Were Singapore’s 2020 General Elections (GE 2020) a watershed? The ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) seemed to think so: Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong spoke of a popular vote share “not as high as I had hoped for”, while Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam spoke of “soul searching and reflection” his party would have to undertake. Still, the party controls 83 out of 93 parliamentary seats, with 61.23% of the national vote. The result may have stung, but four months on, pandemic politics and the party’s own historically-opaque mechanisms have made it difficult to assess what direction the PAP will take going forward.
The PAP itself seems at a crossroads regarding an emerging intra-party struggle. Might elections then be more competitive, and democracy in Singapore made more robust? How will (and ought) they reconcile a more conservative, paternalistic direction with a more progressive path adapting to political competition and alternatives? These questions are the basis for Cherian George and Donald Low’s timely new book, PAP v. PAP: The Party’s struggle to adapt to a Changing Singapore. Framed as an “intervention in Singapore’s political debates at a unique point in the Republic’s history”, it calls for the PAP to shift its governance model and wider political philosophy rather than piecemeal, primarily economic, adjustments to policy.
Its eighteen chapters cover a diverse range of material, ranging from issues like wealth taxes and productivity policies, to ideational and political aspects surrounding race in Singapore. In its most persuasive sections, PAP v. PAP engages with issues its authors are deeply familiar with, such as Cherian George’s discussion of media, the press and democracy in Singapore. Ultimately, they locate “the most important determinant of Singapore’s political future” in the tension “between its authoritarian tendencies and its adaptive capacity”.
At its most ambitious the book proposes a rethinking of democracy and the PAP’s political philosophy, and is reflective and articulate on Singapore’s structural and ideological contexts. Most chapters are thematic or topical, beginning with an explanation of relevant sociopolitical structures and its supporting ideas, calculations and discourses. They feature refreshingly clear prose and arguments that are easy to follow. Yet other pressing questions remain surrounding the book’s scope, political vision for Singapore, and supporting arguments, conscious of the authors’ central concern of “how the PAP can respond positively to the challenges ahead, reskilling itself to remain relevant to the country”.
George and Low also contend that the book’s recommendations “may seem radical”, but “are not beyond the PAP… [t]he main obstacles are mental blocks, not structural impediments”. Central to their argument is a belief the PAP’s “reactionary populism, like other political choices discussed in this book, is just that – a choice”. They thus accept the structure of the status quo, a “high-capacity state, the benefits of which Singaporeans generally appreciate”, but not the orientation of this state. Instead, they seek “a narrow corridor that protects our rights and freedoms while allowing the state to function effectively”. George and Low are no friends of the PAP, but call for reforms that would provide the party itself more democratic and moral legitimacy.
The PAP’s Two Faces
Despite its title, PAP v. PAP explores little of actual PAP decision-making processes and internal dynamics itself. To be fair, the authors can be hardly faulted for not doing so, the short turnaround between GE 2020 and the book’s publication notwithstanding. Any book not written by PAP “insiders” is likely to face immense factual, networking, political, or even legal obstacles. Any book actually written by insiders, even those brave enough to risk party censure, might still be overly-sanitized and demand extreme caution in interpretation. Given such difficulties, the next best option might then be to reconstruct the range of opportunities and strategies adopted by the ruling party through a thoughtful examination of open sources and best-guesses.
The authors pull this off superbly. There are various insightful accounts of changing political boundaries, rules of engagement, and signs of shifting thought within the PAP. For instance, George concedes that Singapore’s political regime under the PAP, while illiberal, cannot be labelled authoritarian simpliciter—by astutely pressing into service a US State Department report reluctant to add “fair” to its description of Singapore’s ‘free and open elections’ (p. 96).
George and Low’s discussion of “grey-listers” in Chapter 15, those neither “blacklisted” entirely, stonewalled or harassed by the PAP nor favoured by the party, might serve as a starting point to understand the PAP’s internal tensions. This precarity, commonplace within civil society, arts, media, and academia, might reasonably extend to those with some institutional power.
The authors acknowledge the PAP strategy of co-optation. Take animal rights activist and PAP backbencher Louis Ng, “one indicator of how some types of participation comfortably co-exist with the status quo of one-party domination” (p. 27). MPs in Ng’s vein might exemplify more progressive, reformist, and younger strands of the party. The book’s discussion of party “generations” reproduces the ruling party’s self-definition of its internal transition (“3G” vs. “4G”), which might obscure other issues pertaining to the handover of party leadership.
Although the PAP has not overtly excluded women, the election of the Singapore Armed Force’s first female general (Gan Siow Huang, in Marymount’s single member constituency), also draws attention to gender dynamics. Given the consistently higher number of men, particularly in senior cabinet positions, how can—or should—political and electoral reforms better incorporate women? PAP v. PAP offers a sensitive, informed treatment of race, but lacks attention to another significant question of representation in discussing the ruling party.
The authors are correct in surmising that their role in turning the tides in a “battle for the soul of the PAP” lie in the book “spark[ing] conversations and spur[ring] action among Singaporeans who recognise the value of pressing for a fairer, more open and inclusive political system” (p. ix). Their concession that individual books like theirs cannot “change hearts and minds within the PAP leadership” nonetheless suggests that the proximate cause of PAP reform rests with their leaders’ motivation and volition. If so, what barriers would be faced by MPs sympathetic to existing calls for reform or those with “wits, guts and entrepreneurial skills of the Republic’s first generation of leaders” seeking to implement a “bold new vision”? (p. 44)
Intriguing statements from the PAP are highlighted, such as a comment from then-deputy PM Tharman Shanmugaratnam in 2013 that the PAP’s centre-of-gravity is moving towards “left-of-centre”. However, what might the PAP mean by left—surely it is not a vanquished old guard of socialists, a “foreign” ideology, a nascent faction within itself, or their electoral opponents the Workers’ Party (WP)? (Minister of Foreign Affairs Vivian Balakrishnan, seemed to both attack and endorse his debate opponent, the WP’s Jamus Lim, by describing his policies as “half-step to the left”.) Once again, an exploration of the PAP’s self-identity and orientation must surely unpack these broad, oft-misused and chimeric terms. “The PAP is a national movement, comparable to a religion” (p. 40) with many voices—the book strains for exegesis.
The authors astutely consider the political “paths not taken”. George highlights a 1994 discussion where lawyer K Shanmugam, neither MP nor Law Minister yet, somewhat unexpectedly argued for an ombudsman-type institution, in that “existing institutions [of accountability] all, by and large, rely on the system itself to act correctly” (p. 105). WP MP Leon Perera’s call in November 2020 for an ombudsman was therefore not a completely alien concept abruptly transferred to the Singaporean parliament, but an echo of earlier sentiments now held by office holders. Yet, Shanmugam’s current position within the upper echelons of the PAP, as well as his defence of the justice system’s credibility, now raise questions surrounding the position of PAP elites.
Is it their individual “precarity” and the party’s “powerful disciplining force” that encourages self-censorship and restrains reformist or activist impulses harboured by would-be and existing members, high-ranking or otherwise (p. 17)? While elected MPs have rarely jumped political ship, GE 2020’s most successful new party, the Progress Singapore Party, is helmed by ex-PAP MP Tan Cheng Bock.
Or does the PAP’s existing party position already reflect an equilibrium where its members’ personal beliefs have already converged? Neither explanation seems self-evident or satisfying, but have significant bearing on the paths and possibilities of PAP reform.
No party can only be understood through its elites, and the scarce mention of the PAP’s rank-and-file therefore seem like a missed opportunity. Although the party’s grassroots have been relatively sidelined in the election’s candidate choices, especially compared to parties in other countries and even local opposition like the Worker’s Party, it might be worth asking if the PAP still “avoids vertical integration of its cadres and does not overtly reward party loyalists”, as Netina Tan observed in 2015. A focus on the PAP elites risks counterproductively reproducing the narrative of technocratic excellence, even exceptionalism, that legitimates its own top-heavy “lack of deeper introspection” and might encourage a “new populist alter ego” (pp. 40, 160).
Chapter 5 of PAP v. PAP, “Reform before you must”, describes the PAP’s current structure as unfavourable to “transformative regeneration” (p.44). A “catch-22” confronts PAP members seeking to re-energise their party and country. “They cannot reform the PAP until they reach the top. But they cannot reach the top unless they shelve their reformist ambitions”. This succinct summary of reform’s contingence on the sentiments of “current PAP leaders who have grown comfortable with the status quo” could be enriched through comparative analysis.
The absence of a deep investigation of party dynamics means that the two PAPs of the book’s title are not actual, but potential entities—they signify possible futures rather than tangible party factions. If so, the experience of other parties in other societies may be instructive for a PAP and its pundits figuring out its paths to reform. What might the experience of Hong Kong’s re-energized parties, or other systems George and Low are familiar with, offer us?
The book’s most interesting, progressive chapters lie towards its end, in which George and Low explicate the liberal framework of their analysis and visions for Singapore. Chapter 16 (‘Liberal ideas in the new normal’), chapter 17 (‘The case for an open society’), and Chapter 18 (the epilogue ‘Riding the populist tiger’) situate this book within the authors’ deep interest and repertoire of work towards liberalising Singapore.
Critiques of Singapore’s political economy—subtle in Low’s Hard Choices and George’s Air Conditioned-Nation—are not the focus of the book. “[I]t is necessary to balance, even temper, elite governance with democratic deliberation and accountability”, the authors conclude (p. 157). The authors seem willing to endorse a PAP still expert-led (but not technocratic), still elite (but not elitist), essentially holding that any shifts towards liberal democracy will be incremental and PAP dominated. They do not invest their hopes in any opposition party, despite the Workers’ Party and newcomer Progress Singapore Party’s strong performances, in spearheading liberal reform or a revolution through the ballot box.
At these moments, the book’s tone and position hence seems too placid, its commitments too tame. This is a year where the theory, vocabulary, and praxis of racial justice are revitalized by Black Lives Matter protests around the world, Singapore’s pandemic management of transient workers’ dormitories raise questions of citizenship, and polarization both within and between America’s big parties raise questions about the nature of ”political spectrums”. By placing the PAP at the wheel of democratisation, George and Low seem less concerned with a path “creat[ing] space for a range of different positions, opinions, and arguments to make Singapore’s civil society and political discourse more diverse, vibrant, and complex”, as Kirsten Han astutely observes.
The book is “liberal” in a more Anglophone, analytical tradition of political philosophy, without additional qualifiers or intersecting theoretical lenses. It is unlikely that Donald Low or Cherian George give the same centrality in their politics to Angela Davis’ intersectional feminism, as newly-elected Workers’ Party MP Raeesah Khan has expressed.
Frustratingly, Low seems content to “sketch”, rather than rigorously define, “liberal ideas” (Chapter 16), weakening the book’s normative potential. This is possibly a calculated move away from complex, academic writing, but relying on ”commonsense” associations is dangerous when the term “liberal” has acquired currency as a polemic, another victim of rhetoric “imported uncritically from America’s Culture Wars” (p. 80). The liberalism envisaged is a bundle of qualities: values of “equality, justice and diversity”, a general belief in “market economies… because they enable economic freedom” and the support of “political arrangements that make possible the utmost freedom for individuals to pursue their own conceptions of the good” (pp. 128, 131).
In Low’s brief mention of ”classical liberalism” it is unclear if “Locke, Smith and Hume” are cited here approvingly, or to acknowledge his intellectual inheritances. Today, liberalism and visions of liberal Singapore remain contested. A hegemonic, ”neoliberal” state, laissez-faire dogmatists like the nascent ”Adam Smith Centre” (the two-man operation has recently criticized Low’s interpretation of Piketty), and a variety of social activists in Singapore have all drawn on the term liberalism and its tenets. Some ”alternative narratives” are tantalizingly offered, like Susan Fainstein’s “just city” perspective (and implicitly, her “nonreformist reforms”), and later, a vision of society “as a complex adaptive system, not an engineered one” (pp. 132, 136). Carefully contextualising their liberalism by developing these ideas would allow the book to avoid unintentionally supporting other permutations of liberalism antithetical to their project.
The language of rights, a discourse hitherto unused in the book, is carefully discussed by George in Chapter 17. His dismay at Singapore’s non-participation in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights is not merely a legalistic justification for an international human rights treaty, a strategy he correctly senses to be weak. Rather, he rebuts “conservative arguments against an open society” as overly individualistic, instead calling for reciprocity enshrined in liberal democratic tolerance and openness.
Yet, nothing currently suggests the PAP is committed to a language of rights, preferring to “twist the debate into a choice between the anarchy of untrammelled free speech versus the status quo” (p. 144). If so, the concept of rights itself might require the same detailed treatment George and Low apply in other chapters, to make liberal ideas palatable. Otherwise, there remains only a compelling case for society, but not the PAP, to include such a concept in their political vocabulary.
Nonetheless, the book does not seek to be an ambitious, theory-heavy or scholarly manifesto for the 21st century. It picks other battles. The Academia project (of which this book is the first imprint, hopefully of many to come) has made important interventions in seeking to reclaim terms like ”meritocracy”, ”efficiency”, or ”falsehood” from PAP hegemony. Still, the book’s realist orientation would benefit from further clarification of their position and a deeper analysis of the titular PAP(s) and their accompanying political theory.
“The future is calling again”, the authors conclude (p. 162). If the authors are right that Singapore lies at a political crossroads, then this book’s valuable contribution lies in ensuring “younger Singaporeans who may otherwise have been attracted to liberal causes” are not “cowed and silenced by what they see as an intolerant, conservative society that demands ideological conformity” (p. 34-5). What this review hopes to do is to prompt an even wider, inclusive envisioning of these political futures by weaving in various other elements of the PAP or progressive socio-political and economic lenses now impossible to ignore. I applaud George and Low’s much-needed and timely contribution to Singaporean literature. May its anxieties and arguments become happily redundant in the future.