The differences may be subtle because the general themes are similar, but the three opposition parties which have more than a sliver of a chance of winning a constituency (in other words, excluding the no-hopers) have distinct approaches to campaigning.
The Workers’ Party’s main angles we’re all familiar with by now. They’ve been very consistent in arguing that it is good for Singapore to have more opposition members of parliament for check and balance, and as insurance in case the PAP government takes a seriously wrong turn. In their speeches, they highlight the many areas where PAP policies have shown themselves to be troubling, as a reminder to voters that it would be unwise to give the PAP a blank cheque.
The Singapore People’s Party team – at least the one in Bishan-Toa Payoh, which also comprises the leaders of the Democratic Progressive Party, and whose rally I attended – had a different emphasis. Speakers devoted a good part of their speeches to talking about their backgrounds and their personal struggles. I thought that was rather smart. By doing so, they allowed the audience to gain the sense that they knew the candidates, and empathised with them. Because their backgrounds are so ordinary (except maybe ex-senior civil servant Benjamin Pwee’s) and mostly, the obstacles they faced so typical, this approach helped voters identify with them within the few hours of a rally.
For example, Abdillah Zamzuri spoke about how when still in school, his time-tabling was such that he had no alternative class to go to when Chinese lessons came along. The Chinese teacher, thinking he was in the classroom for her lessons, would scold him for not having his Chinese textbooks with him. It was his Chinese classmates who stood up for him to tell the teacher he wasn’t supposed to be taking Chinese. But there was an unexpected benefit from sitting in the class: he learnt to speak some Chinese. This is the kind of feel-good message that should never be underrated.
Later, when he couldn’t get into the local university, Abdillah’s family wasn’t well off enough to send him to a foreign university, a disappointment that I am sure many in the rally audience could feel for.
Law Kim Hwee, 55, spoke about how after being retrenched, he remained unemployed for 48 months! The former marketing manager finally settled for a job as a data entry clerk. Again, this is the kind of story that people can identify with.
In a way, I think SPP/DPP adopted this strategy because they don’t actually have a manifesto worth its name. Rather than spend too much time telling voters what ideas the candidates represent, they keep suggesting that they will “listen” to the people, implying that whatever the people want, they may take it up. Their pitch to voters is that members of parliament shouldn’t be mouthpieces of the government facing voters and explaining policies to them, but the opposite. They should be real representatives of the people facing the government and that, to do this job effectively, it would be a huge asset if MPs actually came from similar, humble backgrounds.
At an intellectual level, this simple equation can be contested, but there is no doubt that as a political message, it can find lots of resonance.
The Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) is the one with the meatiest set of proposals. Their handicap in the campaign is that they don’t have enough good speakers to deliver the bullet-points and explain their ideas, repeatedly and in various forums. They have Chee Soon Juan and Paul Tambyah of course, but they need more.
It is a pity that without representation in parliament, these proposals may go no further. With respect to SDP’s healthcare proposals (though the sentiment could apply to all other proposals) Sudhir Thomas Vadaketh wrote recently in his blog,
My assertion is not that we need to embrace this policy wholesale. Rather we need to have an intelligent discussion about the trade-offs, and perhaps Singapore will find some happy equilibrium between what the PAP and SDP propose.
The SDP first came up with its alternative healthcare proposal in 2012. However, since it was not elected, the PAP refused to even discuss it. Proof, if any were needed, that the only way to get new, fresh ideas on the national agenda, is to have new, fresh candidates in parliament.
Ditto with SDP’s housing proposals. Sudhir wrote:
Apart from healthcare, this was the SDP’s other big alternative policy released some time back—which, yes, again, the PAP refused to debate because the SDP was not elected.
There are alternative ideas out there. There are perspectives from potential MPs better rooted in the ground than the typical PAP candidate. Singapore can only benefit if we give these proposals and perspectives detailed consideration in the highest forums, not just superficially in the heat of an election campaign. And that’s why I feel we really ought to be brave and vote strongly for the best thirty of them. Why that number? To deny the PAP the freedom to amend the constitution at will. That’s the first stopper we need to put in, else more basic democratic freedoms may be lost.
Between the SPP’s and SDP’s differing strategies, which do I think is more important? I think talking policy is essential. Voters need to understand how his MP is likely to approach a subject when it arises in parliament. For example, take a glass of water like in the picture. Should one be urging it to be topped up? Or urging it to be emptied? That depends what one’s preferred objective is. How do you want the glass to be?
Ditto with social, economic or security policy, or for civil rights and liberties. Voters need to know what candidates stand for, how they will approach any future debate in parliament, and which direction they will nudge the government.
Then, there is a related issue: proper consideration of any idea is not possible without sufficient hard data. For example, Chee Soon Juan pointed out in a rally speech that the government, concerned about senior citizens too quickly spending all their CPF money if they are free to draw it out, has never provided any data as to how many seniors are that reckless. Is it really a widespread problem, he asked? If not, and only occurs in the exceptional case, does it justify a blanket rule for everybody?
I agree that having facts and data will greatly inform the debate. But how do we get data? I will discuss this question further in Part 2.