The ongoings over the past one week has been an interesting exercise of the rigidity of planning and public relations.
In this article, I will discuss the Population White Paper 2013, with the Punggol East By-Election 2013 as a backdrop, and then explore why and how the PAP government had decided to release the Population White Paper 2013, and the larger implications to Singapore and global dynamics.
Punggol East By-Election
As a quick recap, below is the wins of the political parties at the Punggol East By-Election 2013:
- WP: 54.52%
- PAP: 43.71%
- RP: 1.2%
- SDA: 0.57%
- (RP + SDA: 1.77%)
Below is the wins of the political parties for the Punggol East constituency in General Election 2011:
- PAP: 54.54%
- WP: 41.01%
- SDA: 4.45%
Now, if you look at a previous article, the lowest vote share that PAP has garnered at the general elections is 60.10%. Also, since 1988, WP has consistently garnered about 40% of the vote share. On average, since 1988, WP has won 40.25% of the votes.
Next, during the Presidential Election 2011, this was the vote share of the candidates:
- Tony Tan: 35.20%
- Tan Cheng Bock: 34.85%
- Tan Jee Say: 25.04%
- Tan Kin Lian: 4.91%
If you had looked at a previous article, you will understand that we can roughly assume that the voters who had voted for Tony Tan are aligned to PAP, those who had voted for Tan Cheng Bock would somewhat have the same temperament as those who had voted for WP. Those who had voted for Tan Kin Lian would not have strong political viewpoints.
Accordingly, below can be the assumed vote share of the political parties:
- PAP: 35%
- WP: 35%
It is important to understand these statistics, because then, you will be able to form an idea of what the different groups of Singaporeans are like politically, and how the PAP makes its decisions in accordance with these groups of Singaporeans.
So, roughly, based on the above, you can derive that the different groups of Singaporeans and their proportionate representation are as follows:
|Aligned to PAP (‘Conservative’)||
|Not aligned to PAP (‘Dynamic’)||
There are at least four broad distinct clear groups of Singaporeans:
- ‘Conservative’ Singaporeans who are aligned to the planning principles of PAP of economic fundamentals
- ‘Dynamic’ Singaporeans who are not aligned to the planning principles of PAP. I call this group of Singaporeans ‘dynamic’ because even though they are not economically-conservative, it isn’t clear yet that they are economically liberal as well. There isn’t a group identity to this group yet. Rather, they represent myriad viewpoints – those who want social welfare and justice etc.
- There is a group of voters who do not align themselves to any one group but swing according to the economic and political state of Singapore. This group of Singaporeans represents anything between 15% to 30% of Singaporeans.
- There is also a small fraction (2% to 5%) who do not have strong political viewpoints and would usually spoil their vote or give it to the ‘underdog’. These are the Singaporeans who had voted for SDA, RP and Tan Kin Lian. It is not to say that these parties or candidates are not ‘good’. It simply means that these parties or candidates do not have a strong comparative ideology, and thus did not become mainstream in the minds of the voters.
Why is this important? This is important because then, you need to understand how PAP considers the results of the by-election, to understand the current fracas that has been created around the Population White Paper 2013.
According to PAP’s analysis, they would have interpreted the results of the by-election as having about 45% of Singaporeans who have approved of their planning principles and policies. This would be represented by the about 40% of Singaporeans who PAP believes will always vote for them, and another 5% of the swing voters who would have still voted for PAP. According to this analysis, about 40% would have voted away from PAP, and the rest of the other swing voters would have also voted away from PAP, not because they support WP, but because they might not align themselves to PAP’s policies.
If this is PAP’s analysis, this means that PAP would think that they have still won the majority of the support of Singaporeans – 45%. WP might have won the by-election but according to this logic, they would have only won a 40% support. And the rest of Singaporeans are undecided and thus unaligned. If this is PAP’s analysis, they would have gone ahead with what plans they have had planned, before the by-election, to roll out after the by-election and would have continued to do so – as they have with the Population White Paper 2013, since they would believe that they still have the support of the ‘majority’ of the Singaporeans.
The question is, did PAP read ground sentiment accurately? Another analysis of the by-election would be that PAP obtained only a support of a lower group of 35% of Singaporeans. Another 5% to 10% might have swung to vote for PAP but it might not mean that they are agreeable with PAP’s policies. On the other hand, another 35% are still firmly rooted for WP, but a majority of Singaporeans have also swung the other way to vote away from PAP, and for WP. In this case, this would mean that PAP doesn’t have a firm majority. In fact, there is a similar proportion of Singaporeans – 35% – who are not agreeable and disagreeable with PAP’s policies, and another nearly 30% who are also increasingly questioning PAP’s policies. Now, if this were the case, PAP would do well to hold on to their horses and not announce any new programme or policy that would cause any knee jerk reaction, for then between 60% to 65% of Singaporeans would be up in arms against any of PAP’s new introductions.
Was this the case with what happened to the announcement of the Population White Paper 2013?
I am in the opinion that the second scenario had come true, and that PAP should have halted any prior plans they had on any announcements, so that they could recalibrate their announcements, or PR angle, to ensure that they do not cause any upset among Singaporeans. Unfortunately, I think it is a case of them having read the ground wrongly.
I have also spoken to some other friends about this matter. Below are some other insights:
- PAP only realized how unhappy the ground was from the by-election when they lost the by-election. They would have estimated a close fight of 49% to 49%, where they would have stood a chance of winning, or that even if they had lost, the losing margin won’t be that embarrassing. But they didn’t count on the fact that there were many more swing votes which had swung away. This is an indication of how precarious their support is, even as they would not have read this accurately. Thus even as Singaporeans were unhappy for the past more than a year since General Election 2011, the complete gravity of the issue only settled in for PAP after the Punggol East by-election. And thus they were not able to react quick enough from the aftermath of the by-election.
- PAP needed to ‘save face’. This is something a few friends have said. As an ‘Asian’ government, ‘face’ is very important, so even if it seems that Singaporeans are unhappy with PAP because of policies which might have been misgauged, PAP isn’t going to admit it. Admitting would mean that they know they are wrong and it would, in their minds, be embarrassing. And thus they had to go ahead with what plans they had planned and shoulder on. At this point, it is important for Singaporeans to reflect on the idea of ‘face’ – do you want leaders who are willing to admit that they are wrong, and be willing to give them a chance to make amends? If this is so, are you willing to show it? Over the past few years, there were some incidents where our leaders had make mistakes and we had asked for them to step down. If we do not want our government to operate on a ‘face-saving’ measure, do we also need to be more accepting and understanding towards mistakes?
- Third, PAP had to go on with their plans because there continues to be a group of Singaporeans who are aligned to PAP’s planning principles and they would await PAP to take action. Thus after PAP’s loss at the by-election, there would still be a group of Singaporeans (35% – 40%) who would expect affirmative action from the PAP to redeem themselves and to show that they are still in power.
Thus from the above illustration, you would understand why politically, PAP had made the decision to continue to affirm their planning principles and to roll out Population White Paper 2013, as unpopular as it would seem. They needed to consolidate their power and affirm their leadership. At the same time, they needed to consolidate their support base and influence. However, even as they do so, they may have read ground sentiments inaccurately and there are a growing group of Singaporeans who are in dismay to their actions.
At the same time, you have to understand that PAP continues to believe that they are doing what is right for Singapore, so much so that DPM Teo Chee Hean stressed that, “focuses on the interests and benefits of Singaporeans”. And as we understand further later on in this article, their belief is not all misplaced.
If this is so, then the past week of election loss and subsequent announcements show a mismanagement in PR by the PAP, and a rigidity in planning that has come to characterize the PAP’s leadership. They would do well to reflect on both of these issues and take steps to mediate on these fronts.
Singapore Perspectives 2013: Governance
At the Singapore Perspectives 2013 conference, “PM Lee was asked by a participant how the fact that the Republic is a secular country reconciles with “an old and archaic law that nearly discriminates against a whole (group) of people”.”
Mr Lee had also said that, “These are not issues that we can settle one way or the other, and it’s really best for us just to leave them be, and just agree to disagree. I think that’s the way Singapore will be for a long time.” He added that the “conservative roots” in society do not want to see the social landscape change.”
Mr Lee’s answer characterizes PAP’s attitudes in their governance. As shared above, there are about 35% to 40% of Singaporeans who are economically-conservative. There are also about 35% to 40% of Singaporeans who are not economically-conservative. Thus Mr Lee’s attitudes that there are issues that we cannot “settle one way or the other and it’s really best for us to just to leave them be, and just agree to disagree” – this is very reflective of PAP’s mindset. As much as PAP believes they would always plan for a middle ground, PAP’s planning principles are still economically conservative, which means that they are aligned to the 35% to 40% of Singaporeans, and this is not the middle ground. Unfortunately, PAP does not realise this and this is why they have not been able to recalibrate accurately to the evolved middle ground in Singapore.
At this point, I wouldn’t go as far as to assume that the PAP leadership refuses to recalibrate. They simply do not realise the attitude that they have based their thinking on – that they have chosen to live and let live, which even though in itself isn’t a ‘bad’ thinking, means there is no incentive for them to recalibrate to a new middle ground. Also, they do not have people of the ‘right’ calibre who are able to help them realise this. In their effort to enact policies that are economically-conservative, they have recruited like-minded individuals into their leadership. There just isn’t enough representation within PAP who believe in being economically non-conservative, and therein lies their leadership problem.
If you would like a further discussion on 377A, please click here.
At the Singapore Perspectives 2013 conference, PM Lee had also explained on the following:
“He elaborated that in 2000 and 2001, the 9/11 terrorism attack on the United States plunged countries into recession. Singapore dealt with a slow economy with minimum population growth and local housing prices went down.
But by 2005 and 2006, Mr Lee said the mood changed and the economy started picking up.
So, he said, the government did what it thought would have been appropriate then. It decided to make up for lost time by growing the population and boosting the economy.
He acknowledged that infrastructure like housing and transport didn’t keep up with that growth.
Mr Lee said: “I decided that we should try and make up for lost time because you want the economy to grow. You want Singapore to make progress and you don’t know how long the sun is going to shine. As it turned out, the sun remained shining for longer than we expected. So the population grew faster than we expected, our infrastructure didn’t keep up.
“Should we have given ourselves more buffer and said let’s build and be ready? I think in retrospect, clearly we could have done more. Could we have predicted that we would have five years where the economy would grow brilliantly and our population would increase so rapidly? I don’t think we could easily have said that.
“Should we then have said, ‘I didn’t plan for this infrastructure, let’s tell the businesses to go away and let’s forget about the growth, we don’t need the IRs, we don’t need these extra jobs, we just stay where we were’. I think that would be very risky. So we went ahead.
“The strains showed up. It’s quite instructive how they showed up. They didn’t show up gradually, progressively but quite suddenly. When the global financial crisis came at the end of the decade, 2007/2008, we expected to go for a very deep dive.
“In fact in one quarter, we had minus 10 percent growth. Nobody talked about house prices, there was no shortage. HDB – we watched the market every day, the resale market was dead but we did the right thing with our Jobs Credit and other measures. We avoided a bullet, the world economy recovered faster than expected.
“In the middle of 2009, the wind changed…those of you in business, you would remember that in the course of two weeks, during one or two private property launches, somehow the wind changed. It’s like the spring breeze touched your face and the market was off. By August, we were thinking of measures to cool things down and we’ve been trying to cool things down ever since.
“So we lacked that 20/20 foresight. Next time, we will try to do better, certainly to have a bigger buffer and not to cut things so fine. But I think it’s very difficult to know, 10 years from now, how many you will need.
“Even if you know how many persons there will be in Singapore, you can’t say how many houses they will need. Will they buy it? Or will they say, ‘oh, I’m not certain because the economy is not looking good or the politics are not certain, well, I’ll hold off’? But when the market goes up, it goes up with a vengeance and we’ve paid the political price, we learn from it.”
However, even though Mr Lee had explained the rationale behind PAP’s policies, he has still not explained the following:
- Why are Singaporeans withdrawing less from their CPF since 2001, even though we are putting more into our CPF?
- Why are the Singapore companies owned by Temasek Holdings, which is owned by the government, increasing their profits year by year, since 2001?
- Why has the government increased the Medisave Required Amount by more than 20% every year, even though inflation rate and the increase of Singapore’s real wages does not even come up to 5%, yet at the same time, the government’s proportionate expenditure on our healthcare bills have been decreasing year by year?
Even as PAP was responding to the ebb and flow of the global economy, there was also a secondary aim of profiting off Singaporeans, which began from 2001. Why did PAP embark on this course? This wasn’t explained by Mr Lee.
If anything, this gives you very good insight to the planning principles of PAP:
- Note that the focus of PM Lee’s explanation lies in the following: economy, population, and infrastructure – this is what underline PAP’s planning principles. PAP’s main planning operandus is centred around the economy and population. Also, Mr Lee showed that PAP realized over the past 10 years that as they had focused on the economy and population as the two main drivers of growth, they had forgotten to increase the pace of the development of infrastructure to match economic and population growth, because they had not anticipated this change. And thus, they’ve learnt from this and this is something that was given a lot of attention to in the Population White Paper 2013.
- This also shows up PAP’s weakness in their planning principles – their planning attention is largely focused on hard numbers. Their inability to anticipate an increase in infrastructural needs over the past decade has shown their underestimation of how the interaction of the population on a more dynamic level can create imbalances, which their hard numbers cannot account for.
Again, this does not mean that PAP is incapable. We know PAP is not incapable. But what this does show is that PAP’s focus seems to be silo-ly ingrained in hard mathematics, and they do not have sufficient understanding of how individuals and society interacts. This is also one key reason why the introduction of the Population White Paper 2013 has thus garnered so much negative attention, which will discuss further in the next part.
You can read Part 2 of the article here.