SINGAPORE ELECTIONS: TWO POSITIVE SIGNS
After an acrimonious campaign fought in above-average rain and thunder, I’m inclined to look for rays of sunshine peeking through the parting clouds. I found at least a couple.
The first was the sheer class with which the Workers’ Party wrapped up its campaign. Reciting the national Pledge in closing its final rally. Sticking calmly and resolutely to its message that the WP would be judged by voters, not the PAP. Sylvia Lim warmly congratulating the winning PAP team in Aljunied. This is a party that has understood that Singapore’s swing voters don’t want a hysterical Opposition, but one that reflects voters’ image of themselves: rational and reasonable. This is also party with a long-term plan. It has introduced new candidates so young that the WP can count on a slate of seasoned campaigners not just in the next GE, but in the one after that. We are looking at the real possibility of a WP breakthrough at around the same time that Mr Lee Kuan Yew leaves the stage. It’s the prospect of a new era that even the PAP should welcome: a more competitive political scene that, if the PAP’s own party line is to be believed, will keep the ruling party responsive, honest and generally on its toes.
The second ray of sunshine, which came at 2am after the election results, is possibly even more significant. Singaporeans have learnt to dread the PAP post-results press conferences. PAP leaders have earned a reputation for being sore winners. Results that would send other countries’ politicians over the moon are met with black faces. Voters are scolded and lectured for being ungrateful. Veiled threats are issued against segments of the population suspected of denying the PAP the 100% vote that it thinks it is entitled to. When PM Lee appeared on TV, I expected him to honour to this classic PAP tradition. To say that I was pleasantly surprised is an understatement. The PM threw out the old PAP script and did exactly what he should do. He acted Prime Ministerial. Everything he said, and the way he said it, had this sub-text: the time to be partisan is over; from this moment, I act as the PM of this nation, not as the leader of a party.
Thus, he had only good things to say about the Workers Party and the two Opposition MPs Chiam See Tong and Low Thia Khiang. He empathised with voters who stuck with the Opposition incumbents, choosing to see their decision as emanating from something virtuous – voter loyalty – rather than any irrational or irresponsible impulse. Sure, he couldn’t resist a jibe at former WP leader JB Jeyaretnam and the SDP, but these did not detract from a generally gracious victory speech. Old style PAP politicians might see this as softness on the PM’s part. Wasn’t he basically legitimising the Opposition? I think, however, that the PM’s post-election message is the smartest tack for the PAP. First, it acknowledges that the appetite for Parliamentary opposition cannot be wished away. The ruling party has to respect that desire. Second, however, the challenge is to channel that appetite towards what the PAP has called “First World” Opposition. To achieve this, it is worth anointing some types of Opposition in order to draw a contrast with other types regarded as illegitimate.
Third, and most importantly, the PM’s message has the effect of setting the PAP apart from the hoi polloi of political parties. If Opposition MPs are inevitable and perhaps even a growing force, the battleground for the PAP must shift. It is no longer about monopolising Parliamentary seats. Instead, it is about establishing in Singaporeans’ minds that the PAP remains the natural party of government, and the only party of national unity – regardless of whether the Opposition has two or 10 seats. To sell this idea, the PM must act accordingly. He must be above the fray. As much as possible, he must act as if it is beneath him to engage in street fights with political parties that are nowhere close to challenging the PAP’s status as the party of government.
Unfortunately, old habits die hard. We’ve seen too many of those old habits over the past month. We can only hope that PAP leaders do an honest post-mortem of their campaign. Clearly, voters were not impressed by the PAP’s heavy artillery directed at James Gomez and the two incumbent Opposition MPs. It appears to have backfired. It earned neither respect, nor votes – a lose-lose proposition. It was seen as divisive, and at odds with Mr Lee’s agenda outside of elections, which is increasingly about inclusiveness and respect for diversity. In fact, it may be precisely because Singaporeans bought into the new PM’s vision that they found it hard to swallow the PAP’s hardline election rhetoric and tactics. Mr Lee had built up a considerable stock of goodwill since becoming PM, but the PAP drew down on those reserves in its campaign. As the party of national unity, the PAP should now put the polls behind it and get back on message. The PM’s conduct of his post-election press conference was a superb start.
Let’s see where the PAP goes from here. There are three bits of unfinished business:
1. The lawsuit against Chee and the SDP. One can assume that this will proceed full steam ahead, and that this will not upset too many Singaporeans, as most seem to have understood that Chee is deliberately courting trouble in order to grab attention.
2. The James Gomez affair. The Aljunied results show that people are not persuaded that it's a big deal, even if they agree that his conduct was suspicious. Will the government dig itself even deeper to "win" the argument? This is a high risk gambit, the risk being that the government looks ridiculous at the precise moment that it should be focusing attention on its victory. No doubt, action won't be pursued if there isn't a watertight legal case, but there is also the court of public opinion to consider. (Update: the police have stepped in to investigate a complaint of "criminal intimidation" of the elections department by Gomez.)
3. Upgrading and estate improvement for Hougang and Potong Pasir. This is not an immediate issue, but the government will need to confront it eventually. The fact of the matter is that it is untenable for the PAP government to preside over a Singapore that includes any urban slum. Whoever the MP is, the government will have to intervene before any HDB estate becomes decrepit. Not to do so is to undermine its performance legitimacy. Imagine news pictures of a rundown estate in the world's press. The cost to Singapore's reputation would be just too high.