Singaporeans prefer a leader who is 'one of us'

Singaporeans prefer a leader who is 'one of us'

Recently, a photograph was taken of a man in Singapore's most pedestrian situation - queueing up for food in a hawker centre.

The picture, however, was anything but routine. The man was Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, flanked by a security officer.

Half the Internet loved it, praising Mr Lee for being down to earth.

The other half howled in a storm of scepticism that it was wayang, or staged.

Look closer, though, and both reactions implicitly agreed on the kind of political leader that Singaporeans want - someone who is "one of us".

In this case, that is the quality of having the pulse and practices of the heartland.

The characteristic is even more important to voters now, given Singapore's rising income and social inequality.

Who wants to be led by someone who cannot envision what it is like to be in your shoes, especially as he or she can make policies that make life easier or harder?

Small wonder (now) that in the by-election last year, Punggol East voters chose the more folksy Workers' Party candidate Lee Li Lian, an N-level graduate who had campaigned there in the general election two years prior, over the People's Action Party's new man - colorectal surgeon Koh Poh Koon.

One problem with Dr Koh was his comment - "everybody has a car, we have two" - made at a time when crowded public transport was public enemy No. 1.

Criticism of him was that he could not understand commuters' woes because he did not experience them himself. And he sounded far removed from the average Singaporean - less than half of the families in Singapore own a car, let alone two.

The other problem was that he had been perceived to be parachuted in opportunistically, an elite primed for office, who could skip the hard work of pounding the ground.

That sent a message of him being less able to understand residents' needs.

Arguably, the more important aspect of being "one of us" is the ability to empathise with people on the ground. This does not strictly require living in a Housing Board flat, taking public transport and being bona fide middle class.

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