1st Assistant Secretary General Heng Swee Keat’s speech at 36th Ordinary Party Conference

09 Nov 2020 9 min read

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Introduction

2020 threw us into the crisis of a generation. Globally, COVID-19 has infected nearly fifty million people and taken more than one million lives. The world has been plunged into the worst recession in a century. In Singapore, we worked together as a nation. Through swift and decisive action, we avoided the worst of the crisis so far.  We are gradually resuming economic and social activities, but we must be prepared for a long battle.   

This year, we also fought a tough GE, under extraordinary circumstances.  Online campaigning took centre stage. Our activists adapted – thank you all for your hard work and for rising to the challenge! 

We secured a clear mandate.  But our vote share at 61% was lower than we had hoped for. Despite our best efforts, we lost Aljunied, Sengkang and Hougang. While Singaporeans made clear that they want the PAP in charge, they also signalled their anxieties about the future, and a desire for more diversity in Parliament.  We must respond to these concerns, strengthen our base, and win back lost ground.

Sec-Gen and I asked Comrade Desmond Lee to reach out to our activists after the GE to do a review and to gather views. I thank all of you for your honest and useful feedback. The review has been completed and the CEC will be discussing the findings. Let me take some time today to share some reflections on GE2020 and how we can move forward.

Holding the Middle 

Our politics is becoming more contested. We saw this in 2011, and it played out again in GE2020.  This desire for greater diversity, for more checks and balances, is here to stay. Subsequent GEs will only get tougher. Opposition parties will seek to deny us a two-thirds majority in Parliament, and thereafter to displace us and form the government. The right to lead must be earned. We must continue to govern well and win the trust of our people. 

We must be alert to what is at stake. Sharper contestation can easily spiral into unstable and divided politics. We have seen this happen in other countries, where political opportunists seek political gains in the extreme ends of issues, and by appealing to special interests. They focus on energising their base, often at the expense of other segments of society. 
Instead of being honest about the difficult trade-offs, they advocate unsustainable, easy ways out. 

Such polarisation has not taken root in Singapore, but we are not immune to such pressures. Take globalisation for example. Singapore is a small economy with no natural resources. We thrive by being open to the world. This is how we have attracted many companies to set up operations here, creating good jobs for our people. At the same time, we invest significantly to bring out the best in our people, while complementing our small local workforce with foreigners to stay competitive. But this can quite easily be hijacked, especially during an economic recession. The openness that has fuelled our progress can be used to exploit the anxieties of our workers during downturns. Anti-foreigner sentiments can be easily stirred up. Such anxieties are understandable. But if we turn inwards, Singapore will spiral downwards.   

Beyond this, race, religion and inequality are examples of fault lines that can greatly divide our society. With social media, differences can be more easily amplified and used to breed unhappiness or insecurity among different groups of Singaporeans. 

The PAP must therefore do what we can to resist such pressures. We must take an inclusive approach to serve all Singaporeans, and not pit one group against another. If our unity is lost, Singapore will stumble.  

The pandemic has plunged us into the worst recession since independence. But we were able to mount a series of swift and decisive budgets, without incurring a single cent of debt for future generations to pay. Not a single cent of debt. Because we were able to use 52 billion dollars of Past reserves – left for us by our forefathers. Could we have built up these reserves if we had been a polarised society with a revolving door government? No. We would not have the firepower to save jobs and businesses, or support families who need help. And it is not just government. Businesses, community groups, individuals played invaluable roles to contain the spread of the virus. If our society was polarised, we would not be able to work together to fight the virus.

We are fully committed to our campaign promise, “Our Lives, Our Jobs, Our Future”.  Sec-Gen will speak more about how we will lead Singapore to overcome the COVID-19 pandemic and rebuild our economy. Our mission is crystal clear: The PAP is here to secure Singapore’s long-term success. Yes, GE2020 matters very much. But, for us, SG100 and SG200 matter even more. Beyond the immediate challenges, we must also look ahead, to emerge stronger. We will protect the interests of Singaporean workers, and fight even harder to create opportunities for them to improve their lives. We will strengthen social safety nets to support the vulnerable. We will make sure that every Singaporean, regardless of starting point, continues to have a fair chance to do well. This is hard work that will take significant effort, engagement and resources. 

In a more turbulent and uncertain future, the PAP will need to work even harder to build consensus and create the political space for us to do the right thing for Singapore and Singaporeans.  

Winning over hearts and minds 

As the People’s Action Party, we focus on taking action, to get the right things done, for the benefit of our people.  This is our core strength that we must retain. And we must continue to win over the hearts and minds of every generation of Singaporeans. To do this more effectively, we have to evolve how we engage a changing electorate. 

For many Singaporeans, having a stake in Singapore today goes beyond the material. They want to have a stronger voice and greater involvement in nation building. This is valuable and we must harness this. As we learnt from Our Singapore Conversation, deep engagement with our people help us better understand their needs and concerns, their fears and aspirations. We were then able to translate their inputs into significant policy changes. As Singaporeans become better educated and well-travelled, we can better harness their ideas and energies to build our shared future together. This is why we launched the Singapore Together movement last year. Several months ago, we also started the Emerging Stronger Conversations. I believe every Singaporean can make a difference.

The Party must fully embrace this spirit. I believe every party activist can make a difference. We must reach out to fellow Singaporeans, including those who may not share all our views, as long as they have the interests of Singapore and Singaporeans at heart. Where differences arise, we must find ways to engage them in an inclusive and constructive manner. Working closely and sincerely with fellow Singaporeans is how we will hold the ground and sustain trust in the PAP. So while we have a good mandate, we must remain humble and work together to win the support of our people.

Ground engagement 

Strong ground engagement remains fundamental. In fact, face-to-face engagement has always been our strength. Singaporeans must not see the PAP as just a capable government, but also as people they can relate to, whom they can trust. 

All Divisions have Meet-the-People sessions. Many Divisions have also reached out in various ways, including doing Mobile MPS, walkabouts and visiting families with needs. Some activists have been doing house visits without their Branch Chairmen, to reach out to residents. As many of you observed, doing this outreach sincerely, is an important way to show care and concern for our people across ages, races and estates. With the pandemic and recession, our activists must look out for residents who are affected, and lend our support.

Besides walking the ground, we must also engage our people, to surface new ideas and find ways to work together. In East Coast, we kickstarted the East Coast Conversations, to engage our residents to work together on new initiatives. Other divisions are doing likewise. One division organised your volunteers with thematic discussions on issues like jobs, caring for residents, and sustainability.  

I encourage all of us to find new ways to engage our people, to deepen understanding of our challenges as a country, as a nation, and the actions that we can take together. 

Reaching out online

At the same time, we must complement our ground presence with stronger online outreach. Anecdotally, some voters were responding to how opposition parties portrayed themselves online, more so than what they stood for and what they could do. 

The impact of social media will only increase with time, as the world becomes more digital. As experiences elsewhere and in Singapore show, bad news and negative spin travel faster and further. Solid facts and figures are seen as stodgy. Substance is essential, but we must strive to master the new medium. We must have a stronger presence online. It will take experimentation and imagination to adapt our content and messaging in new ways. It will also take time. We have been improving, but we must do more and faster. 

For example, I am glad that there has been a concerted effort to actively profile our Parliament debates on the PAP website and on social media. This way, Singaporeans can better see how their MPs are actively bringing views on the ground to Parliament, and how the Government has addressed them. 

Such efforts also give the public a better sense of the breadth of ideas within the Party.  For instance, during the debate at the re-opening of Parliament, PAP MPs raised many proposals to support Singapore workers and businesses, including tougher measures against hiring bias and ideas to create more jobs. Our PAP MPs are a big source of diverse ideas!

Some of our MPs also successfully built a following on social media, introducing political and policy issues, and engaging with residents in interesting new ways. Comrade Chuan Jin, for example, not only explains policies and what the Party stands for well, he has also gotten people excited about how Parliament works. Some Branches also have dedicated online teams. Through social media, we can provide another channel for us to understand the needs and concerns of our people better, and to engage them. 

Growing activist base

Finally, we must continue to broaden and renew our ranks. In the recent GE, we fielded our most diverse slate of 27 new candidates. As a national party, we must continue to recruit widely, so that our MPs and activists can represent the growing diversity of our society. 

As a broad tent that occupies the middle ground, the PAP can better organise ourselves to champion the concerns of various groups. In recent years, our MPs and activists have intensified their work to address the concerns of lower wage workers, seniors, women and caregivers among others. They are effective voices because they understand the concerns of these groups and our current approach to helping them, and are able to put forth good proposals that can make a difference.

Growing our base of activists who have the integrity, the ability and the commitment to serve is a critical task going forward. We must make an even more deliberate effort to recruit people with diverse viewpoints and perspectives who share our passion and values to do right by Singapore and Singaporeans. We must convince them to join the PAP, because this is their best way to make a difference. I am glad that many of our divisions are actively doing so, and finding new ways to connect.

Holding true to our values and convictions 

Through change, crisis, and contestation, each generation of PAP activists have adapted and evolved, to better represent and better serve our people. What remain constant are our Party values and conviction.  

At the start of the conference, we recited the Party Pledge. These values have helped to keep our society united at home, and let us fly the Singapore flag high on the global stage. Already, our ability to rally together to combat COVID-19 has helped us to secure new investments at a difficult time. In a more fractious world, Singapore can be a beacon of unity in diversity.  

We must continue to govern on our values of honesty, meritocracy, multiracialism and self-reliance. We must never stop building a fair and just society where everyone can be developed to their full potential, regardless of their background and starting point in life. Especially in difficult times, we must be honest with Singaporeans about the difficult choices we must make to progress as one. 

The values that the PAP stands for are what distinguishes us from other parties. If we base what we do on these values, Singaporeans will support us in taking on the big fights to protect them and future generations.  

Like many of you, I am a beneficiary of the society that the PAP built. I grew up in an attap hut, and the first time I ever stepped out of Singapore was when I boarded a plane to the UK for my studies, funded by a government scholarship. This red passport opened up possibilities that would have been beyond the reach of a kampung boy. After returning, I started in the frontline with fellow ‘mata-matas’ in the Police.  

My purpose in entering politics is to pay it forward. I know that you serve because you too want to help build a better life for our people. Some of you fought for this, together with Mr Lee Kuan Yew and our founding members in the very early days, when political contestation took a different shape. Your stories are moving and inspiring. Our nation has evolved, and the contest has changed, but your values and conviction have not. This unites all of us across different backgrounds and generations and gives our party strength.

This strength is boosted by our brothers and sisters in the Labour Movement. This symbiotic relationship between the Party and the Labour Movement, to uplift the life of our workers, is all the more critical at this time when workers are anxious about jobs, skills and employment practices. We will continue to work closely with Brother Chee Meng and our brothers and sisters in the Labour Movement to take care of our workers.  

All of us in Cabinet – whether 3G or 4G – are focused on the immediate challenges in fighting COVID-19 and rebuilding our economy. Other 2G leaders, like ESM Goh, continue to care deeply about developments in Singapore and share their counsel with us. I am happy to see so many of our retired MPs with us today – it’s wonderful to see how you stay so committed even after years of service. Some served even before Singapore’s independence. Thank You! 

With all of your support, we are committed to leading the PAP as a party of strong values and conviction, as a party with a deep sense of purpose, and as a party with the will and the drive to get the right things done, with our people, for our people.

Conclusion

Singaporeans have again given the PAP the mandate to take Singapore forward into a more challenging and contested future. The PAP must put the survival and success of Singapore and the well-being of Singaporeans, foremost in everything we do.

Comrades, to continue earning the right to lead, we must win over the hearts and minds of our people. We must continue to reach out to all Singaporeans. We must persuade Singaporeans on the choices that we need to make, and work in partnership with our people to put plans into action. Our values and conviction will steer us through this. Singapore and Singaporeans will emerge stronger from this crisis.

 Majulah NTUC! Majulah PAP! Majulah Singapura!