Go with a smile!

Saturday, May 21, 2011

The future of PAP

I have followed Cherian George's writings ever since he put out "Air Conditioned Nation" more than 10 years ago. I always thought that his comments on Singapore politics were fairly accurate and well informed (well considering that his brother in law is Yaacob Ibrahim, he'd better be.)

The one article that I have a major disagreement with is Cherian’s assessment of the opposition’s chances in 2016. I don’t really agree that the David will find it harder against a reformed Goliath.

Is life getting better?
Rightly or wrongly, people tend to judge governments harshly. They won’t vote on the basis of which government they think can do the job better. They vote based on whether their life has been more miserable or better over the last 4/5 years. Or put it another way, the die hard PAP ppl will always think that PAP is the better government. The die hard opposition will always think that the opposition better than PAP in power. And the swing voters, the one whose votes determine the outcome of elections, vote on the basis of “is my life getting better”.

Life in 2016 will not be easier than life in 2011. We will have to deal with climate change, oil shortage, even higher land prices. Also it will take a while for the government to cut down the number of foreigners in Singapore, even if they wanted to (by no means certain.) How long before people think that the roads are less

The internet is the opposition home ground
The opposition owns the internet. You can think of it as an opposition constituency. And history tells us so far that so long as the town council is competently run, opposition constituencies are notoriously difficult to win back. They start to see themselves the same way that the inhabitants of Gaul in the Asterix comics see themselves. 10 years ago, when surfing on Sam’s Alfresco coffee shop, I knew that the PAP had already lost the internet.

The PAP is unable to adapt to the internet
Anyway, I have come to the conclusion that the PAP is congenitally unable to adapt to the internet and social networking.

If the PAP had the ability to learn how to engage people over the internet, it would already have done so. It is totally shocking that the best they can muster is Tin Peiling. How much can they learn in the next 5 years, that they didn’t manage to learn in the last 10?

PAP were lucky enough to have George Yeo, who instinctively understood that people wanted to be listened to. But I don’t think that many of the rest of them. But George Yeo is gone. He has become collateral damage in the battle royale described in this article In a strategic blunder, the PAP put Lim Hwee Hwa into Aljunied as an additional human shield and managed to lose her as well. I don’t think the WP went after him. They probably felt that the ground was sweet in the old Cheng San and Eunos and he was in the way. So the person who could best help the PAP reinvent itself is also the one who doesn’t have an electoral mandate.

LKY is a liability
You have an MM who is universally regarded as a legend in his time. But now periodically tells the rest of his audience that he knows lala land (he calls it “the 60s”) better than anybody else. Which may be true, but lala land is lala land no matter how you look at it. And after that, he goes on to shoot whichever part of his foot that hasn’t already been blown off.

I don’t know if it’s because LKY hasn’t been campaigning for so long that he’s forgotten what it’s like to sell himself to an electorate. I see all the old pictures of him on TV. He made a lot of brilliant PR moves. Dressing everybody in white to represent no corruption, in direct contrast to Lim Hock Yew’s corrupt government. Picking up a broom to sweep the floor himself. Planting a tree. Explaining to villagers that he wanted everything done efficiently and smoothly. How did he suddenly become so inept at endearing himself to the public?

(NB I wrote this section before LKY tendered his resignation)

The PAP is divided
This was quite apparent during the elections. One interesting thing is that Goh Chok Tong was quite unhappy about having to be Tin Pei Ling's chaperone. He was also quite unhappy about the fact that George Yeo had to be in the line of fire in Aljunied. Not long after the elections, a Temasek Review article was put up alleging that Goh Chok Tong had advocated George Yeo to run in East Coast GRC, so that the Singaporeans didn't have to choose between George Yeo or a very strong Worker's Party team. But he was overruled by the 2 deputy prime ministers, Teo Chee Hean and Wong Kan Seng. I think that this revelation was even too explosive for the Temasek Review and it was taken down a few days later.

What is apparent in any case is that PAP is struggling to portray a united front. That is inevitable when it makes up most of the government. There will always be factions forming on different issues, there will always be people with different views about things. And this is more so when the party is attempting to make a transition in the way that it does things. You can expect a lot of quarrels between the liberal and conservative factions of the party, over the rate of the change, and what can or should be changed.

The PAP does not know how to read the situation
There is a current of thought that the PAP has the right policies, and all they have to do is to explain those policies better to the populace. I think they should disabuse themselves of this thought because it will land them in trouble. The people know that some policies are there to benefit the upper echelon of society at the expense of all other people and they’re not too stupid to figure that out for themselves.

I don’t know if Elite Girl (aka Wee Shu Min)’s infamous essay reflects the mindset of the PAP, that people who are disadvantaged in life deserve their lot because they are stupid and lazy. A lot of these attitudes seep through in the way that PAP interacts with people on line. Invariably, the PAP gets flamed on its own web site. Invariably, the sysads sometimes reply that the hordes of people with their herd mentality do not have the intellectual capability to understand all of PAP’s long term policies. (Even though this is bad PR, it is sometimes true.) The worst posts get deleted. Invariably, a flame war erupts and the PAP screws up yet again.

The PAP does not have the culture to adapt to change
But by far the biggest obstacle to PAP being able to reinvent itself, is its own mentality and attitude. They seem to be a top-down, autocratic institution, totally unsuited for democracy. Can you imagine a young PAP member being able to advise his superiors about how to frame his message so that it sinks in better? Can you imagine the young PAP being able to attract the sort of person who does this? Can you imagine the PAP being able to shed off its insecurity and paranoia and adopting a more spontaneous, breezy style?

The PAP has problems attracting talent
Cherian acknowledges that the PAP has a problem attracting talent, an even bigger problem than the opposition. The opposition have their Wijeysinghas, their Chen Show Maos, their Ang Yong Guans and Nicole Seah. Part of the reason for their sudden ascent to prominence is the sheer novelty of seeing a different type of opposition candidates for the first time. Perhaps the PAP have great and capable people standing in the wings. But this was not sufficiently highlighted. How many of the 4th generation leaders compare to the aforementioned opposition candidates in terms of their charisma? How are they allowed to express themselves and bond with the people? You cannot do that when you have a party line to stick to all the time. The best politicians are always allowed to be themselves all the time.

If you want to talk about branding, let’s analyse the brands of the political parties. The PAP. A group of hardworking, intelligent and honest people set up one of the best governments in the world. Singapore was a place which had economic problems in the 1950s, but by the 1970s, the nation building was so successful that they managed to lift the living standards to first world. However, the style of government is autocratic. Fear and repression was the order of the day. People don’t want to join PAP unless they are mindless minions who always enjoy doing what they’re told. Otherwise they are evil geniuses. PAP people are like the school nerds who always try and always fail to be cool.

Why? Because it is always cooler to be a rebel, and it is especially cool to be a rebel when the odds are overwhelmingly against you. People who vote PAP are mentally and morally weak people who give in to their fear.

Branding - the opposition.
To be sure, since time immemorial, Opposition Party rallies have always drawn a big crowd. Then, as now, they were opportunities for people to be free of the PAP controlled media once every 4-5 years. But in the past, they were more like freak shows, circuses or public hangings. You went there to see what the clowns looked like just before they got guillotined.

Foolhardy but brave
They used to be a bunch of fools going strong where angels fear to tread. They used to be bitter complainers. In any case they often had the short straw. Now? Now JBJ, Tang Liang Hong, Francis Seow, Chiam See Tong and even Chee Soon Juan are like martyred saints.

Well meaning tree huggers
Now they are professional policy analysts who have postgraduate degrees. Or they are amateurish but well meaning cassandras who, like Qu Yuan, try to counsel that the country is going the wrong way, and who are likely to get executed for their troubles. More than a few of them look like tree hugging hippies a card short of a full deck but liberal bleeding hearts cannot resist guys like that.

Battered underdog. Cheap but good
Chiam See Tong – look at his instinctive understanding of branding. The Volkswagen. (the people’s car, in other words.) The partitioned makeshift municipal office. The poisoned plant, whose tale was recounted by Lina Chiam in a rally speech. The iconic “welcome to Potong Pasir” sign. Even his Toa Payoh Lorong 8 is a time capsule, and a reminder of a moment frozen in time, the 80s, shortly before the PAP began to lose its way. And his greatest, most iconic image is not himself as the young warrior taking on the rest of parliament single-handedly. It is the image of him, Saint CST, down with stroke. Silently we accuse the PAP: this stroke is the cumulation of the ordeals you put him through over the 27 years. Bravely, he mumbles into the mike, “I am not a brave man, but I love Singapore.”

Whisper to a scream
Gone are the days when JBJ used to stand helplessly at MRT entrances, piteously hawking his book while the rest of the world passed him by while trying to avoid his glance. Now the trickle has become a flood. One of the iconic images of GE 2011 would be the stopped traffic outside Serangoon Stadium and the triumphant hordes saluting the Worker’s Party.

Regular folk
I was browsing through Chen Show Mao’s web page. Now this is a guy who gets paid a lot for his legal work. But you had pictures of him still being connected to the ground. You had Sylvia Lim, Low Thia Khiang, Pritam Singh, and they look like a gang of old pals that you want to hang out with, rather than royalty. They were hanging out at the kopitiam, shaking hands. Eating prata for breakfast. Riding the MRT. Contrast this with the PAP. When you look at them, there is an invisible velvet rope separating them from you. They’re it, and you, in case you didn’t know it yet, are not. They were ministers, always in a hurry, always chauffeured. They had the worries of the world on their shoulders, but for some strange reason, “the world” doesn’t include you.

Little Nyonya
Who would have thought that only a few years after Mediacorp’s top rated Chinese drama, “The Little Nyonya”, there would be a Nicole Seah who could come in and fill those beaded shoes in real life? And who would have thought that she’s even better looking than Jeanette Aw?

Anyway her day job (advertising executive) is figuring out how best to tug at peoples’ heartstrings. From the looks of it, she’s probably damn good at her job.

Getting tracked
Anybody who’s ever leant support to an opposition party would know that sneaky creepy feeling that his career / route of advancement might be curtailed if he or she is outed. For a time, the lawsuits have had their chilling effect. Now the shoe is on the other foot. People have started finding comfort in numbers. How are you going to sue 90000 people for “like”ing Nicole Seah? Conversely, any hint that the system may be favouring the PAP will, fairly or unfairly, have the internet vigilantes coming down on the PAP like a ton of bricks.

Hanging on the Ledge
So why is this a problem? Consider the worst case for the PAP. Another 2 big swings against the PAP in the next 2 elections. After the first swing, they get 55%. That would translate to losing 20 seats. (I know you wrote that it is possible that the PAP will poll 55% but still win everything. This is possible but extremely unlikely due to a dynamic similar to the 2nd law of thermodynamics.) After another swing of 50% they could lose the outright majority, and with it, the government. Can the opposition form a government in 10 years? Do their guys have the ability to govern? Nobody knows for sure.

There are broadly 3 outcomes for Singapore. First is that the opposition regresses and things go back to the “good old days” of PAP taking all seats except for 1 or 2. Not an interesting case because we’ve been there before.

The second case is that the opposition wins a larger share, but it is still in the minority. Certainly not large enough to hinder policy making, but large enough to be a strong voice, and be the “co-driver” that it has sold itself as. This is the outcome that I favour. But it is also an outcome that, thanks to the GRC system, lies in a fairly narrow band of the popular vote. (50% to 60%).

The last case is that the opposition forms a majority and decides to form a coalition government, leaving PAP in the opposition. This is unlikely but not impossible. If it happens prematurely it will have catastrophic consequences for Singapore. The country will then be in the hands of a cadre that unlike our tried and trusted PAP folks, have not been groomed all their lives to lead the nation. They may well govern in ways substantially different from the past. They may have ideas that work great on paper, but bomb in practice. They may bleed our reserves dry. They may make promises to citizens that it would be impossible for subsequent governments to fulfil. Or they could fulfil their promise and make Singapore a much better place than the PAP is capable of.

But unless it is clear that the PAP is leading Singapore on a road to ruin, I wouldn’t want to gamble on an “opposition” government. (opposition government is technically an oxymoron.)

Democracy for Singapore
Is Singapore ready for a democracy? Singaporeans are well educated and possibly they are intelligent. You couldn’t tell by the inane comments they leave on forums, but that is also a consequence of a high internet penetration – the smart guys are not the only ones with access to computers. But are they politically matured? I don’t think so.

At the risk of making crude caricatures, the PAP supporters are unthinking stooges who cannot see past the specious arguments that the government makes in order to justify policies that benefit a chosen few at the expense of the screwed majority. The opposition supporters are rebels without a cause; uncouth, potty mouthed and morally smug people who wouldn’t be able to tell a genuinely well meaning government policy even if it slapped them in the face.

People are all too quick to root for their tribe, too quick to subscribe to a Manichean divide of good vs evil. People on both sides are too quick to dismiss moderate opinions as being muddled and confused. This is the consequence of our education system which places emphasis on memorisation of facts

This is the last election where people can vote opposition and not have to worry about triggering off a constitutional crisis.

Maybe Cherian has his reasons why he wants to put out an essay reassuring people that the PAP will get their act together. For me, I feel they have a mountain to climb.


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