PAP v PAP: The Party’s Struggle to Adapt to a Changing Singapore


This book is an intervention in Singapore’s political debates at a unique point in the Republic’s history. The COVID-19 pandemic and its economic fallout have been described, without hyperbole, as the crisis of a generation. Also unprecedented is the widespread sense of uncertainty concerning the People’s Action Party, the national political movement that Singaporeans have relied on to show the way for more than 60 years.

A growing number of citizens are willing to join the opposition cause, doubtful about the PAP’s policies, frustrated by its politics, and inspired by the quality of leadership demonstrated by some of its opponents. We believe this is healthy, because Singapore needs to reduce dramatically its dependence on the PAP. A bigger, stronger opposition in Parliament can hold leaders to account, challenge and thus improve their navigation skills, and stand ready to take over should the PAP fail. 

This volume, though, is dedicated to a different project. We focus on how the PAP can respond positively to the challenges ahead, reskilling itself to remain relevant to the country. Even though Singapore’s political future may not always lie with the party, a reformed PAP that is comfortable with political competition is good for Singapore, and also in the long-term interests of the party. Singapore society has, over the last two decades, become more plural and diverse. The PAP’s hegemonic and hierarchical instincts are increasingly out of sync with citizens acculturated to the freewheeling and flatter world of the internet. Voters remind the party periodically that they want competent but not condescending leaders. Yet again and again, other than a brief flirtation with more openness in the early 1990s, the party has in moments of doubt opted for authoritarianism over accountability.

At the same time, the PAP government is credited with responsive, far-sighted policies formulated by an able and adaptable administrative elite. This technocracy, backed by a social consensus in favour of sensible and responsible government, is a major asset at a time when many societies, gripped by resentment and fear, are being pulled apart by reactionary movements, intolerant forms of identity politics and distrust of public institutions. These impulses first emerged after the global financial crisis more than a decade ago, and the pandemic is likely to intensify rather than dampen them.

The outcome of this contest between the two faces of the PAP — between its authoritarian tendencies and its adaptive capacity — will be, we believe, the most important determinant of Singapore’s political future, at least over the next decade or so. This anthology of essays explores this tension in the PAP and its various manifestations in politics and policy. It comprises a mix of individually and jointly authored pieces; some published years ago, others responding to the exceptional events of 2020. Most of our previous writing on Singapore government and politics has assumed that internal reform is possible and desirable. We have tried to appeal to the establishment’s better angels. This collection continues in that vein. 

Our arguments are underpinned by three premises. First, one need not be a fan of the ruling party to acknowledge that Singapore’s most realistic hope of succeeding in a world disrupted by the pandemic does not lie with a different party in government, but with a PAP that raises its game. The current crisis will not wait one or two election cycles for Singapore to get its act together. Whatever the longer term holds, we should assume that we will be working with a PAP government for the next 10-15 years, since it is unlikely that any opposition party or coalition will be ready to take over before that. Nor should we wish for an opposition victory by default. A non-PAP government that has fought the incumbents at their best is likely to be of higher quality than one thrust into power by a PAP implosion. 

Second, while some of the changes we call for may seem radical, they are not beyond the PAP. As Donald suggested in his 2014 book, Hard Choices: Challenging the Singapore Consensus, many potentially far-reaching political and policy reforms are well within the PAP government’s ideological range. The main obstacles are mental blocks, not structural impediments. Writing more recently on the coronavirus pandemic (a commentary reproduced here in Chapter 6), Donald warned of the main challenge facing Singapore’s decision-makers: it is not lack of public support, but their own “tunnel vision that comes from ‘being in the trenches’ for too long”. We do not underestimate the determination of the vested interests defending the status quo. But one benefit of the current centralisation of power is the freedom it gives leaders to dictate a new direction. With enough political will, the PAP’s adaptive capacity could come to the fore. The PAP has also shown itself capable of quite profound ideological change in the past. After all, it was founded as a Fabian socialist party, at a time when social democracy was ascendant in much of the developed world. Soon after coming to power, it shed its socialist tendencies and embraced an increasingly pro-capital and market-oriented stance, enabling Singapore to become one of the main beneficiaries of the globalisation that began in the early 1980s. Now that the world is on the cusp of yet another ‘great transformation’ — one likely to see greater demands for social justice and equality, and the return of a larger, more redistributive state — Singapore’s future is again tied to the ability of its ruling party to remake itself ideologically. 

Third, unlike past transformations, it will not be enough this time round for the PAP to change its economic paradigm; it must also adapt its governance model and political philosophy. We need a different political culture — one that eschews the high-handedness, coercion and authoritarian methods that we have seen all too frequently in the last sixty years. We are not advocating weakening Singapore’s high-capacity state, the benefits of which Singaporeans generally appreciate. But as Donald observes, “between a strong, competent state and a strong society that can check and constrain the state’s excesses lies a narrow corridor that protects our rights and freedoms while allowing the state to function effectively”. That is the path this book tries to tread.

Cherian’s 2017 volume, Singapore, Incomplete, suggested how an embrace of Singapore’s multi-cultural and political diversity could strengthen both party and nation. “[A]nyone rooting for the PAP to remain relevant must hope that reform-minded leaders will emerge in the fifth-generation leadership, and perhaps even in the fourth,” the book argued. “Political reform may not be in the short term interests of current PAP leaders who have grown comfortable with the status quo, but if they do it soon and manage it right, it will help their successors secure Singapore’s long-term interests.” Before and during GE2020, there was little indication that the PAP would contemplate such a change. The results of the election give us a glimmer of hope. Some present and future PAP leaders, as they try to discern what voters were saying, may also listen at last to the small voice in their own hearts, telling them that their party is capable of so much better — a voice too long drowned out by the close-minded, partisan and polarising rhetoric that has become the party’s defensive reflex against a Singapore it feels is too ungrateful for its service. 

It will require moral courage from reform-minded PAP leaders, not just to resist the siren calls to exploit the inherent unfairness of Singapore’s illiberal democracy, but also to remodel the system. This book on its own will not change hearts and minds within the PAP leadership. But we hope that it will spark conversations and spur action among Singaporeans who recognise the value of pressing for a fairer, more open and inclusive political system. Political parties will respond only to ideas that are publicly and persistently championed. An engaged citizenry will be the decisive factor determining the outcome of the battle for the soul of the PAP. 

Cherian George and Donald Low, September 2020

The book, to be released in October, is available for pre-order now. By pre-ordering, you will receive a copy from the first print-run, mailed directly to you from the printer.