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ST - Time for New PAP Story

ST - Time for New PAP Story

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Published by: bryan_ti on Dec 05, 2011
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12/05/2011

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[buy a copy of ST today]
Time for new PAP story
But the weight of history poses obstacles to party's endeavour
By Rachel ChangPublished on Dec 5, 2011
EVERY person needs a story. A tale, still unfolding, in which he is theprotagonist, and which gives sense to what he does and why he does it.Every country needs a story. A founding myth of the forces that brought it intobeing, usually marked by heroism and derring-do - whether it is ChristopherColumbus stumbling across America, Mahatma Gandhi's non-violent SaltMarch, Nelson Mandela's 27-year imprisonment or Mr Lee Kuan Yew's tearson Separation.Every political party needs a story. A set of beliefs about what will lead to abetter world, convictions that will draw men and women to stake their futureson the party.For many politicians, the story often devolves into a quest for power forpower's sake. But to the credit of the People's Action Party (PAP), whosestory is inextricably intertwined with that of Singapore, that has never been thecase.
 
 In the wake of a watershed general election, the ruling party has been doingserious soul-searching. One thing was clear in May: Its old story, of anefficient and effective government that took the country from 'Third World toFirst', has less hold over Singaporeans, especially the younger generation,than it used to. But what would take its stead?Our stories are what animate us and give our lives purpose. The PAP needs anew narrative, not just to win votes, but to situate its members in a narrativethat would inspire them to, as PAP MP Denise Phua puts it, 'fight on... even ifthe person you are trying to help curses you'.Last week, at its first party convention since the bruising general election,secretary-general Lee Hsien Loong opened his keynote address with a story.The current moment should be seen in the perspective of the party's 50-yearhistory, he said.It began with politics - 'the essence of the struggle' for its founding leaders likeMr Lee Kuan Yew and Dr Goh Keng Swee. They had to mobilise a massmovement and 'get into power so that we can do things'. And even after it wonpower in 1959, the PAP's split with its extreme left wing ignited a deeper andmore dangerous phase of political tussle.After the PAP won the battle with the Barisan Sosialis, and entrenched itselfas the dominant political party in Singapore, its second phase, the era ofpolicy, began.Politics took a back seat, for the PAP had no political opponents that posed areal threat. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said of this period: 'Therefore, wetransformed Singaporeans' lives... The successful policies translated intosupport for the party and a whole generation of voters (experienced) the journey (while bonding) to the team.'The May General Election marked the start of a third phase, he said.In this telling, the PAP's pendulum swung from one extreme, of politics, to theother, of policies. There, it stayed for 40 years, until the jolt of losing AljuniedGRC to the Workers' Party.
 
Now, the pendulum is swinging again, to rest - the PAP hopes - in ahappy balance of politics and policies. The PAP would 'carry the ground'(politics), even as it pursues hard-headed governance (policies). If itsucceeds in achieving this balance, the PAP would have used its generalelection losses as the occasion to find a new equilibrium.
But will it? Two immediate challenges stand in the way of the desire of the'new PAP' to engage Singaporeans in policymaking, and connect emotionallywith them.The first is that its policies-only phase went on for so long that its ranks arenow filled with 'technocrats and civil servants', not politicians, as TampinesGRC MP Baey Yam Keng characterised the common charge.
While they are all certainly aware of the 'new normal', PAP politiciansstill believe in the primacy of policy effectiveness over politicalemotiveness.They believe in what makes sense, not what captures the news cycle.They believe that excessive debate is counter-productive, andopposition for opposition's sake is poisonous. And when it comes to thecrunch, they believe in 'doing the right thing' - implementing the optimal,long-term policy - even if they cannot carry the ground in the process.
The word 'politics' has even come to have negative connotations of panderingto populist pressure. How can the PAP become political if there is aninstinctive distrust of politics?The second obstacle is that the image fixed in Singaporeans' minds of thePAP is a party that is all head and no heart, one that puts policy above people.So, its attempts at establishing an emotional connection with the ground aremet with scepticism of varying degrees.The debate over the Bukit Brown cemetery is instructive. Despite theprotracted public engagement on the issue, some of those who do not want tosee the cemetery give way to development believe the public engagementwas just wayang (Malay for 'show'), that the 'new PAP' might spend more timeconsulting, but it will still not yield or soften its policies.

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