Following its poor showing at the 2011 General Elections, the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) is recasting itself as being more responsive to the people and investing in social policies to make its platform more “people-centric”.
Various education, healthcare, housing, retirement, immigration and labour policies have been tweaked or are under review.
If opinions on popular social media platforms are anything to go by, the PAP’s relentless campaign to overhaul its image has been a mixed success.
The opposition Workers’ Party has also largely proved ineffectual despite its strengthened representation in Parliament. This prompts the question: What about our political environment is proving so challenging for both the incumbent and opposition to find traction?
There are a myriad of possible explanations, including a push-back against the PAP’s prolonged incumbency and cynicism that, despite the changes since 2011, the Government is still autocratic by nature.
Understanding our state of politics requires an identification of the key forces that are competing to shape the political future. These can be broadly categorised as realists, liberals and populists.
Naturally, there are shades in between, but the political space has sufficiently developed such that we can today generalise without being abstract.
These political forces are already at work and the interplay is beginning to transform the nature of extant political parties and condition both the electorate and politicians.
THE THREE FORCES AT PLAY
The most recognisable political force is one that casts the national journey as a morality tale of survival predicated by perpetual economic success and the need for strong government. Proponents of this view style themselves as realists.
Historically, the most ardent proponents of this model have been civil-service policymakers and technocratic politicians from the PAP. In recent times, in reaction to changing political winds, the authority of this model has diminished but is still dominant.
What was traded off in this model was a consideration for the citizen as human. There was a feeling among some citizens of being treated merely as units of labour — just another factor of production to be substituted or made more efficient.
The push from the ground for its voice to be heard has threatened to undermine this model. However, the pendulum should swing only so far as to focus not only on the quantity but also the quality of Singapore’s economic growth, and not so far as to dismiss the importance of growth. There is, after all, no such thing as prosperity without growth.
The political pendulum is swinging away from traditionalists and in favour of liberalism. The liberals, mostly middle-class professionals who are well travelled, take the view that the economy must serve the higher purpose of fulfilling social needs.
For them, social-welfare state models such as those of Scandinavian countries are popular reference points.
The liberal camp has a mixed and shifting composition, but all liberals share a common preference for a more caring government. This means greater subsidies, more explicit links between economic progress and benefits to citizens, as well as an inclination towards Western cultural models and acceptance of unconventional lifestyles.
The liberal view has much to offer to a Singapore that has been shaped for five decades by the view of traditionalists.
However, it can be said that the liberals’ ideals are met when all circles of perspective can be squared and all wants satisfied.
In short, the liberal view is a luxury of an affluent society with a large and confident middle class.
The liberal agenda is very attractive to the young, who are naturallymore idealistic. However, there is a risk of not recognising that the predicates for fulfilling the liberal agenda are full bellies and firm roofs.
The most recent and visible political phenomena in recent years has been the advent of the populists.
Populists are focused on getting the most support rather than what is good for most. They tend to have either one of two tactics — to pander to the gallery or to arouse passions.
This potent but confused force has proponents across the political spectrum. There are hard-core supporters in the incumbents’ camp, hard thrusters in the disparate opposition and aggressive individuals in the activist space.
For the incumbent, the most important thing is to enhance the political authority of the PAP.
For the opposition, it is about attainment of political power.
For activists, the focus seems to be best described as a rejection of political power held by the incumbent — there seems to be no progressive or elaborated agenda beyond that near nihilist obsession.
A survey of policy changes by the PAP in the past three years seems to suggest a strategy to go far enough to the political left to outflank the opposition.
The anti-incumbent agenda has strong resonance with a public facing the pressures of fast-moving changes and rising costs. However, the lack of a credible portfolio of solutions to match the basket of grievances betrays an essentially anarchic nature.
Populism can be a powerful force, but history is clear on how it is also one that is usually difficult to control or predict.
We will all be weaker if we are governed by popular demand because it leads to an overarching and relentless demand to be popular. That is a recipe for short-term political success and long-term national ruin.
WHAT’S YOUR POINT?
As we move past the half-term mark for the current government, all Singaporeans should be taking a hard look at our assumptions, aspirations and, yes, even anxieties about Singapore.
Each of us should have a point of view about these political forces and their role in shaping the future of Singapore.
The challenge of national leadership is to find and articulate the balance of the three forces in a way that wins the support of the majority.
To cynics, the natural question has always been “what’s the point?”. This is a defeatist view that has no place in the national journey.
My view is both liberalism and realism have a place in the future Singapore, but populism needs to be avoided.
Liberalism demands an informed and interested citizenry that accepts and is better for its differences. This is a tall order, but is a worthy goal and a mark of a mature and humane society.
However, we cannot be naive and ignore the realities of our economic condition.
Populism is the real threat among the three forces. It throws up weak leaders with no normative vision.
We need confident leadership that can accept feedback from the ground, offer a vision to the people and develop a plan to realise our collective aspirations.
However, we must guard against the allure of the idea that what the people want is in every case what they should have. We also need a confident people who have realistic expectations about what government can do and who do not expect government to be the solution for all their needs.
We should strive for smaller, not larger, government and take greater ownership with a reduced sense of entitlement.
We need a larger social space that is secular. It should embrace the role of religion as a personal but not public choice or determinant. We must accept that our religious differences are less important than our shared secular beliefs and aspirations.
After all, on our small island, we cannot run away from one another, so we need to accept one another as we are to be one nation and one people.
The future is ours to negotiate. A good place to start is to ask the question that each of us should ask ourselves and one another: “What’s your point of view?”