Return of political contest for hearts and minds

In this general election, every seat is contested – a first since independence – and nine political parties have entered the fray.
PHOTO: The Straits Times

This general election in Singapore's 50th year of independence confirms the return of politics to this city state after a prolonged absence. By that, I mean the return of contestation between parties for influence over national policy, which is a mark of electoral politics elsewhere but which in the Republic has been held at bay for decades by two factors.

First, the quality of the PAP's technocratic leadership, which has delivered in an exceptional way most of the goods that citizens everywhere want: safety, security, stability and a good standard of living as measured by good jobs, good schools and good housing.

Second, the structures that the PAP Government has put in place to discourage political competition.

What emerged was an "administrative state", to quote political scientist Chan Heng Chee, who used the term in an essay published in 1975 - a state which saw "the steady and systematic depoliticisation of a politically active and aggressive citizenry".

Indeed, from 1968 to 1981, the PAP held all the seats in Parliament. Thereafter, it never lost more than four seats in the House - until 2011. That marked a turning point.

It was the year of a watershed election that energised voters and sparked widespread ground-level interest in politics. Even then, the PAP lost only six out of 87 seats, but the process of repoliticisation had begun. The current campaign confirms that politics is indeed back and looks set to stay.

This round, every seat is contested - a first since independence. Nine political parties have entered the fray.

The PAP, which is contesting all 89 seats, has, as usual, fielded a team heavy with technocrat ministers, MPs and new candidates. The difference this time is that all are being put through a baptism of fire.

They are up against a diverse range of characters - from seasoned opposition politicians to newcomers with sparkling credentials to fringe players who would be lucky to keep their election deposits.

Now, the thing about fielding technocrats in an election is that they are out of their comfort zone and unable to play to their strengths. What they are good at are rational discourse, weighing costs and benefits, making policy, running organisations. They are used to a controlled environment.

But electoral politics is none of that. It is a messy, unpredictable affair. It is about selling, persuading, tapping rhetoric to stir emotions, attacking opponents and connecting with voters to get them on your side.

Some political parties are better at it than others. The Workers' Party, for example, stages rallies that attract tens of thousands of people. Yesterday, on the final day of campaigning, it released a four-minute video - an emotive montage depicting these rallies as platforms for its candidates to speak up for and empower voters. Its campaign slogan, after all, is Empower Your Future.

Its mailer to households in constituencies it is contesting kicks off with a message from WP chief Low Thia Khiang. He tells voters: "Your vote is a signal to the ruling party that it cannot do what it deems fit without taking you seriously."

As for the PAP, its challenge in this campaign is to stay true to its strengths of rational, long-term policymaking while relearning the art of politics to secure seats in Parliament.

It has tapped the personal popularity of its chief, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, to appeal directly to voters. Mr Lee has campaigned in both PAP and opposition-held constituencies, addressed three night rallies and one lunchtime rally downtown and sent out two direct mailers.

The second, which went out yesterday, is entitled "The future of Singapore is in your hands" and reflects Mr Lee's style of speaking - earnest and direct. It quotes a young Singaporean who wrote to Mr Lee to express his concern that this election would see the loss of "more good ministers".

Mr Lee tells voters that "the PAP has a clear vision and concrete plans for Singapore". He cites the Pioneer Generation Package, measures to lighten the load of the "sandwiched generation" and help for low-income and disadvantaged families.

"The opposition party," he adds, "says vote for us, we will bargain for more for you. Whatever the Government does, we will ask for more.

"That is not a responsible approach. The PAP works together with Singaporeans for a better future. We hold public consultations, we debate hard choices openly, we support the growth of civic voices in business and social causes, and on environmental issues. Together we can solve hard problems."

Last night, the PAP tapped another of its brand-name leaders to cap its hard-fought campaign in East Coast GRC with a powerful speech on change.

Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam acknowledged that the PAP used to be a top-down government and often quite heavy-handed. "It is no longer that way, because we have changed... Strong leadership is listening, engaging, moving with people but also moving people with you to a better future," he said.

He also cited the ways in which the Government is rebalancing economic and social policies to ensure a fair and inclusive society, and intervening to keep Singapore a true meritocracy, where "birth is not destiny".

The message to voters: The PAP is a party with both substance and heart and it is prepared to change with the times.

Politics, after all, is the art of the possible. In this election, several parties have come forward to offer voters their vision of what is possible. May Singapore be the better for the return of such contestation.

This article was first published on Sept 10, 2015.
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