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A general view of the Woodlands Causeway in Singapore, Malaysia. Picture: GETTY IMAGES/ORE HUIYING
A general view of the Woodlands Causeway in Singapore, Malaysia. Picture: GETTY IMAGES/ORE HUIYING

Singapore’s People’s Action Party (PAP) offers valuable lessons for the ANC in how it renewed itself while in power. The PAP changed outdated ideologies, retired leaders who were incompetent and fired the corrupt — despite their “struggle” credentials — and brought in new leaders, many of whom were never part of the “struggle” or in some cases were not even members of the party.

The PAP transformed Singapore within one generation from dirt poor at independence from Britain in 1965 to a highly developed economy. At independence Singapore had no mineral resources, no significant industries and imported its energy, food and water.

In 1965, Singapore’s nominal GDP per capita stood at $500. In 2015 the country’s GDP per capita had risen to $56,000 — a similar level to Germany. Singapore had caught up with industrial and former colonial powers. In contrast, almost all African countries within one generation became significantly poorer, more corrupt, more ethnically divided and more dysfunctional than they were at independence.

The PAP was established in 1954 as a party to fight for the independence of Singapore from Britain. The party was similar to many African liberation and independence movements: a typical broad front spanning trade unions, communists, populists, professionals, small business and traditionalists. But fundamentally it identified as a party of the Left.

Unlike many African liberation and independence movements that adopted either Marxism-Leninism or African variants of socialism and communalism, democratic centralism and state-led development, the PAP pursued social democracy, adopted pragmatic market-based policies, and partnered with business, including multinationals.

The PAP ideology was that of pragmatism, which meant it adopted policies based on whether they produced results — and if they did not, rejected them — and not based on dogma or the belief in an absolute truth.

The party encouraged private sector-led growth, rather than state-led growth, unlike many African liberation and independence movements, which discouraged private sector-led growth, prioritising state-led growth. The PAP strongly pushed industrialisation as a way to foster growth and create jobs, rather than redistribution of existing or colonially inherited wealth. The state collaborated with business, predominantly foreign multinationals.

In contrast, African independence and liberation movements nationalised many local and foreign companies, or introduced indigenisation or empowerment programmes, where the state or local political capitalists close to governing parties got slices of local or foreign companies.

The PAP vigorously pursued the strategy of merit within its own party and within the state. It introduced merit-based appointments to the public service, rather than cadre deployment, which brought large numbers of entrepreneurial-minded new public servants into government. Election to party leadership was largely on merit, but also included all ethnic groups, which lifted the best talent among its support base to the party’s  leadership. Parliamentary candidates were selected only after interviews, competence assessments and lifestyle audits.

At independence the PAP was dominated by two strands: the first was the central democratic wing led by Lee Kuan Yew and the second, the communist grouping led by Lim Chin Siong.

When the PAP repositioned itself as a governing party with pragmatic policies — rejecting fixed, old independence movement-era ideologies, appointing leaders on merit and firing incompetent, corrupt and dishonest leaders — many struggle cadres rebelled. The party’s left-wing groups objected to repositioning the party as a pragmatic developmental party.

When the PAP’s Left wing, communists and trade unions opposed the new entrepreneurial direction, Lee, like many leaders of African independence movements, did not try to hold the Left and moderate factions of the party together for the sake of “unity”, which would invite policy paralysis. Rather, he encouraged them to leave.

The ANC needs new ideas, new partnerships with business, civil society and professionals

In August 1961, Lee forced the communists out of the broad church because of irreconcilable ideological, policy and leadership differences. The communists then formed the Barisan Socialist Party and took 35 out of 51 branches of the PAP with them. The party actively discouraged populism among members and leaders. 

The PAP government established a social pact co-ordinated body, like the Dutch equivalent, to forge a consensus between organised labour, business and the government on growth, industrialisation and multiracialism strategies. Importantly, business had equal power to that of labour, although the PAP started off as a party aligned to trade unions.

Trade unions were compelled to compromise short-term interests in favour of the country’s long-term industrialisation. For example, they had to agree to productivity targets, accepting lower wages and increases and not to strike, to foster an investor-friendly labour market.

African liberation and independence movements aligned to trade unions often give preference to their labour allies above that of business, which results in these governments alienating business and losing out on having the support of business resources, ideas and capacity for industrialisation.

The PAP dealt firmly with corruption within the party and state, jailing senior leaders in the party and government implicated in corruption, even if they were struggle grandees, to show that liberation leaders are not above the law. No successful country development can take place amid corruption, incompetence and lawlessness.

The PAP was also more determined to establish the rule of law at independence — and make everyone equal before the law. In the first 30 days of gaining power in 1959 the PAP government broke up criminal gangs, mafia networks and illegal activities. The government brought to book party members and leaders and ordinary citizens who were corrupt, entrenching the rule of law.

When they get into power many African liberation and independence movement governments exempt party members and leaders from the rule of law, while they police ordinary citizens not connected to the movement leaders. This unequal treatment of citizens depending on their connectedness to the leaders of the governing party undermines the establishment of a culture of rule of law, which is crucial for industrialisation, growth and development.

Singapore is a multi-ethnic and multilingual state. The PAP went out of its way to represent all ethnic groups at ‘‘all levels of the state and in state institutions’’. The party adopted multiracialism, a respect for and equality of all ethnic groups and tolerance of differences, as one of the post-independence country’s “founding myths”.

Many African independence and liberation movements were dominated by and prioritised one ethnic group, colour or region. They excluded others, thereby marginalising the talents, ideas and resources of other groups who could have been marshalled for industrialisation, development and nation-building. Furthermore, in many African countries one ethnic, colour or regional group has often been scapegoated for the lack of advancement of another community. This has plunged many countries in which this happens into ruin, social disorder and economic stagnation.

ANC president Cyril Ramaphosa will need to employ shock therapy, as Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew did when he renewed the PAP, to rebuild the ANC. Sack all corrupt leaders and on merit bring in large numbers of new leaders who have not been part of the current corrupt ANC structures.

The ANC needs new ideas, new partnerships with business, civil society and professionals. If the ANC does not renew itself, the party will suffer losses in the 2024 national elections.

• Gumede is an associate professor at the University of the Witwatersrand School of Governance. This is an edited extract from an occasional paper, “Party Renewal the Singapore People’s Action Party  Way: What the ANC can learn from PAP in remaking itself into an effective developmental party”, which was published by the Inclusive Society Institute. 

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