Staying responsible as parties fight harder for votes

A political party's responsibility to disassociate itself from views at odds with its own stance, even if this comes at political cost, was raised at a roundtable event recently.

The founder of the non-profit Halogen Foundation, Mr Martin Tan, raised the issue of xenophobia in some quarters here and asked how far the Workers' Party would ride the wave of anti-foreigner sentiments in its election campaigning.

Would it pull back if there was a danger of tipping society towards breaking point?

The People's Action Party (PAP) member, at an event to discuss a survey commissioned by The Straits Times on people's perceptions midway through this term of government, said he felt one reason for the anti-foreigner sentiment could be traced to some 2011 General Election rallies which had stoked discontent.

Worker's Party chairman Sylvia Lim stressed in her answer that the WP is not anti-foreigner or anti-immigration.

The party, she said, would also not push its election campaigns "to the point when things become... uncontrollable". She added: "It would not be responsible."

Ms Lim is not the only WP member who has come out to clarify the party's position on the foreigner issue. In fact, WP leader Low Thia Khiang had taken pains during the parliamentary debate on the Population White Paper last year to make a distinction between being against the policies that have led to the influx of foreigners, and being against foreigners themselves.

Yet despite the WP's best efforts, comments by some of its supporters online show that the nuances have either been missed or just ignored. For example, it is not uncommon for xenophobic rants online to be combined with a threat to "vote for the WP instead of the PAP", as if the WP itself was the purveyor of such views.

But this is the bind that any opposition party in the ascendancy finds itself in. Keeping silent would inadvertently contribute to its support base, simply because it is the opposition party of the moment. But coming out strongly on a particular issue could mean losing a segment of the electorate.

This cuts both ways. With people desiring more plurality here, political parties are forced to fight harder for votes, and the ruling party, too, may find itself caught in a similar quandary.

For many years, the incumbent PAP has had the luxury of dishing out "hard truths", without fearing that it would lose its dominant position.

Recently, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong came out to denounce the actions of netizens who harangued migrant Filipino workers planning to celebrate the Philippines Independence Day in Orchard Road. He said in a Facebook post that the netizens were a "disgrace" to Singapore.

This drew backlash, with some accusing the Prime Minister of siding with foreigners.

As the desire for more checks and balances on the Government grows, the PAP may find it harder to speak its mind, or adhere to its policy platform, without ceding some ground.

For the moment, it seems to be sticking to its long-stated belief that it has to take unpopular positions for the long-term future of Singapore, although it has become more cognisant of the need to explain its rationale to the public, and to consult the citizenry.

In a political landscape dominated by one party, it is easy for that party to disregard popular sentiment in pushing through the policies it believes are best for the country.

But as the landscape becomes pluralistic, it becomes equally tempting for parties to swing to the other extreme - to pander to populist sentiments to seek or stay in power.

This situation could also give rise to the emergence of interest-specific parties, like in the West where far-right parties, some of which are openly racist like the British National Party, have flourished.

Neither extreme seems very palatable, or healthy, for society.

The challenge for the dominant parties here, then, is to hold on to middle ground even as they try to balance the long-term interests of the country with people's immediate needs, and their own goals of electoral victory.

To do so, they would need to know the ground well, and be able to detect when a situation threatens to boil over.

A responsible party should attract voters by selling the logic and sense of the policies it believes in, and not exploit extreme views that could fracture society, even if taking this tack dulls its attractiveness to some.

This article was published on May 11 in The Straits Times.

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