Choosing between a small world and a bigger one

Election campaigning is over. Today is cooling-off day before polling day tomorrow, Saturday, 7 May 2011. There have been two mild surprises: firstly, the absence of a black dog, secondly, the flutterings of a phoenix.

Every election in the last twenty years has seen the People’s Action Party (PAP) train its guns on a particular candidate. The fusillade would be so loud, it would nearly drown out all other issues for many days of the campaign. The black dog role was played by Jufrie Mahmood in 1991, accused of being a Malay chauvinist, by Tang Liang Hong in 1997, accused of being a Chinese chauvinist, Chee Soon Juan in 2001, vilified as a rabid mongrel barking at then-prime minister Goh Chok Tong, and James Gomez in 2006, accused of minority-race certificate  shenanigans.

In the weekend prior to Nomination Day, it looked like Vincent Wijeysingha of the Singapore Democratic Party would be the 2011 black dog, with the PAP’s Vivian Balakrishnan leading the charge against him. This time, however, the guns backfired. Balakrishnan misjudged two trends. Smearing the candidate and party as having a “gay agenda” showed how off-the-mainstream Balakrishnan himself was. Singapore had moved forward. “Gay” proved to be no longer scary, except to Balakrishnan and his kind. 76 percent of Singaporeans polled by the New Paper said they would have no problem with a gay member of parliament. The second trend was in the way the media had changed. The reporters and editors of the mainstream papers stayed relatively neutral even as netizens threw back every cannonball at Balakrishnan and the PAP, helped by the fact that the evidence Balakrishnan kept alluding to proved to be laughably thin.

No other PAP heavyweight joined Balakrishnan in his smear campaign. Some of them distanced themselves, calling for a campaign that kept to the issues. Balakrishnan came perilously close to making himself the black dog instead.

Even as Balakrishnan yelped more and more frantically, the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) stood its ground. It would be the curtain-raiser to its new image unveiled through the campaign. Among opposition parties, the SDP stood out for two things: a slew of proposals and  its rapid, sustained use of new media. It had definite things to say about the direction of the economy, about cutting the Goods and Services Tax, a minimum wage, the inadequacies of the present healthcare safety net and the need to triple spending on healthcare, about providing better for families with young children and singles.

The Obama-esque eloquence of Wijeysingha, speaking variously on overcoming fear or idealism gripped many a heart and teared many an eye (see Part 1 and Part 2). Between words and substance, the SDP was like the proverbial phoenix rising from the ashes of yesteryears.

* * * * *

The other opposition parties preferred to be more direct about the key issue of this election: the need for a stronger opposition voice in Parliament. To make their case, they had to push on three fronts:

1. Point out policy failures of the last five or ten years and link them to the arrogance of the PAP and its disconnect from the people, leading the PAP government to pursuing policies with little regard for the common people. These included cost of living increases with wage rises lagging behind, escalation of public housing prices, congestion on public transport largely due to rapid immigration, and competition with foreigners for jobs.

2. Assuage fears about vote secrecy and of being penalised by the PAP through denial of resources for municipal upgrading.

3. Assure voters about the qualifications and competence of candidates and reiterate their dedication to serve.

The Workers’ Party gave roughly equal weight to all three fronts, helped by the presence of Chen Show Mao, with his stellar international career, the unexpected eloquence of Pritam Singh and the known and well-liked personalities of Sylvia Lim and Low Thia Khiang. Less visible, but perhaps even more important, has been the years invested in retail politics in the constituencies — walking the ground regularly and visiting every block.

At rallies, it paid particular attention to dealing with the issue of vote secrecy, in both English and Chinese.

Overall, however, it stayed close to its primary theme: the longer-term interest of Singapore requires better quality debate in Parliament before cockamamie policies are implemented. Thus its slogan “Towards a First-world Parliament”. Prior to the campaign proper, there was a slightly different message — that of the Workers’ Party being akin to an insurance policy. Voters had to see the need for a ready-to-serve alternative government should the PAP one day fail, it said, but to develop one, voters had to give the Workers’ Party greater parliamentary experience as soon as possible. Somehow, this theme disappeared once the rallies began; I reckon the party realised it was too long-term to have much impact on voters’ thinking.

Other parties tended to do more of pointing out policy failures, i.e. (1), than of (2) and (3).  Nonetheless, there has been a notable shift from the politics of anger and frustration that so characterised previous election campaigns to a tone of sober competence.

The Singapore People’s Party’s new stars Benjamin Pwee and Jimmy Lee sounded so moderate, they were barely distinguishable from the more approachable PAP candidates. In that sense, they dovetailed with party leader Chiam See Tong’s much-loved reputation.

The National Solidarity Party (NSP) fielded the most number of candidates, 24 versus 23 for the Workers’ Party, but it tended to run campaigns with slightly different themes for different areas. Goh Meng Seng prioritised the theme of unaffordable housing in Tampines group representation constituency (GRC) against incumbent housing minister Mah Bow Tan, while over at Chua Chu Kang GRC, where incumbent manpower minister Gan Kim Yong is defending his seat, the lead theme was that of foreign workers.

Despite the plan, the party’s campaign was rather more personality-centred than thematic. Nicole Seah stole the show in Marine Parade (and in cyberspaced-out Singapore generally), only to be briefly overtaken by running-mate Spencer Ng (for quite different reasons), while Tony Tan and Hazel Poa brought a homely but modern image to the party’s slate in the west, and Jeanette Chong-Aruldoss played up her local background in Mountbatten. Do watch the videos of them answering key questions about themselves and the issues they are concerned with via the hyperlinks shown or at the party’s website ( I particularly liked Poa’s discussion about the inverse relationship between influx of foreigners and wage growth, given in layman’s language.

* * * * *

The PAP’s message was largely in five parts:

1. It strenuously rebutted proposals and claims by opposition parties, e.g. on housing affordability, on foreigners taking jobs away from Singaporeans, or the viability of the SDP’s healthcare ideas.

2. It kept repeating that it was the safest pair of hands to ensure continued economic growth and stability, that should deliver better lives to Singaporeans.

3. It beat the fear drum: an elected opposition (other than non-constituency members of parliament) would aim to block government initiatives, therefore slowing down Singapore’s progress.

4. It laid out the carrots of estate upgrading and municipal improvements.

5.  This was complemented by the sticks, reaching by the midpoint of the campaign a high point (low point?) when Lee Kuan Yew menacingly said Aljunied voters would have five years to regret and repent should they vote for the Workers’ Party.

That threat quickly played into opposition hands, permitting them to paint the PAP as unchanged from its old ways.

Lee Hsien Loong then shifted gear unexpectedly, issuing apologies for blunders and mistakes at a rally speech on Tuesday, 3 May 2011, held at Boat Quay. The NSP however noted that his apologies were confined to accidents and execution; at no point did he admit that any policy was wrong in principle or should be reversed.

I too have my doubts about the sincerity or significance of those apologies. Has the PAP changed? I don’t think so. To persuade me otherwise, two things are needed: Mea culpa by several ministers, and a couple of resignations, in the same way as done in other democratic countries. So long as we still keep hearing that all ministers and new candidates are indispensable, those apologies are better seen as insults to us about our malleability.

* * * * *

In essence, the choice before voters is that between a small world and a bigger one.

The larger party, the PAP, offers a small world. It promises more of the known — present policies and directions, the known way of doing things. There is the comfort of the familiar, even if it’s that of familiar abuse, though George Yeo, fighting desperately for re-election in Aljunied GRC, has suggested that going forward, the PAP will be a softer, more amenable party (Note, however, that no other PAP leader has endorsed the same hope). It also offers precinct-level carrots, appealing to self-interest and materialistic desire.

The smaller parties offer a bigger world. Like embarking on any adventure, it can feel scary. But they speak of the longer term, of systemic risk and the possibility of systemic failure. They speak of rethinking old models, of re-considering the present obsession with putting more and more money into the national piggy-bank (a.k.a national reserves). They appeal to the bigger sense of self, asking voters to look beyond personal gain to the lives of others, particularly those less fortunate than ourselves.

That is what your vote will be about: Between little “me” and a higher, bigger, braver and more noble “us” .

38 Responses to “Choosing between a small world and a bigger one”

  1. 1 Rabbit 6 May 2011 at 15:22

    I stand alongside your analysis. As a Singaporeans I have actually decided long ago who to vote for. After the last few days of witnessing what took place at the rally and what was said, I am even more resolve now. I feel an urgent need to save Singapore and bring it to the highest level of politics. I am really tired of the old, immature and intimidating style of previous government that do not reflect us as a first-world country.

  2. 2 Poker Player 6 May 2011 at 15:34

    “No other PAP heavyweight joined Balakrishnan in his smear campaign. Some of them distanced themselves, calling for a campaign that kept to the issues. Balakrishnan came perilously close to making himself the black dog instead.”

    A person speaking our national language would say “padan muka”.

  3. 3 Poker Player 6 May 2011 at 15:45

    “Between words and substance, the SDP was like the proverbial phoenix rising from the ashes of yesteryears.”

    In terms of moral consistency and courage, they are hard to equal. Gotta be a reason they attracted Tan Kin Lian and PAP attracted Tin Pei Ling.

  4. 4 Simon 6 May 2011 at 15:46

    I concur with you, those who responsible to the mistakes must resign first. Anything less than that is not sincere at all.

  5. 5 Francis 6 May 2011 at 15:47

    Vivian Balakrishnan’s bringing up the gay issue was deliberate and some believe it originated higher up.

    All that was wanted was to plant a seed that Vincent is possibly gay. Of course, it did not affect most people as evidenced by the survey.

    However, there is not an insignificant minority who have an aversion towards them. For the PAP, every vote is important in this elections and they have resorted to gutter politics; this issue and a few others.

    What happened to Goh Chok Tong’s call for a clean fight.

  6. 6 ~autolycus 6 May 2011 at 15:49

    Excellent. I like the ‘little me’-‘bigger us’ idea, coupled with the ‘larger-party’-‘smaller-change’ idea. And the good overview.

  7. 7 Poker Player 6 May 2011 at 15:53

    “This was complemented by the sticks, reaching by the midpoint of the campaign a high point (low point?) when Lee Kuan Yew menacingly said Aljunied voters would have five years to regret and repent should they vote for the Workers’ Party.”

    If this didn’t work more than two decades, doing this today smacks more of vindictiveness than any actual belief of its efficacy.

  8. 8 Jennifer 6 May 2011 at 15:56

    Does anyone think that the apologies made by the PAP caused the swing voters to return to them?

    • 9 Ashinigami 6 May 2011 at 17:12

      Yes. And that’s the only reason why PAP did it. Not out of a sense of awakening nor a sense of humility.

    • 10 Gazebo 6 May 2011 at 22:42

      a lot depends on this final election broadcast by PAP in my opinion. i predict he is going to cry. and would put in passionate words like “don’t destroy this”, “we are sorry” yada yada. plant the seed of uncertainty in the hearts of less informed voters, who will go to sleep worrying about their POSB accounts. and so yes, i think it may work.

  9. 11 Jennifer 6 May 2011 at 16:06

    Good article too. Balakrishnan’s remarks show there is a divide in the PAP and many of the Ministers, MPs, etc. no longer know which way is right. I only watched some of the rally videos but I hope the opposition parties managed to keep the divide in mind, when making their speeches.

  10. 12 ape 6 May 2011 at 16:54

    I equate small vs big world with confined in the comfort of the zoo or exposed to the challenges in the wild.

  11. 13 Kelvin 6 May 2011 at 17:24

    Well written! You really are part of the 1%-10% intellecual salvation for Singapore that Goh Keng Swee spoke of so preciently many years back.

  12. 14 sean 6 May 2011 at 17:35

    may 8th 2011 will reveal singaporeans’ apathy, greed or selfishness or insouciance, if not smartness or stupidities.

    remember, singapore is a very asian society under the guise of being very western society.

  13. 15 lamdana 6 May 2011 at 18:13

    “…and as I stand here today in the CBD reminding us of that businessman,…I know that the SDP resonates with you and that our outrage is your outrage. Mr Lee Kong Chien is an icon of the Singapore way…It is a way …not only being the way of wealth creation but is also the way of community, the way of investing in our future, the way of assisting human beings to develop and reach their full potential. You, the people of Singapore, have a powerful opportunity to carry that tradition of Mr Lee into the future. I ask you to go back to your homes, go back to your communities…and tell your friends and family to vote in the very credible candidates not just from my party which I love but also from the other respected parties who have come forth to serve you…let us then move confidently into the future with no one left behind.” Vincent Wijeysingha

    I have been waiting for many years for the PAP leadership to show some sign of the Confucius’ “big man”. I think we have it all in Vincent Wijeysingha.

  14. 16 Alan Wong 6 May 2011 at 18:28

    It is actually quite sad for Singapore that one of our current Ministers, somemore a Mentoring one and a lawyer also, can dare to threaten voters publicly and yet gets away scot-free with his threats.

    On the other hand, if anyone else makes a threat against any other person, do you think that person can get away scot-free without being called in by the police for questioning ?

    Is that not a double standard in itself ?

  15. 17 Anonymous 6 May 2011 at 19:19

    Yawningbread, what about the gay issue! The more mainstream you get the less you seem to touch on it.

  16. 19 Mirax 6 May 2011 at 20:29

    The theme of idealism versus the usual parochial materialism resonates this year. Many have likened their vote to national service – saving the nation, doing our bit for all our countrymen and women who have been cut adrift and in danger of sinking, a final chance for implementing a check to the excesses of the PAP.
    Political maturity at long last, I hope!

    Just started sending out sms’s to my friends and relatives, urging a vote for the opposition. Rather surprised by the robust responses – they are all positive.

  17. 20 whatu1 6 May 2011 at 20:49

    Since the day when PM Lee apologized for the party’s boo-boo, I have said that none of his Ministers had the guts to admit their own mistakes.

    VB even merely said, his biggest regret is not to be sensitive to the request by his own party cadre’s for more allowance. Same regret as not brining his parents to Universal Studio, I guess.

    If this is how “regretful” the Ministers are, what is the figurehead apologizing for?

    The Ex Minister of Home Affairs even had the guts to say no one can predict what will happen in 5 to 10 years time. This is the biggest slap to our forefathers like the late Goh Keng Swee, Ong Teng Cheong. Without these great people who molded our nation with their 20-30 years’ foresight and vision, Ministers in PM Office would be out of job.

    We are greatly to our forefathers in the government for building the nation. And we are even more greatly for the humility they shown when serving Singaporeans.

    The current trend? Not once I feel they can be compared to those Ministers who built the nation.

  18. 21 Margaret 6 May 2011 at 22:21

    I am keeping fingers crossed that at least 2 GRCs go to the opposition. It would be a very, very sad day for Singapore if PAP gets a clean sweep.

  19. 23 J 6 May 2011 at 23:59

    I take it it is not a coincidence that Sylvia Lim, LTK and CST were never targeted by any of the PAP big guns.

  20. 24 A sad vote spoiler 7 May 2011 at 00:55

    Thank you for writing this article. I like it very much but it makes me sad.

    I’ve heard “vote opposition so that your voices will be heard by the PAP”, “Voting opposition signals to the PAP how angry you are!” “Look at the big picture!”

    Well I am looking at the big picture, and I won’t be voting opposition tomorrow.

    It is not out of fear. It is not out of fear of ‘rocking the foundation’ – I wanted to vote opposition to throw out the PAP. I want a non-PAP government and I don’t care if it’s coalition – a thought which still scares many opposition party voters, who will vote opposition for the check and balances on the ruling party that they hope will still remain ruling.

    But I refuse to vote an opposition party that has the same traits and uses the same tactics which I dislike in the PAP. Poor planning, saying one thing and doing another, censoring detractors, not forward looking, not much of a listening ear, seeing foreigners as just a statistic instead of people(the PAP views us as economic digits. It’s just a small step away). Add to that xenophobic, populist plans with detrimental socio-economic impact in the long run, and details not yet fully fleshed out even at polling day, candidates who have lower critical thinking skills than me etc etc. Supporters of the party exhorted constituents to vote them in to show gratitude that they were brave to stand for elections. Sound familiar? Well, I refuse.

    I am sad that I can’t send a signal to the PAP, like I did last election when I voted an opposition ‘B’ team. I am sad that I’m unable support the opposition parties that I know will serve constituents and speak up for the good of the nation, parties that have a vision of a good singapore; parties who i trust will be able to bring singapore into the future with a first world parliament, with no one left behind.

    I cannot wait for the day where there’s no longer this need for opposition unity. I’m sad, but I refuse to vote blindly. I refuse to vote against my convictions. I refuse to vote for the PAP and I refuse to vote for a party that I think is just as bad as them.

    • 25 Jennifer 7 May 2011 at 03:22

      I see. I know most of my friends and relatives will be voting for the PAP. The rest just don’t care. It’s a shame but I predict poor results for the opposition.

      Which parties are you talking about? Your statements have no names and aren’t very specific and you’re expecting the readers to just randomly jump at conclusions?

      • 26 a sad vote spoiler 8 May 2011 at 22:50

        it was the Reform Party in AMK GRC. I attended rallies, went to their website, their facebook and spoke to a candidate at a rally. they didn’t do much outreach in my area, so i took the initiative to connect with them. None of information I got about them was from msm.

        There are reasons why I don’t like PAP and I saw similar traits in RP (and in the candidate I spoke to). (see my comment above), perhaps I spoke to the wrong candidate – but he is 1 in a 6 man team standing for elections.

        What did not cause me to reach this conclusion
        1. Kenneth J unable to recite the pledge. (although that did nothing to raise my opinion)
        2. mass exodus of members, especially of people i respect (incl Nicole Seah, Poa and Tan, Tok, Teo SL) – i only found that out later. but anyway i guess it’s all internal politics and careers etc.

        I’m not alone in voter frustration. There are friends in my constituency and in Punggol-Pasir Ris also facing the same dilemma – hate PAP but equally dislike the opposition party standing. I understand pro-opposition/’opposition unity’ people’s frustration at voters like me. My family and friends are staunch opposition voters. But I’d rather not vote blindly. I want change, but not for the same.

        anyway RP in AMK did very well in the end, didn’t lose their deposit. i hope they can get their act together for ge2016. PM Lee shouldn’t be happy that he won only 70% against a rather unpopular party (going by some comments in rather pro-opp communities). he might’ve been hammered to <55% if it was WP. I'd have no qualms voting WP (or SDP/NSP/SPP) in and PM out..

    • 27 ape 9 May 2011 at 02:34

      You’re not alone.

  21. 28 Singhaporean 7 May 2011 at 01:19

    Good Cop Bad Cop? Smells of a piscesrean stink?

  22. 29 Tommy 7 May 2011 at 03:22

    Does anyone have a prediction for outcome of the election? How many seats will the opposition parties win? Judging by the photos of the rallies one would think the opposition parties will win a majority of seats. Unthinkable or not?

  23. 30 betshopboy 7 May 2011 at 09:12

    “The Obama-esque eloquence of Wijeysingha, speaking variously on overcoming fear or idealism gripped many a heart and teared many an eye”

    Great orators inspire and have the ability to move communities.

  24. 31 ExExpat 7 May 2011 at 09:28

    Hi Alex, in today’s ST, at polling day, this was said:

    “Is my vote secret?

    Yes. The serial numbers on ballot papers enable strict accounting of all ballot papers issued and cast. The number of papers found in the ballot box at the end of the elections can be matched to the number of papers issued during the poll. This prevents ballot boxes from being stuffed with false ballots.

    Theoretically, it is possible for anyone with access to the ballot papers to identify who cast a particular vote. The counterfoil has the voter’s registration number on it and matching that to the ballot paper will help reveal a voter’s identity.

    However, ballot papers can be examined only under strict conditions; safeguards are in place to make it difficult to find out how any particular voter voted.”

    To me, this part doesn’t make sense, clearly they say it is not secret, after saying it is secret, nonsense meh? On polling day, this amounts to scare tactics, by the press. Especially irritating that “anyone can theoretically identify”, real scary.

  25. 33 Jennifer 7 May 2011 at 10:42

    What would Chia Thye Poh think of this? Or Said Zahari?

    It is a tragedy Lim Chin Siong or Joshua Bejamin Jeyaratnam are no longer with us.

  26. 34 Poker Player 7 May 2011 at 12:07

    YB I think your article needs an update. Vivian Balakrishnan now has a rival whose time in the public memory may outlast Wee Shu Min’s. I hope she get’s into Parliament – that memory is five years guaranteed.

    ”OooOooOoooh so that’s REALLY what happened? Wow, I think tears in parliament is worse than ANYTHING ELSE!”

  27. 35 7 May 2011 at 13:27

    hazel poa used to be my maths tutor lol

  28. 36 Magi 7 May 2011 at 15:40

    I think people who worry about this vote secrecy thing have a massive ego problem. Whoever they vote for, are they that important that someone would violate a dozen laws to find out their choices?

    It’s disgusting. There are people out there, on the stage, openly announcing their political differences. Did any of them starve? And on the other hand you have all these Singaporeans trembling because they think their careers would end the next day or the share market is going to collapse or their children would not get into schools.


    • 37 Jennifer 7 May 2011 at 17:13

      You can’t really blame them. Many lived during that era where hundreds of Barisan Socialis members and supporters were dragged off in the middle of the night and arrested without trial under the ISA. Plenty were subjected to torture and a number ended up serving indefinite sentences.

      Can you blame the older people for having such fear that the PAP will spy on them? There were “moles”, wiretapping and many other methods used to spy on the party and its’ supporters.

      Then there was that incident in the 80s where a group of social workers were arrested and accused of being Marxists. Again, fear.

      This fear then passed down to the others, in 1 form or another.

      Please get off your high horse and judge yourself before you judge others.

  29. 38 Doublespeak 9 May 2011 at 11:19

    I am disappointed with the results of this election. But it’s not the worst outcome of course.

    The work is just beginning for the 6 opposition MPs. Can they make a difference? I think that’s a real challenge ahead.

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