Lee Kuan Yew And His PAP: A Party Like No Other


With eulogies from all over the world pouring in and Singaporeans queuing by the tens of thousands every day for hours to pay their last respect to the island nation’s founding father, Lee Kuan Yew was already a legend greater than life before he died on 23 March at the age of 91. Lee KYAs he is being described as “mellowed a lot” during the last few years, nearly all comments are positive and remind only discreetly of the former iron fist of the outstanding leader, the aristotelien “zoon politikon” (or political animal) par excellence. His vision and foresight as political leader and motivator have made Singapore’s transformation miracle possible. Nevertheless, the universal recognition for this life achievement is remarkable after decades of international criticism of his leadership as heavy-handed, authoritarian, and undemocratic.
Partyforumseasia will not add another eulogy but a short reflection on the party leadership Lee Kuan Yew style: Political power is a prerequisite for the implementation of policies, but in most democracies it is limited by regular elections, thus limiting the time for implementation. Fast changes of political personnel have a positive side, of course, bad leaders disappear sooner, but in most democratic systems the survival rates tend to be rather low. Governments with different concepts follow each other, institutions are being changed and laws reversed. Some leaders survive somewhat longer with changing coalitions, but the “reign” of Lee Kuan Yew is beating democratic and autocratic systems by far. Being re-elected and keeping his constituency for 60 (sixty!!!) years is a world record, even on the background of uncontested “walkovers” due to his advantages as incumbent, prime minister and party leader. Similarly unique is his tenure of 31 years as prime minister (1959 – 1990), ending with a voluntary resignation after carefully organizing his succession, and his handover as party leader after 38 years in 1992 without giving up his influence in the party’s policy formulation. There was also a strong fear factor in this dominant role, often dubbed as “no-nonsense-style”, but Lee Kuan Yew and his team managed to avoid outright condemnation as dictatorial by delivering the economic goods domestically and finding smart ways to sell limitations to political rights and press freedom as necessary for stability and progress.
Controlling a political party and keeping it dominant with more than absolute majorities like Lee did with the PAP over five decades is an exception many party leaders world-wide would probably dream of. Descriptions of the PAP with its estimated membership of no more than 20.000 as a Leninist-style cadre party are certainly outdated. The roughly 2000 cadres have only a minor role in decision making. But screening office holders and election candidates the rigorous way LKY practiced it, would certainly do many parties in the region good. Another remarkable feature is the weekly meet the people sessions, compulsory for members of parliament. The MPs are forced to be closer to the ground and the problems of the common people. That is easier to organize in a city state but maybe a useful example to MPs in bigger countries and their widespread aloofness.
Lee Kuan Yew once said that it cannot be his role as prime minister to make it easier for the opposition, and he really made it difficult with all legal means. This created a lot of latent resentment against the PAP and increasing numbers of protest votes recently. His son Lee Hsien Loong, successful as prime minister with a more relaxed leadership style since 2004, will most probably manage to maintain the dominant role of the party. He says the next election due latest by early 2017 will be tight, but the opposition is splintered and weak. In this party political perspective the Lee Kuan Yew era does not seem to be over yet.
Singaporeans queuing for up to eight hours in the tropical heat to pay their last respect.
Queue 1

The Future of Singapore’s PAP – Part II


Partyforumseasia:  In most countries with a liberal democratic system anywhere in the world any political party would be more than happy with the comfortable absolute majority the People’s Action Party is enjoying since sixty years. PAP 50But there are also few parties world-wide which have ruled as successfully as the PAP (though there are few city states for comparison). The authoritarian style of founding father and patriarch Lee Kuan Yew, now 91, has been gradually softened under successor Goh Chok Tong and more so under son Lee Hsien Loong. So the debate about future dangers to the PAP looks somewhat overly fearful in comparison to the narrow majorities and shaky coalitions in other countries. As already quoted in part I, Netina Tan has described the mechanisms in the Singapore system which favor the ruling party. Link here:
Parliament SGRocking a big boat like Singapore and the PAP is certainly difficult. Nevertheless, losing one six-member group constituency which looked unassailable in 2011 and a by-election 2013 is painful for a party spoiled by decades of success. And one can expect differences within the party, maybe with a faction that does not fully support the softened style of the Prime Minister.
With the 60th anniversary of the PAP, the 50th of independent Singapore and general elections coming up in 2015, the crystal ball is being kept rather busy. The latest contribution by Han Fook Kwang, senior editor at large at the Straits Times (9.11.2014, the question mark cartoon above also in this article), is correctly adjusting the question to what the PAP will have to do to stay in power. For there are no real threats in the party scene with the runner up Workers’ Party far behind with 7 elected and 2 non constituency (or consolation prize) MPs against 80 PAP parliamentarians.
What is conspicuously missing in the public debate so far is the possibility of a coalition government. At least in the next few decades the election law will not make a coalition government necessary if the PAP can win majorities in Parliament even with less than 50% of the popular vote. Neighboring Malaysia has that already since last year and many other countries with majoritarian or first-past-the-post systems as well.
So the PAP may just be nervous about more signs of protest votes in various forms and some activists being more fearless than anyone since the crackdown on Communists in the 1950s and 1960s. Obviously there is a ant-establishment subculture among younger Singaporeans who take all the material achievements for granted and see social injustices from a subjective, if not parochial perspective. The debate about the supposed shortcomings of the Central Provident Fund (CPF) seems to be a point in case. Social security for everybody is difficult to achieve, and increasing life expectancy threatens all pension schemes in rich countries. But in terms of distribution justice Singapore’s CPF system can match most other schemes.

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Singapore: The PAP in the Next 50 Years??


Partyforumseasia: It is very hard to predict, especially the future” is a Danish saying or a quotation of Danish scientist Niels Bohr. Extrapolating political trends or the fate of a political party like Singapore’s People’s Action Party (PAP) over half a century seems to be somewhat daring, even if the party is already in power for 56 years. HoThe daring speaker in a recent event of the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) was Ho Kwon Ping, one of Singapore’s most prominent businessmen (The Banyan Tree chain of luxury resorts among other ventures) with a string of important director- and chairmanships under his belt. Ho was suspected of communist ideas in his younger days, even imprisoned in Singapore under the Internal Security Act for two months.His wife, who has been a nominated member of parliament, described him as “a capitalist in his pocket and a socialist in his heart.”
The three possible scenarios described by Ho Kwon Ping are as follows: 1. Status quo, the PAP retains its 85 to 90 % of seats in parliament. 2. PAP loses some support but retains a two-thirds or at least absolute majority. 3. An opposition party or coalition wins power and takes over the government.
The third scenario could happen in the second half of the next 50 years says Ho. Given the success of continuous PAP rule, that is cautious enough a guess, especially in view of the imbalance between the ruling PAP and the few relevant opposition parties. There are sizable amounts of protest votes in Singapore and undercurrents of disagreement with government and PAP,  the social media showing the extent of dissent.
The main opposition Workers’ Party managed to win a group representation constituency with six mandates in the 2011 election and a seventh seat in a by-election in 2013. All the other parties are far from a realistic chance to make it into parliament because of internal problems, lack of funds and organization or credibility.
Mr. Ho’s presentation and the the public debate triggered by it may also be interpreted as a start to the election campaign 2016. There is no doubt that the PAP is determined to win again and continue to rule Singapore.
The underlying reasons and mechanism of the hegemonic imbalance have been analyzed in detail by Prof. Netina Tan: Institutional Sources of Hegemonic Party Stability in Singapore. This country chapter on Singapore is available in our book “Party Politics in Southeast Asia – Organization Money Influence” (2014) at the following links: Amazon or   Barnes and Noble and other internet book retailers.
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