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.
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) 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.
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.
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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.