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.
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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 (www.nsp.sg). I particularly liked Poa’s discussion about the inverse relationship between influx of foreigners and wage growth, given in layman’s language.
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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.
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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” .