'Fair timeframe' no longer a factor?

'Fair timeframe' no longer a factor?
PHOTO: The Straits Times

Parliamentary sessions here start with a bell ringing shrilly throughout the building, summoning MPs to the wood-panelled Chamber.

Not all MPs respond immediately to its call at 1.30pm. The House is rarely full at the start of each session, as MPs trail in after lunch or time their appearances ahead of when they need to pose their questions to the frontbench.

But when Speaker of Parliament Halimah Yacob entered the Chamber yesterday, 61 MPs - out of a total of 98 elected and appointed to the House - were present. It was the kind of turnout usually reserved for major debates.

But yesterday was no ordinary sitting. For the answers to Questions 1 and 2 would bring confirmation of what many had been suspecting for some time - that a general election (GE) is imminent.

People's Action Party (PAP) MP Arthur Fong (West Coast GRC) and Non-Constituency MP Yee Jenn Jong of the Workers' Party each filed a question for the Prime Minister, asking him if the Electoral Boundaries Review Committee had been formed.

Yes, was PM Lee Hsien Loong's answer. Two months ago. Just like that, the starting gun went off. The committee usually releases its report on new electoral boundaries after a few months of work and the hustings follow soon after.

Through the lens of an impending GE, much that then followed at yesterday's parliamentary session felt like electioneering was well and truly under way.

Take the long exchange that Minister of State (National Development) Desmond Lee had with several MPs over the issue of defects found in new flats.

Some owners of Build-to-Order flats in Punggol and Bukit Panjang, and of Design, Build and Sell Scheme (DBSS) flats from projects such as Centrale 8 in Tampines, have complained of defects or design flaws - narrow corridors, wall cracks, uneven floor tiles and choked toilets. Affected residents are incensed.

But in the grand scheme of public housing, these affect but a minority of DBSS owners. The number of those affected does not justify the time the House spent on the issue.

No fewer than six MPs from the ruling party and the opposition championed their woes. Although Mr Desmond Lee said the defect rates of new flats have remained in an average range, the MPs presented the view that their residents' experience was atypically bad.

This sort of political jockeying on issues of varying significance can be expected to dominate national discourse from now until Polling Day. It's an enjoyable season for political watchers, but the Government has made no secret of the fact that it does not see this as the best use of parliamentary time.

Last year, for example, Senior Minister of State (Law and Education) Indranee Rajah urged MPs to "act responsibly, by admitting the 'trade-offs' of policies, instead of pandering to public opinion and saying what is popular".

This is key to understanding why PM Lee has not given as much notice as he did in the past.

This is a departure from the pattern he established in 2006 and 2011. Then, as calls mounted for a greater measure of electoral fairness, he established a set five-year timeline for elections, with Polling Day on the first Saturday of May. In 2011, the Government announced the formation of the Electoral Boundaries Review Committee the day it was convened.

Yesterday, PM Lee revealed that it had already been at work for two months. Opposition parties immediately decried the move as not transparent and unfair. Mr Yee asked PM Lee for a guarantee of at least six months between the release of the electoral report and Polling Day.

PM Lee declined.

In conversations with party insiders and activists, the view I have gathered is that the PAP largely feels that a set electoral timeline - as played out in the bruising 2011 GE - has been both harmful to the country and to the party's political fortunes.

(It largely views the two things to be one and the same.)

In countries like the United States, where elections follow a four-year cycle like clockwork, a huge amount of time leading up to the actual vote is effectively a political sideshow, where any new policy is evaluated for its ballot-winning capability, every issue parsed for its impact on swing voters, and every gaffe magnified and replayed.

In the build-up to the 2011 GE here, issues like the influx of foreigners, high housing prices and strained infrastructure simmered for over a year among the population, coming to a boil just in time for Polling Day, delivering the PAP its worst-ever electoral showing.

With an election this year looking very likely, PM Lee and his team have made clear that they no longer consider the "fair timeframe" a factor in when to call the polls - a move that also reveals an unspoken confidence that the ground is sweet enough not to sour over this issue.

Are they right? We'll all find out soon - very soon.


This article was first published on July 14, 2015.
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