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Which PAP does Singapore need?

The authors of PAP v. PAP say Singapore's most realistic hope of succeeding in a post-Covid-19 world is with a PAP that "raises its game"

A central assumption of the book is that the People's Action Party (PAP) will remain the ruling party for at least the next 10 to 15 years.

PAP v. PAP: The Party's struggle to adapt to a changing Singapore has hogged a spot on The Straits Times' weekly bestseller lists throughout November.

The book is co-written by Cherian George, professor of media studies at Hong Kong Baptist University, and Donald Low, professor of practice at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. But it's hard to say how much credit the authors can claim for the book's success, and how much they have a cancelled talk with the Raffles Hall Association to thank for it. (see clarification note)

The association - an autonomous alumni group for the National University of Singapore's Raffles Hall - had invited both men as speakers for a webinar titled Public Discourse: Truth and Trust, scheduled for Nov 1. Days prior, they were replaced by different speakers. Neither was informed before finding out the news on social media, according to their statements to the press.

For a book that asserts a pervasive culture of self-censorship in Singapore, they could not have engineered a better publicity stunt if they had tried. In the week after the news broke, the book skyrocketed to the top of the non-fiction bestseller list.

Reformed PAP is Singapore's "most realistic hope"

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A central assumption of the book is that the People's Action Party (PAP) will remain the ruling party for at least the next 10 to 15 years. The authors conclude that Singapore's most realistic hope of succeeding in a post- Covid-19 world is with a PAP that "raises its game".

Reforms are necessary, they argue, to tackle both external and domestic challenges.

Externally, they warn to expect sluggish growth from trends like slower globalisation, the re-shoring and near-shoring of supply chains, and decarbonisation. With slower growth, they say the PAP will find it increasingly difficult to derive legitimacy from strong economic performance, as it has done in the past.

The recommended fix: a new social and fiscal compact, with greater emphasis on social equity. The new compact they desire would prioritise the interests of labour over capital, and significantly expand social protections including and especially for middle-income Singaporeans.

This is proposed to be funded by new and "low" wealth taxes, a higher consumption tax that everybody pays, and by spending a higher proportion of Singapore's net investment returns than the current limit of 50 per cent.

Domestically, the authors say Singaporeans want greater political participation and engagement, and a fairer playing ground for competition. Society is democratising, they assert - with less tolerance for tactics they describe as "high-handed".

Correspondingly, they argue that the PAP should embrace political reforms that allow more competition, and on a level playing field. They also call on the party to open more space for public deliberation, and to adopt a less aggressive stance on diverse and dissenting views.

This, they say, would make for a more resilient society. The party would also advance its moral legitimacy, while the increased scrutiny and competition would toughen the party's leaders.

Specific suggestions include to reform or even abolish the group representation constituency system; to introduce an ombudsman for citizens; and to repeal and replace the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act of 1974 with a framework that provides for more diverse and independent media. They also propose new, independent public bodies to undertake functions such as media funding, the drawing of electoral boundaries, and the administration of Pofma (Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act).

Mixed bag of wishes

This is less a unified book, and more an anthology of essays authored over the past five years. Some are thoughtful and meticulously researched. Others are less satisfying - thick with passion, thin on data and specifics.

For a volume that aims to convince a famously technocratic government to enact reforms, I might have hoped to see otherwise. This is especially when pushing ideas which like-minded liberals instinctively support, but which are bound to encounter friction from many Singaporeans.

Take taxes. Prof Low argues for a new fiscal compact, in which tax increases are justified by a more broad-based, even universal social protection system. Middle-income Singaporeans in particular, he says, must see themselves as the intended beneficiaries in order to have a stake in the system.

Here, the choir that already sings of social justice and equality is not the one they need to convince. It is the hard-nosed Singaporean who will want to know: how much, why I should be the one to pay it, and how exactly does this make my life better?

It has been argued that the basics of housing, education, healthcare and retirement are already reasonably provided for today, and are accessible to most Singaporeans. Median incomes also rose in the past decade, up till Covid-19 hit.

The middle group may not be in such dire straits that they would prefer (and can afford) heftier taxes, in exchange for more generous universal protections; over targeted support, aimed at the more vulnerable and stepped up in times of crisis.

But if this is in fact the case, then I would have liked a clearer explanation why.

Other proposals likely to raise eyebrows include equal pay for foreign workers, relative to locals doing the same job. Logically, this would mean much higher pay and lower incidence of domestic worker employment, for example. It would also mean higher labour costs in industries like construction.

These scenarios are perfectly reasonable in many developed societies. But they would be a tough sell to locals and businesses accustomed to the way things are in Singapore - the way, by now, it seems it has always been.

The centre must grow

Readers already aligned with the authors' hopes for Singapore will find little cause to object strongly to this book. But that is not the audience that the authors must win, to achieve their stated objectives.

And despite the authors' impassioned appeals, nor is it truly the PAP.

It seems fruitless to chastise the party, as the authors do, for "high-handedness", "partisan and polarising rhetoric", and "petty and punitive" behaviour - while in the same breath appealing to party leaders' "better angels" and "the small voice in their own hearts."

The voices in our hearts say different things, and one man's angel is another's devil. The same applies to what is best for Singapore.

The real task ahead for their convictions, is to persuade more Singaporeans with voting powers at the ballot box. There are no shortcuts for this ambition.

When Prof Low writes that "older liberals and progressives are disheartened and demoralised: they feel they are swimming against the tide or pushing a boulder up a steep hill", it is hard not to imagine he is describing men and women like themselves - jaded by Sisyphean labours.

In a complex and vexatious world, it would be a pity if Singapore could not tap diverse perspectives for solutions. Crucially, for the centre to hold as societies grow more polarised worldwide, it must have the elasticity to expand.

There are obvious disagreements between the authors and the establishment. It would be too easy to paint them as a contest between liberal idealism on the one hand, and conservative pragmatism on the other.

The world is not so black and white. More importantly, ideological rigidity would constrain the range of options that Singapore should carefully consider, as the Republic moves into an uncertain future.

On the art of feedback, it is commonly advised to first be receptive, then decide what you will accept or discard. This is a good policy for anyone to adopt in reading this book. Some ideas will seem far-fetched, some will chafe to swallow, and some - with luck on the authors' side - could conceivably register as reasonable and worth exploring further.

In a mixed bag of wishes, maybe one or two will stick.

  • PAP v. PAP: The Party's struggle to adapt to a changing Singapore retails for S$24.

Clarification note: This article has been updated to reflect the authors' position that they do not hold the Raffles Hall Association responsible for the cancellation of the talk. Per their account, the association had informed the authors that the National University of Singapore wanted the talk cancelled, before they were subsequently replaced as speakers for the event.

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