Secretary-General Lee Hsien Loong: 36th Ordinary Party Conference Speech

08 Nov 2020 18 min read

Bookmark(0)

No account yet? Register

Party Chairman Comrade Gan Kim Yong,

Brothers and Sisters from the NTUC Central Committee,

Party Comrades 

Introduction

This year’s Party Conference is unusual. Because of COVID-19, we cannot gather all our cadres and activists physically in one place. Some of us are here at the NTUC Centre at One Marina Boulevard. The CEC itself, the branch chairmen, our retired MPs, and of course our NTUC brothers and sisters. But many comrades are participating virtually, from the Party HQ in Bedok and party branches all over the island.

This split arrangement also means we cannot have our usual party awards this year but rest assured, we have not forgotten the many members who have served the party loyally and well over so many years, and particularly in this extraordinary COVID-19 and election year. I thank all of you from the bottom of my heart, for everything that you have done. When the situation normalises, we will hold a proper ceremony to recognise your sacrifices and contributions.

GE2020

This is also our first Party Conference after GE2020. I had called the election to ask voters to give the PAP a fresh mandate and a new full term. So that we can focus on dealing with COVID-19 and the economic crisis; coping with a shifting and uncertain external environment; and setting the long-term direction for Singapore.

We won our mandate, with over 61% of the popular vote, and 83 out of 93 seats. Our activists worked extremely hard during the GE. Quite a few constituencies were hard fought. We held West Coast GRC and East Coast GRC, where the opposition put up strong challenges and where they had significance beyond the numbers. We also held Bukit Batok SMC. These were important wins.

Our activists in the opposition wards had the most difficult task. You have tended hard ground over the last five years and longer. Representing the PAP, helping residents there with their needs. Patiently, gradually, striving your best to win their hearts and minds. It was not an easy task. Your poured heart and soul into it. In the end, we were disappointed not to have done better in Aljunied GRC and Hougang SMC. It was not for any lack of zeal or effort. On behalf of the party, I would like thank our candidates and activists there for your hard work and your very heavy personal sacrifices.

In addition, we narrowly lost Sengkang GRC. This was a painful loss for all of us, and especially for our GRC team of candidates – Comrades Ng Chee Meng, Lam Pin Min, Amrin Amin and Raymond Lye. But we respect the decision of Sengkang voters. The PAP will not give up in these opposition constituencies. We will maintain our presence. We will strive to win back the voters there and one day we will succeed.

Overall, the election results fell short of our expectations, but I was not completely surprised. Before the elections, several commentators had predicted a landslide victory for the PAP. They said this was a crisis election, so there would be a flight to safety. PAP “bao yia”, sure win. The Opposition even claimed this in order to frighten Singaporeans, claimed that they feared a wipe out, or a whiteout.

I never believed this. On Nomination Day, I said I did not think this was a realistic outcome. I was confident that Singaporeans firmly supported the government’s efforts against COVID-19 – far more so than in many other countries. But I also knew that public health was not the only thing on voters’ minds. By the time the election was held in July, people were feeling the pain, both from our safe distancing restrictions and also from the sharp lockdown and the sharp economic downturn. Despite strong government support over four Budgets – now five, quite a few had lost their jobs, or suffered falls in income. Many others were worried about their livelihoods and future. Businesses were also frustrated by the impositions placed upon them. For example, in the construction industry, many contractors found it difficult to comply with the stringent rules and approvals which were needed to get their workers cleared to resume work safely. Because of all this, the mood was not upbeat, it was apprehensive. The anxiety was palpable, and it cost us votes.

There was also a broader desire for more alternative voices and a stronger Opposition to check the PAP government. 1ASG alluded to his just now. The pandemic shifted attention towards more immediate public health and bread-and-butter issues but this desire for alternative voices has been there for several elections, and has grown over time. It was below the surface and it resurfaced once the election was called, and particularly when the Opposition played it up.

Notwithstanding these trends, the unequivocal signal from voters was that they wanted the PAP to form the government, and to see Singapore through the challenges ahead. Even many who voted for the opposition, did so fully expecting that the PAP Government would be returned to power, and Singapore would continue to be in good hands. This voting behaviour did not arise because people wanted the PAP out. On the contrary and paradoxically, people voted like this because they believed that the PAP is the only party that could win and govern Singapore. The outcome is already certain; so no need to make extra sure. It is a strange dilemma that we face. But that is how it is.

As Comrade Heng Swee Keat said earlier, we will review the General Election result carefully, to draw lessons that will help us do better next time. Comrade Desmond Lee who is heading the After Action Review has been seeking views from our activists and branches. Many of you have given valuable feedback, for example, how we can organise ourselves more effectively; how to strengthen our branches to fight future elections; which voter groups we need to pay more attention to; how we can pitch our message more precisely at different voters. The Party will act on this feedback, and also address the issues that surfaced during the campaign.

PAP MPs and activists are already back, working hard on the ground. In politics there is no substitute for the hard, patient work of reaching out to people, solving their problems, and winning their trust and confidence. COVID-19 has made this work a little harder. But our MPs still have to tend the ground in their constituencies, cultivate their support base and engage their residents, both online and in person. At the same time, they must engage different groups beyond their own wards, for example trade associations, interest groups, community organisations. These groups are all part of our society. The PAP will continue to reach out to them, work with them on common agendas, and tap their energies and passions, to bring us all closer together and to move us all forward.

But even as our Party solves people’s problems and strengthens our ground support, we must not neglect the political contest. In the new normal, the political contest has become more intense. We must work harder to translate programmes and policies that benefit Singaporeans, into messages that people will identify with and embrace. We must stand ready to face closer scrutiny, both in and out of Parliament. Where the criticisms are fair and the suggestions are constructive, we will take them in, and improve our policies and performance.

But we should also defend vigorously what we believe in and stand for, take the fight to the opposition, and persuade Singaporeans of the best way forward. If we are not prepared to fight hard for what we believe in, people will soon sense it. All these years, the people have been with us because they knew we had backbone: we will fight even with our backs to the wall, and we will never let them down. That is how we have been able to win support for our ideas and plans, and shown Singaporeans that we remain the best team to secure their future. You must have guts, you must have conviction, you must have that spunk and that fight. You may feel desperate with your back against the wall. You believe in it. Stand for it. Fight for it. If need be, die for it.

The Tasks Ahead

Now that the election is behind us, we must focus attention on the urgent priorities which prompted the election. First, keep ourselves safe from the virus. Second, to get our economy back on track.

This is what Singaporeans elected the PAP to do, and what we will be judged by in the next election. We have to deliver competent government and ensure that the substance of our policies are right. But good policies must be accompanied by good politics. Especially in these tough times, the PAP must provide Singaporeans with strong political leadership. To imbue Singaporeans with determination and confidence. To put our people at the centre of everything we do, listen to their aspirations and anxieties, and light a candle in this hour of darkness. We have to rally the nation together, to overcome our most serious challenge since independence.

COVID-19

Since COVID-19 first reached our shores in January, we have taken many drastic but essential steps which have saved the lives of many Singaporeans. After a tremendous effort, and after many disruptions and sacrifices, we have finally got the situation under control, and we have been keeping the situation under control for several months now.

Now our task is to keep the COVID-19 outbreak stable, and get into a position where we can safely and confidently open up further. We cannot simply relax the current restrictions, and hope that COVID-19 cases will remain low. The more we open up and resume normal activities, the more likely it is that we will have new cases including from overseas, either visitors or returning Singaporeans. And therefore, we have to keep up and refine our safe distancing measures. We also have to improve our processes and our safeguards, to deal with the cases which pop up, to prevent isolated cases from becoming clusters, and clusters from becoming generalised outbreak.

This is why we have been working hard to strengthen our testing and contact tracing capabilities for example by developing and deploying rapid test kits by expanding our Safe Entry and TraceTogether programmes, and distributing TraceTogether tokens and the apps. These measures will help us to detect new cases early, and prevent them from developing into new clusters.

Then, we will be able to progress to Phase 3 without suffering a big second wave of infections, and get back to a more normal life, or at least a new normal. We can then permit larger social gatherings, including bigger groups at weddings and resume more international travel to strengthen and expand our business links, in the first instance. And in time, also for family visits and leisure travel.

Managing this, pulling this off is a very delicate balancing act. Many countries have tried to get it right, but failed. After getting their COVID-19 numbers down, they opened up, relaxed, and the population relaxed with too few precautions. Cases shot up again, and they had to lock down severely a second time, sometimes a third time. But by then, people had become tired and cynical about the restrictions. They were less stoic, less forgiving of the measures, and more resentful of the authorities. Instead of solidarity and resilience, there was fractiousness and recrimination. People turned against their governments, blaming them for the bad outcomes. Sometimes rightly, sometimes wrongly. But they are angry, it did not matter. This is happening in many European countries, and in North America as well. These countries are currently experiencing a huge second wave of COVID-19, much bigger than the first wave.

So COVID-19 is not just a public health problem; it is also a political problem because it takes political leadership to convince people that we need to keep the measures in place, especially when the case numbers are low. We still need the measures because without the measures, the case numbers would not be low. The danger is not very far away, and it can pop in and up any time. We must show people while we do all these things, that we care for them, and we empathise with their difficulties and we must maintain public trust in the government and its leaders. So that if we need to implement new measures or policies, people will accept them, cooperate with them and give them a chance to work. Otherwise, it will be very difficult for us to survive this crisis without further mishap.

Economy

Beyond public health, we also have to deal with the economic fallout of COVID-19. When we implemented the circuit breaker in April and May, the economy nosedived. Now many sectors are gradually picking up again. But some are still in suspended animation, aviation, transport, tourism, , and they are likely to remain in suspended animation for quite some time. Because with the US and Europe having major outbreaks ongoing, they are not going to open their borders. Furthermore the outbreaks in Europe and America will affect their economies, and will affect our export markets. Therefore we must expect the general economy, we hope it will remain stable, but I do not see it picking up in a vibrant way very soon.

Managing this protracted economic downturn is another major political challenge. Some businesses will find that they cannot carry on without government support and government support cannot last forever. Some workers will have to look for new jobs. Insecurity over livelihoods will stay high. The government cannot save every job and every business, but we will do our level best and go all the way to help every worker.

In policy terms, we know what we need to do: We are helping workers and companies through the crisis, the schemes are there, the Jobs Support Scheme, the Jobs Growth Incentive, foreign worker levy rebates. Most importantly, we must create more new jobs by revitalising the economy and that means helping companies transform themselves and find new markets and attracting new investments from existing as well as new companies which will create new jobs.

Besides having the right economic policies, we must also address people’s concerns and anxieties. One major worry is that COVID-19 will affect lower income households and workers disproportionately. This would undo the years of progress we have made levelling up low-wage workers, building social cohesion and the sense of hope that in Singapore, we start off poor, but you work hard and do your best, you have a chance of doing better in life. We must prevent low-income households from being disproportionately hit by COVID-19. The government will pay special attention to lower income groups, and to tackling inequality in our society. We will do this comprehensively. Not through glib slogans or half-baked proposals. But with a full range of practical support measures, and we have them, the Progressive Wage Model, Workfare, Silver Support, CHAS, and there will be more and we will develop new ways of achieving this objective. We will make sure that taken together, our schemes offer real, sustainable support to  lower wage workers.

This is fundamental to the PAP’s raison d’être. It is the purpose of our existence as a party. We began as the party of workers and unions, striving for the uplift of all the people, and especially the most vulnerable ones among us.  Hence, we built “a democratic society based on justice and equality”. We will always stay true to that purpose. A second worry that many Singaporeans have is the competition from foreign work pass holders. I fully understand these pressures. They exist, and Singaporean workers must feel reassured that the government will help them to hold their own against competition from foreign workers or competition from abroad, and make sure that they are fairly treated compared to foreign workers. Otherwise, we will have a lot of angst and social tensions. Even if we manage to get the economy going again.

At the same time, we must convince Singaporeans that the best way to protect livelihoods and families is to keep Singapore open for talent and for business. If we just close ourselves up and send away the work pass holders, it will result in fewer jobs and opportunities for Singaporeans, and more hardship for our workers and their families. So this is a very delicate balance to strike. But we have to address these issues we have to do it, we have to get the right balance and the right mix of the touch as well as the clear headedness,-  because that is the only to bring our people through the crisis safely, body and soul. This is a major political task. It takes leadership; it takes courage. We must not falter.

We must rally our people and give them hope. Times are tough for every country, but relative to other countries, Singapore has considerable strengths. Our workforce has a sterling reputation as the best workforce in the world for which we have to give thanks to the workers themselves and also to the unions and labour movement who have helped them. Our society is cohesive, united in fighting COVID-19 and in striving for a better life. Our government works, is efficient, and consistently delivers results for Singaporeans. And our politics is stable, with Singaporeans firmly backing the government they have elected. In Singapore, everything works and everyone expects everything to work because together, we have made it work. It did not happen by itself, we made it happen.

That is why even in this depressed economic climate, so many investors are setting up offices, factories and headquarters in Singapore, and expanding their footprints here, creating opportunities for us here. Recently I broke ground for a new project for Hyundai Motors in Jurong. It will be an R&D facility to do research and development on future mobility technologies, in particular, electric cars and it will also manufacture electric cars, for a start, up to 30,000 cars a year, EVs. This will create many new jobs and opportunities for Singaporeans. Singapore has not produced cars for a very long time. Yes, we used to have a Ford assembly factory along Upper Bukit Timah Road. The cars came in pieces, you put the pieces together, screw them together, and we said, Made in Singapore. It really did not work and in 1980, that factory closed down and now it  has become a museum! But electric car manufacturing is different from traditional auto manufacturing. It is higher tech, deeper skills and more automation and we have a chance to do this. So Singapore is making a comeback! The lesson is that even when skies are grey, there are rays of light and we must look for them, make the most of them, and through our own efforts, create even more promising opportunities for ourselves.

This COVID-19 and the economic crisis, the PAP government has its work cut out for it. We have to lead from the front, rally  our people to press on, carrying them with us come what may but we cannot do this alone.

PAP-NTUC Symbiotic Ties

In fulfilling our role to lead Singapore, the PAP is fortunate to have a staunch ally- the Labour Movement. The LM stands shoulder to shoulder with us and has done so since the very beginning.

We have been close partners since the founding of the PAP. It has been an enduring and productive relationship and the foundation of our harmonious tripartite relations, and Singapore’s sustained economic success.

This partnership between the PAP and the LM is what we call a symbiotic one. We live with one another and the cooperation makes things better for both of us. Unionists work with the PAP to protect workers, improve their lives, help them keep up with economic transformation and reach their full potential. And the PAP understands that its foremost responsibility is to the people of Singapore, which means the workers of Singapore, and their families. Fighting for workers is deeply embedded in the PAP’s DNA. That is why the PAP sends representatives to attend the NTUC Delegates’ Conferences, and why we are honoured to have our NTUC brothers and sisters joining us today at this Party Conference—which is being held at the NTUC headquarters, at OMB. It is not just for old times’ sake, but an expression of our abiding close ties.

In this time of crisis, it is especially vital to strengthen the partnership between the PAP and the NTUC. This is when unions need the government to be on their side, looking after workers’ interests, supporting their families, protecting jobs and livelihoods. And this is when the PAP government needs strong support from the LM, to keep a finger on the pulse, to get workers to understand and support the measures and the policies that will help us get out of this black time and get through this difficult period. That is why I am very happy to see the PAP and NTUC branches working together on the FairPrice Food Voucher Scheme for the needy. I’d like to thank Brother Ng Chee Meng, Brother Seah Kian Peng and the NTUC and NTUC FairPrice team for generously stepping up and donating the food vouchers. Last year they donated $1.2 million, this year $3 million worth of food vouchers. It will be deeply appreciated. On behalf of all our voters and residents, thank you very much.

One day, COVID-19 will subside. But after that, we will be in a very different world. There will be much more economic disruption, much greater turbulence in the job market. We can expect new models of work, more contract and short-term employment arrangements, faster churn as workers shift or try to shift from declining to emerging industries.

The close partnership between the PAP and the NTUC will be a precious asset as Singapore navigates our way through this uncertain future. Workers will need a strong Labour Movement more than ever, while the government will rely on the unions to fulfil their responsibilities, to protect workers and take Singapore forward. At the leadership level, the partnership remains very strong. But on the ground, between our party branches and individual unions and union branches, the engagement is not so deep. PAP MPs are often invited to serve as advisors to various unions. The MPs should go beyond advising, to helping out with the union ground, engaging workers directly. That way when worker issues arise, PAP MPs and leaders have a solid feel and understand the ins and outs of the issues and why workers are worried, what their concerns are. And then, the PAP MPs can speak up on behalf of workers in Parliament, and show them that they have a voice in the PAP.

We should also recruit more union leaders to join the PAP, and have more party activists in the union ranks. So that ties are kept warm and close at the working level, whether it is in the unions, or in party branches. Then the PAP and NTUC can continue to nurture our symbiotic relationship and groom new generations of activists, and work hand-in-hand to take Singapore forward for more generations to come.

Future of Singapore Politics

When I spoke in Parliament in September, I explained why the PAP has a special responsibility to Singaporeans. I want to say it again today, directly to our party activists – to explain to you why you have a special responsibility to Singapore and to Singaporeans. The PAP has won every general election since 1959, until now, more than half a century now. We have got good people into politics, to serve the party and the nation. With the support of Singaporeans, we have been able to take care of their needs – housing, education, healthcare, security, hope and opportunities. And because we have had political stability, we have looked forward, made long term plans for our future, and created opportunities for Singaporeans to maximise their potential at every stage of their lives. That is how we have worked with Singaporeans to achieve happiness, prosperity and progress for our nation, year after year. And that is why Singaporeans have returned us to power, election after election, entrusting us with the heavy responsibility of leading Singapore.

This is a virtuous cycle – each step feeds into the other, the next, and then it feeds back again. Because we delivered the goods, we gained strong political support. Because we had strong support, Singapore had political stability. Because we were assured of political stability, we could think long term, we could bring good people, committed people into politics. And because we could do that–think long term, we could deliver better lives for all our people. And then because we delivered progress, we could retain the confidence of the people and win the elections again. It feeds into itself, it’s a virtuous circle, each time you come back, something better, rise higher.

We must keep this cycle going for as long as possible. Once we break it, it will be impossible for any party to restore it, not even the PAP. Many countries have more fiercely contested democratic systems, and more exciting politics, but these do not always add up to good government. Too often, contestation makes the politics unstable and divided. Governments come and go. Policies get introduced, then jettisoned with each change of government. Naturally, those in power focus on their own short-term political survival. Those out of power make irresponsible, extravagant claims to get in. They offer deceptive short-cuts and painless remedies, without being upfront about the costs and the consequences. As a result, governments cannot make any long-term commitments, and the country cannot maintain a consistent long term direction to steer its way forward.

Singapore is not like that but very few countries work like Singapore. Just read the newspapers. Never mind whether it is international news, elections in the US or crisis in Europe. Or the regional news, much closer to home- very exciting politics. Do we want such excitement in Singapore? Is it good for Singapore- to have these ups and downs, the hurly burly, unpredictability, the bitterness, the division, the rancour, the splits that will take many, many years to heal? Or do we want to keep on building on what we have, treasuring what we have achieved, remedying the flaws, the shortcomings which there will always be— making it less imperfect, a little bit better, a little bit better, a little bit better, patiently, year by year, election by election. So that by the time you hand over to your successors, hand over to your children, you can say, we made Singapore better for you, please do the same for your successors and your children.

So that is what we want to do. To sustain the Singapore model, the PAP cannot stand still. The country is changing. The politics is changing. And so, the PAP must change as well. We must adapt to what Singaporeans want to see in their politics. Singaporeans still want stability and progress, job security and opportunities for themselves and their children. But increasingly, Singaporeans want other things too. To participate more actively in shaping our society. To re-examine basic assumptions, and look beyond the tried-and-tested way of doing things. And to have greater checks and balances, and more alternative voices, more robust public debates, and closer scrutiny of government policies. These expectations and desires will only grow with every generation of Singaporeans. The PAP must respond to them. At the same time, we have to maintain our core identity and what we stand for. We must continue representing all Singaporeans, and not just a particular sliver or segment of the population. 

We have long established our identity as a party – for 66 years now. The PAP has kept itself vigorous and stayed in power by constantly evolving and rejuvenating ourselves, and keeping our policies fresh and relevant to the times. We have to keep on doing this, even as we forge fresh bonds between the PAP and successive generations of Singaporeans.

That is why the 4G leaders have been leading initiatives to encourage Singaporeans to come forward and express themselves. Engage, participate, argue, work things out, make the compromises, form the bonds and build the team. 1ASG spoke about SG Together, and the Emerging Stronger Conversations. Our hope is that through these platforms, Singaporeans will feel empowered to make a difference and contribute to society, working hand-in-hand with the PAP.

That is also why we have been renewing the party leadership at every GE. I am especially proud of our latest batch of MPs. They have each established themselves and made a mark in their own professions and their own communities. They can speak from direct personal experience, with conviction and passion, to represent and champion the concerns and interests of Singaporeans. Let me name a few: Hany Soh, an active grassroots leader in Bukit Panjang for many years, who also co-chairs the Law Society’s community legal clinics committee. Yeo Wan Ling, who founded a social enterprise that connects those in need of care with freelance caregivers. Mohd Fahmi, who was the Deputy Chief Guards Officer in the SAF, then served in MUIS as Deputy CEO, and is now in the NTUC. They, and many others, will do the Party and Singapore proud. We are proud of them, we have confidence in them.

I have appointed several of the new MPs, as well as some previous backbenchers, to the Cabinet or as office holders. They will reinforce the 4G team, and help the PAP to provide Singapore with the leadership it needs, beyond me and my older colleagues 

Leadership renewal remains one of my top priorities. But as I have explained, because of the COVID-19 pandemic and its economic impact, it is my duty to see our nation through the crisis, before I hand over responsibility for Singapore in good shape to the next team and into safe hands. I ask you to support me and my whole team – older and younger MPs, office holders and backbenchers. We will do our very best to fulfil our duty at this critical time.

Conclusion

Every party member should be deeply conscious of the heavy responsibility that Singaporeans have entrusted us with. Singaporeans will judge the PAP not only by what we have done for them in the past, but by what we will be doing this term with them and what we can continue to do with them. Our actions must strengthen their trust in the PAP, and our policies and plans must continue to take Singapore forward. So the PAP must continue to govern Singapore well, work the ground, stay accessible to voters, and lead by example. I ask all our comrades to commit ourselves to these tasks.

Never forget we are the PAP – the People’s Action Party. We are not the party of special interest groups or particular communities. We represent the people of Singapore. We are a party of purpose, of conviction, of action. We have made life better for millions of Singaporeans. We will constantly pursue a more just and equal society and we are ever determined to walk alongside every Singaporean, striving towards a brighter future together.

Majulah NTUC, Majulah PAP, Majulah Singapura.