Elevate political discourse beyond credit-blame match

Elevate political discourse beyond credit-blame match

SINGAPORE - Besides flagging off the second half of this term of government, the reopening of Parliament last month also turned up the temperature and tempo of exchanges between the People's Action Party (PAP) and the Workers' Party (WP) by several notches.

The ruling party now appears to be going on the offensive, scrutinising the WP's words and moves and pinning it down on possible weak spots.

The latest salvo came from Senior Minister of State Indranee Rajah, who wrote a sharply worded Facebook post, titled The Art Of Claiming Credit, this week to criticise the WP for its statement on the MediShield Life review committee's proposals, saying the party's approach was to "claim credit; keep it vague; and call for more".

WP Non-Constituency MP Gerald Giam had welcomed the recommendations while noting that many of them had been voiced by WP MPs and Singaporeans.

It is not the first time that both parties have tussled over the issue of claiming credit, but the sharper tone of the recent exchanges also points to the strategy the PAP is likely to use in the second half.

The WP has tried to portray itself as a party with moderate, balanced views and which serves as an effective check on the PAP. It is, undeniably, a narrative that will appeal to the middle ground.

But the PAP is now attempting to turn that narrative on its head by charging the WP with opportunistically claiming credit while staying out of the fray by not taking a clear stand.

One could argue that such point-scoring over who should get what credit for positive policy outcomes is only to be expected of political parties fighting to dominate the narrative and mindshare of voters.

For instance, opposition parties have to show they have the ideas and ability to effect change if they are to establish their relevance in the political playing field. This is especially so for the WP, which has more to prove at the next elections compared to other opposition parties, given its parliamentary presence.

On the flip side, it is also to be expected that the PAP will not take this lying down as it views the WP as discrediting the changes it has put in place and the heavy lifting it has to do as the government in power.

To add another dimension to the dynamics of credit/discredit, the American political scientist R. Kent Weaver argues in an often cited 1986 paper that contemporary politicians tend to be more motivated by the desire to avoid blame for negative outcomes than to claim credit for positive ones.

He attributes this to the "negativity bias", where voters are likely to place more weight on the losses and grievances they suffer than any improvements to their state.

"In short, voters are more sensitive to what has been done to them than to what has been done for them," he says.

How does this play out in the Singapore context?

It would appear that opposition parties can kill two birds with one stone by claiming credit for policy changes, as that subtly shifts the blame to the incumbent party by reminding voters of its deficiencies and past grievances.

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