The PAP was formed on 21 November 1954 by Lee Kuan Yew, an English-educated middle-class professional lawyer who had returned from university education in the United Kingdom. He had a vision of full independence for Singapore, and was joined by Lim Chin Siong and Fong Swee Suan despite their ideological differences.
In April 1955, Lim Chin Siong was elected as Assemblyman for the Bukit Timah constituency. Then 22 years old, he was and remained the youngest Assemblyman ever to be elected to office. The following year, Lim and Lee represented the PAP at the London Constitutional Talks, which ended in failure: the British declined to grant Singapore internal self-government. On 7 June 1956, David Marshall, disappointed with the constitutional talks, stepped down as Chief Minister, and was replaced by Lim Yew Hock.
Lee Kuan Yew eventually accused Lim Chin Siong and his supporters of being Communists, though declassified British government documents later suggested that no evidence was ever found that Lim was a Communist.
The PAP first contested the 1955 elections, in which 25 of 32 seats in the legislature were up for election. The party won three seats, one by its leader Lee Kuan Yew, and one by co-founder of the PAP, Lim Chin Siong, the election going to the Labour Front's David Saul Marshall.
David Marshall was vocally anti-British and anti-colonialist, and the British found it difficult to come to an agreement or compromise. Eventually, after failing to reach any agreement about a definite plan for self-government, he resigned in 1956, as he had pledged to do so earlier if self-government was not achieved. Lim Yew Hock, another Labour Front member, took his place. He pursued a largely anti-communist campaign and managed to convince the British to make a definite plan for self-government. The Constitution of Singapore was revised accordingly in 1958, replacing the Rendel Constitution with one that granted Singapore self-government and the ability for its own population to fully elect its Legislative Assembly.
Following this initial defeat, the PAP decided to re-assert ties with the labour faction of Singapore by promising to release the jailed members of the PAP and at the same time getting them to sign a document that they supported Lee Kuan Yew and the PAP, in the hope that it could attract the votes of working-class Chinese Singaporeans. According to Tan Jing Quee in the book "Comet in our Sky", Lee Kuan Yew was being deceptive at this time: while pretending to be on the side of the jailed labour members of the PAP, he was secretly in collusion with the British to stop Lim Chin Siong and the labour supporters from attaining power, whom Lee had courted because of their huge popularity, without which Lee would most likely not have been able to attain power. Quee also states that Lim Yew Hock deliberately provoked the students into rioting and then had the labour leaders arrested. "Lee Kuan Yew was secretly a party with Lim Yew Hock" – adds Dr Greg Poulgrain of Griffiths University "in urging the Colonial Secretary to impose the subversives ban in making it illegal for former political detainees to stand for election."
The result was successful for the PAP under Lee Kuan Yew's control who won the 1959 election. The 1959 election was also the first election to produce a fully elected parliament and a cabinet wielding powers of full internal self-government. The party has won a majority of seats in every general election since then.
After gaining independence from Britain, Singapore joined the federation of Malaysia in 1963. Although the PAP was the ruling party in the state of Singapore, the PAP functioned as an opposition party at the federal level in the larger Malaysian political landscape. At that time (and ever since), the federal government in Kuala Lumpur was controlled by a coalition led by the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO). However, the prospect that the PAP might rule Malaysia agitated UMNO. The PAP's decision to contest federal parliamentary seats outside Singapore, and the UMNO decision to contest seats within Singapore, breached an unspoken agreement to respect each other's spheres of influence, and aggravated PAP-UMNO relations. The clash of personalities between PAP leader Lee Kuan Yew and Malaysian Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman resulted in a crisis and led to Rahman forcing Singapore to leave Malaysia on 9 August 1965. Upon independence, the nascent People's Action Party of Malaya, which had been registered in Malaysia on 10 March 1964, had its registration cancelled on 9 September 1965, exactly a month after Singapore's exit. Those with the now non-existent party applied to register "People's Action Party, Malaya", which was again rejected by the Malaysian government, before settling with the Democratic Action Party.
The PAP has held an overwhelming majority of seats in the Parliament of Singapore since 1966, when the opposition Barisan Sosialis (Socialist Front), a left-wing group that split from PAP in 1961, resigned from Parliament after winning 13 seats following the 1963 state elections, which took place months after a number of their leaders had been arrested in Operation Coldstore based on charges of being communists. In the general elections of 1968, 1972, 1976, and 1980, the PAP won all of the seats in an expanding parliament. Although opposition parties managed to get back into Parliament in 1984, the PAP still rules Singapore as a virtual one-party state. Opposition parties did not win more than four parliamentary seats from 1984 until 2011 when the Workers' Party won six seats and took away a Group Representation Constituency (GRC) for the first time for any opposition party.
Initially adopting a traditionalist Leninist party organisation, together with a vanguard cadre from its labour-leaning faction in 1958, the PAP Executive later expelled the leftist faction, bringing the ideological basis of the party into the centre, and later in the 1960s, moving further to the right. In the beginning, there were about 500 so-called "temporary cadre" appointed but the current number of cadres is unknown and the register of cadres is kept confidential. In 1988, Wong Kan Seng revealed that there were more than 1,000 cadres. Cadre members have the right to attend party conferences and to vote for and elect and to be elected to the Central Executive Committee (CEC), the pinnacle of party leaders. To become a cadre, a party member is first nominated by the MP in his or her branch. The candidate then undergoes three sessions of interviews, each with four or five ministers or MPs, and the appointment is then made by the CEC. About 100 candidates are nominated each year.
Political power in the party is concentrated in the Central Executive Committee (CEC), led by the Secretary-General. The Secretary-General of the People's Action Party is the leader of the party. Because of the PAP electoral victories in every General Election since 1959, the Prime Minister of Singapore has been by convention the Secretary-General of the PAP since 1959. Most CEC members are also cabinet members. From 1957 onwards, the rules laid down that the outgoing CEC should recommend a list of candidates from which the cadre members can then vote for the next CEC. This has been changed recently so that the CEC nominates eight members and the party caucus selects the remaining ten.
Historically, the position of Secretary-General was not considered for the post of Prime Minister. Instead, the Central Executive Committee held an election to choose the Prime Minister. There was a contest between PAP Secretary-General Lee Kuan Yew and PAP treasurer Ong Eng Guan. Lee Kuan Yew won, and thus became the first Prime Minister of Singapore.
Since that election, there is a tradition that Singapore's Prime Minister is the Secretary-General of the winning party with the majority of the seats.
The next lower level committee is the HQ Executive Committee (HQ Ex-Co) which performs the party's administration and oversees twelve sub-committees. The sub-committees are:
- Branch Appointments and Relations
- Constituency Relations
- Information and Feedback
- New Media
- Malay Affairs
- Membership Recruitment and Cadre Selection
- PAP Awards
- Political Education
- Publicity and Publication
- Social and Recreational
- Women's Wing
- Young PAP
Since the early years of the PAP's rule, the idea of survival has been a central theme of Singaporean politics. According to Diane Mauzy and R.S. Milne, most analysts of Singapore have discerned four major "ideologies" of the PAP: pragmatism, meritocracy, multiracialism, and Asian values or communitarianism. In January 1991 the PAP introduced the White Paper on Shared Values, which tried to create a national ideology and institutionalise Asian values. The party also says it has 'rejected' what it considers Western-style liberal democracy, despite the presence of many aspects of liberal democracy in Singapore's public policy such as the recognition of democratic institutions. Professor Hussin Mutalib, however, opines that for Lee Kuan Yew "Singapore would be better off without liberal democracy".
The party economic ideology has always accepted the need for some welfare spending, pragmatic economic interventionism and general Keynesian economic policy. However, free-market policies have been popular since the 1980s as part of the wider implementation of a meritocracy in civil society, and Singapore frequently ranks extremely highly on indices of "economic freedom" published by economically liberal organisations such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.
Lee Kuan Yew also said in 1992: "Through Hong Kong watching, I concluded that state welfare and subsidies blunted the individual's drive to succeed. I watched with amazement the ease with which Hong Kong workers adjusted their salaries upwards in boom times and downwards in recessions. I resolved to reverse course on the welfare policies which my party had inherited or copied from British Labour Party policies."
The party is deeply suspicious of communist political ideologies, despite a brief joint alliance (with the pro-labour co-founders of the PAP who were falsely accused of being communists) against colonialism in Singapore during the party's early years. It has since considered itself a social democratic party, though in recent decades it has moved towards neoliberal and free-market economy reforms.
The socialism practised by the PAP during its first few decades in power was of a pragmatic kind, as characterised by the party's rejection of nationalisation. According to Chan Heng Chee, by the late Seventies, the intellectual credo of the government rested explicitly upon a philosophy of self-reliance, similar to the "rugged individualism" of the American brand of capitalism. Despite this, the PAP still claimed to be a socialist party, pointing out its regulation of the private sector, activist intervention in the economy, and social policies as evidence of this. In 1976, however, the PAP resigned from the Socialist International after the Dutch Labour Party had proposed to expel the party, accusing it of suppressing freedom of speech.
The PAP symbol (which is red and blue on white) stands for action inside "interracial unity." Furthermore, PAP members at party rallies have sometimes worn a "uniform" of white shirts and white trousers. The "white-on-white" symbolises the party's ideals of clean governance, it reminds party members that the white uniform, once sullied, is difficult to make clean again.
For many years, the party was led by former PAP secretary-general Lee Kuan Yew, who was Prime Minister of Singapore from 1959 to 1990. Lee handed over the positions of secretary-general and prime minister to Goh Chok Tong in 1991. The current secretary-general of the PAP and Prime Minister of Singapore is Lee Hsien Loong, son of Lee Kuan Yew, who succeeded Goh Chok Tong on 12 August 2004.
The first chairman of the PAP was Dr Toh Chin Chye.
The current chairman of the PAP is Khaw Boon Wan.
In February 2007 it was reported by The Straits Times that the PAP's "new media" committee, chaired by Dr Ng Eng Hen, had initiated an effort to counter critics on the Internet "as it was necessary for the PAP to have a voice on cyberspace".
In June 2014, PAP MP Baey Yam Keng called for legal action against those who had vandalised its Wikipedia page, which had been the subject of an edit war between vandals and editors of Wikipedia on 12 and 13 June, though he later said that "(advocating for legal action was) never on top of my mind, nor is it PAP's (People's Action Party) priority". This came weeks after blogger Roy Ngerng disparaged the incumbent Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong over the use of CPF Funds in an ongoing defamation lawsuit.
Journalist Toh Han Shih writes that Singapore lacks a strong opposition because Singaporeans view the PAP as crucial to the economic success of Singapore. Toh argues that voters fear a change of government, thus allowing the PAP to retain power election after election.
The Workers' Party is the main opposition party. WP took 6 of the 89 parliamentary seats in the 2015 election, while the PAP won the other 83. An unsuccessful WP candidate, Dennis Tan, spoke of a need for competition in elections, saying, "It's not so much a setback for the WP but for Singapore as we need to develop and entrench a strong alternative voice. It will take time." WP drew thousands of people to their rallies, while the PAP drew less. Another major opposition party, the Singapore Democratic Party, obtained no seats in the 2015 election.
Economists Acemoglu and Robinson hypothesized that the PAP's success can be attributed to the relatively low inequality. They argue that this reduces the incentives for voters to demand a transfer of resources toward the majority. Singaporeans have relatively high social mobility, as "children from the lowest income quintile of parents do better in Singapore than in a range of developed countries." According to Acemoglu and Robinson's argument, voters have fared well under social programmes from the PAP's policies. For example, 80% of Singaporeans live in government-funded housing, namely HDB flats. Furthermore, since Singapore is a relatively new country compared to some Western states, there is no landed aristocracy, which enables civil servants, rather than elites, to take charge. However, Acemoglu and Robinson's argument about equality does not fit very well with Singapore's gini coefficient, which is one of the highest in the region at 0.43. See: List of Countries by Income Inequality.