The news cycle shortens very much during an election campaign. What was notice-worthy a few weeks ago is now taken for granted.
In the lead-up to Nomination Day, the Workers’ Party introduced a number of new candidates whose qualifications, careers and professional standing would be the kind that, as recently as ten years ago, one automatically associated with the People’s Action Party (PAP). This step-up in the quality of this party’s candidates is part of longer trend, having brought in Chen Show Mao and Pritam Singh in 2011.
The Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) is showcasing infectious diseases professor Paul Ananth Tambyah alongside its leader Chee Soon Juan this election. Chee has been in politics for about 25 years, but has only recently been allowed to re-enter the field after a long period in bankruptcy.
Ben Pwee (Democratic Progressive Party) and Tan Jee Say (Singaporeans First Party) are two former senior civil servants who first appeared in 2011, and are standing for election again. Until their entry into politics, it was almost axiomatic that if any ex-civil servant stood for election, it would be under the PAP’s banner.
On the other hand, the PAP’s slate of candidates, while not of poor quality, is so predictable in its composition, it is not able to generate any excitement.
This election is another step in the steady rebalancing of talent between the PAP and the opposition parties. It cannot but have an effect on voter receptivity.
That said, after attending three rallies (SDP, Singapore People’s Party/Democratic Progressive Party, Singaporeans First Party), I can roughly group the candidates I have seen speak into four broad groups:
- old populists,
- new populists,
- new but unexciting,
- serious contenders.
Old populists have been around for as long as I can remember. Maybe not the particular individuals but the ‘type’. They express a lot of anger against the PAP, they are more comfortable in Mandarin, Chinese dialects or Malay, and their speeches are the usual litany of complaints with virtually no discussion of possible alternative solutions. In the minds of most voters today, they are really more entertainment than serious contenders, if not a total turn-off.
There was Cheo Chai Chen (National Solidarity Party) who made a sexist remark on PAP candidate Tin Pei Ling.
When evaluating his opponents during an interview with TODAY yesterday, Mr Cheo, who was speaking in Mandarin, had said: “The PAP’s Tin Pei Ling has been working very hard. But she has just given birth, so voters should let her go home and rest, and take care of her child.
“In general, mothers love their children, so they spend a lot of time with them. If voters choose her, she might focus more on her child than on her voters. This is her weakness.”
— Today, 5 September 2015, Tin Pei Ling fires back over motherhood comment, Link.
Cheo got flak immediately all over social media.
At the Bishan-Toa-Payoh rally, I experienced a time-warp moment. I wasn’t paying a lot of attention because the candidate — I don’t even know his name — was speaking in Malay. I was mostly checking my phone for messages. As he came to the end of his speech, he punched his fist into the air and shouted “Merdeka!” Huh? What was that all about?
If he was expecting the crowd to repeat after him, he would have been sorely disappointed. Firstly, with perhaps 80% of the people in the field not understanding Malay — such is the linguistic landscape in Singapore now — you cannot work up a crowd however skilled your oratory is if the audience does not share a language with you. Few on the field would know that “Merdeka!” means “Independence!” in Malay. Secondly, even if they knew the word, who shouts “Merdeka!” anymore? It’s been fifty years since Singapore became independent. We had this rah-rah thing called SG50 this year, remember?
It was so weird.
He quickly realised that he was getting no response. So he repeated the punch in the air, this time shouting in English, “Freedom!”. A saying came to mind: The first time may be tragedy, the second time, it’s farce.
Needless to say, no reaction from the audience.
The new populists are getting reactions all right. Their chief talking point is the influx of foreigners. This certainly is an issue that upsets a lot of people despite the government tightening entry somewhat over the last two years.
I am not suggesting that this isn’t an important topic, but the way the new populists go about it is not a lot different from the old populists pounding their issues: much heat, little light. The complexity that must necessarily surround this topic is dispensed with. More acutely, there is a high risk of slipping into hate-inciting, xenophobic language.
But precisely because it is a hot issue, we would be foolish to rule it out as a vote-getter. If we look at elections in other countries, this is a proven way to win a significant share of the ballots. Nevertheless, my sense is that whatever resonance these candidates find, it won’t be enough to get them a majority.
New but unexciting
There are 92 non-PAP candidates in this election, spread over all 89 seats. I haven’t actually counted, but perhaps half of them I’d put into this ‘new but unexciting’ category. They don’t capture attention from their public speaking, and with a few exceptions from the more established and disciplined parties, haven’t actually devoted much time prior to this election period working the ground and making themselves familiar to residents.
With neither familiarity nor star quality, the only chance any of them will succeed in this election is if they got into parliament on the coat-tails of strong candidates in group representation constituencies. In other words: slim chance.
The most quixotic of the lot is Samir Salim Neji, who is standing as an independent candidate in Bukit Batok. Besides not having a party machine behind him, the fact that he has only been in Singapore for 18 years, and a citizen for eleven (according to a report in the Straits Times) is a handicap. Moreover, his campaign theme of ‘Happiness’ is likely to strike many as too dreamy by half. I think he will be among the handful who will fail to secure even 12.5% of the vote, thus losing his deposit.
A number of group representation constituencies have opposition teams led by better-credentialled or more experienced candidates. They will be the ones to watch. My feeling is that their presence on the ticket, especially if they are also seen to address key issues cogently and soberly, will be the main driving force for any opposition gains. The middle-class electorate that is Singapore is not one to take great risk with their votes. This is why it has taken such a long time to get to this point where (a few) opposition parties stand a reasonable chance of making inroads: people want respectable, knowledgeable (and compassionate) politicians representing them. Under the heavy-handed rule of the late Lee Kuan Yew, quick to squash any dissenter, it was far too risky for anyone with a half-decent career to throw his hat into the ring for an opposition party.
We’re only now emerging from those dark ages.
It has also taken a long while for opposition parties to establish their branding, whether planned or unplanned (i.e. ascribed to them by voters). Anybody who knows marketing will tell you brands are extremely important in helping people form an opinion of a product. Especially when it’s a new product we have never tried before (say, a new politician) we fill in our knowledge gap through what we know (or think we know) of the brand values.
Of course, in politics, it works the other way around too. Citizens aspiring to take up politics choose what party they want to join, and that choice is largely shaped by how well they identify with the brand.
Or at least, that’s how it should be. The unfortunate fact is, for a long time, opposition parties in Singapore have been so desperate for people to stand for election that they’ve been welcoming just about any moose or mongrel. Alas, some of the parties contesting in this election are still behaving like this. The Reform Party and the Singapore Democratic Alliance come to mind. It is a particular pity with the former because the party leader, Kenneth Jeyaretnam, is very dedicated to his principles and actually knows his stuff despite his lack of charisma. His party candidates, however, strike me as all over the place.
In a recent post, I pointed out how the Singapore Democratic Party placed Damanhuri Abas on its ticket for Marsiling-Yew Tee when he is saying things about LGBT people that directly contradict the party’s position (unless the party’s position has changed, which so far is unclear). Party leaders need to be much more circumspect about who they take on board and present to voters. This short-term fix of finding enough candidates whatever their fit can set back the essential and long-term task of brand building.
In this sense, we’re not yet out of the shadow of the past.
Of PAP candidates
I feel I should say something about PAP candidates, but honestly, I am hard-pressed to say anything at all. They’re like sausages from an extrusion machine. Especially when they’ve not held any ministerial position or are new candidates, their electioneering consists of promises to improve the grass or add a pedestrian crossing — not the kind of stuff that makes news headlines (except in the dutiful mainstream media, and I will come to the question of media in the third part of this 3-part essay).
Even the party’s communication strategy this time around is playing down the candidates in favour of party leader Lee Hsien Loong. One thing that people noticed as soon as the campaign period began was how PAP posters featuring Lee’s face were appearing everywhere. Even in constituencies he wasn’t contesting in. Exactly why PAP decided on this move I cannot say for certain. However, I wonder if it’s because they have come to the view that the party brand is quite toxic to those voters they need to sway, and that Lee as a person is more popular than the party: so, feature Lee more prominently to compensate.
Shifting the vote-share
Looking at the very mixed composition of opposition candidates, I find it hard to foresee any major shift in vote-share. It is entirely imaginable that where there are strong, serious candidates with a good party brand, the opposition could win 5 – 10% more than in the previous general election. But there are far more areas with weak or mediocre candidates, and whereas they might have gotten 25 – 35% in previous elections, a better educated electorate, or one that compares those candidates with better ones standing elsewhere, might have less tolerance this time.
If the losses in some constituencies cancel out the gains in others, the needle could be stuck at 60:40 — the result from the 2011 election.
The (slightly) wild card is digital media. How will it shape perceptions? Then, as in every election, there are the first-time voters. Are they significantly different from other voters? How many of them? Part 3.