“Evolution, not revolution”: The story of the PAP since 1985

Today, similar to 1985, is a pivotal point for the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP), as Singapore is once again in the midst of a leadership transition from the third generation to the fourth generation (4G) team.

Then, as in now, people have many questions about the future, said Prime Minister Mr Lee Hsien Loong at the launch of a book that chronicles the PAP’s history from 1985 to 2021.

The questions include: How will the 4G team respond? Do they have what it takes to overcome adversity and take Singapore forward?

While the book does not offer answers, Mr Lee hopes it will provide a sense of perspective of the PAP’s journey in the past 36 years, and how the party has sought to improve lives with constant changes to policies and engaging residents to fulfil their rising aspirations – earning their trust and mandate.

This historical journey is a story worth telling, he added, as it is bookended by two turning points – the General Elections (GE) in 1984 and 2020 that saw the PAP’s vote share dip significantly and the opposition gaining ground with record wins.

In between, Singapore made remarkable economic progress and the PAP continued its undisrupted reign with continuous evolution – from leadership changes to internal reorganisations – to stay relevant.

All this is captured in detail in a new book, "A History of the People's Action Party: 1985 to 2021", which was launched on 14 Dec at NUS.

Published by NUS Press, the book is written by Dr Shashi Jayakumar, Head of the Centre of Excellence for National Security at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies. He spent 10 years on the project, reviewing party materials and official documents, and interviewing over 60 PAP leaders, backbenchers and activists.

The idea for the book came from the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew, shared Dr Jayakumar who interviewed the elder statesman before he died in 2015.

“He was even in the last years of his life constantly thinking about the future of Singapore, and what impact world events would have on us,” he said.

Mr Peter Schoppert, Director of NUS Press, noted that this book on local history and politics is the latest of many published by the university press since the 1950s.

“The University at that time held the conviction that a nation-to-be needed to own and control its own means for creating and certifying knowledge, disseminating that knowledge to the world of course, but responding also first to local values and priorities,” he said.

1985: A landmark year

The “pivotal” 1984 GE made 1985 “a logical starting point” for the book, explained Mr Lee, the PAP’s secretary-general who entered politics in that election.

Then, as many PAP old guards retired or stepped down from leadership roles, the party saw its vote share tumble by 12.9 percentage points to 64.8 per cent – a record low since independence. Two opposition candidates were also elected for the first time.

At the post-election press conference, then-Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew said that the older generation of voters who stuck with the party during the merger with Malaysia and subsequent independence were slowly being replaced by younger ones who were better educated and more demanding of their leaders.

“It seemed like the PAP was losing political dominance. It was a moment for introspection, perhaps even concern,” said Mr Lee.

Party leaders were quietly resolved to renew the party and lead the country into the future. “But even they could not confidently predict that for another 35 years post-1985, the PAP would earn the strong support and trust from new generations of Singapo­reans,” he added.

2021: A new milestone

Fast forward to today, even as the PAP has progressed with Singapore, it reached another challenge in the 2020 GE that marked a generational change in leaders and voters.

While the PAP “won a strong mandate” noted Mr Lee, the party’s vote share fell by 8.6 percentage points, and it lost two Group Representation Constituencies (GRCs) to the opposition for the first time.

The book, which ends just after this election, thus neatly takes readers one full circle. “We are now, once again, at another turning point in the PAP’s history, starting the next chapter of the PAP story,” he said.

“This has been a story of stability and progress. Of evolution, not revolution. Of patient building and improving. Of ensuring that tomorrow will be better than today.”

What is important now is for the people and party to work together. “Just like in 1985, in 2021, no one can be sure what the future holds. Most fundamentally, our task is not to foretell the future, but to create it,” he added.


"A History of the People's Action Party: 1985 to 2021" is available at NUS Press


A book which provides a sense of history and perspective

“Shashi’s book explains how the PAP has sought to build a cohesive society in Singapore, build understanding and consensus across different groups, and improve the lives of Singaporeans across the board.

It analyses how the PAP government has reached out, engaged, and listened to the people; adapted policies to address Singaporeans’ changing needs and to fulfil their rising aspirations; worked to deliver high standards of living, healthcare, education, and housing; created well-paying jobs and better futures; and sustained this performance year in and year out, in good times and bad, and in doing so, earned the trust and mandate of the people and kept the virtuous spiral going another turn upwards.

This book recounts how the PAP continuously transformed and renewed itself over the decades. It reorganised the party to strengthen its close ties to the people, it scouted, inducted, and groomed potential leaders with the right skills and values, and with diverse experiences and perspectives while staying true to its core values of honesty, incorruptibility, and competence.

This book also brings us behind the scenes where decisions were made, and it covers the internal debates within the party, the difficult choices and trade-offs, the reflections from our successes and failures.”

- Prime Minister Mr Lee Hsien Loong