“Apathetic” is a word we use very often when we refer to the disconnect between citizens and politics in Singapore. It shouldn’t surprise because the fact is that most people get by very well without taking any interest in politics. They may even feel more secure to subconsciously shun the subject, such is the climate of fear. By shunning the subject, they reduce the risk of being caught up with “dangerous” views or activities.
This election, for at least a brief period, even the most apathetic may find themselves having to decide how to vote since 82 out of 87 seats are being contested. Previously, many had an easy cop-out when their constituencies were not contested. So, just the other day, I was wondering: now that people have to pay attention, what issues are on their mind? How do they connect the issues with their vote choice?
First an aside: We often hear it said that voting is compulsory in Singapore. Actually, it isn’t. (We might want to tell our apathetic friends and family that they needn’t bother to go to the polling booth.)
Where did this myth come from? It comes from the subheader of Section 43 of the Parliamentary Elections Act. The subheader says “Compulsory voting”, but the details within Section 43 do not quite live up to that. There is actually no penalty if you do not vote. It is certainly NOT a crime.
What it does say is that if you fail to vote, your name will be deleted from the register of electors for the next election. If you want your name restored as a voter, you will have to provide a satisfactory reason to the Registration Officer, failing which you can still reinstate your name upon payment of S$50. So, if anyone is truly happy to be apathetic and don’t care to vote again in the foreseeable future, he should just stop voting and forget about it.
Politically apathetic voters
There aren’t any established ways of measuring political apathy in Singapore and I don’t know of any data in this regard. The above is my rough guide based on gutfeel.
In normal times, you’d only find about one in five of the population prepared to discuss politics, and at least half of them will take an obvious pro-opposition stance. Four in five would rather talk about something else.
But these are not normal times. Even if you prefer not to open the subject, the subject can still come to you, in the form of an election candidate approaching you while you’re having lunch or dinner in a food centre. How do people react?
Reactions to electioneering
I asked several opposition candidates this question. I have also followed a few of them on their walkabouts, and will continue to do so over the next few days. From candidates’ answers and my own observations — note, there is no relationship between the photos on this page and the discussion in the text alongside — people in general can be split into three roughly equal groups:
1. Those who, by body language, indicate they do not want to be approached, or when approached do not want the flyer.
2. Those who smile, say something polite but clearly do not want a prolonged conversation. They accept the flyer or newsletter, and may even take the time to read it.
3. Those who stand up when the candidate approaches, welcome him/her heartily and make it very clear they’re happy to see an opposition presence. They then initiate a conversation touching on issues they want the candidate to know about.
The ratio varies quite a bit depending on which candidate is approaching. Well-known, well-liked personalities like Chiam See Tong or Low Thia Khiang get a very high percentage of Type 3. Those who have done door-to-door visits for years, e.g. from the Workers’ Party, seem to get roughly equal shares of Types 1, 2 and 3. Relative unknowns parachuted into a constituency just prior to an election naturally “suffer” more Types 1 and 2.
It is however very hard to gauge voting intentions just by watching behaviour. People have all sorts of reasons not to want to be disturbed, or not want to be seen being chummy with opposition candidates. Even rejecting a newsletter does not necessarily mean what we think it means. If you do not overhear what they say, you might miss the occasional bit that goes: “I’ve got one already. Don’t waste it by giving me another one.”
Then the other night, something happened within one second that I was fortunate to overhear because I was only about one metre away. I was following a candidate and his volunteers and we were crossing a small road. The volunteer closest to me was cradling a stack of newsletters in her arms.
Halfway across the road, we passed two young men crossing in the opposite direction. The volunteer held out one copy, saying “Workers’ Party newsletter”. One the guys took it without missing a step like you might take a handout from the hundreds of flyer distributors who crowd walkways near metro stations. But in that brief second, with barely a whisper, and without even making eye contact with the volunteer, let alone the candidate, the guy said, “All the way”.
Issues that people raise
“If members of the public do engage you in conversation, what are they most likely to talk about?” — that’s a question I put to many candidates I have spoken to. And several volunteers too.
Without exception, every one of them, from three different parties, tell me it’s the cost of living. Regardless of age, social strata and ethnicity, they all talk about how prices keep going up.
“Big ticket items like flats, cars, motorbikes, or small items like food and utility bills?” I ask.
Small items, they all tell me. Inflation is obviously a very widely-held concern. I guess even the PAP knows it; that’s why Finance minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam had to promise that there will be no increase in the Goods and Services Tax from the present 7 percent for the next five years. Whether people believe it or not, it’s hard to say.
Four other issues are mentioned by some members of the public the candidates meet, but none of them figure as strongly as cost of living.
Transport — people do mention congestion. Those living in the West complain about this more than others. I believe Jurong East interchange station is a particularly bad bottleneck.
Healthcare costs — older folks tend to mention this quite readily. It seldom comes up among younger voters, for obvious reasons.
Housing costs — younger voters mention this more. They are the group just about to buy their first flat and the recent escalation in prices affects them badly. One thing worth noting is that the issue is not just about the prices of new flats. Many young couples want to live near their parents, so they find themselves in the market for resale flats. Hence, when the PAP talks about how new flats are affordable — an argument that the National Solidarity Party is strongly contesting — it may miss the point as far as these voters are concerned.
Foreigners — this topic seems to come up disproportionately with Malay voters, though others mention it too. It was explained to me that the Malay community relies more on lower-skill jobs and therefore have found their job security or wages impacted by foreign-sourced workers.
Closing the loop
“So people have grouses,” goes another question I ask all candidates I meet. “Do they connect that to voting for an opposition party? How do they reason out that voting for an opposition party is a way to solving those problems?”
Here, I get diverse answers. A few candidates were very candid in their answers, generally saying that this is a problem and can be a big unknown. One spoke about how people seem to want immediate relief, but the simple fact is that no opposition party can promise that. If a voter goes away unconvinced that next week, after voting day, things will get better quickly, he may not vote for an opposition party at all.
No, some voters don’t seem able to, one candidate said, a little ruefully. A few others didn’t want to sound so defeated, but from their equivocal answers I think they had the same concern.
Other candidates thought I was too pessimistic. “People do understand what ‘check and balance’ can achieve.” Their view was that the average voter is not as unsophisticated as that; he does see that having a stronger opposition voice in parliament is the first step to dealing with issues that trouble him.
Who is right? We’ll soon know. Polling Day is just a few days away.