The Business Times

PAP needs strong mandate to keep governing effectively, as seen in the pandemic: PM Lee

Sharon See
Published Sun, Nov 6, 2022 · 12:42 PM

THE strong mandate that Singaporeans gave the government at the 2020 General Election (GE2020) was what allowed it to make tough calls during the Covid-19 pandemic, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said on Sunday (Nov 6).

Some voters assume the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) can govern as effectively whether it has strong or weak support at the polls – but the PAP does need a strong mandate, he said, laying out what must be done to “win the political battle”.

“With a strong mandate, when the government needs to act strongly and decisively – whether at home or abroad – everyone will know that it is acting with the people’s support,” PM Lee, who is PAP Secretary-General, told an audience of more than 3,000 party members at the biennial party conference.

In turbulent periods, the government then has the confidence and backing to make tough calls and steer Singapore safely through ups and downs, he said at the event at Resorts World Sentosa.

He noted the PAP’s “unique challenge”, where many Singaporeans want it to continue governing but also want more opposition Members of Parliament (MPs), and thus vote for the latter.

But during Covid-19, for instance, tough measures – such as the “circuit breaker”, mask-wearing and strict border controls – were possibly only because there was “no doubt the people had full confidence in the PAP government”, he said.

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If the PAP had been re-elected narrowly in GE2020, it would still have formed the government but “would have lost many good MPs and capable ministers”, weakening the leadership team.

“The MTF (multi-ministry taskforce) would not be the same. Singapore would have gone into battle with Covid-19 divided and disheartened,” he said, adding that Singapore’s pandemic experience might have been “very different”.

“What worries me is that in every successive election, this (getting a clear mandate) becomes a little harder and the stakes get somewhat higher,” said PM Lee, noting that the “sense of danger diminishes a little bit more” each time the PAP is returned to power and every year the PAP keeps Singapore running smoothly.

Delivering on policies over the years has put the PAP on strong ground, but this approval of its performance must be converted into “strong votes”, he said. To win this political battle, PAP members must put across the party’s political message – convincing Singaporeans why policies matter to them and how these match their needs and aspirations – as well as countering opposition moves and working the ground.

While it is the opposition’s job to scrutinise the government and highlight its mistakes, the PAP too must point out when the opposition fails to measure up or acts against Singaporeans’ interests, said PM Lee. For example, the opposition may claim credit for government moves such as providing inflation support packages, yet “avoid talking about how all this can be paid for”.

Or when it comes to the government’s plans to repeal Section 377A, a colonial-era law that criminialises sex between men, the opposition has been “missing in action”, said PM Lee.

“They refuse even to say whether they have a party position, or if they will lift the whip on their MPs when Parliament votes on the amendments, which it’s going to do at the end of this month. Why? They do not want to displease anyone – so they have gone AWOL (absent without leave).”

Of biggest concern, said PM Lee, are politicians and parties who “stir up resentment in order to gain political advantage”.

“They tear relentlessly at fault lines – residents versus foreigners, citizens versus PRs, even old citizens versus new. Sometimes they veer into racist territory... Question after question, speech after speech, they are not trying to obtain information or solve any problem,” he said, assuring members that the PAP will “never give way to such divisive politics”.

He also called on MPs and branch activists to work the ground, making up for “lost time” when physical activities were paused during Covid-19.

“If our politics go wrong, our governance will go wrong too, and so will all our lives,” said PM Lee. He noted volatile politics, paralysed governments, and divided societies elsewhere: in the United States, where politics has become deeply polarised and dysfunctional, as well as Britain, which has seen five prime ministers in a decade, with three this year alone.

Some people believe it is the “natural order of things” for Singapore to keep succeeding and the government to plan 30 to 50 years ahead, but he warned: “In fact, what we have today is not natural at all. This sort of government is rare. Almost everywhere else, governments hardly think beyond the next general election.”

Singapore has become like this due to the effort of many generations and the people working with the PAP, PM Lee said. He urged PAP members to not take their duty lightly as “things can so easily go wrong here too”, noting that Singaporeans are not “inherently better, or smarter, or more virtuous”.

“Maybe we are more cohesive, (but) there is no vaccine that can protect us from the same dark forces of anger, fear, racism and xenophobia.”

At the same time, the PAP needs to work at succession and leadership renewal, he said. With the fourth-generation leaders having chosen Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong to lead them, the PAP’s Central Executive Committee (CEC) election will see this renewal follow through in the party leadership, he added.

On Sunday, the party elected 12 members to the 37th CEC, with two other members being co-opted. CEC positions, including that of chairman and secretary-general, have yet to be decided.

In his speech, PM Lee noted that former party chairman Gan Kim Yong did not stand for re-election, even as he still carries heavy responsibilities such as helming the Ministry of Trade and Industry and co-chairing the MTF. Apart from Gan, three co-opted members of the 36th CEC were not named in the new one.

PM Lee said the PAP needs to keep inducting good people into politics, adding that the party has been busy combing for new potential candidates since GE2020 and has already identified some promising ones.

The next GE, which must be held by 2025, will coincide with Singapore’s political succession, he said, adding that the party will be tested on all fronts – both domestically and abroad.



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