Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s recent speech at the People’s Action Party (PAP) 2023 convention was notable for what it revealed and what it concealed. While ostensibly a routine rally to the party, the address extolled PAP’s enduring governance and, belatedly, outlined a timeline for the leadership transition to his successor, highlighting the party’s historic triumphs.
Deeper undercurrents are worth considering, particularly PM Lee’s emphasis on PAP’s uninterrupted win streak since 1959. He reminisced, “The party was not born dominant, far from it…”
He recalled the fierce battles against communism and the momentous decision of Malaysia to let Singapore go independent, painting a picture of resilience and triumph.
“The first two elections in 1959 and then in 1963 were very hard fought and it was touch and go in those first few years. We were almost defeated by the Communists. But Mr Lee [Kuan Yew] and his colleagues fought back ferociously and ultimately successfully after we entered Malaysia. We might have been squelched by the Communists, but again, Mr. Lee and his colleagues refused to be cowed and eventually the Malaysian PM decided it was best to let Singapore go,” said PM Lee.
He added, “After independence, the main opposition party, the left wing pro-Communist Barisan Sosialis, declared that our independence was a sham and they got all their employees to quit Parliament and that left the field empty. The PAP expanded to occupy all of the ground and in 1968, in the general election, it won 80% of the votes and 100% of the parliamentary seats.”
Yet, this narrative is incomplete without addressing the controversial use of the Internal Security Act (ISA) under Operation Coldstore on 2 February 1963, which saw the detention of 113 people, many of whom were leaders of the Barisan Sosialis (BS), PAP’s main competitor and former party members. These individuals were detained without trial pursuant to the Preservation of Public Service Security Ordinance (PSSO). This significant event severely weakened the opposition, allowing PAP to expand its influence unchallenged.
Acknowledging PAP’s battles against communism and subsequent independence from Malaysia serves to remind Singaporeans of the party’s crucial role during the nation’s formative years. However, it conveniently overlooks less flattering aspects of PAP’s rise to power, such as the sidelining of the Barisan Sosialis and the alleged political motivations behind Operation Coldstore.
While PAP Govt has insisted that Operation Coldstore is not politically motivated, declassified documents suggest that the Earl of Selkirk, then-British Commissioner to Singapore, highlighted that “the Singapore Special Branch have virtually failed to identify directly any communist threats during the last three years” and cautioned against using the PSSO for political purposes, challenging the official narrative of the time.
In the elections of 1959 and 1963, the PAP’s victories were not as absolute as later portrayed. Notably, the PAP won 43 out of 51 seats in 1959 with 54.08% of the vote, and in 1963, they secured 37 seats, with the BS winning 13—even without their A-tiered candidates. The party’s vote share was just under 47%, indicating significant opposition presence, despite the impact of Operation Coldstore.
Moreover, PM Lee’s past remarks about “fixing” opposition members echo an adversarial stance incongruous with democratic values.
PM Lee infamously said, “Right now we have Low Thia Khiang, Chiam See Tong and Steve Chia. We can deal with them. Suppose you had 10, 15, 20 Opposition members in Parliament. Instead of spending my time thinking what is the right policy for Singapore, I’m going to spend all my time thinking what’s the right way to fix them, to buy my supporters votes, how can I solve this week’s problem and forget about next year’s challenges?”
Although PM Lee subsequently apologized for his statement, it is evident that he adhered to his previous stance on confronting the opposition.
This was experienced by the Workers’ Party following their takeover of the Aljunied town council. The party faced years of harassment, and its leaders were entangled in costly legal battles to the tune of hundreds of thousands. Ultimately, the Supreme Court largely exonerated the leaders, finding that they had acted in good faith when awarding contracts to their managing agent without an open tender.
This confrontational approach toward the opposition was echoed in his latest speech, where he accused them of undermining the government and instigating political scuffles that derail productive debate in Parliament.
While PM Lee’s address could have been an occasion to celebrate PAP’s historical strengths, it also underscored the need for reconciliation with contentious parts of history and evolution beyond strategies of political preservation.
As more opposition members gain seats and public opinion shifts, it’s clear that the PAP faces the challenge of adapting to an environment that demands transparency, fairness, and genuine competition.
The significance of PM Lee’s speech lies in its celebratory recount of past victories and the subtext—the need for the PAP to evolve. The question that remains is whether the PAP will continue to resort to hardline measures like the ISA to protect its interest or will it embrace a more open political contest as a hallmark of Singapore’s progress?