PN Balji: The maturing of the Singaporean voter in GE2020

PHOTO: The Straits Times file photo

This election should have been a walk in the park for the People's Action Party (PAP).

Though many voters must have been worried about how Covid-19 was going to affect their lives and livelihoods (by the way, that was a major part of the ruling party's slogan), they didn't rush into the arms of Lee Hsien Loong and his team to save them.

As the results trickled in, the voter's message, especially that of the young, was clear and devastating.

We have matured and grown up - we need a new style of politics and governance, and not one that was made famous by Lee Kuan Yew.

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It was like grown-up children telling their father: Please let us lead our lives our way.

The Workers' Party's (WP) winning Jamus Lim represents this group.

He took on Dr Vivian Balakrishnan with confidence and came up with the blank cheque soundbite that made him the darling of the election. Then, in a cheeky way, he turned his now-trademarked phrase about cockles and heart to his advantage.

As he said all this, he didn't show any rancour or one-upmanship. It was like he was having fun.

It was clear that PAP's tactics misfired.

From PAP demonising the youngest WP candidate, Raeesah Khan, to K Shanmugam supporting his colleague, Dr Tan Wu Meng, who hurled accusations at poet Alfian Sa'at, the ruling party showed it had not got out of its old-style politics of mud-slinging.

An attempt by a man of questionable character who used social media to dig into Raeesah's past just didn't sit well with the younger lot for whom fair play was everything.

Many stormed the internet to support her. And PAP did not do itself any favour when it called her statements derogatory and asked WP to state its stand on what she had said in her 2018 post.

It backfired as many felt the PAP had no right to make such a demand.

Also, it got many people to examine her portfolio and bring to light her admirable work in helping the disadvantaged.

PAP's tactics were so old-school - it did not realise that the young Singapore voter has grown up and will not tolerate that kind of politics.

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The election campaign exposed another weakness of PAP. There was no PAP figure to mastermind GE2020.

Was it PM Lee? Or Heng Swee Keat? Or Chan Chun Sing?

This lack of a master plotter showed a party getting its messaging being drowned in a sea of mediocrity.

To keep repeating the dangers of Covid-19 and to say the government needed a sound mandate made voters turn the other way.

Worse, many saw it as a threat to voters that they have to give their full support to the PM and his team.

At a more important level, this election was a rejection of the new political leadership and, to a lesser extent, that of the PM.

All the 4G leaders saw their majorities going down, with the vote share for PM-in-waiting Heng Swee Keat and his East Coast team hitting about 54 per cent.

If that embarrassment was not bad enough, 4G man Ng Chee Meng and his team were thrown out of Sengkang GRC in what turned out to be the biggest PAP casualty. It was a strategic error not to pay serious attention to the WP team there.

Being young parents and displaying some of the most credible candidates, they connected with the residents so well that the voters saw them as their friends, neighbours and colleagues. The PAP just could not achieve that connection.

And Dr Lam Pin Min's presence in the team must have made matters worse as he turned out to be the target board of the e-scooter affair.

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Pritam Singh emerged as GE2020's man of the moment. Not only did he run a disciplined campaign, but a classy one.

The way he stood behind Raeesah and at the same time saying that his party did not believe in playing racial politics must have touched many. And it must have been an exceptional achievement to win over the Chinese ground that treated Low Thia Khiang as a reincarnation of a political god.

Singh had big shoes to fill and he fitted them very well, almost always putting an empathetic but strong foot forward.

How can I not mention his performance in the final video just before Cooling-Off Day? It was a masterful performance, pitching his message at the national level. Not once was there a mention of the words, “Vote for us”.

And he smartly ended by putting his right hand to his heart and reciting the first line of the national pledge with the remaining lines being said by Singaporeans. How not to be stirred?

There is no doubt that PAP will do a lot of deep introspection and may act like the way they did after the bad showing in the 2011 election. They threw money at problems such as healthcare cost for the elderly and tightened the foreigner inflow somewhat reluctantly.

With the kind of resources PAP has at its disposal, that was not difficult to do.

This time round, it is the younger voters they need to court. And money is not going to be the solution to their unhappiness. They want something else.

They want to be heard, they want to be spoken to as equals, they don't want to be told old grandfather stories about Singapore's vulnerabilities.

PN Balji is a veteran Singaporean journalist who was formerly chief editor of Today and The New Paper. He is the author of the book Reluctant Editor and is currently a media consultant. The views expressed are his own.