To the polls without LKY

To the polls without LKY
PHOTO: The Star/ANN

It has been a momentous year for Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

He underwent surgery in February for prostate cancer and was discharged a day before the Chinese New Year. Two weeks later, doctors gave him the all-clear and he returned to work looking slimmer and flashing that boyish smile.

By then, national attention had shifted to his father Lee Kuan Yew who lay dying in hospital. The death of Singapore's founding father on March 23 saw Singaporeans come together in a way never seen before.

As the younger Lee put it during the National Day Rally: "The Singapore spirit shone the brightest on the week of Lee Kuan Yew's passing."

Singapore also marked its 50th year on Aug 9, the day it broke off from Malaysia and defied the odds to become an Asian tiger. SG50, the code word for Singapore 50 years, is plastered everywhere one turns and all sorts of programmes are taking place to celebrate it.

The next biggie is of course the Singapore general election on Sept 11. It is a bold decision on the part of Lee to call it a year ahead of the requisite date.

This will be the third time he is leading the People's Action Party (PAP) into a general election and it will likely be his last election as Prime Minister. Lee, 63, has gone on the record to say he plans to step down by 2020 and it is said that he plans to groom his successor.

There is actually no urgent reason for a snap election because the PAP controls 80 of the 87 parliamentary seats. But Lee obviously wants to tap into the national pride surrounding Singapore's golden jubilee, pre-empt the global economic turbulence that may lie ahead and, most of all, he hopes to ride on the wave of oneness shown during the elder Lee's funeral.

The PAP is nowhere close to losing power or even its 2/3 majority in the government but its share of the popular vote has been on the decline.

Its last best performance was the 2001 election which took place a month after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the United States and it won 75 per cent of the popular vote. After that, its popular vote went from 66.6 per cent in the 2006 election to 60 per cent in the 2011 election.

The Singapore electoral system comprises Single Member Constituencies (SMCs) and Group Representation Constituencies (GRCs) where political parties have to contest in teams of between three and six candidates to win the overall vote.

The last election saw the opposition Workers' Party win a GRC for the first time ever. It was like biting into the forbidden apple and many voters felt they had finally tasted the power of the vote.

It was a major breakthrough for the Workers' Party to clinch the Aljunied GRC and end the career of a top PAP minister.

Can the PAP stop the slide in popular votes or prevent more seats falling to the opposition?

Singapore leaders were quite intrigued about Malaysia's 2008 political tsunami and the late Kuan Yew made a special trip up north to get to know DAP and PAS leaders. The goodwill was shortlived and he would later make dispara­ging remarks about the quality of Malaysia's opposition politicians.

The political animal in him could see that the growing might of Malaysia's opposition would send the wrong signal to his own citizens and he was right as usual.

The opposition parties have been watching their Malaysian counterparts.

According to Singapore researcher Dr Sharon Siddique, there have been reports that the opposition parties are trying to work out an understanding to avoid three-cornered fights in taking on the PAP.

She said it is also quite likely that the opposition will contest every single seat. Voters in Tanjong Pagar GRC, where Kuan Yew had presided, have never voted because the opposition would concede a walkover to him.

"They may now get the chance to vote for the first time. I don't think we are going to see any more walkovers. The question is not whether the PAP will win but by how much it will win. And also whether the opposition will hold on to what it has or capture new seats," said Dr Siddique.

Everyone is also talking about this being the first general election without Kuan Yew and no one is quite sure how it will play out in the minds and emotions of voters.

"It poses a big question mark because LKY had been around from day one. Will the polls be a final tribute to him or will the voters be more daring now that he is not around to lecture and frighten them?" said lawyer and former think-tank head Khaw Veon Szu.

Some 10 political parties will be contesting the election but the opposition basically boils down to the Workers Party.

The Workers Party, which is led by its tenacious secretary-general Low Thia Kiang and chairperson Sylvia Lim, has been the most successful and its rallies are noted for their massive crowds. The leading opposition party uses the symbol of the hammer and has become the chief target of hammering by the PAP.

On Friday, the mainstream papers came under fire for reporting on a poison pen letter alleging that a Workers Party candidate and university lecturer had an affair with a former student.

The election rules are restrictive and not very kind to the opposition. For instances, candidates and office-bearers cannot speak at rallies of another party.

For many years, opposition politics was akin to going where angels feared to tread and when the first opposition candidate won in 1984, the PAP behaved as though a volcano erupted in Orchard Road.

Only 12 different opposition politicians have ever been elected into Parliament in Singapore's history.

The Internet has levelled the playing field somewhat and social media is going to be a big part of the opposition campaign.

Singapore journalists tend to descend in droves to cover the Malaysian elections. They often ask their Malaysian counterparts why they do not do the same when Singapore goes to the polls. The answer is simple - the result is too predictable and the campaigns are rather staid.

Even the campaign issues do not seem to change. Immigration policies and foreign workers are still the mother of all issues. The high cost of living is a perennial issue especially among the lower income group or heartlanders.

Housing was a big election issue in 2011 and that pushed the government into a building drive and released some of the pressure.

Transportation has also been a hot button issue especially after a major breakdown in the MRT line a few months ago. The issue has claimed its first casualty -Transport Minister Lui Tuck Yew announced that he would not be contesting the election.

"Singapore's problems have always been about dealing with the problems of success. We try to be two steps ahead but the pace of change requires us to be four steps ahead," said a former Singapore diplomat.

The PAP's emphasis on meritocracy has ironically created a perception of elitism among the party leadership. Scholars and top professionals dominate the ranks. For instance, the Chief of Defence Force Ng Chee Meng, 47, recently quit his army post to contest in the election.

Their credentials are impressive but not all of them come with people skills and this adds to the elitist image of the PAP politicians.

But the Singapore polls may not be as sedate as before. The spotlight is on the Marine Parade GRC, a six-member group constituency that includes former Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong and another minister Tan Chuan Jin who is seen as a potential future Prime Minister.

The seat saw a fierce fight in 2001 when the National Solidarity Party team, led by charismatic newbie Nicole Seah, gave the PAP a nasty shock by securing 43 per cent of the vote. It is a must-win seat for PAP because it cannot afford to have a former and potential future Prime Minister defeated.

Nominations will be on Tuesday and it will be all systems go after that.

The Sept 11 polling date was a strategic choice to remind Singaporeans that they need the PAP to withstand external threats like terrorism and the IS.

But having the election campaign smack in the Chinese Hungry Ghost month, when the spirits are supposed to roam free, has shocked some and amused others. The amused category joked that, after all, Kuan Yew had famously said that if he felt that something was going wrong, he would get up even if from the grave.

The post-LKY era has begun and the great man should be allowed to rest in peace regardless of how the election campaign is going.

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