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Saturday January 19, 2013

Winds of change hitting the PAP

After decades of wealth accumulation,it is not easy to find a poor politician, particularly in the PAP. This trend may change as the leadership realises the benefit of candidates with backgrounds that are closer to the average voter’s.

SOMETHING unusual may be happening in Singapore’s politics.

In an approaching by-election, the ruling party’s candidate appears keen to sell himself to voters on his poor background, rather than follow PAP “pro-elitist” traditions.

That usually involved dwelling on the candidate’s academic, professional or business achievements, often impressive but far different from ordinary Singaporean lives.

That was the People’s Action Party (PAP) way after a contrasting start in the 50s and 60s when hawkers, shopkeepers and Chinese school-teachers made up a large body of members.

Then Lee Kuan Yew’s desire for scholars and businessmen took over; wealth and academic talent became essential ingredients for leadership.

The rationale was that wealth meant success, a good asset for a leader to have.

Now some observers watch for signs of a shift in selecting criteria to keep pace with voter sentiments.

In his early interviews, Dr Koh Poh Koon, a colorectal surgeon who is PAP candidate for Punggol East by-election, made his own personal poverty a political virtue, a departure from the normal elitist pitch.

Koh told Channel News Asia that he grew up poor, being the son of a bus driver who worked two shifts a day. Today he still lives in a public apartment – unlike most PAP peers.

When moving into his first Housing Board flat in 1998, “my wife and I had to borrow money from my uncle to do renovations”, he said. “In our combined accounts, we had S$11.50.”

There were two other reported instances of PAP politicians having “humble background” gaining political prominence in the PAP.

> Case 1 – Major-General Chan Chun Sing, 41, son of a machine-operator, was appointed Social and Family Development Minister and Senior Minister of State for Defence.

The government-linked Straits Times tagged Chan, a former army chief of staff, as a front runner to be next Prime Minister.

Chan, who lived with his machine-operator mother after his parents divorced, said when he was 19, “I think my poor background has made me more determined to succeed.”

> Case 2 – Earlier this month, another heartlander politician-union representative Halimah Yacob was chosen by the PAP to be Singapore’s first woman Speaker.

For 30 years, she has been living in a five-room public flat, the abode of most Singaporeans.

After decades of wealth accumulation that has made this one of the richest cities in the world, it is not easy to find a poor politician – particularly in the PAP.

These “humble beginning” cases are uncommon. The pro-government press generally prefers to talk about PAP politicians’ successes, rather than their poverty.

Some observers believe that this trend will gradually change as the PAP leadership realises the benefit of fielding candidates with family backgrounds that are closer to the average voter’s.

The rationale is: “If a Member of Parliament is rich and knows only luxurious living, how is he going to understand our life struggle?”

For starters, candidates who seek political office in future may become more apt to talk about their “humble” past and avoid referring to their wealth, like their luxury cars.

Being shown up as an elitist in whatever field will gradually become a political disadvantage.

So far there is no sign that a counter-wealth culture is developing in Singapore’s political environment. The PAP is unlikely to have a change of heart and select leaders specifically from non-elitist backgrounds.

But given the public mood, the latter will stand a higher chance of making it than in the past.

In other words, the PAP government would become more responsive to voter preference by giving a higher priority to candidates that come from heartland stocks.

This is more than just a matter of rhetorical debate.

All else being equal, most voters would prefer to have more MPs who had grown up and lived among them and could share their plight.

At the moment most PAP leaders, largely by design, have hailed either from rich families or successful businesses.

As a reporter, I was often told that many of the PAP MPs had never seen the inside of an HDB flat until they joined politics and needed to campaign for votes house-to-house.

Just as important is the division of the mind among some MPs, a class divide that can be a potential threat to the country.

An example was portrayed by Wee Shu Min, the then 18-year-old daughter of a PAP Member of Parliament six years ago.

Displaying an elitist and insensitive nature, the privileged girl hit out at Derek Wee, a young blogger who had voiced concerns about job security and age discrimination.

Describing Derek as “a stupid crackpot” who belonged to the “sadder class” that over-relied on the government, Shu Min told him “to get out of my elite face”.

It raised one of the strongest Internet storms.

The controversy reached the national stage when her father Wee Siew Kim, then MP in the Prime Minister’s constituency, said he supported Shu Min’s point in principle and blamed Singaporeans who “cannot take the brutal truth”.

At the time, a grassroots leader said to me: “Generally, we have a crop of well-off MPs who have little empathy for the poor or needy, seeing failure as an individual’s fault.”

It is something the PAP needs to address when selecting future candidates.

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