Some policies change as PAP government paddles furiously

As we approach the year-end, several people have asked me for my assessment of change in the People’s Action Party (PAP) government in the six months since the general election. The PAP found its vote share reduced and in its aftermath, several ministers left the cabinet.

Likewise, I have asked others for their views too, in the course of which I have come to realise that framing the question so broadly makes it difficult to answer. The government has responded (or not) in different ways on different issues, and it is hard to arrive at a single answer. On the other hand, to discuss issue by issue is to miss the wood for the trees.

I reckon the various issues fall into three groups: (a) “bread-and-butter” issues, i.e. housing, transport, etc, (b) matters related to arrogance, elitism and style, (c) matters related to rights and liberties. I see certain similarities in the way the government is responding to issues that are in the same group.

These groups fall into a sort of matrix, based on two criteria: The first is whether the poll result made the PAP realise that failure to respond to public concerns would cost them votes; the second is whether the poll result shook them enough to question their prior beliefs and assumptions.

As mentioned above, I will argue here that the response of the PAP government to issues depends on which box an issue falls into.

Group (a)

The PAP will obviously believe its own argument: that at the end of the day, most people will vote based on bread-and-butter concerns. The PAP has long used this line to justify their attention to economic growth. They believed that so long as they can generate and demonstrate economic growth, people will feel better off and will support them in power.

That in the May general election, they lost votes despite being able to boast of 14.5% GDP growth in 2010 compelled them to look long and hard at the next level: the specific issues that caused unhappiness.  Their actions to date, e.g. Khaw Boon Wan’s efforts at the housing ministry to escalate the building program, and lots of noises about transport improvements (though less action to date), indicate that the government has become aware of the need to modify a number of policies in these areas. Doubtless, there will be some drag. Implementation takes time and anyway there will be resistance to complete overhaul of policy. But that there are some serious steps taken to address unhappiness cannot be denied.

The other feature of Group (a) is that policy effects are generally measurable. One can collect data about waiting times and price rises of flats, crowding on trains and buses, hawker prices and tuition fees. Since this government operates on the belief that they are “pragmatic”, it is relatively easy for them to change course based on measurable data. I am aware, however, that “pragmatism” can become an ideological tool itself, a point argued by Kenneth Paul Tan in a recent paper, but on these Group (a)  issues, the pragmatism is real; they can adjust policies without undermining ideology. Of course, whether the adjustments go far enough to mollify critics, and whether they will pay off in regained voter support later, is too early to say.

Group (b)

Group (b) issues tend to be those that are difficult to quantify. They are more subjective. Moreover, they are issues that run against the grain of the PAP leadership’s ideological beliefs. At the same time, there is enough evidence that these issues make many voters angry. So they have to do something, but there will be the temptation to apply public relations in lieu of substantive soul-searching.

The issues here can be subdivided into three baskets:

  • Issues of style: arrogance, elitism, nepotism, lack of consultation in policy-making and ministerial salaries;
  • Issues of extreme capitalism: blind faith in trickle-down economics, thus policies that further benefit the already well-off, penny-pinching in social welfare, income stagnation, job insecurity;
  • Issues of social stress: stressful education system, work-life balance.

One biggish issue straddles all three baskets: immigration. It produces social stress, job insecurity, and the implementation of such a major policy was done with no consultation and no sensitivity to popular feelings.

The problem is that the PAP government is still more or less convinced that on these issues, they are ideologically right: That “pro-business” capitalism is good for us, anything that smacks of a welfare state is disaster, open-door immigration is essential to our future, and children must be pushed to excel otherwise the country will go down the drain.

Because of ideological resistance, we haven’t seen any real effort at change on these issues, and I don’t think we will. We will see half-measures and lots of spin.

Group (c)

Human rights and liberties are not vote-killers – that much the PAP is convinced. They see no need to change course. Look at their intransigent response when they were asked whether Singapore would follow the Malaysian government in reconsidering the Internal Security Act and detention without trial — it was a flat No, followed by a stentorian, thump-the-lectern defence of past use of the law.

More recently, we had Yaacob Ibrahim proposing a code of online behaviour, another throwback to their censorious instincts. Anybody could see that the handful of religiously-insensitive online postings had been taken care of by broad social disapproval. There was no need for the government to intervene. Yaacob’s reaction spoke more of the government’s instinct to be alarmist and to be control-freaks. He felt no need to rein in those instincts.

By this logic, Group (c) issues will see no evolution of policy. Not only does the government continue to believe that they are right, they see no electoral disadvantage in staying the course.

Yet, a funny thing is happening. We have gotten a glimpse of movement with respect to capital punishment, as more and more drug cases come to trial with charges relating to 14.99 grams of heroin-equivalent, thereby avoiding the imposition of the death sentence should the defendant be found guilty.

I daresay the government will also be looking at ways to do away with Section 377A of the Penal Code, now that the US government is focussing on it, which tells us that movement on these fronts (human rights, etc) are due not to pressure from the ground, but more to pressure from foreign governments.

* * * * *

Taken together, what we have is a picture of a government is that almost purely reactive. Their policies and actions will be determined by a calculation of what pressures they can resist and what other pressures they need to yield to. Gone is a coherent vision of what Singapore ought to be in terms of values, economic model, social weave. It has now become a rudderless boat, but the PAP government will work very hard, paddling furiously.

24 Responses to “Some policies change as PAP government paddles furiously”

  1. 1 Jonathan 19 December 2011 at 01:02

    This is a very neat article. It has provided me with a conceptual framework that I have never before thought of.

    Regarding the group (c) issues, I want to raise a point. My point is that it is not merely a perception issue with the PAP not being able to and not to feel the need to respond to those issues; the general population hardly cares much about those issues as well. It is not just that the PAP did not perceive the problems and issues; it is that those problems and issues really don’t exist in a social sense.

    I think the framework that you have thought of is a timely reminder for all of us that missing the component of group (c) issues will lead to wrong assessment of the PAP.

    • 2 Tan 23 December 2011 at 18:34

      I agree with Jonathan that general population hardly perceives these issues because of self-interested and busy lifestyles. Some members of the PAP may have “seen” the issues but may not have grasped the importance of certain rights to certain groups of people.
      So, the next question is: how can the general population be made aware of such issues? Because when these issues become visible to the general population, then, the PAP will feel the need to respond.

  2. 3 Nick Lim 19 December 2011 at 07:32


    Excellent essay. All your observations and opinions are spot-on.

  3. 4 Anonymous 19 December 2011 at 08:49

    With regards to changing course based on measurable data for group (a) policies, it is important to first have a proper definition of the measured data. Otherwise, whoever is trying to make decision based on it would have come to conclusion contrary to reality. Case in point is that of population, unemployment and underemployment. Lumping of citizens and PRs as locals distorts reality in a few cases.
    So yes decision making base on numbers is important but it should be tempered by being closer to the ground and having “gut feel”. This I think is lacking in not only the Government but also the upper echelon of civil service.

  4. 5 Alan Wong 19 December 2011 at 12:45

    I seriously think that our new immigrants may actually be the achilles heel of our PAP govt considering the fact that with high inflation coupled with low & stagnant wages, they can easily be disillusioned that Singapore may not be the paradise destination for them afterall.

    This will be so when they will be equally affected by bread and butter issues especially if they are not from the upper privileged groups. And if they have taken all the trouble to uproot themselves from their original countries, many of them will be quite independent and free thinking in their own minds and will not take kindly to being taken for a ride by an arrogant style of governance by our leaders.

    And it will be both a political suicide & nightmare for PAP if they choose to as arrogant as ever when it comes to political rights if they also lose support from the new immigrants due to unfair liberties on the part of the incumbent PAP govt. Should our PAP govt continue to ignore world trends in civil liberties, it can only be a case of ‘perish at your own peril’.

    I should know because I was once a new immigrant myself.

  5. 6 No Fair Chance 19 December 2011 at 14:05

    With respect to Group (a) observations and comments,like most of my friends ,we came to the conclusion that economic growth alone cannot save the PAP regime.

    • 7 Tan 23 December 2011 at 18:42

      I think there is truth in what Alex said. The PAP lost vote despite having a 14.5% GDP growth. There must be something else that Singaporeans are looking for. The PAP will lose its popularity if they are still stuck to the old mindset and do not bother to investigate what these “something else” Singaporeans are looking for.

  6. 8 George 19 December 2011 at 14:35


    Are you perhaps resting too much faith in the govt’s ability to think in a structured or methodical manner?

    It is doubtlessly useful for you to put them in neat categories which perhaps even the govt would find enlightening- you telling them what they have actually been doing!

    Most certainly, the govt has been almost purely reactive. Little pro-activism because the don’t believe they owe anyone, including Singaporeans a living or an explanation, hence the way it has always acted.

    One way to describe it is that the govt very probably approach the entire thing like a never ending soccer game!

  7. 9 Lim Bt 19 December 2011 at 16:05

    Hi Alex, good analysis, put very succinctly.
    I had posted my view in another forum before I saw your article. Thought I would share with our fellow contributors.

    PM Lee is fighting fire since GE 2011 trying to fix
    i) Ministers Salary (include his)
    ii) overcrowded train
    iii) and now train system breakdown causing huge loses to small businesses
    iv) high HDB housing prices
    v) insufficient hospital beds
    vi) Foreign talent issues
    vii) etc etc

    Why is our PM fixing operational issues when he is paid so huge salary? Should he be thinking about our future? What will Singapore be 5 – 10 years down the road? What kind of industry do we want to attract? And so on. During LKY/GKS/SR/HSS days the cabinet paint a vision for our country, where are we heading for, what can we expect to see in 5 – 10 years down the road. Now what? Then come 3 years down the road we are still fighting fire. Why?

    PM Lee has so many things on his plate now. Then his personal problem – LKY is very old and sick now. What will happened in 2012? There is a teochew saying : when the big tree fall all the monkeys will disappear. The economists predict the economy is 2012 is not going to be any better. How bad will Singapore be affected? How many people will lost their jobs? I am not a pessimist. Just being prepared.

  8. 10 jamesneo 19 December 2011 at 16:37

    Alex, do you think the government is ready for an oil shock and its consequences? An oil shock more serious than the 1970s has a possibility of great disruption to our transport sector and the flow of goods. What if suddenly, the amount of oil imported is drastically reduced and the car owners are now forced to take public transport which is now already so strained. Can we handle the sudden large inflows?

  9. 11 patriot 19 December 2011 at 16:41

    “Taken together, what we have is a picture of a government is that almost purely reactive”, unquote.

    My reading of the Quoted Above Statement; by Alex, is that though the Leaders appeared to listen and then followed up with some actions related to issues raised by the People, they are still doing things very much the old ways.

    How else do we explain for the so many hikes; property tax, taxi-fare etc?? What about development plans pertaining to Rochor Centre, Bkt Brown Cemetry and others. Were Singaporeans been consulted?

    The Leaders are STILL SHOWING us that they are the Bosses, they know best and that they must be recognized as such. The Last GE and PE Results did not dent their egos nor do they made them any humbler.


  10. 12 To impeach or not to impeach 19 December 2011 at 17:52

    Agree about immigration. In any other country, Hsien Loong would be impeached by now for being a traitor to Singapore. Hubris led to the disastrous policy, so maybe the neat diagrams, venn or not, don’t really apply. Without dad, he’d be history by now.

  11. 13 micecream 19 December 2011 at 18:01

    This is stupid, Bad article. Trickle down economics/extreme capitalism has nothing to do with elitism and nepotism.

    So what alternative do u propose to trickle down?

    • 14 Poker Player 20 December 2011 at 09:49

      This is stupid. Bad comment.

      “Trickle down economics/extreme capitalism has nothing to do with elitism and nepotism.”

      This is a far bolder claim than saying that there is *some* connection.

      “So what alternative do u propose to trickle down?”

      Instead of an alternative to that – let me propose instead an alternative to not knowing that there **are** alternatives to trickle down.

      Read more about the world around you.

    • 15 reservist_cpl 20 December 2011 at 15:39

      Erm, there are lots? Like demand side economics (Keynesian etc)? Especially since trickle down economics generally doesn’t work because of a higher Marginal Propensity to Save among the rich?

  12. 16 Daniel Ling 20 December 2011 at 02:18

    Hi Alex, I thought this article was excellent. Scratched every itch I had about the system but was unable to express eloquently. The conceptual framework neatly pigeonholed every grouse I have with the PAP and its policies.

    However, I disagree with your concluding paragraph. The PAP is not a rudderless boat. They are not “purely reactive”, a conclusion you apparently reached because they are currently in the process of reacting to an increasing number of policy failures. They certainly have a rudder, but they are heading in the wrong direction.

    For example, China, which is widely seen to be morally bankrupt and authoritarian, is constantly fighting fires, both internally (crushing rebellion, quelling unrest and silencing dissent) and externally, whitewashing these acts and carrying out damage control whenever scandals break.

    Yet, while they are perpetually fighting fires, few would say that they are, therefore, reactive or rudderless. They have a long-term game plan, coherent economic goals and a detailed roadmap to reach these goals.

    Their neighbor, North Korea, on the other hand, does not have any realistic long term goals other than perpetuating the current power structure, which they do with a combination of propaganda and military power. Furthermore, it does not have viable plans to achieve anything more than that, relying heavily on aid simply to stay afloat and having no apparent intention of or credible ability to even become self sufficient.

    They are truly rudderless.

    Now, the PAP is now very busy fighting fires, something it has not had to do nearly this much in the recent past. They are today faced with growing unhappiness across Singapore in every one of the 3 areas highlighted in your essay, and are hard at work trying to pacify or throttle us enough to give them enough space to bulldoze their policies through.

    But they do have long-term goals and policies!

    “Gone is a coherent vision of what Singapore ought to be in terms of values, economic model, social weave.”

    I disagree. Their vision of Singapore’s economic model is, as always, “whatever works to hit xx% GDP growth”. Currently, this constitutes media and IP creation, being a “hub” (the overused buzzword) for high-value-added services (such as medicine, finance and education), and of course, the odious Casinos. It is quantifiable, and doesn’t get more coherent than that.

    What comes next is equally single-minded, but the result is less coherent. The vision they have for our values and social weave is simply, “whatever is required to support the above”. At this point, this translates to a heavily immigrant resident population, a workaholic culture, and whatever values and ethical stands that do not draw too much flak from the international community and the populace. Overriding the pragmatic, there is the unwritten rule that their flexible ethics, values and social policies cannot contradict their previous policy directions (cannot lose face mah), and a healthy dash of spin is used to smooth out the contradictions.

    We therefore cannot say that they are reactive or rudderless. Their indecisive and incoherent policy moves in the values and social weave areas are a result of their very coherent political vision: that of economic progress at any price.

    At the risk of being overly simplistic, they have chosen an “X+Y=GDP target, solve for X & Y” approach to policy making, where their social policies are subordinate to their economic ones, and they are less concerned with what X and Y are, but more so with the final value for the GDP target.

    The problem here is that their “GDP above all else” vision is badly misaligned with global best practices in governance (which tend towards a consultative, liberal approach) as well as an increasingly large section of Singapore society itself, who disagree or are unhappy with one or more of the 3 aforementioned articles.

    Therefore, I think that it is not that the PAP are rudderless, but rather, equally disastrously, that they are heading in the wrong direction. Perhaps they should have their (moral) compass looked at.

    • 17 Dee 21 December 2011 at 05:34

      Haha, what thought-provoking articles… I too do not believe our government is on a rudderless ship.. It’d be more like Titanic; people who designed it are overconfident in the system and did not pack enough lifeboats for they did not foresee any hiccups.

      PAP does have some merits, but it is HOW they run this country that really disturbs me.

      While perpetuating the party’s power with heavy-handed censorious tactics, PAP has been running the country like a mega-corporation of their own, which is evidently the wrong direction. The people up there are out of touch with those under their feet… as well as also those already down in the ground (Bukit Brown). A good leader is one who not just leads his followers by hook or by crook to the envisioned destination without a care for their feelings, but also one who ensures this vision will benefit everyone who gets there and that the road down this path is safe. Clearly, PAP has been driving forward without turning his head to look at the mirrors, making sure us passengers are safely belted, not sharing the map with us or discussing the routes with anyone.

      Unless PAP improves on transparency and stop running this country like it is their family bak kut teh business, I doubt PAP will get back more votes in 2016. :/

    • 18 Viv 23 December 2011 at 10:32

      Spot on! I would also add that the current policy failures and the fires that have arisen from them are the results of the past 10-20 years of the GDP-above-all-else targets.

      It is truly difficult to get all aspects of governance right, and no state can claim that honour. Yet you would expect one in which its rulers claim meritocractic superiority to be able to pull that off. The Ministerial salary review committee is hence fighting the very fire that arose from the ideology sitting in Alex’s no.2 conceptual framwork.

    • 19 Lauschke Amy 24 December 2011 at 13:48


      I tend to agree with you. However, consider the possibility that the 2 sovereign funds have lost lots of $$$ (some of which were borrowed from our CPF accounts). Could it be the PAP Govt is trying to raise more money to bet on investments in order to recoup what was lost?

      Then in that case, even if they know exactly what’s wrong with their governance and the feelings on the ground, they cannot relax on their GDP growth at all costs policy, because doing so would mean that the truth will have to be told to us. As To Impeach or Not to Impeach said on 19 Dec, LHL would be history.

  13. 20 mike 22 December 2011 at 12:37

    Can a MP be recalled by the voters ?

  14. 21 R 22 December 2011 at 20:57

    what worries me most, is not so much the current policies but that PAP is purely reactive. A government which reacts on the populist sentiments is a government with no vision. A government with no vision, means a a society with no idea of a future.

  15. 22 Tan 23 December 2011 at 18:57

    If Alex is accurate in saying that the PAP is thinking of ways to do away with Section 377A due to pressure from foreign governments which I presume to mean the United States, perhaps we can think of ways to help quicken the process.
    One thing that distinguishes the pro-gay group and the pro-family group is the use of terminologies. The pro-family group succeeds on many fronts because it uses the word, “family” as a header for its arguments. Although this is erroneous as gay people come from families too and just by leading a gay lifesytle does not make one less loving as a family person. Incidentally, a gay couple can also create a family with their children. The use of “alternative lifestyle” as a header for pro-gay arguments not only misinforms but also alienates the general public as it conjures in them images of wild sex parties and wanton hedonism. The world, gay is also not good because it already carries a negative connoation in the English language. I suggest the use of the word, “pro-happiness”.
    So far, the Democratic Party seems to be doing something for the pro-happiness cause as the recent remark made by Hillary Clinton showed -” Homosexuality is not a Western invention. It is a human reality.” As the Democratic Party has a better track record in protecting the rights of minorities, I urge those who are American citizens and who are sympathetic to the pro-happiness cause to vote for the Democratic Party.

  16. 23 Sin Pariah 31 December 2011 at 13:21

    Paddling furiously rudderless? I’d give PAP more credit than that.

    Side-show : Paddling is part of the “wayang”.

    Main-theme: Progressive Corporatism will remain unchanged as the captain with hands on rudder will stay the course. Why?

    1. Partly because the PAP have dug too deep a hole for themselves and the rest of Singaporeans to get out without paying a high price (eg, SWFs, CPF, HDB, private housing investment as opposed to occupation).

    2. Partly because the PAP don’t care enough for the People (eg, underclass, public transport, healthcare).

    3. Partly because the Civil Service has already been politicized and we have lost this vital public institutional check-and-balance vis-a-vis the Executive.

    Breaking out from a virulent vicious cycle requires seismic paradigm mindset change.

    PAP will remain transfixed (a little reformed but not at all transformed) until and unless a one-third Opposition gets voted into Parliament to be able to transform both Government and Governance Model.

  17. 24 djentlover 11 January 2012 at 11:25

    The problem with Belgium

    No Love Lost: Is Belgium About to Break in Two?,8599,2000517,00.html

    Belgium elections: Beginning of the end of a nation?

    From CIA:
    Dutch (official) 60%, French (official) 40%, German (official) less than 1%, legally bilingual (Dutch and French)

    Will Sinkapore breakup because of all this strife?

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