Two things tend to come to mind to observers in the West when Singapore is mentioned: the ban on chewing gum, and caning. And maybe also William Gibson’s observation that the country is like “Disneyland with the death penalty.” But the hypermodern nation and close partner of the United States is also a place where things work. Indeed, some say the city-state runs like an extremely efficient corporation. What has kept this ticking?
One answer is the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP), which boasts an enviable record of political longevity. After its foundation by Lee Kuan Yew and his comrades in 1954, it has governed the nation continuously since 1959. The British granted self-government in 1959, with full independence coming in 1965 in the form of a painful separation from Malaysia, with which Singapore had briefly merged. This represents an unparalleled dominance, matched by few if any political parties. Singapore has evoked a mixture of fascination and incomprehension from external observers. Some in the West view it as authoritarian (chewing gum, caning), while others (including, some say, China) think that it possesses some sort of elixir that, if not replicable in its entirely, offers valuable lessons.
I am the author of a history of the PAP from 1985 to 2021, which was recently published by the National University of Singapore Press. The idea for the book came from Singapore’s modern founding father and premier for 31 years (1959-1990), Lee Kuan Yew. An outstanding intellect, Lee’s insights were sought by many (and he is probably the only world leader to meet every U.S. president from Johnson to Obama).
Lee left the Cabinet in 2011, but was always thinking about world events and what these meant for Singapore. An unnamed senior U.S. leader once called him a “one- man intelligence agency.”
Lee spoke to me in 2011 and asked whether I could take on the job of writing the history of the PAP since 1985. (Another historian was also asked to chronicle the period before this). Lee wanted a sense of how far the party-in-government had come, some sense of the internal discussions and debates within the Party, and a discussion of the challenges it had faced in governing.
This seemed rather technocratic. But it seemed clear, talking to Lee at the time, that he felt that people’s memories were fading, and that the younger generation was in danger of taking things for granted. He was concerned that young people did not understand what Singapore was about – out of sheer sense of wanting to try something else, they might elect the Opposition, which to him was unthinkable.
He told me at the initial meeting that he wanted an unvarnished account – nothing was off limits – but also a book that people (especially young people) would actually read.
My 10-year journey of research and writing, which included access to top Party leaders and documents from the PAP archive, offered me the chance to provide an exposition of the Party’s DNA, how its leadership is forged, and the adaptive capabilities of the Party.
Here’s what I learned.
The PAP’s Ideology of Pragmatism
Doing what worked: this is what characterized the thinking of Lee and his closest colleagues. They rejected “isms” and ideologies.
It my research and interviews, what came through most clearly was this sort of practical governance and policymaking. What works is kept. What does not is discarded. So many things would not have come to fruition if PAP leaders had been straitjacketed by political theories or even what might be been deemed acceptable in other locales. One example is the policy, introduced in the 1980s, of ensuring that high-rise public flats built by the Housing and Development Board, which housed the majority of the population, had to have the same racial mix as the nation as a whole – 75 percent Chinese, 14 percent Malay, 10 percent Indian, and a smattering of others, a measure designed to prevent ghettoization and the formation of racial enclaves.
The best ideas for running the country have to surface, and if the mechanisms do not exist, then they have to be invented, and Lee was not averse to tinkering with the system of constitutional democracy to get people with ideas into Parliament. It is mainly at his prompting in the 1980s that the second generation of PAP leaders, gradually being tested for leadership, introduced an innovative system that allow MPs into Parliament even if they have not been elected: the scheme allows “best loser” MPs from elections, as well as MPs nominated by various sectoral interest groups, to take seats in Parliament and provide alternative voices.
Renewal: An Existential Impulse
Two other key themes stand out. The first is renewal. Renewal was from the get-go an existential issue for Lee and his closest colleagues. It’s in the Party’s DNA.
Every key decision maker at the top I have spoken to has touched on this issue. The Party is continually preoccupied with finding people of high caliber – in recent years, including those who might have serious differences with the Party – and bringing them in.
The recruitment process uses referrals from within, personal contacts, and meticulous screening of the lists of the top performers in the Civil Service. The first stage of screening is the Party’s famous “tea sessions,” which are used for sussing out intentions, character, and intelligence. Actual interviews for those who pass this stage then carries on in formal interview sessions until candidates who have not fallen by the wayside are grilled by the apex of the Party: the Central Executive Committee.
It is quite clear that inducting the best talent, never easy for the party, has become appreciably more difficult in recent years. Of every 10 (perhaps even more) approached to stand, perhaps just one individual might in the end consent to stand. The vast majority of them say no, with many going on to be immensely successful in their chosen field. Top leaders of the Party suggested to me that increasing scrutiny, given the forensic dissection of their lives and their pasts on social media, where anonymous individuals vent their spleen on candidates they do not like, they are not entirely sure they would consent to stand in the current era.
Responsiveness and Trust
Even though the book covers high politics, the leadership, and policymaking, as one might expect, the other theme that stands out is responsiveness. The PAP has always emphasized being attuned to the needs, desires, and aspirations of the people. Ground sentiment must be ventilated upwards and discussed by the leadership.
The Party’s responsiveness is also about the largely unsung work done by PAP MPs on the ground, in building rapport with the constituents, being available to them and hearing their concerns, and trying new ways to do outreach even as the times and the people have changed. This is what makes the Party tick at the grassroots. PAP MPs in Parliament have to surface issues – grievances and views on topics ranging from taxation to the cost of living to the number of foreigners in the workforce – but they have to thread the needle to doing so in a way that does not undermine the standing of the Party.
The flip side of responsiveness is the periodic national consultation exercises or “conversations” that are held every few years. The efforts have become more inclusive, and indeed more accepting of dissenting views, even as the next generation of PAP leaders has played an increasingly active role in these exercises.
These exercises have a dual role. The government gets unfiltered ground feedback, while the event puts in one room different Singaporeans from all walks of life. People do not necessarily leave these conversations convinced, but they have had the experience of having come face to face with other thinking Singaporeans who may have very different views on any given issue.
The Social Compact
In the eyes of some of its top leaders, the PAP is not just a political party; it is the only national institution capable of taking Singapore into a challenging future.
Key government leaders I interviewed refer to a “reservoir of trust” between government and people. This means that bitter pills, policy-wise, can be swallowed, understood, and accepted by the people, partly on account of the Party’s track record.
However, maintaining this reservoir is going to prove increasingly difficult.
At the 2020 general election, the PAP was returned to power but with a nearly 10 percent reduction in vote share compared to 2015. Younger voters increasingly demand fairness and transparency. They want not just an Opposition, but a strong one.
The Party’s historical response to electoral setbacks has been to take stock, recover, reorganize, and renew ties with the people. There is little doubt that it will attempt to do so again and ensure that its dominance continues. But the question is how successfully it can do given the changing circumstances, which are, some would say, growing ever more messy, normalizing, and democratic.