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APRIL 21, 2000 VOL. 26 NO. 15 | SEARCH ASIAWEEK

Running to (Always) Win
The PAP must evolve to maintain its record
By ROGER MITTON Singapore

Charmless and stolidly utilitarian, Singapore's squat new Parliament building will never figure on any tourist itinerary. But it fulfills its functions admirably and is clearly designed to last for decades, if not centuries. Just like its occupants, who, for more than 40 years, have been almost exclusively drawn from the smoothly efficient ranks of the People's Action Party.

Hats off to the PAP. In no other country of the world has a group been returned to power with such thumping regularity. In the last general election in 1997, the PAP, led by Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong, swept 81 of the 83 seats in Parliament. Says party MP Heng Chiang Meng: "I wouldn't say that we're infallible. Only that we are the best choice available for Singapore." Apparently, the citizenry agrees - and with good reason. Under its founding father, Lee Kuan Yew, the party has always recruited the brightest and best in the land. One of its finest catches, Trade and Industry Minister George Yeo, notes: 'The PAP is a broad church. The reason it has succeeded all these years is because it is not ideological, it is very meritocratic and draws in people from a wide range."

Today, at least on the surface, the party looks stronger than ever - helped, as usual, by the endemic fractiousness of its rivals (five opposition parties, no less, put up candidates and won just two seats between them in the last polls). The PAP is well-funded, well-organized, forward-looking, and always fields a sensible mix of ethnic candidates (though it is still dominated by Chinese males) - and it has that winningest track record.

Even so, under the surface all is not as perfect as it might be. The main - and recurring - problem is one of renewal. For reasons that defy logic, the PAP has a terrifically tough time getting new candidates to run for Parliament, even though they are almost certain to win and, if they become office holders, to command salaries as high as in the private sector. The party of course does eventually get recruits, with a little arm-twisting from Goh and Lee, but while they are all degree-toting professionals, few evince any burning desire to reach the top in politics. Instead, most simply express a desire to heed the party's call in order to repay a debt to society. In the past, such altruistic new boys have often made little contribution in Parliament and have usually quit (or been dropped) after a couple of terms. Says oppositionist Chee Soon Juan: "If you talk about high standards in terms of paper qualifications, nobody will say the PAP members do not have them. But does that make them good politicians?"

At ministerial level, it usually does, but among the rank and file, it often does not. There is a gulf between the perceived ineptness of many backbenchers and the acknowledged competence - sometimes seen as arrogance - of frontline ministers. This turns off some Singaporeans. Admits PAP MP Tan Cheng Bock: "I can't stand you guys, they tell me. They criticize the PAP, but at the end of the day they say: I still vote for you. It's a kind of love-hate relationship." Some, of course, don't vote for the PAP, which is why the opposition - fractured and inept as it is - still wins around 35%-40% of the vote. To prevent that figure rising higher, the PAP takes a robust line with the opposition - although Tan claims they have become more tolerant of late. "We let the opposition slowly grow," he says. "We don't smack them round now." While most welcome this, diehard oppositionists take umbrage. Says Chee: "Should I be singing praises for that and saying the PAP is not burning down our houses, just breaking our windows? It's that kind of very condescending attitude that doesn't wash."

With voters as well, which the PAP recognizes. MPs like Tan admit that the party needs to continue evolving and changing. Says he: "Electorates change. I can see it now in the young boys and girls. Their thinking is so different. They are all in the Internet world. The next election will be fought in cyberspace, I bet you." If so, then that's where the PAP will be because it prides itself on being at the cutting edge and it doesn't countenance the prospect of defeat.

Of course, it helps that the domestic media are slavishly pro-PAP. Says Chee: "When the newspapers and TV just keep talking about the virtues of what the PAP brings, how can you not want to vote for them? There is just no other way people can get alternative views." Yet despite the media slant and the PAP's impressive report card, even staunch partymen admit change will come. Notes Tan: "In the next round there will be more opposition because the young are not like my generation. You talk to them and you know they have minds of their own. They want to choose their candidates. They don't just want to accept what's given." Dealing with that will be the next major challenge for the PAP. But given its record, the challenge will probably be met head-on and eventually overcome.

Write to Asiaweek at mail@web.asiaweek.com

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