GE2015: Better candidates, credible proposals

GE2015: Better candidates, credible proposals
PHOTO: The New Paper

The general election is over and votes have swung in favour of the ruling People's Action Party (PAP).

But opposition parties like the Workers' Party (WP) have also made their mark, according to political analysts.

Opposition candidates are no longer just battle-hardened old men with an axe to grind with the ruling party, said political watcher Mano Sabnani.

And contrary to the name "opposition", their policies are getting closer to that of the ruling party.

Mr Sabnani elaborated: "The goals are not that much different any more. but their methods might be different. Then it becomes a question of who is more sincere."

In last week's general election, the PAP won 83 seats of 89 seats and recaptured Punggol East SMC, while the WP retained its seats in Aljunied GRC and Hougang SMC.

Said Mr Sabnani: "If you want to talk about a push and pull, the results were definitely due to PAP's strengths and not that the opposition fumbled. They had a very sensible campaign, actually."

Political analysts also agreed that unlike opposition parties of past elections, opposition parties today can certainly hold their own against the ruling party.

Dr Alan Chong, a political scientist at S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), said that opposition manifestos are now clearer and more well planned.

"They've done their homework, even if they don't have concrete solutions, they've pinpointed the exact problems," said Dr Chong.

"Notice that when the opposition parties talked about issues like transport, it garnered many cheers and claps during their rallies."

Existing policies

Yet, while the opposition touched on hot-button issues like education, CPF, transport and the cost of living, their proposals are not all that new and, if you "look closely", are just built upon existing policies, said Singapore Management University law lecturer Eugene Tan.

This point was also touched on by Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam at a press conference after the election results.

Mr Tharman said: "If you look at (the) opposition's proposal and platform - strip out some of the outliers and strength of language - there is a very high overlap between what they were saying and what we are already doing and what we are going to do in the future.

"They were saying things we are doing - sometimes saying we should do more. Basically, it's the same agenda."

Associate Professor Tan said a nine-day campaign, though, would not provide enough time to sell your solutions.

"The harsh reality is that good proposals and explanations of existing policies and manifestos are often overshadowed by the drama and the din and mud-slinging.

"But in an election, the opposition tends to prefer rhetoric over rational explanation, whipping up emotions over calm deliberation, confrontation over consensus-building."

Prof Tan said that the short campaigning period of nine days was inadequate for voters to fully comprehend all the political options before them, especially those involving higher social spending and how they would be funded.

Looking across the board, candidates with pedigree academic backgrounds are also not just associated with the ruling party any more.

Opposition slates for the election boasted several candidates with strong academic records, who run successful companies or have senior roles at large international firms.

They include WP's Cambridge-educated lawyer He Ting Ru and Singapore Democratic Party's medical school professor Paul Tambyah (both pictured inset).

And the quality of candidates has resulted in better manifestos and proposals.

Said Mr Sabnani: "Now, it's all about staying power. For the opposition, it is a delay in making big changes in Parliament.

"They need to continue to keep in touch with the ground, build up their ammunition, renew their leadership, and then wait for the next election, which is still some time away."

Dr Chong highlighted a few proposals from the opposition camp he felt were worth discussing and exploring.

One is the 10-Year Through Train School Programme that was brought up in a rally speech by WP's Yee Jenn Jong that would remove high-stakes examinations such as the PSLE.

"One of the reasons Singaporeans are so unhappy, although we earn above our peers in the ASEAN region, is because of the battery of tests that we and our children grow up with," he said.

"So this is an interesting proposal, which of course needs to be fleshed out in greater detail."

Public transport proposal

One of the propositions that stands out for National University of Singapore sociologist Tan Ern Ser is WP's proposal to turn public transport into a public good, where a government-owned company will own and manage rail and bus assets and set fares in consultation with stakeholders.

Prof Tan said: "Having it run by the public sector would mean that it would not be pressured by profit considerations and will see its terms of reference as providing a social service, similar to that of health, education and housing, which involve some budgeted subsidies.

"The bottom line is to provide an affordable, reliable, sustainable service to all citizens."

Added Dr Chong: "While the WP won't be able to implement these proposals so soon, they'll probably keep it on the books and wait for the right time to bring them up again."

What candidates said about hot-button issues

Foreign workers

Manpower Minister Lim Swee Say explained why the Government expanded the foreign workforce.

He said foreign workers were brought in after the Asian financial crisis in 1998 to protect Singapore workers against global economic uncertainties.

Singapore experienced a rapid series of downturns in the new millennium - in 2000 when the dotcom bubble burst, the Sept 11 terrorist attacks in 2001 and the Sars epidemic in 2003.

The foreign workers were "meant to serve Singaporeans" and this foreign worker expansion was done with the view that in a downturn, these workers would likely be let go first to buffer the impact, Mr Lim said.

He gave numbers to support his argument.

Wages

The People's Action Party's (PAP) Zainal Sapari, who is also assistant secretary-general for NTUC, explained why the country has adopted a progressive wage system instead of a minimum wage system to help workers.

He said that if the minimum wage system is implemented, employers would not pay more than the minimum wage and would not increase salaries beyond the threshold.

Some older and physically-challenged workers may lose their jobs.

And when companies cannot afford workers, they will fold.

The impact of this will then be felt by Singaporeans.

Social spending

Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam rebutted criticism by the opposition camp that the Government had not been generous in social spending.

He put it bluntly: One, nothing is free, and there are trade-offs involved for countries that appear to have a more egalitarian system.

Two, the Government has already been maxing out on the investment income from reserves, contrary to popular belief that it can draw more from the reserves to fund social spending without raising taxes.

He also dismissed talk that the Government may raise taxes after the election, slamming it as "scaremongering".

Education

The Workers' Party's (WP) Yee Jenn Jong proposed a 10-Year Through Train Programme that would remove high-stakes examinations. He proposed making structural changes in the education system by setting up eight pilot schools across Singapore with a through train system from Primary 1 to Secondary 4.

The WP manisfesto touched on introducing a Career and Life Skills Programme to raise awareness of less mainstream professions where students can realise their potential.

Public transport

In its manifesto, the WP proposed turning public transport into a public good, where a government-owned National Transport Corporation would own and manage rail and bus assets.

The corporation would audit public transport operators' performance standards, and set fares in consultation with stakeholders, with fares linked to operators' performance, service quality and reliability.


This article was first published on September 14, 2015.
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