Surviving a post-PAP mess


The huge losses suffered by the ruling Cambodian People’s Party in the recent general election (July 2013) must worry the People’s Action Party (PAP) in Singapore. It comes merely months after Malaysia’s governing coalition, the Barisan Nasional, lost the popular vote in its May 2013 general election, though it kept a majority of parliamentary seats — a quirk of ‘first past the post’ electoral systems.

In both countries, young and urban voters were reported to have voted strongly against the incumbent party.

Even allowing for substantial differences in public opinion and political conditions in Singapore compared to these two countries, the trend is such that we may need to start thinking about the possibility of an upset victory for opposition parties here within the next 10 to 15 years.

But if Mohammed Morsi’s experience in Egypt is any guide, victory may be short-lived. He won the presidential election in June 2012, but within a year was ousted by the deep state taking advantage of massive popular protests.

Let’s not fool ourselves. We have a deep state too.


As at the time of writing, the situation in Cambodia is still not clear even though it’s been five weeks since the election. The National Election Commission announced early August a preliminary result that supported the ruling Cambodian People’s Party’s (CPP) claim that it had won 68 seats to 55 for the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP). No other party won any other seat.

The CNRP claims it won at least 63 seats in the National Assembly and has lodged complaints alleging massive irregularities including 1.3 million names missing from electoral rolls and that Prime Minister Hun Sen’s side had stuffed ballot boxes with illegal votes. The claims are being checked, but the checking process itself is in dispute.

The Committee for Free and Fair Elections (Comfrel), an independent NGO, says that the popular vote margin was narrow: CPP 48.8%, CNRP 44.5%.

Regardless of the final tally, even based on the election commission’s preliminary result,  it is obvious that CPP suffered a huge drop in support. In the previous parliamentary election in 2008, it received 58.1 percent of votes cast. This translated to 90 seats (out of a total of 123 seats) giving it a headlocking 73% control of the legislature.


Singapore’s PAP would surely have taken note of Cambodia’s and Malaysia’s election results. Comfortable winning margins in one election can vanish by the next. This is particularly since there are many similarities among Cambodia, Malaysia and Singapore, not least of which is the fact that the respective ruling party in each country has been in office a long time. Electorates tend to get tired of long-lasting regimes. All three countries have seen incumbent governments use heavy-handed tactics to entrench themselves in power, including measures such as detention without trial, defamation suits, intimidation of opponents, control of mainstream media that do not pass democratic muster. Each of the three governments too has been accused of cronyism and blamed for neglecting social justice, even if the economy as a whole isn’t tanking.

But a striking difference is that where Cambodia in 2013 had a major opposition party (CNRP) and Malaysia had an opposition alliance (Pakatan Rakyat), in Singapore, our opposition parties are still uncoordinated. However, for the sake of visualising the future, let’s assume that we’ll soon get to the point where either (a) several of our opposition parties can form a united front, or (b) one of them grows sufficiently to contest all seats, presenting itself as a viable alternative government.

When that happens, I reckon that there is a real chance that an electoral upset may occur, and we wake up to a new government the morning after.

Rough going

It will be rough going. Between inexperienced people taking over ministries and great wariness among civil servants about their new masters, there will be misunderstanding, miscommunication and a general slowdown. Civil servants may display a touchy defensiveness about past actions taken under the old administration. Effectiveness will suffer. Missteps will occur.

New ministers will likely face ‘damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t’ dilemmas. If they go about replacing senior officials because their loyalties are suspect, they may find themselves losing a lot of expertise. On the other hand, if they keep them on, they may not get the co-operation that is needed. Even if new ministers go out of their way to woo them, they may not succeed.


Mohammed Morsi, from what I’ve read, faced great resistance from the civil service he inherited from Hosni Mubarak, his predecessor. This resistance partly accounted for the widely perceived failure of the new administration to deliver services and rescue a rapidly imploding economy, which in turn led to disillusionment and protests.

You may ask why Singapore’s civil servants would want to be obstructionist. Some might do it out of political conviction. After all, the PAP would have promoted those they trusted most. But others will adopt a wait-and-see attitude out of self-preservation. They may believe the PAP will come back into power. A slim victory by the opposition is more likely than a crushing one, and so long as the deep state is not eradicated, the chance of the PAP coming back with a vengeance cannot be ruled out. Risk-averse civil servants will not want to be later accused of being too helpful towards a non-PAP government.

So, if the new government is radical about cleaning house, there will, in the short term, be severe disruption to the business of government. On the other hand, if it does not eliminate root and branch, then the deep state may very soon rouse itself. That’s what happened in Egypt. Various dark forces conspired to heighten the media decibels against Morsi, cause petrol shortages to inconvenience ordinary folks, bringing disrepute to the new administration. More generally, they sought to blunt his every move.

Of course, Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood were also incompetent at governing, as many other articles have pointed out. They created many of their own woes. By most accounts, they brought with them a degree of prickly paranoia, that might have served them well when they were persecuted by previous Egyptian administrations, but also prevented them from reaching out and building broader alliances with other anti-Mubarak groups once in power. And they were too drunk on their own narrative of Islamic solutions to all ills to notice that many fellow countrymen do not consider it the only desirable future.

Would our opposition parties, when they come into power display analogous weaknesses? I don’t see why we should discount the possibility. As it is, the Workers’ Party is already accused of staying aloof from other opposition parties and civil society movements. I have previously written about their post-1987 ‘Marxist Conspiracy’ fear of being sucked into others’ agenda. And if the market cleaning incident is recalled, it too — like all administrations — can have feet of clay.

Give people some credit

But another lesson from the market cleaning incident is this: People can see the broader picture. They will take hiccups and small cock-ups in stride when there is a bigger prize in hand. For now, that bigger prize is giving the PAP a bloody nose.

Small cock-ups. It’s one thing to run a town council. It’s another to run a state government. When an opposition party or alliance takes over the entire government, cock-ups won’t remain small. Mistakes, policy confusion, delays — all will be magnified. Finding enough people the new ministers can trust to fill second, third and fourth tier positions will take time. Acquiring experience and earning public respect will take even longer. Problems can spiral out of control and patience easily run out well before that.

The equation our opposition parties must remain acutely conscious of is this: how much inconvenience and incompetence will people be prepared to forgive in return for sweeping the arrogant PAP from power?

I have a sneaky feeling:  not much.

So, given that the transition will unavoidably be difficult, what can the opposition do to buy itself more credit? How to increase the prize so that people are prepared to put up with the cost?

I’d offer two approaches:

1.  Clear promises to implement easy-to-achieve goals within the first hundred days. In other words, don’t just aim to be a PAP-lite government without the arrogance, because it won’t take much to slide into aimless mediocrity. Be a government that marches boldly in a distinctly different direction and delivers big quickly. Doing so makes tangible the benefit of change.

2.  Set out clear policy directions for the medium term. Even if some hopes cannot be realised quickly, convincing people that these goals will be arduously pursued will help keep voters on side.

As I will explain below, doing both increases the “value-add” of putting faith in an alternative government. It will better justify the cost of a messy transition.

The difference between (1) and (2) above lies in the fact that there are some things that can be done quickly and many others that just can’t.

The disruption of moving house can feel similar to that of changing governments

The disruption of moving house can feel similar to that of changing governments

Those that can’t involve detailed modification of existing policy. You will need experts to consider alternatives and willing bureaucrats to implement changes. Examples include changing housing rules (which may also need time to re-orient development plans), modifying healthcare access and foreign manpower allocations (which has as many pros as cons). Even getting our sovereign funds to provide more transparent annual reports will take at least a year and much struggle with organisational inertia.

Those that can be done quickly are likely to be things where you can just stop doing something. Put a moratorium on giving out new citizenships. Stop regulating the media, entertainment or the arts (except maybe the barest minimum with respect to pornography). Close down the National Trades Union Congress. Slim down the Registry of Societies to make it easy for independent trade unions and other groups to be set up.

Another easy list would be, with a majority in Parliament, to make sweeping changes to restrictive laws. Of course Section 377A must go. The Public Order Act must be pruned. The Internal Security Act must be abolished and a Truth Commission established to review the ‘Marxist Conspiracy’ arrests of 1987 and 1988. New laws relegating ‘scandalising the judiciary’ to the trashbin should be put in. You don’t need to depend on reluctant civil servants to make these changes.

In short, opposition parties shouldn’t promise that when they come into power, things will run smoothly minus the arrogance of the PAP. History tells us that transitions after a long period of one-party rule will be bumpy, and raising expectations thus is the surest path to disappointment. The smart thing to do is to plan for a rocky transition by augmenting the value-add that people will reap when they back you for change, so that stoic patience is seen as the better bargain.

33 Responses to “Surviving a post-PAP mess”

  1. 1 Rin 3 September 2013 at 15:11

    Making a sweeping statement that all civil servants support PAP and will want them in power and help them back in power shows ignorance and lack of research. Prove it to your readers that you have concrete evidence that all civil servants will want PAP in power to make such a sweeping statement.

    • 2 yawningbread 3 September 2013 at 23:16

      When did I say all civil servants? Who’s being sweeping now?

    • 3 andyxianwong 6 September 2013 at 21:35

      I’m not so worried about all civil servants, but there are surely a fair few senior ones with a huge vested interest in maintaining the power of the PAP. If I remember correctly, the population white paper and MDA’s new internet licensing regulations were apparently overseen by the same civil servant.

      • 4 andyxianwong 9 September 2013 at 22:29

        If anyone cares I figured out who I had in mind with this comment. A fellow by the name of Chiang Meng Niam is both Director at the MDA and also perm sec at the national talent and population division. So presumably was running or to some extent overseeing both MDA’s licensing regulation changes and also the population white paper

  2. 5 Y2 3 September 2013 at 17:54

    Yes need to start anticipating for electoral shock and anticipating difficult transition. A shadow gov for main positions when can get enuf good pple… will be hard journey hopefully not filled with too much obstacles. I agree, Singaporeans will be impatient and hv low tolerance. Quick swingback probably but experience will be helpful for any alternative gov/parties

  3. 6 yuen 3 September 2013 at 19:32

    opposition unity might be a nice long term goal, but given the superior performance of workers party in recent by elections and in 2011, for the 2016 election at least, unity merely amounts to other parties conceding to WP’s advance

    for example, what would NSP do if WP decides to contest some electorate neighbouring its stronghold in Aljunied – Marine Parade, Pasir Ris, Whampo or Radin Mas, with the argument that it has a better chance to win? if both opposition parties contest the electorate, that would split the opposition vote and benefit PAP

  4. 7 soh wee jun 3 September 2013 at 19:44

    I hope Mr Low Thia Khiang is reading this. He needs to be ready when the time comes, no matter what he says. It has to be.

    • 8 andyxianwong 6 September 2013 at 21:38

      I think WP have stated they do not intend to contest a majority of seats at next GE, and probably the one after too. They have also stated their desire to see Singapore as a two-party state. If Singapore were a two-party state, and WP doesn’t contest the majority of seats, who do you think Low Thia Khiang expects to see running Singapore after 2016?

      • 9 70-year-old citizen 8 September 2013 at 15:10

        Was LTK a PAP man before he jumped over to WP? Soon after, JBJ being the leader of WP which he sacrified so much had to abandon it and start anew with RP. Serious thoughts must be given to this lest WP may become a hiden branch of PAP.

  5. 10 Alan 3 September 2013 at 21:11

    If one is smart enough, one should have realised by now that the only way to make PAP start paying the right attention to Singaporean citizens & amend their usual arrogant ways is to give them the red card through the ballot box. The consequent results from the last GE are already here for everyone to see.

    So the bigger the warning & the more red cards, the merrier and the less arrogant & less of a bully they will become. Come the next GE, we should all give them a run for their money. Otherwise they will simply go back to their arrogant bullying ways and just don’t give a damn to the urgent needs of the majority Sin gapore citizens.

  6. 11 KNN 4 September 2013 at 07:06

    I was just about to bite the bait, and then I saw it once more. 377. Please write outside of your own agenda? Can?

    • 12 yawningbread 4 September 2013 at 09:31

      Why should I? Why are my own concerns illegitimate? In saying that what I write should please you and confirm your biases, you are really saying “I’m fine with gay people so long as they stop being gay in front of my eyes.”

      How would it sound to a Muslim: “I’m fine with Muslims so long as they stop acting or thinking Muslim when I am around.”

      Or to Chinese: “I’m fine with Chinese so long as each time they speak and write, they adopt my [insert your non-Chinese ethnicity/culture here] point of view and pretend their own does not exist.”

      • 13 KNN 4 September 2013 at 21:07

        It’s all ok. It’s your blog anyway.
        Some of us are a little tired to read 377 stuff amongst other more excellent stuff about general stuff and all.
        That’s all.

        Don’t interpolate so deep(bringing in muslims and so on), revealing your own fears and inadequacies unto us (my comment).

        We all know it is a hard uphill task for you. We did not say we don’t support you nor do I despise you (as you depicted in your reply).
        It’s just a bit overcooked and recooked topic again and again.
        That’s all. Good luck.

      • 14 Rethink 5 September 2013 at 00:54

        Hate to say this but…. I told you so Alex. Civil society is no friend to LGBTs. When they have achieved their aims they will turn their backs on LGBTs and continue to oppress you, since they never really cared about you in the first place. To be frank, the only reason why they pretend to care about gay equality is the warped logic of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”. To hell with them and their redistributive left-wing agenda. You should realign yourself with the corporate interests that actually do care about gay people.

      • 15 Lim 5 September 2013 at 11:03

        I am with Rethink, Alex. The sad reality is that most opposition constituents are not supportive of LGBTs (and probably never have been). Leaning towards corporate interests is one way of getting the PAP’s attention, which is already happening.

        In the end, it’s a political game, and I hopeful that things will get better for LGBTs in Singapore, without a change in government.

        I consider myself supportive of the opposition agenda/cause, but am finding myself a lot less so now. I don’t want my Singapore sinking into mediocrity, which I feel is the direction populist WP is leading us towards.

      • 16 octopi 9 September 2013 at 05:53

        There’s one thing about the gay agenda: it’s probably right down the list of priorities for Singaporeans, way behind cost of living and foreigners. And these are problems caused by the corporate interests.

        There’s no real need to go join hands with the corporate interests because you think they’re going to help you with the gay agenda. Those guys are actually the larger enemy. Gay people who hold powerful positions in the corporate world will already be protected. It’s the gay people in the communities who don’t give a shit about gays who are suffering right now – the fundamentalist churches, many muslims, the more conservative Chinese, the lower middle class. It’s more important to find gay sympathisers among that segment of people and use them to rally support.

    • 17 Do they know it's corruption at all? 4 September 2013 at 10:00

      DUmb ass. Fuck off lah.

    • 18 peace 4 September 2013 at 11:04

      lol, I find it funny that you actually opened your mouth. Alex Au is a gay and will continue to write with a gay agenda. But that is just one agenda of the many agendas that he has. There is no need to agree with everything he wrote. Learn to compartmentalize while you read. If you can’t, then better not read, or you may transform into a gay.


    • 19 octopi 9 September 2013 at 05:38

      I saw this comment and tried to look through the article for the paragraph where Alex started breaking into a long rant about 377A. Well it was just one sentence. Why that strong reaction? If you feel really strongly about the gay rights agenda overreaching their hand, you need to go out there, put your own ass on the line and speak up. Otherwise all this talk about real manhood is just nothing but wayang.

      This is the biggest argument against the traditional Singapore “non-confrontational” mode of politics. If you ban everybody from speaking up, then there’s no information out there, the agenda can be hijacked by a well organized minority. There should never ever be such a thing as a silent majority, and therefore there should never be a need for the govt to purportedly speak up on their behalf.

      The resignation of Vincent Wijeysingha from the SDP recently underlines something I said in an earlier comment: the gay rights issue is the domain of civil society, not the political system. The political system is only a reflection of what goes on at grassroots. It has always been about winning hearts and minds on the ground level, never anything else. Your enemies are certain churches and certain mosques and you must confront them head on and not sit back and wait for the govt to fight your fight.

      People are not willing to listen to reason, there’s no use. But people are sheep, and if you lay out a whole list of countries who unlike Singapore do not criminalise homosexual activity, it’s actually going to be more powerful. I think India has abolished their 377 recently, so it’s not possible that you can say this is a westernized thing. Gay civil rights has made much progress in the US recently. I’m just wondering when Alex was going to write an article like that.

  7. 20 Duck Dick 4 September 2013 at 10:06

    It’s a yawn indeed. 377 all the time. Cannot think outside the box.

  8. 22 JT1987 4 September 2013 at 10:21

    Interesting article. Now here’s something that I’ve been thinking about lately:

    What will we do if the government decides to curtail our voting rights through constitutional reform before the next election?

    How do we constitutionally vote out a government that has successfully passed multiple unconstitutional laws without national referendum in the past?

    I wouldn’t put it past them to do it if they truly become desperate in the next 3 years.

  9. 23 ape@kinjioleaf 4 September 2013 at 13:41

    You forgot to mention another key challenge for the new government (NG) – access to accurate and complete information.
    NG will find it difficult to implement any key policy change without in depth understanding or knowledge.
    If our first elected president has difficulty obtaining a decent breakdown of our reserves, I’m skeptical if a NG can do anything significant within the first term.
    But there will be expectations from the voters to see change. The impatient ones will want to see changes fast. Some of the ‘loyal’ supporters will also lobby for their own agenda and may even switch sides if they felt their ‘loyalty’ did not pay off.

  10. 24 JL 4 September 2013 at 18:13

    A scary scenario is that power is suddenly thrust to an opposition union with no unity and which has a slight majority in parliament with the Whities on the other side. First of all, the opposition does not seem to have developed enough strength to handle mundane topics like hawker centre ceilings. Then u hv opposition working in opposite directions at times. And then u hv the cunning Whities trying every which way to obstruct and destroy. Lastly, u hv civil servants who suddenly have to grow brains instead of following SOP. Quite a mess. But still it offers more hope than the present situation in which the Whities just push their agenda ahead in a slightly more digestible disguise.

    • 25 Anon 2gD7 6 September 2013 at 20:43

      I don’t think the “Whities” are as united as you claim they are/will be. Once another party/coalition gains power, some will defect.

  11. 26 Jake 4 September 2013 at 20:04

    How bout the elephant in the room? GRCs? That needs to go. With that gone, a PAP comeback is less likely as most of the people they attract have no stomachs for a straight electoral fight. I suppose you left that out as the opposition will not have the required 2/3. The next govt can get around it by putting the issue to a referendum?

  12. 27 Jake 4 September 2013 at 20:11

    Agree that the union needs to be expanded to break the NTUC monopoly. But shutting it down might seem harsh? If you are only talking about taking away the concept of an umbrella organisation for unions that NTUC is right now, I think it’s worth pursuing. However, breaking all of its structure might seem autocratic. Better to build alternatives by repealing union laws which gave NTUC and affiliated unions the monopoly to represent workers. Also allow pmets to be unionised. They really need it.

  13. 28 henry 4 September 2013 at 22:43

    It may appear a mess, but let us be clear: the PAP will still be around along with its supporters.

    I doubt they will ruin the structure, scorched earth type. They will in fact create obstacles to highlight the ineptness of the incumbent. ( similar to the hawker centre cleaning episode)Things will not run as smoothly but it will run. I have faith in the Singapore spirit of kampong-ness. In fact, it may encourage people to find their own unique solutions, which is not a bad consequence. (Though the PAP dislike that: people having their own minds)

    Eventually it does no one any good to create a division among the citizenry.

    I look forward to a time that we can be confident, and comfortable as a country that we made… messy or not. ( not one designed by one man ).

    • 29 yuen 6 September 2013 at 12:22

      much of PAP’s recent electoral adversity was self inflicted; the major examples I recall

      1. James Gomez case 2006: LKY, Wong Kan Seng and George Yeo spent far too much time talking about a minor issue (LHL and GCT both kept quiet – they could afford to); the Aljunied voters punished George Yeo, and WP identified the electorate as vulnerable, put effort into the ground work and won it decisively in 2001

      2. Tin Pei Lin case 2011: it was sound strategy to find some younger, especially female, faces, but they should have made the effort to find someone with a track record as a political operator in her own right, not just a polished presenter from management consultancy experience recommended by a personal connection; I also believe if they introduced her at the end, after people have grown bored with all those familiar CVs of civil servants, generals, professionals, executives, etc, she might have enjoyed a better reception, so they botched the presentation in addition to selection

      3. Joo Chiat case 2011: it was also sound strategy to replace old by young, but Charles Chong is older than Chen Soo Sen so the change could not be justified on that ground; Chen also enjoyed certain personal support which did not readily transfer via party loyalty; WP ended with nearly 50%

      4. Hougang case 2012: Teo Chee Hean dwelt far too long on Yaw Shin Leong’s personal and business failings, which Yaw’s former supporters preferred not to be reminded of, whereas upbeat talk about the wonderful things PAP would do for Hougang if elected, might have more fully exploited the unexpected opportunity; after the Hougang moralizing, the Palmer case was a particularly hard blow – PAP candidates are like anyone else

      whether the party would learn from these mistakes, and whether it would make new ones in 2016, is of course to be seen; given the resources available; it certainly has potential of doing much better

  14. 30 MaxChew 8 September 2013 at 16:33

    The next GE will be held in 2015 and not 2016. It’s only 2 years hence. Why? The PM has proclaimed the year 2015 to be celebrated grandly and massively as it is Singapore’s 50th Anniversary! Logically it will start with the National Day on 9Aug2015 and carried on till Sep-Oct2015. With millions if not billions spent on the electorate (GSTvouchers will be $2,000 cash per HDB voter) the PAP Govt knows the feel-good euphoria nationwide has to be taken advantage of quickly and fix the GE either in Nov or Dec 2015!
    At the very latest it will be Jan 2016… heard it from me here first!
    All Opp parties and potential candidates should get ready from today!

  15. 31 dew 8 September 2013 at 18:55

    Personally, i do not think WP under LKT has the ambition to take over the government. Their vision under LKT is to be a co-driver, a slapper.

    It will probably be the task of LKT successor to set the vision of forming a government. Till now, it is still in the baking or none at all.

  16. 32 jeremy 12 September 2013 at 17:40

    usually love reading your articles but in 2 minds here whether to classify this as far-sighted or counting prehatched chickens.

    and i thought you were a pessimist!

  17. 33 worried 26 September 2013 at 11:05

    Great article, first time I have seen this question addressed in so comprehensive a manner. It is something many of us worry about. However, there is another possible outcome that arises from your Egypt example – that if the PAP loses the election, the army will take over.

    The ‘commanding heights’ of many ministries and GLCs have already been taken by army generals, and no doubt that process will continue. So when the opposition wins ‘agent provocateurs’ will create trouble so that the army has an excuse to ‘restore order’, just as happened in Egypt.

    That way the PAP cadre can continue to benefit from the perks of power, even if they call themselves something else. Like for example the ‘State Law And Order Restoration Council’, or SLORC?

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