Unlikely Candidates in an Apolitical Party

Speak of “political detainees” and one might think of political fixing by the PAP. Yet, sons of political dissidents have come forth to fight for the PAP banner. Strange, right?

Ong Ye Kung & Murali

Meet Mr. K. Muralidharan Pillai and Ong Ye Kung. Both their fathers were Barisan Socialis members, the opposition party to the PAP back in the young days of Singapore. For that matter, shouldn’t the party have considered such political history and hence not fielded them in the first place? It would even be considered strange from a political standpoint: why introduce candidates of such political lineage? One could even add Dr. Janil Puthecheary, whose dad was detained by the ISA before.

Is the past important? Yes it is, but only for as long as it is relevant. Despite probably family influence with respect to the political values of these candidates, they were still willing to be fielded under the PAP banner. Perhaps it signals what the PAP stands for?


Personally, I have always thought the PAP to be very anomalous in politics. Classify it as a “left” party and one sees its conservative side towards aspects of minority representation. Classify it “right” and one notices how Medishield Life is essentially compulsory health insurance for everyone. The first terms that come to mind for the PAP are probably “meritocracy”, “pragmatism”, “incorruptibility” and “hard-nosed leaders”, none of which are particularly ideologically-charged terms that define parties internationally.

The fact that children of ex-political detainees somehow show up on the PAP slate is intriguing. The fact that these people could run for the PAP banner even if their political history proves otherwise is strong evidence for allegiance-blind meritocracy within the party itself.


Look back to 1984 and one finds Dr. Vivian Balakrishnan, being part of NUSSU back then, voiced out strongly against the Graduate Mothers’ Scheme. How did all these people, supposed dissidents or sons of dissidents of the ruling party of the day, end up being under the fold of the ruling party?

I never had a concrete answer, but I would like to hypothesise that this is consistent with Kishore Mahbubani’s idea of the “Big Tent” approach. In simple terms: if you have good ideas and have potential, join the government and show how your reforms will indeed benefit Singapore as a whole. Dr. Vivian Balakrishnan has indeed proven his worth, such as being singled out for praise during the National Day Rally for the handling of the climate change talks in Lima, but also for the fact on how Smart Nation has been growing with a push towards a more citizen-involved society, as he writes in his blog on citizens needing to be engaged about the country’s happenings.

No matter how one tries to look at this, it shows that the PAP is welcoming towards good people for as long as they have ideas moving forward. This is probably the most apolitical thing to say, but it is consistent with the fundamental values of meritocracy, pragmatism and honesty.

There are insights that can be learnt about the PAP from these episodes. One, that the PAP is unafraid to recruit rivals, change their candidate line-up and convince them to contribute if they think that they are of value to the country. The current slate of candidates the PAP has unveiled would defy conventional expectations. Most from the public sector? Not at all, most come from the private sector this time round. How many high flyers from the civil service? This time round, there are only three. They have listened to both the people and outside ideas and have assembled a rather fascinating line-up.


Two, the PAP needs to think about a dilemma with the younger generation. A younger generation does not subscribe to the idea of “pragmatism” and the obsession of survival in lieu of the progress Singapore has made. There is a tendency to want pluralism and diversity. The PAP’s answer to this has been the “big tent” — internal diversity. Yet some voters want external diversity. They believe the PAP does not have all the answers and would rather have a co-driver in Parliament, as per many typical two-party systems. It is a dilemma because the PAP has actually thought of the issue about opposition representation and has sought to deal with this through the NMP and NCMP schemes. The NMP scheme has largely been successful, with Walter Woon’s private member bill being passed and NMPs generally sharing good ideas in Parliament that politicians normally cannot utter. The NCMP scheme has changed from three opposition members to nine, but such schemes have not convinced voters into believing that the PAP listens to opposing voices, even if it actually does through the changes it has implemented.

Watching the PAP is akin to watching Bayern Munich at times: convincing the best possible players to join it to stay the best.


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About the author

Donavan Cheah

Donavan is currently a Physics student at the National University of Singapore. Besides Physics, he enjoys commenting on issues ranging from education, public policy and even speculating on the future of the country. Formerly from Breakfast Network, he plans to further hone his capability at writing.

Through FSAAM, he hopes to bring readers through seemingly complicated matters in Singapore in simplified manners, illuminate often-forgotten yet important topics for discussion in Singapore’s socio-political context. Hopefully his care for the country will indeed be reciprocated with a maturing society capable of making decisions that will set Singapore in good stead for the future.

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1 Comment

  • You know what Anwar was doing in his student days? He was a radical student leader, and Mahathir went to co-opt him into the regime as well. This sort of thing happens with regularity all around the world, and is nowhere near as unique as you seem to think with the PAP.

    You have chosen to interpret this phenomenon as absorbing good ideas, and until we hear a definitive word, that’s as much speculation as what I offer. Cynical types like myself will think of it as neutering any threats from outside present power centres by dangling a golden carrot in front of them. I’m very curious about why offspring of detainees could rise within the ranks of the persecutor. Again, my cynical interpretation is that of yet another way of tormenting the detainee by breaking the ranks of the family.

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