowledgement of best intentions. The stuff unicorns are made of.

As pioneer Singaporeans fade away, it remains to be seen how this sort of earnest connection can be sustained with a younger, more sceptical generation who transact in irony and clear-eyed disenchantment.

What this election will tell us is if it is fading, and how quickly.

Still, this sort of transformative bond that the PAP has had and continues to have with some segments of voters - the stuff of political magic - will be out of the WP's reach so long as the opposition's campaign message continues to be intertwined with, and reliant on, the ruling party.

He has been invoked enough during this campaign, but founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew's political beginnings are a good example of why.

When first elected in 1955, he and other PAP politicians were voted in for their Merdeka message against British rule. They took their Legislative Assembly seats through the power of an "anti" vote, the kind of ballot meant as a message to an external, ruling power.

"Anti" votes can win seats for a period of time; it is "for" votes that win seats for a generation. That is how Mr Lee and his colleagues earned that national mandate so rapidly in the heady early years - he came in through an "anti" vote, and turned it into a vision for the nation that people voted for.

There are signs that the WP leadership is aware of how it must evolve to remain a political player for the next generation.

Its campaign slogan is "Empower Your Future", which asks voters to entrench opposition MPs so that they can become more than a symbol to the PAP in the House, capable of deep policy scrutiny and even alternative policymaking.

At its recent rallies, WP leaders have also steered the topic away from the town council saga and sketched out to rally audiences how it would do things differently if it were in government, such as scrapping group representation constituencies and "reducing the government presence in everyday life".

It is a long way from providing a feasible alternative government, but the party is clearly attempting to begin the journey away from being just a magnet for "anti" votes, to becoming a political pole itself.

Its chances of success against a nimble ruling party that has shown itself capable of renewal and reinvigoration is the political story of our time.



This article was first published on September 6, 2015.
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