At about halfway through our extremely short election campaign period, there has been no major surprise. Perhaps more importantly, no major blunder by any politician yet. It is proving to be a hard slog of a contest for all parties. My initial sense of the likely outcome remains unchanged. I don’t think the vote share nation-wide will be much different this time from the general election of 2011, where the People’s Action Party (PAP) obtained 60.1% of valid votes.
This is the first of three essays on the issues, the candidates, and the demographic and media landscape.
The issues so far are not new; they were present, albeit with different emphases, in the 2011 general election. Then, people seemed to be angrier about a few of them: housing wait-time and escalating home prices, transport congestion, healthcare. Underlying them was a growing concern for a widening income gap. It is to the government’s credit that they have actively attended to some of these issues between the last election and now. Housing has virtually disappeared as a campaign theme this election; what is left of the cost angle of housing has been folded into a larger cost of living issue. Transport has receded too, but not gone away; it has bled into the immigration issue. Healthcare is one area where because infrastructure lead time is so long, the government has not sufficiently dealt with the capacity frustrations, though its Medishield tweaks have taken some sting out of this.
People are certainly less angry about the above issues than they were in 2011, but I’m not sure that they have been completely mollified. Here and there, people continue to mention these, not as issues in themselves, but as touch-points for underlying frustrations about costs and population policy. What was acute pain has become a chronic unhappiness.
Immigration and CPF
Instead, this election has seen the rise of immigration as perhaps the chief arena; it was there as an theme in the 2011 election, but it leapt up the rankings after the government published its White Paper in 2013 projecting a 6.9 million population and triggering widespread resistance.
Another relatively new issue is the holding back of Central Provident Fund money and CPF’s relatively low interest rates compared to the returns the invested money is getting. Looking at how Singaporeans are living longer and longer, the government does not want citizens to withdraw their pension fund savings at age 55 as allowed under the previous policy. Naturally this has made a lot of people unhappy, especially the middle-aged. Since the older voters have been PAP’s vote-bank, how this is going to affect this election may be interesting to watch.
(I have quite a lot to say about these issues, but I think I’ll leave it for another post after the elections.)
The way the opposition parties have been taking up these two issues — immigration and CPF — has been somewhat disappointing. Too often, candidates in their speeches lapse into over-simplistic caricature of foreigners “taking your PMET job”, though so far I haven’t heard any outright xenophobic statement with slurs on ethnicity or national origin. But then again, I haven’t yet attended a Reform Party rally with Gilbert Goh speaking. On the whole, party leaders are more careful how they approach this topic, but their less experienced colleagues, working themselves up at the microphone, present a bit of a risk.
My disappointment with the way the parties have so far been dealing with the CPF issue is greater because here I don’t even see the party leaders dealing with it intelligently. They are using it as a way to bash the PAP rather than providing thought leadership. Longer life expectancy is a real problem, but the CPF question is only part of a broader issue. It is linked to the fact that large numbers of people don’t have enough savings outside of their CPF, which ought to be a good entry-point for a discussion as to the reasons why. The discussion could fruitfully explore:
- the cost of living, the enormous amounts sunk into home purchases, and the continuing demands faced by the sandwiched generation for spending on healthcare for aged parents and tuition for children.
- the wide income disparity that the PAP seems to consider normative and are too reluctant to reduce — thus many people have no choice but to live from paycheck to paycheck.
- how people can continue working well into their sixties, which in turn should raise the issue of whether jobs are available (immigration again), whether skills are relevant (continuing education is not even a topic!), and whether people have the physical health to continue working (primary healthcare has been neglected).
Rather than simply attack the plans to push back CPF withdrawals, opposition candidates should be signalling their responsible approach to politics by speaking of the CPF in a holistic way, framed within the context of financial distress and why Singapore’s political and economic model has led us to this situation. As for the low(-ish) interest rate paid by CPF, it appears to be true that the government pockets the difference in investment returns, but if they didn’t, the issue of whether taxes should rise to make up for the revenue should arise.
Town council management, municipal issues
Is the controversy over the management standards at Aljunied Town Council an issue? Without any opinion poll, I don’t really know, but what I am hearing from people around me is their sense that it is not. Much as the PAP tries to play it up, I think firstly, it’s been bogged down by too much detail and secondly, it fits too neatly into the trope of PAP as bully. If at all it has any effect, it will be localised within Aljunied. I very much doubt if it is being factored in by people in other constituencies, even ones where the Workers’ Party are contesting.
The PAP continues to make Aljunied Town Council an issue, nonetheless. They were quite direct about it in the lead-up to Nomination Day, but since then have tended to speak of the Workers’ Party management of the town council in more elliptical ways, linking it to a question of integrity and competence. They probably sense that there is a risk of overkill.
From what I have read in the mainstream press — I haven’t yet attended any PAP rally — the ruling party’s candidates tend to focus on hyper-local, municipal issues in their campaigning. They speak about “sprucing up” the estate (Cheryl Chan, Fengshan), park connectors and cycling paths (Grace Fu, Yuhua), and take credit for putting in “a market and a mosque” (David Ong, Bukit Batok).
This is not as pointless as it may sound. The PAP is probably aware (though it will be loathe to admit it) that its most reliable supporters are those who are politically unaware, and for whom issues like interest rates, investment returns, means-testing for healthcare, the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership treaty or how public transport should be regulated are as distant as the moon. Talking about very real, tangible, local improvements may be more meaningful to them.
Whenever the PAP touches on broader themes, they speak in very general terms.
The Government thinks long-term and implements policies in a systematic way, whether it is about jobs or education, said Education Minister Heng Swee Keat yesterday.
“If you look at policies over the years, we have been very systematic, whether it is about jobs or preparing our children for the future,” he said.
— Straits Times, 5 Sept 2015, Government thinks long-term and is systematic: Heng
Singapore needs “strong leadership and a strong, united people”, said Manpower Minister Lim Swee Say in a speech, and that if Aljunied voters sent the PAP team to parliament, there would be five more persons the prime minister could choose from to form his cabinet, said Lim Boon Heng, PAP chairman. Lim is not standing in this election.
Cost of living
The Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) said the cost of living is the key issue they want to raise. Indeed, it is ripe to do so. Party leader Chee Soon Juan pointed out at his very first rally speech on 3 September that the Economic Intelligence Unit now ranks Singapore as the most expensive city in the world, when in 2001, we were 97th. I went home to check this fact, and found a source.
The Southeast Asian city joins Tokyo, Osaka and Kobe as one of the world’s top ten most expensive cities, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit’s annual cost-of-living survey, increasingly proving that Asian cities are no longer just a cheaper outpost for expats and multinationals. Though a European city – Zurich – is still the world’s most expensive, Tokyo was the runner up, with Singapore now listed as the world’s 9th most expensive city. Singapore was listed as the 6th most expensive last year, but remarkably was ranked 97th in 2001.
— Wall Street Journal blogs, 14 February 2012, Singapore among the world’s most expensive cities. Link.
(Do note that this article was written in 2012, when Singapore was only the 9th most expensive.)
In their speeches, however, the SDP isn’t consistently hammering home this message or elaborating on it in a way that is pithy, empathetic and memorable. Hence, I’m not sure it’s getting any traction.
Check on the government
All parties are making the need for a check on PAP’s overweening power the key issue in this election (as with previous elections). I am sure they are getting a sympathetic hearing, but I am not sure if people feel it as urgently as they should, and urgency is what is needed to get their candidates elected. Quite often, there has to be some kind of a scandal or starkly unpopular policy decision to make people feel the need strongly. This may explain why the parties are so tempted to play up the immigration issue despite their better instincts.
Just as the issues have evolved since the 2011 campaign, so has the talent balance. The Workers’ Party especially has been able to field candidates with backgrounds that, as recently as ten years ago, one would expect to have gone automatically to the PAP. That’s the theme for the second part of this three-part essay.